Remember all those adages we learned as kids? The ones we are now teaching our own kids? Like “practice makes perfect,” for example. I used to hate hearing this because, well, I hated practicing. Especially the piano. There were just too many keys, and I had too few fingers. And all those notes were confusing. Yet, despite my frustration, I stuck with it enough to master a few songs, and each time I played, I knew I had accomplished something.
Years later, I found myself on the dance team at my high school. This time practicing meant giving up part of my summer to learn the routines that would be performed at pep rallies and football games. It meant staying after school to practice that week’s routine over and over in a stuffy gym or on the field in the Texas heat. All to get it just right before Friday night. Sometimes we didn’t, and that usually meant we had to practice harder for the next week.
My days of playing an instrument or participating in a sport are long gone, and I now find myself taking a child to her violin lesson or to gymnastics class. And I’m issuing the adages with the wisdom of one who has been there while my daughter just rolls her eyes. (What goes around comes around, kid. Now play it one more time while I call my mother and apologize.)
The last couple of weeks have inspired in me a new appreciation for competitive sports. And though most of us will never become Olympic athletes, there are some lessons we can take from those who competed in the 2012 games. Here is what I have learned:
1. Practice really does make perfect.
Probably the best illustration of this truism is McKayla Maroney’s performance on the vault during the team competition in women’s gymnastics. Though not given a perfect score, it was virtually flawless. She achieved a height that even the men performing the same vault did not. Her legs stayed together as she twisted her body through the air, and she stuck the landing like I have never seen before. No hop, no steps, not even the slightest waver in her form. The reaction from the crowd and commentators said it all. It was about as perfect as it could get.
Of course, she didn’t achieve this perfection overnight. I’m sure it took years of practice to learn the skills required for such a performance. And I’m sure she has performed that particular vault hundreds of times. You can’t just throw it together at the last minute in the Olympics.
2. You win some, and you lose some.
Several examples come to mind for this one. Returning to gymnastics, I think again of McKayla Maroney. Though she performed her vault so well for the team competition, she faltered during the individual event and had to settle for silver. Her teammate, Jordyn Wieber, did not qualify for the all-around competition as expected. Gabby Douglas, who won the all-around gold, finished last on the uneven bars and next to last on the balance beam. Yet another gymnast, Aly Raisman, faced two tie breakers, one for the all-around competition and the other on the balance beam. She missed out on a medal during the all-around, but secured a bronze for the beam. Then, she got the gold for the floor exercise. I’m sure each of these girls is keenly aware that you can’t win them all. (Even if your name is Michael Phelps.)
3. Nobody likes a sore loser.
Most of the athletes who compete in the Olympics will go home without a medal. To be an athlete, one trains for the win, but he or she must also learn how to lose. And sore losers make the rest of us uncomfortable.
The faces that come to mind for me are Russian gymnasts, Aliya Mustafina and Viktoria Komova. Their sullen reactions to not performing well in their events were hard to watch. Though I can’t say what they were feeling in those moments, I imagine their disappointment was most likely directed at themselves. Many of us are the same way when we fail. We are our own worst critics, after all, and often the hardest opponent one must face is oneself. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard not to be sore.
4. It isn’t whether you win or lose…
To even get to the Olympics, it is all about how you play the game. Whatever the sport, you have to be at your very best to earn a spot on the team. And once you’re there, you will likely have to qualify to go further in your event. All for a shot at a place on the podium as your country’s flag is raised in your honor. And if don’t happen to be one of the three medal recipients, you at least get to say that you made it to a level most of us will never reach.
5. If at first you don’t succeed…
You know the rest. So does South Korean swimmer, Park Tae-hwan, who was disqualified for a false start in his first Olympic appearance in 2004. He came back in 2008 to win gold. Then there’s beach volleyball players, April Ross and Jennifer Kessey, who didn’t qualify to complete in the 2008 games. They were back this year to win the silver medal.
And what about those who competed despite the odds against them? Like double amputee, Oscar Pistorius. He didn’t let a little thing like not having legs stop him from trying. Or 37-year-old female gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, and 39-year-old male gymnast, Iordan Iovtchev. Both competed in their sixth Olympic games! Neither were expected to medal against their much younger counterparts, but this didn’t stop them from trying.
So the Olympics are over, but the lessons I have learned from watching the trials and triumphs will stay with me as I wait for Rio. And though my children are too young to really understand what the games are about, they have their own challenges to face. And no matter where they finish, I will be there cheering them on all the way.