How do I get to Carnegie Hall? This old joke’s answer, “Practice, practice, practice”! certainly applies when it comes to Olympian performances. Time and again, I hear people say “How did s/he do that?” when the only answer is thousands of hours of practice. There are some outliers, like Pita Taufatofua, who began practicing his sport 3 months before competing, and Akwasi Frimpong, who began practicing skeleton just 2 years before his first Olympics. Pita is the well-oiled single participant from the nation of Tonga, a Pacific island near Fiji. He participated in his first Olympics in Tae Kwon Do in 2016 in Rio. For his new sport of cross-country skiing, he practiced on roller skis, studied countless youtube videos on how to cross-country ski and took many falls on pavement and sand when trying to learning this sport in his native country. He began to train in Germany just 3 months ago on actual snow for the first time after qualifying for the 15k cross-country ski event. At 34, he is quite an example of using his mind over matter and not letting the simple fact that his tropical home has no snow, stop him in his pursuit. He stated his goal was not to medal, but ” First step, finish before they turn the lights off, and don’t ski into a tree, that’s No. 2.” He actually finished in 114th place, but beat 4 other competitors, although the gold medalist was 23 minutes ahead of him.
His reasons for doing it were to try a new sport, even if conditions are less than ideal, challenge himself, and to inspire others from South Pacific nations to compete in the Winter Olympics. He is not afraid to fail. He considers failure an important way to measure stretching himself to new heights. Pita also has a goal to compete in the 2020 Olympics, and says he may train for swimming which would be more accessible to him at home.
Akwasi Frimpong, 32, was once a promising track athlete in the Netherlands who immigrated there illegally from Ghana as a child and represents that country. He’s been through a lot of adversity due to his immigration status, but that only increased his motivation to try to be an Olympic contender. He began training on the skeleton and after practicing on this pared down, super fast sled for only 2 years, his dream of qualifying for the Olympics came true. Akwasi states that with determination, resilience and self-discipline, you can accomplish anything. His victory dance (after he placed last) went viral, and he competes to inspire others, especially those with African roots, to do what initially seems impossible.
The vast majority of the rest of the Olympian athletes have more typical stories. As the men, women, boys and girls from countries around the world flip, slide, pirouette, fly through the air, somersault, (aim and sweep when it came to curling) and in general defy gravity on all kinds of slippery surfaces, it’s easy to think of their feats as superhuman. But, after hearing their stories and seeing pictures of them as tots diving and flipping off their sofas, and barely filling out their skis, we all know that the lion’s share of them began very early, and haven’t stopped practicing since.
If you practice something every day for several hours leading up to a performance, I guarantee that you’d do a stupendous or at least an excellent job at it. OK, maybe excluding back-flipping on a halfpipe!
How many hours does it take to be considered an expert at something? The platitude that it takes 10,000 hours or 6-10 years to become an expert is too general a parameter. Research has shown that it takes deliberate steps, planning and coaching to really become outstanding. Consider how different each of us is when acquiring different skills, and you can see it’s not easy to extrapolate how long it will take to become professional at anything. However, some basic steps will get you much closer to your goal, and these ideas are worth considering when trying to improve at most things.
For example, if you want to improve your ability to remain in a plank position, and you do it every day, you can expect to see a gradual but predictable increase in your ability to hold yourself in the proper position, thus strengthening your abdominals and back. If you want to get stronger, and you decide you will lift weights consistently for 3-4 times a week, you will see an improvement in strength. If you want to get better at remembering names, you can practice encoding and using mnemonic devices very consciously and that, too will improve. Many times, we just aren’t attending to the situation at hand; our minds are wandering to the next thing we have to do, or place we have to go.
Back to how you can make the discipline of practice work for you. If you had to define your own personal “Olympic” goal, what would it be? It could range from walking every day for 6 months of the year to cycling, indoor or out, for a certain length of time. Or, it could be doing the plank daily, or making sure you practice balancing on one foot each day. Whatever it is, with attention and practice, you are sure to improve in your chosen discipline if you keep at it in a consistent, organized way.
Here are some tips for eliminating obstacles and reaching your goals:
- Identify obstacles that prevent you from practicing. Is the activity accessible? If the gym is too far, or the equipment too expensive or unwieldy, it will impede you.
- Is the activity enjoyable? I heard so many Olympians speak of the sheer love of their sport, which kept them looking forward to daily practice.
- Is the goal something you know is worthwhile and will give you a return on your investment of money and time? If walking, running, biking or taking some type of exercise class or training on a consistent basis will allow you to take an eagerly awaited trip that involves endurance and a certain level of fitness, then it’s worth it.
- Do you have a cheerleader who can help you attain your goals? Most of us do better when we have support, encouragement, and some type of coach or friend who keeps us accountable.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. Better to try, and not reach your goal, as long as you begin and make progress. The process is just as important as the final product.
- Think of the role model you can be for others who may want to try something but need someone to inspire them. Many people will observe what you’re attempting, and it may help motivate them to reach their goals.
With about a week left of the Olympics and several athletes to watch, it’s a great time to get inspired about moving, embracing the cold, and seeing how you can stretch yourself. You don’t have to qualify for the Olympics to feel fulfilled about meeting your goals, no matter what form they take.
So think like an Olympian, find something you love to do, practice consistently, get a good coach or cheerleader and keep at it! Be like Pita- don’t be afraid to fail, try something new, and feel good about just getting out there and finishing! Or think like Akwasi and let your resilience and determination lead the way!