With the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in full swing, everyone’s attention is on these extraordinary people who have achieved the unachievable. These are people who have devoted themselves to a goal and reached excellence- seeing people’s dreams coming true as they win medals for their country is surprisingly emotional and incredibly inspiring. I found myself thinking- how can I be more like that? I want to take the same approach to my training as Olympians take to theirs. So I did a little reading, and I’ve come away with a list of lessons that we can learn from Olympic athletes.
- Dream Big- don’t be afraid to have dreams that scare you in their enormity. For many Olympic medalists, the prospect of even making it to the Olympics was probably once so far-off it seemed ludicrous. People probably told them it was impossible, or highly unlikely they would make it. But they weren’t afraid to dream that dream- imagine if they had listened to the naysayers and given up! Where would they be now? But they didn’t give up, they clung on to that dream and they made it a reality. Imagine the best of what you want to be, without holding back- and keep hold of that dream no matter what.
- Have self belief- Olympic athletes don’t aim to be ‘pretty good’. They go for GOLD. They believe they can win that gold medal, and they go about trying to make it happen. They don’t have time for doubts- get rid of those doubts and believe in yourself, otherwise you’ll only be slowed on the path to your dream.
- Don’t make excuses- you don’t see Olympians complaining that they’re not on form because their neighbours had a party and they didn’t sleep well, or giving up on their whole nutrition programme because they slipped up and ate a piece of cake. Having an excuse as to why things went wrong isn’t going to get them to gold, no matter how good the excuse is. Take on some of that same perspective- it’s not always going to be easy, but when things happen that shouldn’t, know that excuses only waste time on your journey to the top. Let the excuses go, and keep working.
- Have love and passion- To be able to devote your life to something, you have to LOVE it- otherwise it’s going to feel like hard work and a chore, and you will never achieve your full potential. Athletes who are passionate for what they do shine like no others- it is the same for dancers. You have to remember that you dance because you love it, and do everything you do with passion; not just when you’re on stage, but in every class, rehearsal, cross-training workout and meal choice. Let your dreams guide you.
- Don’t let time slip away- imagine if your shot at achieving your dream only came around once every four years? Depending on the sport, some athletes will only get one or two shots at the Olympics. Do you think they plod along with their training and hope they’re at their peak in time? Imagine if you had to be at your very best in 4 years’ time, or risk having to wait another 4 years to achieve your dream- how much harder you’d work with that sort of deadline! Develop that sense of urgency now- maybe you can even set yourself a similar deadline, and work towards it like you were training for the Olympic Games!
- Be resilient- Many Olympic athletes have overcome incredible adversity in getting to where they are. Some will have overcome potentially career-ending injuries and setbacks to be at the Games right now. Their determination to succeed saw them through the tough times. Injuries and other setbacks can be both depressing and scary, but you can’t let them derail you… if they can do it, you can too! For more advice about this, check out my post on overcoming setbacks.
- Have laser focus- Olympians have set themselves a high goal, and probably many sub-goals to help them to get there. They are OBSESSED with that goal. They are able to unlock a single-mindedness that allows them to give great energy to achieving their dream. They think of their goal in every single decision they make. Set your goal, one that sets you on fire, and make it your life. I’m not saying sacrifice everything to the point you have no life, but let it push you and influence your choices. Don’t let anything distract you from your goal.
- Make the most of NOW- Going back to that sense of urgency we were talking about- Olympic athletes are highly aware of the time ticking towards their big moment. They know they HAVE to be ready. And they know that when it comes down to it, this moment now is all we really have to do anything about it. Don’t put it off until a better time, because life is always going to be getting in the way. What can you do right now that is going to move you closer to your goals? Don’t wait until Monday, or the end of summer, or a month before auditions start. Do it today- there is no time to waste.
- Know how to get in the zone- athletes have an incredible ability to block out distractions. Many will have set rituals they follow to get themselves to their most concentrated, focused place. Try a few things out for yourself and see what works; find ritual in your daily warm-up or pre-performance routine. Try regular meditation- do whatever you have to do to be able to block out distractions and get in the zone. This is a helpful skill to learn for performances, exams and auditions.
- Visualise- many sportspeople will tell you that preparing for an event is 90% mental and 10% physical… and when you look at all the physical training athletes do, think about the mental training going on! They visualise their event going perfectly in their minds, again and again and again, until they feel they can easily make it a reality. Dancers should be doing this, too. Read my post about the importance of mental training for more information on this. Make time to visualise- visualise yourself with perfect technique. You can use this to help you to prepare for performances, as well as to overcome any steps that are giving your trouble.
- Be Prepared-an Olympic athlete would never turn up to an event anything less than 100% prepared for it. Take on this characteristic yourself- make sure that when you walk into an audition or performance, you’re the one that’s clearly taken the time to be absolutely on top of your game. No excuses!
- Keep Moving Forwards- I’m not sure who said it first, but someone said “if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse”. This is so true- and it’s not meant to stress or panic you, but push you into making progress. You need to be improving all the time. If you’ve hit a plateau, it’s time to shake things up. Do whatever you need to do to make sure you’re getting better every day. Don’t be complacent.
- Take rest seriously- Olympic athletes always work at their maximum; and they also know the importance of rest and recovery. They would never risk missing out because of burnout and injury. Rest, and especially proper good-quality sleep, are so important to an athlete, and therefore just as important to a dancer. There is a culture in dance, especially in classical ballet, of not taking enough rest and of working through injuries. This is dangerous; no Olympic athlete would ever train to the point of it being detrimental to their success! And neither should you. Make time to rest properly and take steps to improve your sleep- I wrote a post about this which you can read here.
- See food as fuel- nutrition is important to athletes. Serious athletes learn to view food as fuel for their body, not an emotional crutch. This can be really hard, for some more than others, but with practice you can instil this mindset within yourself. When you eat well, you train better. When you don’t eat enough, or you eat the wrong things, you can really feel and see the difference in your body and training. In dance, there’s a lot of pressure to be slim. However, the most important thing is to dance well, and to dance well you have to fuel your body with enough of the right foods.
- Record everything- Athletes track and record all aspects of their training. Their track times, match scores or performances, their best and worst performances, every meal, training session and workout. By doing this you can see correlations, patterns and get an idea of your overall progress. You can see that a bad day doesn’t mean you’re not moving forwards overall, and you can also help to have more of the old days. As you will know if you’re a regular reader, I love journaling and stationery! I keep a food, exercise and sleep journal and I use my Dancer’s Journal to record corrections, comments, appointments, performances and progress.
- Train consistently- There’s a temptation to take your training lightly when you don’t have anything important coming up in the near future, or when the distractions of summer or Christmas are calling, and then at other times to over-train in a panic in the lead-up to exams, auditions, competitions and performances. Olympians resist the urge to aggressively train in the lead-up to big events, but instead focus on making good, consistent progress all the time. This is the way to make sure you’re at your best, without risking overtraining.
- Take your attire seriously- Athletes will compete in certain attire that helps them in their specific sport, and within that they’ll choose something that they feel good in, that they feel they can do well wearing. Athletes will train in the same attire they’ll be competing in-otherwise it would seem foreign to them and put them off in competition. As a dancer, you should put thought into your dance attire; what makes you feel and look good? Not just in terms of confidence, but practically, too. Wear things that don’t restrict you in any way, and put the most thought into your shoes. They need to enable you tot perform at your best. Whilst you can’t turn up to technique class in a tutu and pointe shoes, you should try not to wear baggy warm-ups all through class, and wear a practice tutu when rehearsing so that you get used to the feeling of the costume. That way, it’s one less thing to worry about when the performance comes around.
- Get treatments- Athletes make a regular habit of getting treatments that help to promote recovery and prevent injury. This will almost always be sports massage, but will also include other kinds of physiotherapy and other treatments such as acupuncture or cupping. Dancers have recently started to introduce massage and treatments into their routines, but if you take it as seriously as athletes do, you’ll make sure you’re giving your body the best chance.
- Cross-train- oh, yeah. You can bet that these Olympic athletes aren’t simply going over and over their event. They’ll be engaging in all sorts of conditioning and cross-training. It is absolutely imperative for dancers to cross-train to see improvements and dance at their best, as well as to be well physically. Dancers should be engaging in low-impact exercise that includes strength and resistance conditioning as well as cardio. Favourites amongst dancers include swimming, Pilates and Gyrotonics.
- Train the basics- Whilst flashy tricks and complicated plays are what sets Olympians apart from lesser athletes, it can be mastery of the basics that gives them the edge in competition. They’ll be practicing the basics every single day, even once they’re perfect. In dance, this is very important- that’s why every class will start with pliés and tendus; put just as much concentration and effort into perfecting these as you do your fouettés en pointe and double tours en l’air, and your technique will improve leaps and bounds, plus everything will look so clean.
- Know that everyone starts somewhere- every Olympic athlete was at one time a complete beginner in their sport- for many, that’s not as long ago as you might think! They’ve all been where you are right now in their training. Keep going and you’ll get there.
- Don’t try to do it alone- every Olympic athlete knows that it’s imperative to have a great coach and a great team behind them, and they trust and listen to them. Pride about having to do something alone is only going to hold you back. Find the best teacher you can, trust them and listen to their advice.
- Know that anyone can become the best- In sport, as in dance, there are certain desirable characteristics which some are blessed with and some aren’t. However, it is not exclusively the genetically blessed who are successful. In each sport, competing at the top level, there are a mixture of people with different qualities, and from totally different backgrounds. The things they have in common are determination and passion. Athletes know this- they don’t get down if their feet aren’t perfect (to use a dance example) and they don’t look down on others if they do have perfect feet, because hard work is key.
- Surround yourself with the positive- Surround yourself with only positive people who will support you in your dreams. You don’t have time for people who don’t support you. Make it your task to only listen to positive messages, media, music, television and films- don’t let anything bring your emotions down unnecessarily, and therefore distract you from your goals and your progress.
- Work out in a team- Even those competing in individual sports will train and practice with others. Use your peers to inspire you, push you and support you, and do the same for them. Two heads are better than one, and all that.
- Show respect and gratitude- what really strikes me about Olympic athletes is their level of sportsmanship. They would never begrudge someone else’s success, or gloat in their failures, even if that means the making or breaking of their own Olympic dreams. They encourage their competitors, because they know they’re all in the same boat. They have so much respect for the integrity of their sport, and they are grateful to everyone who supports them and helps them to get to where they are, as well as to all the athletes who paved the way before them. Do this with dance- show respect for the art form and those who came before you. Be grateful to your teachers and your family who support you. Respect your peers; you’re going through the same things. If Olympic athletes can be composed and respectful in the biggest competition in the world, where they have one shot to make their one big dream come true, then you can be polite and respectful to other dancers in a competition or audition situation!
- Stay humble- you’ll rarely see Olympic athletes letting their success go to their head. They know that they earned their success through hard work and dedication, but they also know that their competitors work hard and are dedicated too. What’s more, they need to keep up that level of dedication in order to stay at the top. A big head will only weigh you down.
- Don’t provoke your competition- When do you see Olympians standing off to one another, trash-talking them or gossiping behind their competitors’ backs? They don’t! They want to win, they can’t waste time acting petty, they have to concentrate on themselves and their own performance. They have too much respect to undermine the integrity of their sport and their country. Take a note from this, and act as a professional. Encourage others instead of putting them down. Focus on improving yourself, instead of worrying about what others are doing. Those who have been spending their time fussing about other people will one day realise that they should have been more concerned with their own progress, and by then it will be too late.
So here are the tidbits I’ve managed to glean; I hope that everyone is enjoying the Olympics so far and that you’re feeling as inspired by the incredible athletes as I am! I also hope that this post has given you a few things to think about… let me know in the comments!
All photos in this post are from a photoshoot I did way back in January with the wonderful Jake Owens, which I wrote about at the time. Wearing the Superdry sports range (not sponsored, I just like it!)