Six Critical Life Lessons From The Greatest Athletes In The World

Why some people are hugely successful and others are not so successful? Even after finding the direction, identifying the path, many of us tasted only a moderate success. What makes a few of us as ‘Winners’?.

Jacqueline Joseph’s documentary, titled ‘Winning’ shows some of the important traits required for ‘Being Successful’. The documentary is about inspiring stories of five athletes.

01-DO NOT THINK ABOUT SUCCESS — FOCUS ON ACTIONS

Everyone has got limited attention capacity. Thinking about rewards, competitions or consequences would take away our attention away from the activity itself.

“I never thought about the competitions. The whole thing was going out every day for all those years and putting on the best performance into practice” — Edwin Moses, American former Track and Field Athlete.

“The Ball never comes over the net the same way twice, always something different about it. I loved the challenge, I just really wanted to see how well I can play this sport”. -Martina Navratilova, Former American Tennis Player.

“Winning doesn’t mean winning gold only…you win gold, you win silver, you win bronze, you gain experience…more abt doing something in your life and seeing what’s possible and how much you could stretch to be great, exceptional” — Nadia Comăneci, a Romanian former gymnast.

“Great athletes set goals much like rock climbers, if they are focussed on the top or if they are looking up, they are gonna fall every time. Their focus is “Where am I gonna put this hand and where am I gonna put this foot? That’s the destination. Want to make sure that they are engaged in the process” -Greg Dale, Sports Psychologist.

Philippe Petit is a high-wire walker. He walked on a tight-rope between twin towers of World Trade Center, New York in 1974. During preparations, he never spent much time focussing on future rewards or appreciations. In the initial planning period, he did not even think about the walk itself — His priority was on rigging the wire, learning it, installing the wire on towers without permission. He was focussed on the immediate action, not on the consequences. Only when he got closer to the day of the event(Wire walking between twin towers), he started to spend his limited attention on wire-walking on the ropes.

02-INVERTED T-shaped SKILL SET

The earlier the exposure to broader skills enhances the chance to establish a differentiating pole position in any one field.

Thomas Alva Edison was a prolific inventor because he had a good amount of exposure to multiple fields in his childhood. (His telegraph experience had helped him to invent ‘The Phonograph’).

Philippe Petit learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire, jumping through hoops, juggling before even beginning to try wire-walking.

“I used to climb the tallest trees in my grandmother’s garden. I liked the challenge to go higher and higher. I played more with boys. I played soccer with them. I was kind of boyish girl” — Nadia Comăneci.

“As a child, I loved going woods. I loved climbing trees. I did a lot of cross-training in my childhood. I used to run faster than boys, jump farther than boys, threw the ball farther than boys” — Martina Navratilova.

“In my childhood, I played many sports. I tried to be competitive in every sport I played. I had to drop out of baseball because of my poor eyesight. Later I had to drop out of rugby as I could not play effectively. But I learned the work ethic and playing competitively” -Edwin Moses.

03-START EARLY

Neurologist Daniel Levitin states, “The studies have shown that thousands of hours(appx. 10000 hrs) of practice are required to achieve a level of mastery — to be called an expert in a field”. Starting early in your life provides you with an enormous amount of time to practice.

Michael Howe writes, “Mozart, who was considered a prodigy, started writing music at the age of six, though his early works were not outstanding.”

“I picked up the tennis racket by the age of 4 or 5. I was hitting a tennis ball off a concrete wall and started to play tennis regularly at age 7” — Martina Navratilova.

“I remember starting gymnastics when I was six. It was a place where I can do something without damaging any furniture. I loved it. My mom had a difficult time to get me out of the gym” — Nadia Comăneci.

04-DELIBERATE PRACTICE

Practice…Practice….nothing else matters. True world-class experts have practiced for longer hours. Nadia Comăneci practiced almost 6–7 hours a day. She kept stretching every day.

Martina Navratilova’s father was her first coach. He spent endless hours of the court with her. By the age of 12, Navratilova could defeat her mother in the game of tennis.

“My father was always proud of me as long as I fought…biggest hug I got when I lost” — Martina Navratilova.

“I was around 12 years and my Mom was working on her Master’s degree. When she was in class…I and my brother had to wait around…There was a nearby track…hurdles kept around there… We played continuously and practised for hours. When I joined in college, there was no field track. I practiced in the hostel hallway” — Edwin Moses.

By practice, a skill may become automatic but extra hours of practice does not guarantee superior performance or build expertise.

Practice is not just quantity of time but also Quality of time. Not just more time on a task, but quality time on task.

In the year 1964, the Beatles was a sensation in the American Music Scene putting out a string of hits. To the Americans, Beatles were an overnight success but Lennon and McCartney were playing together from 1957. When they were still just a struggling high school music band, they were invited to play in a night-strip club in Hamburg, Germany. They had to work hard to attract the audiences for the club. It was a non-stop show. Eight hours a day. 270 nights in one and half years. Those hours of practice had set them apart from others — They didn’t mechanically repeat but kept on experimenting and improvising every day with a constant feedback.

Practice is not just mindless repetition — Practice is not to look for perfection. It is to visualize new improvements, new challenges — experiment them, get feedback, improvise them and restart the process every day.

“I practiced differently unlike other kids…If you see the routine which got me perfect ten in Olympics — Every little skill in that routine — I did it with much more amplitude than everybody else…people didn’t think that a routine which is compulsory, could be done like that…Yes, We go by book…but I did that little extra…what I could call…a Comăneci touch” — Nadia Comăneci.

“With Rene Richards, my coach, we really got into tactics, how to play the point. How to hit the topspin backhand” — Martina Navratilova.

Successful people have understood that the best enjoyable experiencing moments occur only when a person’s body and mind are stretched to its limits. Every day, they keep on stretching themselves in small ways and try to get a good understanding of how much they could strain their body and mind.

05-DELIBERATE PRACTICE — ATTENTION TO DETAILS

Successful people set a stretch goal — focusing on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance and strive to improve specific weaknesses. They keep on increasing the challenges and the corresponding skill levels.

“I felt jumping over the hurdles as an artwork… I looked for ways to shave off 100s of seconds…manipulating small things -where the foot lands… Can I save a few seconds by looking at how leg goes over the hurdle… Can I gain few seconds if left leg goes first over the hurdle… Everyone was taking fifteen steps between hurdles… I thought… Can I knock off two steps? I reduced this to thirteen steps… 15steps — 13 steps…between hurdles… You could say, all were incremental improvements…so small…but winning margins are also small. We neglect those minute changes” — Edwin Moses.

“Once you become world-class, even if you improve two or three-tenths of a second in your life, that’s a lot” — Edwin Moses.

“Paying attention to details, I learned it from my coach… that gets you from 9.8 to 9.99. Those little details that people think are not important. And they are very important in the long run. Some athletes think of only hard tricks. They mess up the easy tricks” -Nadia Comăneci.

Pam Shriver, Martina’s doubles partner -“Martina looked at Nutrition, looked at getting stronger, flexibility, pilates. I can remember her doing some eye drills to make the speed of her eyes quicker. She helped revolutionize the way the other female athletes looked at the training. Strength training, Endurance training-she really raised the bar there”.

Philippe Petit owes his success to “Attention to detail” — He focussed on the required hardness of the wire, atmospheric conditions, prevailing wind patterns at the top of twin towers, construction of rigging the wires to the buildings, passing the rope between the towers, padding thickness of shoe such that he could sense the wire surface and wire tension without difficulty. His attention to details reduced the margin of error and minimized the danger involved in wire-walking.

06-GRIT

Deliberate Practice needs more physical and mental efforts. So, they are less enjoyable at times. We need to stretch outside comfort zones. Fatigue would be severe. There would be frustrations. We would be always in a rat race to make sure that challenges exceed acquired skill level. We should be determined. Grit is about Determination.

“I’m not a physically gifted gymnastic….I wasn’t perfect…My body is not that much flexible…I fell three times…from beam…But I learned from there” -Nadia Comăneci.

Successful people were grittier — They stuck with their commitments longer than others. They looked back, not to feel bad but to correct themselves. They practice even when no one else is watching or incentivizing or motivating them. Grit is about Consistent Commitment.

“One of Nadia’s remarkable characteristic is that she can handle a high volume of repetition without letting boredom chasing level of her performance… It is just incredible” — Nadia Comăneci’s husband.

Grit is about Perseverance — “I learned about perseverance earlier in my life — I know what it is like to have to get up early in the morning and run around the campus because I didn’t have the car. It is 9–10 months of training for 15–16 minutes of action in a year. An Olympic race just lasts about 47 seconds. I was happy to do that” — Edwin Moses.

Grit is about Stamina — “It’s not necessarily that I could hit the ball harder but I could hit as hard at the end of the match similar to the beginning of the match. Then I could do it again the next day” — Martina Navratilova.

Grit is about embracing the challenge without fear, judgment, anxiety, and embarrassment.

CONCLUSION

Every successful person is like any other ordinary person. But they had direction, practiced with a sense of purpose, had a great work ethic and they wanted to grow. They had a strong belief that there’s always scope for improvement.

References: “Winning” a documentary by Director Jacqueline Joseph, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance By Angela Duckworth, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Secular Humanist, Business Growth Consultant, Design Thinker, India. Reach me at mmshah8@gmail.com. or https://www.shahmohammed.com

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