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What it takes to be a top-level Olympic athlete

Running & Fitness
Saturday, July 31, 2021

Being a person that likes most any kind of sports watching the events in the Olympics found me in front of a television this last week. I tend to like the more traditional sports because I am more familiar with them. The skateboard and modern-day events that today’s youngsters grew up with are a little more difficult to relate to. The thing that impresses me is that in each of the different sports the level of skill that the athletes display is incredible. It is interesting to look at the range of ages in various sports. Some Olympic gold medal winners are still teenagers while others are in their 30’s and above. No matter the age of Olympic athletes they are all at the top level of their sport.

There are some interesting theories on what it takes to reach this top level of a sport. The skills that appear to be predicated on innate gifts are often nothing more than the manifestations of thousands of hours of practice. One theory that seems to stand out is the “10,000-hour rule” as the magic number of greatness. It seems the rule applies to almost any level of expertise. To become a chess master the 11,000-hour rule is common. Even top violin musicians will practice an average of 10,000 hours to achieve greatness. Golfers are included with the number of hours of practice it takes to make the PGA top level. However, you want to look at it reaching the top level of a sport or skill takes many hours of dedication and practice.

It is important to understand that to reach the top level of competition comes from a combination of genes and practice. That 10,000 hours of practice will help an individual reach their own level of greatness but does not guarantee reaching the top level of the sport. A person with good genes will not reach that high level of athletic greatness unless they put in the hours of practice. Everyone can reach their level of potential with dedication and practice, it just may not be the very top elite level of the sport. 

A point of interest is that Usain Bolt received eight gold medals in three different Olympics. His total time on the track was about 115 seconds. He earned close to $119 million for his efforts. What puts it all in perspective is that those two minutes of fame took 20 years of training.

The idea of practicing 10,000 hours to reach your potential is a little misleading. The 10,000 hours include outside study of the skill, having the right nutrition, and consulting with experts in the sport to fine tune the “little things” that are often the difference between being good and great. 

A comment by Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnast from the United States, said that “every day you go to the gym you are hurting” from the hours of practice. I have talked with many athletes and the comment of “hurting” from the hours of practice is fairly common. To reach your full potential the athlete must practice at a level of intense effort. Several experts also mention that when you practice at a high level of effort you need to include periods of rest for the body to recover. Intense practice without periods of rest often result in an injury that forces you to take time off from practice.

One other factor that is becoming more evident from athletes reaching that high level of skill in their sport is the mental strain that hours of practice puts on the emotional and mental effort needed to stay at that level. Recently the focus of mental strain was brought to the attention by Osaka, the number one tennis player, and Biles, the top-rated gymnast, when both dropped out of competition to relax and refocus on the sport. These two are not the only athletes that have dealt with the issue of mental strength when they reach a top level of competition. It is very difficult to remain at the top level of competition for many years. The number of hours in the gym, or on the court, or in a room practicing the skill needed to reach, and stay, at that level takes a very strong mindset. 

Watching the athletes competing in the Olympics, and knowing the sacrifices they have made to reach this top level of their sport makes me appreciate watching them even more. And for those athletes that have been able to remain at the top level for several years is a real accomplishment. There is always that younger and stronger athlete coming in every year to take their place. 

No matter what level you reach after your hours of practice the memories will remain forever. 

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