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Practice, practice, practice makes perfect: what we learn from the Olympic spirit

Friday, 10. August 2012
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Michael SmithThe Olympic competitive spirit for the most part brings out the best rather than the worst in human nature, writes Mike Smith from London.

The margin between success and failure, between gold, silver, bronze and no medal at all, whether in athletics, swimming, cycling or even tennis, is so narrow it is often no more than millimetres or milliseconds. A millimetre or two, a hundredth of a second, can make all the difference at the top levels of Olympic sports.

No wonder Rudyard Kipling urged us to treat those two impostors of triumph and disaster as just the same: the margin of error between success and failure is incredibly narrow. Of course, winning matters. It matters to national pride, and to the extraordinary, almost superhuman, individual and team efforts. But for the rest of us mortals, the mere thought of being an Olympic athlete is so beyond our wildest dreams that we can hold all the competitors in a certain degree of awe. The greatest have earned their place in history.

They say that it takes 20,000 hours of practice in any discipline to achieve a real talent for success. On the basis of an eight hour day—and for some it is much more—that translates into 2,500 days, or six years and 310 days, at seven days a week. Many of the Olympic athletes put in four years of daily training between each Olympiad. For a lucky few the sheer grit pays off. Four years of hard slog comes down to a few hours, a few minutes or a few seconds of competitive excellence. We should not be too hard on those don’t quite make the medals tables. And they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves either. For many Olympians, merely to have competed is satisfaction enough.

We are reminded of those old adages: no pain, no gain; no Cross, no Crown; the grit in the oyster makes the pearl; practice, practice, practice: for practice makes perfect. And some of the Olympic performances have been as close to perfection as human effort is every likely to achieve.

So we salute, with awe and wonder, the great Olympians of 2012, highlighting just a few of them: Usain ‘lightening’ Bolt, the fastest man in history; Michael Phelps, the greatest swimming Olympian and greatest medal winner of all time, whose tally of 20 gold and two silver medals is never likely to be surpassed; Ben Ainslie, the most successful sailor in Olympic history with four successive gold medals; Jessica Ennis, the heptathlon champion and Queen of British athletics; and, from Ennis to tennis, Andy Murray’s triumph over his Grand Slam rival Roger Federer to win gold in what Murray described as the greatest match of his career; as well as the great East African long-distance runners and competitors in many other disciplines.

There is another gold that the London 2012 Games won: that of the media stakes. They pushed the world’s trouble spots, from Syria and Afghanistan to venal banking, off the media’s top podium, at least for a while. It’s not that these areas are not important. Of course they are. But thank God we don’t always have to live on a diet of woe. If only these places could gain something of the Olympic spirit: that competing against your rival doesn’t mean that you have to kill him.

The Olympic competitive spirit for the most part brings out the best rather than the worst in human nature: gracious in victory and in defeat; acknowledging and appreciating others’ achievements; team effort; rigorous routine and self-discipline.

So what follows the peak of achievement? What happens to the sportsmen and women when they are too old to compete? Will they go on ‘inspiring a generation’—the Olympic motto? Will they, like their coaches, train and develop the next generation? Many of them will. John the Baptist said of the One who was to follow him: ‘He must increase but I must decrease.’ Many great Olympians, as in all sports, will experience the same in providing a selfless service to the next generations.

The same applies to all of us when we reach a certain age: we have to let go, to give way to the next generation, to encourage, cajole and inspire them to greater things still; living, like sports coaches, to make the other person, and not ourselves, great. There is a lesson in unselfish living here for all of us. As Macauley wrote: ‘One of the marks of true greatness is the ability to develop greatness in others.’

So thank you, Olympians one and all, for bringing cheer and, I’ll admit it, the occasional tear, to our lives. We love you all.

Michael Smith is head of business programmes and a member of the management board at Initiatives of Change, UK.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.