Learning from the Olympics

Watching the Olympics has been entertaining and uplifting. There’s something wonderful about watching athletes at the peak of their game putting all their heart into trying to win on what, for them, is the biggest stage. But can we take more from it that entertainment? Is there something to be learned from these feats of sporting prowess? I think so.

Consider those post-race interviews. A conversation with someone still struggling to get their breathing under control seems an unlikely place to find inspiration, but I think the interesting thing about those interviews is what they tell us about the athletes and how they trained. The words they blurt out in those breathless exchanges are not carefully thought out, it’s just the first thing that comes to mind.

What I noticed the most about those interviews was the number of times an athlete talked about ‘executing a good race’. It sounds dreadful doesn’t it? As though somehow the world of business bullshit has seeped into sport. But remember, these athletes aren’t carefully thinking about the words to use to describe their performance. These are the words they’ve been taught to use when they think about races. Their coaches have drilled it into them. Why?

The runners aren’t thinking about ‘racing’ or ‘performing’. The race is ‘executed’. There’s no question of ‘seeing how it goes’, or ‘finding out how I feel on the day’, there’s just the plan, the race they’ve trained for, and ‘executing’ it. It’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) – managing the way we think about things by the words we use to describe them.

As an athlete you can spend too long worrying about how fast the other guy is going to run, get too nervous about the big occasion, get too excited about the implications of winning the biggest race of your life. All those distractions can can spoil the great opportunity. All the training could be wasted by something as clumsy as allowing the excitement of the moment to have you set off too fast.

In most races it just comes down to trying to get across the line as fast as you are capable. You can’t do more than that. The other competitors and the occasion are all just a distraction. A canny coach teaches the athlete to think about the event as just a function of all the training they’ve done. They know the plan, they know how they expect to feel at each stage of the race, they’ve done it many times before, they just need to step up and ‘execute’ the race they know they’re capable of. This focus was seen at it’s best as Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hosking cross the line after demolishing the opposition in the final of the Women’s lightweight double skulls: it was only after they’d crossed the line and executed their race that they woke from the trance-like state of the race itself and realised with stunned shock ‘We’ve won the Olympics!’ Can you imagine the mental strength it takes to keep those thoughts out of your mind until the race is over?

My own modest efforts at sport can benefit from watching the way these top performers handle themselves and their approach to their events. My 24hr time-trial this year was shambolic, and while it was fun dragging it back from the brink of disaster, I can’t help thinking that making the same mistakes again would be madness.

This week’s effort was a 12hr time-trial. Half as long, but still a substantial undertaking. I decided to take a leaf out of the Olympic athletes’ book and have a plan, and ‘execute’ it. I was not going to race anyone, I was going to come up with a target distance to ride in the time and then just make sure I rode it. I stripped the unnecessary technology off my handlebars and stuck with a simple heart-rate monitor and a scrap of paper with my plan on it. I reached halfway in pretty good shape and although I was in some pain in the last few hours the plan was just right. I hit the scheduled times within a minute or two on each occasion, and even as I tired and suffered at the end, I still only lost a small amount against the plan. The plan: 220 miles. The result: 217.13 miles. That’s quite a long way to ride in 12 hours. I can say, with some satisfaction, I executed a good race.

Executing My Race


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