Life lessons from the Olympics
The dust has settled and the athletes have all returned home. We’ve celebrated and commiserated as some achieved remarkable personal bests, whilst others have sadly not done as well as they would have liked. Given so much time and effort goes in to this massive event every 4 years, I wonder if it might not be worth reflecting on what we “normal” people can learn from these sporting champions.
Clearly, to perform at the level these athletes perform requires years and years of dedicated training; hours in the pool or on the track, riding a bike or rowing a boat. In addition to this, hundreds, if not thousands of hours have been spent in the gym to fine tune muscles and bodies into previously unimaginable forms.
Now many of us can obviously learn something from these admirable individuals about discipline and health and fitness; but that’s something for another column.
Today I want to focus on some fascinating research findings that highlight one thing the best of the best do differently, and it doesn’t involve any physical exertion.
If you really want to “switch on”, learn how to “switch off”
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating book within which I became fascinated by an intriguing research finding. In The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz refer to a study in which the very top tennis players in the world were found to be different to other, very good players on a surprising variable. In short, the top few players were found to have a lower resting pulse rate in between points.
Why is this so interesting?
Because this research finding indicated that the key to success was not necessarily in being “on” during the point, but in learning how to be “off” in between points. By relaxing during breaks those top players were better able to utilise their energy and ultimately, perform better during points.
This conclusion was reinforced in a recent NY Magazine article in which the most successful female swimmer at the Rio Olympics, Katie Ledecky, was written about. Among other things, a Mayo Clinic exercise scientist (Michael Joyner) was quoted as saying “the thing elites do that people forget about – they’re able to simultaneously have maximum effort and maximum relaxation”. Consistent with the previous findings, Joyner seems to be referring to this ability to alternate between switching off and switching on.
What does this mean for us non-Olympians?
Now I’m pretty sure that the majority of people reading this will not be Olympians; or, for that matter, elite athletes. But I’m also pretty sure that we can all learn a very important lesson from this regardless of our athletic prowess or ambitions.
We all want to “perform” at our best; whether that’s as a professional or as a parent, a small business owner or student. And to perform at our best we need… rest!
Athletes focus at least as much on recovery and recuperation as they do on training hard; they spend just as much, if not more time relaxing as they do working out. Yet most of us deny ourselves this crucial activity thinking that switching off is somehow wasting time! We recognise the importance of rest for an Olympian but feel guilty if we ever pause, even for a cup of tea, ourselves.
The wonderful Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying, “Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.”
Practice switching off from time to time. If you can’t manage a whole day, then just search for mini-breaks of 5-10 minutes; and when you do switch back on, watch your performances improve to Olympian levels!
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