I was having a rough day yesterday, and was sharing my middle aged angst with my friend. I told her that as a kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics in figure skating (didn’t happen), and that I wanted to be a physician since I was five. Not only that, I wanted to be a doctor with impact, like the surgeon general. (Still waiting for that call!) She pointed out that it was no wonder that I felt I had failed in life if I persisted in comparing myself to Olympians and famous physicians. I argued back that these people are my peer group. (Yup, I said that!)
Not quite true.
What does it take to become an Olympian or Tom Brady for that matter?
- Genetics. It certainly helps to be tall if you want to play basket ball, and to have the ACTN3 gene if you want to be a sprinter.
- Childhood trauma. Many super-elite athletes experienced a major setback as a child. Shortly after the negative event, many found sports. Sports provided a positive outlet, which then translated into the increased effort by the young athlete. (I guess growing up in the picturesque foothills outside of Boulder to a middle income family doesn’t count.)
- Focus–no matter what. Super-elite athletes can focus on the task at hand, blocking everything out. This is an acquired skill, that gets better the more it is practiced. (I was such a headcase while skating, that one of my coaches told me he had to over prepare me because my performance would suffer so much in competition. This got better with sessions with a sports psychologist, but I never completely managed my nerves.)
- Obsessive need to win. The super-elite focus on winning to the exclusion of fortune, fame and happiness. They are willing to sacrifice almost anything to win. They also focus more on beating themselves than beating rivals.
- Good coaching. Have a supportive coach that fosters competence and believes in the athlete goes a long way.
Which brings up the question: what am I willing to do to become a better athlete, doctor, human?
Much of this post if from Scientific American Mind, July/August 2016 edition. Click here to view.