Life Lessons from the Olympics

I don’t know when I’ve spent this much time in front of a television set so fully engaged. I watched as much of the Olympics as I could every day and night, and when I couldn’t – like every day at work – I caught up with the day’s major events on the internet and on the news.

I’m the type who really gets into the inspirational stories of the athletes, of course. The tougher the story, the more emotional attachment I feel for them. If you could see into my family room – and I hope you can’t – you might see me jumping up and down with the thrill of triumph, or tearing up from the agony of defeat. I keep the Kleenex at hand.

I am anything but an athlete. I never had any leanings in that direction at all, although as a kid I loved to swim and was always the last one out of the pool. I was thrilled when I earned my junior life-saving badge at Girl Scout Camp and experienced my first and last standing ovation. I learned to dive from a diving board in good form: feet together, toes pointed, barely a splash . . . I loved tumbling (of all things) and bouncing to the rafters on a trampoline, but I was always too chicken to do the summersaults and backwards flips. I was more into having fun with my friends than practicing any sport for hours on end. But then, I grew up at a time when girls didn’t take sports seriously, and neither did teachers, coaches, boys, or fans. What a global turnaround is apparent at the 2012 Olympiad, in which female athletes actually outnumber male athletes for the first time.

But what draws me most to the Olympics each time is that on a deep level, it is a metaphor for all the metaphors for life we already have: the hero’s journey, the universal human journey, the archetypal quest for the Holy Grail/hidden treasure/golden egg. The Olympic Spirit is the human spirit in all its glory, magnified a thousand-fold upon a global stage. This year it happens to be in the land of the original Shakespearian stage, no less.

In interview after interview with the medal winners, I kept hearing the familiar themes of universal success: vision, commitment, determination, relentless hard work, continually overcoming challenges, painful injuries, recoveries, never giving up, et al. But in an interview with Michael Phelps after he won the all-time Olympic medal record of 22, Bob Costas asked him how difficult it was for him to overcome his early defeat in these games. His answer was so unique, it still has me thinking.

Phelps said that throughout his years of training with Bob Bowman, his one and only coach for sixteen years, Bowman would periodically throw a completely unexpected disappointment at him. It might be something as personal as causing him to delay a trip he did not want to delay or to miss a dinner with friends – something he knew would be an emotional disappointment. (To my coaching clients: Don’t worry, you know I would never do this to you in a million years. I’m the one who would be there to help you through the unexpected disappointments . . . ) Even though this was difficult to deal with every time, it taught him to expect the unexpected, to be ready to quickly shift gears and deal with it, and to move on to the next moment or challenge as a completely new and separate event.

Now that’s an Olympic feat and life lesson if I ever heard one!

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