Lessons for every striver

During the last Olympic Games, I was struck by the televised human interest stories portraying the athletes – the stories included past victories and defeats, personal issues such as difficult family circumstances, injuries, and other various setbacks in life. These remind us the athletes are normal people with extraordinary talents and goals – and we might look to them for inspiration, no matter who we are. I’ve always found multiple parallels between sports and academics, and I think Olympians can teach college students a few lessons.

Wholehearted belief and sacrifice are important to success. Olympic champions don’t go about their conditioning, practices and competitions with half their energy. They must commit to their goals completely, body and mind. In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale quotes a trapeze artist instructing his frightened student how to perform on the high bar: “Throw your heart over the bar, and your body will follow.” While this of course concerned physical performance, it’s true of academic endeavors as well: the first step is to want success and believe you can attain it. (Then, of course, you’ll commit long hours of work toward the goals you’ve set.)

Sometimes, unexpected circumstances derail you. Athletes regularly sustain injuries or even life circumstances that take them out of competition. These life events are disappointing and heartbreaking, and of course not limited to athletes. As a determined student, when difficulties arise, how well do you cope? In other words, what’s your character? Do you throw in the towel, or do you become even more determined to reach your goals? Do you have grit? It’s a good thing to have.

Sometimes, life isn’t fair – perhaps the best team or the best athlete makes a mistake or just doesn’t perform up to potential on a given night. The best team doesn’t always win; this is true in every area of striving and achievement.

Not everyone can win the gold. The bizarre practice of awarding every kid (or no kid) a trophy intentionally obscures the reality that in every competition, there are winners and losers. Abolishing the honor roll doesn’t change the fact that some kids are more academically talented (or work harder) than others. But to a young person brought up with these odd practices, it may be a shock to discover, perhaps in college, that gold medals are not in fact ubiquitous. Success is hard-won, and work ethic and ability, not pretend accolades, will get you there.

Even those with raw talent need support and coaching. Two points here. First, our success is rarely if ever come upon in a vacuum; we all have inspirational teachers, coaches, mentors, family members and friends who support us. It’s good to remain humble and grateful toward these folks. Second, everyone needs a coach – in other words, needs to be open to coaching and further improvement. Some confident college students resist constructive feedback from professors, saying they were “A students in high school.” Ah, but college is a different playing field altogether, even for the best high-school performers, and even the most talented need guidance. Also, in some cases, grade inflation has unfortunately warped students’ perceptions of their true performance levels.

Cheating doesn’t pay. Students and others might think they’re “getting away with” cheating for awhile, but it’s only for awhile; and consequences linger and taint. In any sport, but particularly in Olympic competitions, how shameful and sad it is when a medal must be stripped from a competitor, or when corruption is found to have infiltrated a contest. If you have no integrity, what do you have? It’s a serious question; as Cassio bemoans in Othello, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

One must respect others – even when competing against them. This is called “good sportsmanship,” and it applies to every contest in life. Sore losers and gloating winners are embarrassments to themselves and the teams they represent. So remember, inside and outside class, to carry yourself with class.

Image via / mxruben