The Path to Olympic Success

In Sports by Brock Bourgase

Donovan Bailey said that while athletes participating in the 100m dash share genetics and other physical characteristics, it’s entirely mental when they arrive in the stadium for the final heat. Swimmers and other athletes would be remiss not to take the 1996 Olympic Champion’s advice. Self-confidence, technique, overcoming fear (of success and failure) are among the essential skills possessed by an Olympic Champion.

Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in a single Olympics. He is an amazing athlete. But Phelps also performs consistently and never wavers from his game plan. He’d only have six medals if the competition were as diligent. In the Men’s 4x100m Feeestyle relay, Alain Bernard had a relatively large lead going into the final stretch over Jason Lezak but swam too close to the lane divider, allowing the American to draft behind and out-touch him at the wall. In the Men’s 100m Butterfly, Serbian Milorad Cavic appeared to have a half-meter lead with two meters to swim but lifted his head at the wall and lost by 0.01 seconds. Phelps realized that he was behind and that he was out of sync with his normal stroke rhythm. He took a “chopped stroke” and barely won the event.

In the 1992 Men’s 100m Backstroke, Mark Tewksbury spent the preceding year visualizing his race in Barcelona. He studied the pool when it was under construction and planned every detail of his race months in advance. When he got within meters of the wall, he realized that he was out of sync with his normal stroke pattern and didn’t have enough time for a full stroke. Consequently, Tewksbury reached backwards and won the race by milliseconds. Both Phelps and Tewksbury focused on the mental aspect of swimming and narrowly won gold medals as a result.

Egregious mental errors have occurred in other sports too.

  • Women’s Marathon: the field allowed one athlete, Constantina Tomescu-Dita to breakaway and lead more than half the race. The Romanian won by half a minute and it seemed as if the chase pack had forgotten that she was in the race.
  • Women’s 400m Freestyle Swim: Katie Hoff led most of the race but decided to touch the wall with a flat palm. Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington made a last outstretched lunge for the wall and won by 0.07 seconds.
  • Women’s Freestyle Wrestling 63kg Bronze Medal Match: Martine Dugrenier was up a point with thirty seconds remaining. After she had taken the lead with a leg-lace takedown, she quickly gave up her back and side control to opponent Randi Millar, losing with seconds remaining.

Why are these athletes losing focus at critical moments? Tewksbury hypothesizes that the fear of success and reaching a life-long dream is as prevalent as the fear of failure. C.B.C. commentators Steve Armitage and Byron McDonald praised Phelps for dominating every element of the race. Tewksbury told anchor Ron McLean that Canada needs to have benchmarks for all aspects of the performance.

What makes up a gold medal swim in London 2012 and what are our improvement targets for each year? Nothing is too small to be measured (and Omega has shown that every millisecond can be timed) and nothing too intangible to be considered. If Canada wants to “Own the Podium”, they have to own themselves first and aim to own all the mental and physical aspect of the competition, like Phelps did whilst winning eight medals.