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Olympic Success in Perspective: Ubuntu

Ubuntu: "I am what I am because of who you are"

Over the past two weeks the world has been treated to amazing displays of physical achievement as each country’s greatest athletes have gathered in London in pursuit of being “faster, higher, and stronger.”  While we recognize individuals for their accomplishments at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the African concept of ubuntu is at the core of every athlete reaching his or her dream.

Ubuntu is the African philosophy that emphasizes the inter-connectedness of all persons.  There is no clear English equivalent; the concept is often translated as “I am who I am, because of who you are.”  Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have used the term to describe how injustice to any one group of people impacts all people.  But the inter-relations apply not only to suffering, but also to celebration.  It does not diminish the talent, commitment and accomplishment of an individual; it acknowledges the importance of others in the journey.

No person rises to the pinnacle of success without being lifted by others. When Michael Phelps won his record breaking 19th medal, he was quick to give credit to the members of the relay team.  As his medal tally grew while his career drew towards its finale, he consistently acknowledged his mother, family and Coach Bob Bowman, all of whom have been been with him throughout his journey. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

In the midst of Usain Bolt proclaiming himself the fastest man on the planet and a living legend, he acknowledged the importance of his country’s support and having training partners such as Yohan Blake to push him to new heights of performance. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

The interconnectedness also encompasses pain and tragedy woven into the fabric of one’s life.  US Olympian Kelly Wells found personal refuge from an abusive stepfather by pouring herself into training on the track. Her youth was marked by tragedy, yet she is now a model of resilience and a beacon for others who may be facing the challenges of abuse. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Over the past two years I’ve had the privilege of working with Team Elite of SwimMAC of the Carolinas, arguably the top swim club in the US after having the largest number of athletes qualifying for the Olympic trials and placing more swimmers on the Olympic squad than any other swim team in the country, plus having SwimMAC CEO and Team Elite Coach David Marsh named to the US Olympic coaching staff.  The five Team Elite swimmers in London are returning with six medals — 3 gold and 3 silver.

All five are exceptional athletes; yet their character and integrity are even more impressive than their physical abilities.  These five athletes have held the spotlight, and while doing so have modeled ubuntu by reflecting attention to others as integral to their success.

Gold and silver medalist Cullen Jones has long acknowledged the role that both of his parents and his nearly drowning as a child have played in his becoming a two-time Olympian.  When he qualified for the  100 freestyle at the 2012 US Olympics Trials, his first action upon leaving the water was to hug Coach David Marsh and Assistant Coach Peter Verhoef.  In an interview immediately after winning the 50 freestyle at the Trials, he was asked how he was such a different swimmer from four years earlier when he did not qualify for the event.  He credited Marsh pushing him and having great training partners, Nick Brunelli and Josh Schneider. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

In preparation for winning his gold and silver medals, world record holder Nick Thoman would start practice with a handshake with now-Olympian Davis Tarwater as a commitment to push each other to excellence.  Throughout interviews this past year, Thoman acknowledged the role of the coaches, support staff and training partners such as Eugene Godsoe and Nelson Westby, as well as the incredible field of US athletes competing in the 100 backstroke, as vital factors in preparing to represent the US in London.  Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Gold medalist Davis Tarwater has stated that failing to make the 2008 Olympic team was probably the most devastating experience of his life; and at the same time, probably the best thing that ever happened to him as a person.  He coupled an evolved perspective with incredible work ethic in his quest for the 2012 Olympics, embracing challenges from teammates such as US National Champion Tim Phillips along the way. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Three-time Olympian, Kara Lynn Joyce came to Team Elite less than 12 weeks prior to the Olympic trials, in part, to train head to head with Team Elite sprinters Madison Kennedy and Andrea Georoff. Changing programs so close to the trials was a gamble that paid off as she qualified for London in the women’s 50 free. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

The normally quiet and shy Micah Lawrence was clear and emphatic in her gratitude to teammates during a Team Elite meeting prior to her qualifying in the 200 meter breaststroke.  She thanked not only Kevin Swander and Elliot Keefer, who both challenged and supported her in daily practice; but also those whose support and commitment created a sense of family that allowed her to strive for new heights.  Kate Mills, Eric Knight, Bryan Lundquist, Greg Pearsall, and the entire SwimMAC community were all essential ingredients of this recipe for success. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

On a personal note, my professional colleagues are aware that I have had the honor of working with Coach David Marsh, Team Elite and the SwimMAC community.  In the aftermath of these 2012 Olympic Games, I find that my reputation, recognition and influence as a performance psychologist has grown. Thank you, Team Elite, for the privilege of working together. Ubuntu!  I am who I am because of who you are.

Achieving Success of Olympic Proportions

Achieve success of Olympic proportions

Achieve success of Olympic proportions

Few people can surpass Olympians at both goal setting and goal getting.  Writer Suzanne Rust has distilled the principles and techniques used by Olympic athletes for “ordinary mortals” seeking success in their personal and professional lives.  I was delighted to serve as a resource for Rust in creating this feature for Citibank’s Women & Co. program.  Click here for more…

10 Tips for Handling Pressure Like an Olympian

Tower Bridge at night displays the Olympic Rings

Tower Bridge at night with Olympic Rings

Athletes consistently report that mental preparation for Olympic competition separates the good from the great.  With that in mind, I want to share what U.S. Olympic champions have identified as the top 10 lessons for Olympic success. This information comes from the DVD, “Success at the Olympics,”  produced by the Sport Psychology Services at the USOC.  The lessons here are not restricted to athletes, but apply to anyone who wants to perform under pressure in business, performing arts or high risk occupations.

For ease of reading, I’ve broken these into two parts: five are covered in Part One (CLICK HERE for Part One); the remaining five in Part Two (CLICK HERE for Part Two).  These links lead to recent issues of our Pressure Points newsletter.  If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to take a moment to subscribe to the newsletter and other “Good Stuff” from Get Your Head In The Game, that way you will be assured of getting great tips and offerings “hot off the press.”

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback on Pressure Points and any other aspect of our site.

Charlie Brown, PhD
Director, Get Your Head In The Game

PS – Olympic fever is here.  Catch it!

Olympian Nick Thoman on Handling Stress


Congratulations to Nick Thoman, who has now earned at spot on the 2012 US Olympic team! Here’s a portion of an interview with Gold Medalist Mel Stewart of SwimSwamTV in which Nick discusses his mental preparation for the Olympic Trials. The interview was conducted at the 2012 Charlotte UltraSwim. Check out SwimSwam.com for more information, video and news of the swimming world, and SwimOutlet.com who sponsored the video.  BTW, Nick, thanks for the endorsement!

3 E-ssentials for Excellence at Olympic Trials and Beyond

3 E-ssentials for Performance Excellence

3 E-ssentials for Performance Excellence

Energy management. All the preparation and hard work is behind you at this point; the key is to manage your energy at the venue so you can perform at your optimal level when it is your turn to compete.  While high intensity focus is a key ingredient of successful performance, sustaining performance over a prolonged period requires alternating intense focus with periods of relaxation and shifting attention.  Mental and emotional recovery between events is as crucial as physical recovery.  If you’re really serious about performing well, take time to be “not so serious,” kick back and relax.  You’ll have more energy when it’s time to ramp up for your event.

Execution.  By now you should have a well-developed performance plan that you have rehearsed countless times.  Your body knows exactly what to do, even if your “thinking mind” may wonder if there is something different that might tweak your performance even more.  You do not need to do anything new or different; simply do what you know and do it well.  Trust your training; trust your body; execute your plan.  Anything new or different at this stage of the game is a recipe for disaster.

Embrace the experience.  Whether you are a seasoned Olympian or a first-time qualifier, you’ve been preparing for this moment all your life. You have earned this opportunity. Embrace the excitement, uncertainty and possibilities that it offers.  Make memories that you can Enjoy for a lifetime.

Options for Uncertainty: Worry, Planning and Curiosity

Worry Is A Waste

Uncertainty is widely accepted by performance experts as one of the most common factors contributing to stress.  The irony is that everything in life is uncertain, except for “death and taxes” (according to Ben Franklin). Whether you are an athlete preparing for the Olympics, a business person attempting to land a major account,  a surgeon preparing to operate, or a young lover contemplating a lifelong commitment — you can feel confident; but there are no guarantees. Not knowing is a part of life.   The attitude and emotion that you bring to the unknown has a major influence on how you perform under pressure.  Consider the emotions driving the three primary paths through uncertainty:  worry, planning and curiosity.

Worry is fueled by fear. It is a succubus to the energy that is required for excellence, and will drain a person of creativity and confidence in dealing with uncertainty.  Worry is a waste.

By contrast, if you take the same uncertainty and wrap yourself in cool, dispassionate logic, you can enter the realm of planning.  You never know exactly what will happen; but  you probably have an idea of situations that would be challenging.  For each situation, decide in advance how you ideally want to respond; then practice that response either by mentally rehearsing your deftly dealing with the distraction, or actually seek out opportunities to practice in real life.

For example, the upcoming US Olympic Team Trials for swimming will be held in a venue rarely experienced by swimmers.  The competition pool has been constructed in the center of the CenturyLink Center, an arena in Omaha that is complete with jumbo-tron scoreboards, spotlights and poolside pyrotechnics whenever a world record is broken.  The swimmers with whom I work have been mentally rehearsing being on center stage, refocusing after fireworks, and preparing for the “long walk” rather than the more familiar short trek from the ready room to the swimming blocks.  A business person may mentally rehearse dealing with a less than cooperative audience, and even recruit colleagues to role play the scenario in a practice situation.  Research has shown that mentally preparing for adversity and distractions improves confidence and performance.  Great performers typically are great planners.

Where worry is fueled by fear, and planning is more dispassionate logic, curiosity has the potential to tap the delightful emotions of anticipation and wonder.  Remember what it was like to see a present wrapped with pretty paper and a bow, not knowing what was inside, but excited with all the possibilities?  At some point in time, your anticipated moment of performance will be your present.  There is a fine yet powerful distinction between worrying how you will perform and wondering how you will perform, fueled by the optimism of curiosity.

Take a moment for this little experiment: Think of an upcoming performance situation, and now start worrying about it. (okay now, don’t just read this; I want you to actually experience this exercise).  Study the muscle tension in your face and brow as you engage in worry.  Now take the same upcoming situation, and mindfully think of it with curiosity.  Study again the muscle tensions in your face and brow.  For most people, there are marked differences between the furrowed brow of worry and the wide-eyed wonder of curiosity.

If you want to replace worry with curiosity, use these physical cues to help develop the habit of curiosity.  It begins with mindfulness.  Periodically check out the muscles in your face when thinking of performance situations.  If you discover any tension that is associated with worry, pause, breathe, and gently raise your brow while wondering about the event in a non-judgmental, inquisitive manner. Enjoy the unknown and all the possibilities the future might bring. Once you master this sequence, practice, practice, practice!

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat; worry killed the cat. Planning helped the cat deal with distractions, and curiosity helped it enjoy the journey.