Ordinary Olympians

The secrets of superior performance

One of the articles in Transforming Education (IC#18)
Originally published in Winter 1988 on page 14
Copyright (c)1988, 1997 by Context Institute

Marilyn King is an Olympic athlete, a member of the U.S. team in the 1972 and 1976 games competing in the Pentathlon. While preparing for the ill-fated 1980 Olympics, she suffered a back injury which resulted in her being bed-ridden for four months. She spent most of that time watching films of successful pentathletes, visualizing and feeling herself going through the same events. Despite her lack of physcial preparation she placed second in the trials thanks, she feels, to her psychological state.

She is the founder of Beyond Sports, an organization which seeks to extend the application of imagery and related skills to a broader arena of individual and social concerns, including world peace. She is currently creating a curriculum for schools based on Olympian technology. She can be contacted at Beyond Sports, 484-149 Lake Park Ave, Oakland, CA 94610 or 415/568-7417.

– Dee Dickinson

With few exceptions, Olympians are ordinary people – ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. I should know. I am one of those ordinary Olympians who wanted to understand why I had been able to accomplish so much when I knew that my athletic skills were only slightly above average.

After six years of soul searching, researching and making presentations on the essence of superior performance, I decided to ask my colleagues why they had been successful. Olympian Outreach I and II were gatherings of Olympians spanning 50 years of Olympiads. We were Winter and Summer Olympians, team and individual sport athletes, men and women, gold medalists and also-rans. Regardless of our sport, nationality or final placing, we had all accomplished things that were "unimaginable" to most people. The purpose of our weekend gatherings was to determine what we had in common that allowed us to achieve at that level.

Our weekends in the mountains were the opportunity to brainstorm all the elements we could think of that were even remotely related to our ability to achieve at the Olympian level. When we refined our lists, the elements fell easily into four categories: physical, mental, emotional (or spirit), and other. The following is a brief summary of the essence of each category, some conclusions and some implications of these findings. What has evolved out of this work is a model for what it takes to go beyond your current abilities and achieve things that may seem "unimaginable" at this time.

Our largest category was the mental skills area. Researchers, psychologists and others interested in superior performance have only recently begun to define mental skills. Athletes, however, have been employing these skills for many years, and some things are quite clear. For example, we know that in order to accomplish any lofty goal, you must have a crystal clear image of that goal and keep it uppermost in your mind. We know that by maintaining that image, the "how-to" steps necessary for the realization of the goal will begin to emerge spontaneously. Initially, none of these athletes knew exactly what it would take to become an Olympian, but with the goal in mind, the steps to achieving it became readily apparent. If you cannot imagine the goal, the "how-to" steps will never emerge and you’ll never do it. Clearly, the first step to any achievement is to dare to imagine you can do it.

Mental rehearsal was another important skill. It is employed prior to any performance literally to mentally rehearse the precise details of that performance to help its execution. Much has been learned about the effects of mental rehearsal on the physiology of the body as well as its impact on performance. Soviet researchers have shown us that we seem unable to distinguish between the real and the vividly imagined, hence the value of mental rehearsal. This information is having significant impact in the field of medicine (psychoneuroimmunology) as well as in sports.

While mental skills play an interesting and important role in superior performance, it is the emotions or spirit that give Olympians and other peak performers the energy to do what it takes to succeed. Most people feel they lack the will power and discipline that it takes to succeed at a high level in any field; they see those as attributes belonging to "others." It is important to understand that what looks like will power and discipline from the outside is really passion on the inside. These athletes are people who were passionate about their pursuits. It was that gut level, emotional involvement that gave them that enviable energy and drive. They knew exactly what they wanted and were determined to get it. Being passionate about something unlocks all the energy and creativity necessary to achieve the goal.

The third category is the physical. The surprise in this area was that it was the shortest list. It became apparent that while the physical was important, it was not superior physical skills that were a major factor. Far more important were the mental and emotional categories. Many Olympians acknowledged that there were significant numbers of athletes with superior physical attributes who never made an Olympic team. The key in this category was the physical act of doing something every day in the service of the goal – there were structures for quality feedback and support.

In the other category were items that did not fit anywhere else. Of these, what stands out in my mind is parental support. One Olympian summed it up best when she stated, "What I got from my parents was the notion that I could achieve anything I set my mind to." As I looked around the room, all heads were nodding in agreement. I believe the single most important thing parents can give their children is the belief that all things are possible to the passionate and persistent.

The Olympians who gathered in the mountains of Northern California to complete this work were unanimous in their conclusions. The major lesson is that the skills common to these high performers are not special gifts or talents, but instead innate abilities that can be awakened in each and every human being.

Passion is the energy source of peak performers and each of us has the ability to look deep inside to identify what we value most. With one person who believes in us, we are all capable of creating a crystal clear image of the goal, knowing that the "how-to" image will emerge. Armed with our passion and our vision, we can search out or create the kind of daily support that will allow us to do what must be done to make our dream come true. While other elements like dealing with risk, fear and failure come into play, it is the essential alignment of body (physical), mind (mental) and spirit (emotional) that form the foundation of superior performances.