What Writers Can Learn from Olympic Champions

©2010 by Cheryl McLaughlin

tnMoguls skier Alex Bilodeau won the first Gold medal for Canada at the Vancouver Olympic Games and credited his older brother who has cerebral palsy.

At the last Olympics, American skater Evan Lysacek had a disastrous short program performance that took him out of any contention for a medal. This time he won the Gold medal beating reigning Olympic Champion, Yevgeny Pleshenko.

19-year old figure skater Kim Yu-Na from South Korea carried the hopes of a nation and the heavy expectations of gold as she took the ice and turned in two of the most spectacular performances in the history of Olympic Women’s Figure Skating.

So, what does this have to do with writing? What can novelists, poets and writers of non-fiction learn from the experiences of these athletes?

While I was up into the wee hours of far too many mornings these last two weeks witnessing the “do it or die” performances of a lifetime – some lasting only fifteen seconds – I thought about the lessons they’ve learned to become Champions and how valuable those lessons can be for writers. Here are just a few:

Find Your Source of Motivation – and Use it!
A Champion’s performance is the culmination of a lifetime of daily practice – not just going through the mindless motions of a sport, but improving specific mental, physical, strategic and technical aspects of the game. They are like muscles that must be strengthened every day. So it is with writers, too. Establishing a daily practice that continually sharpens your craft trains your brain and body so the muse will speak, the words will flow and you can strengthen your writing with those necessary edits.

But what motivates an athlete to start training at 6a.m. each day, doing workouts that hurt and burn while mixing in school, homework, jobs and parenthood?

For Gold medalist, Alex Bilodeau, his inspiration was his older brother, Frederic. Throughout his life, Alex has watched Frederic wake up every morning with his huge grin, though Frederic now struggles to talk and can no longer walk without falling due to cerebral palsy. He never complains. Alex said that when his back and legs were so sore he nearly stopped a workout, he’d think of Frederic and continue training. When he thought of complaining, he’d think of Frederic. “I tell myself I should just shut up and swallow and go train,” Alex said. “I’ve got that chance to one day be an Olympic Champion.”

As a writer, what compels you to sit your butt in a chair, strap yourself in and write those words only to go through the seemingly endless revisions? What is the inspiration you can use to get out of bed early in the morning, write your novel on your ferry rides to and from work, and continue putting those words down on the page daily in spite of distractions or wanting to quit when you’re frustrated, tired or have lost your passion?

Focus On: The Present, Your Performance and On What You Can Control
Champions have learned that playing the “bad movies” of your past mistakes only dooms you to repeat them. What you see in your mind’s eye is what you will do. And focusing on the future – on winning a Gold medal, getting that book contract, or even worrying about what might happen if you don’t – only increases pressure and fear. Both kill your ability to perform well.

The key is to focus on the Present and on what we call Performance Goals – those specific things under your control that you can do right here, right now to execute well from the first moment to the last. Focusing on Performance Goals gives you the best chance to be successful and the good news is, you’ll feel less anxiety, pressure, and fear!

The importance of focus played out dramatically in this year’s Figure Skating events. Evan Lysacek could have easily scared himself by replaying that bad movie of his disastrous Olympic performance four years ago. Instead, he set a performance goal: to skate two clean performances. As he took the ice, he focused on completing each element of his program to the best of his ability and turned in two Gold medal-winning performances of a lifetime.

South Korean skater, Kim Yu-Na, carried the heavy burden of her nation’s expectations of Gold, and her fear that if she did not perform well, her country would turn its back on her. But instead of getting paralyzed by the weight of other people’s expectations, she chose to focus on what she could control: to skate two complete, clean programs. Like Lysacek, she focused on each graceful element of her two spell-binding performances and won the Olympic Gold medal.

As I’m writing this, I’m struck by the importance of having specific performance goals to focus on when we sit down to write that book of our dreams. It’s so easy to scare ourselves into inaction by focusing on the big outcome goals like writing that novel, getting an agent, or selling your book proposal to a publisher. I’m going to write a checklist of my performance goals and sharpen up my source of motivation to improve my daily writing practice. How about you?

Cheryl McLaughlin is the President of McLaughlin Human Performance Institute, a writer and speaker, and the founder of The Buzz Professor, who is going to use Performance Goals to accomplish her far-too-long, to-do list of writing tasks!