Blood, sweat, and tears are the substance of the Olympic journey, literally. The recent edition of the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang showed us examples of beautiful human trial on a daily basis. When we pause to really think about why these myriad awe-inspiring performances are so emotionally moving, we realize it is because we can all, on a certain level, relate to the struggle. While most of us cannot clip off gates like Mikaela Shiffrin or flip and spin through a halfpipe at dizzying heights like Shaun White, we recognize the character traits elite athletes tap into to drive their physical performances. In their blood, sweat, and tears are the real markers to their elite status and the true “golds, silvers, and bronzes” they earn.
For better and for worse, Olympians shed and share substantial amounts of blood, sweat, and tears. Think of Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall skating their hearts out to win an historic gold medal in the women’s cross-country relay in Pyeongchang. This is a prime example of a successful and momentous outcome of this journey, the celebratory culmination of many years of remarkable effort, passion, grit, and teamwork. Most who watched the final meters of their dramatic and inspiring sprint race in Pyeongchang last week shed tears of awe and joy – and a few folks lost their voices from rally cries and thunderous cheering.
Blood fuels burning lungs and legs for peak function and power, while also seeping dangerously from wounds and injuries, signifying struggle and short-term defeat. Several U.S. athletes faced this grave reality at the onset of their Olympic bids. Our hearts were collectively breaking for alpine skiers Steven Nyman, Jacqueline Wiles, and Tommy Biesemeyer in the weeks, days, and even hours leading up to their events as injury took them out of the competition. Steven suffered an ironic and twin ACL tear on his right knee exactly 364 days after the same injury on his left knee – on the same course in Garmisch. Jacqueline crashed in a training run and had to be flown back to Colorado for knee surgery just days before her chance to race in Pyeongchang, and Tommy Biesemeyer’s raw, heartfelt, and poignant posts about yet another “Achilles heel” injury denying him his start, for a third time, in the Olympic downhill resonated as the lightning rod for truly unfair misfortune. For these three, a dream was tabled and a goal was unmet; we can all relate to their disappointment and ensuing struggle of picking themselves up again and mustering the courage to keep going. All three of these world-class athletes will be back, don’t sweat it.
When we look at the character traits elite athletes avail themselves in their athletic pursuits, we learn so much about the human condition. In Kikkan and Jessie’s gold medal and in Mikaela Shiffrin’s podium miss in slalom, we see testaments not only to their elite status but also the true strength and impact of their character traits, the most significant of which seem to be their resilience and perseverance. Successful athletes perpetually overcome challenges and strive for excellence both on and off the snow or whatever their field of play. Attaining the habits of resilience and perseverance can enhance many aspects of an athlete’s life, helping them realize athletic, education, and career pursuits and potential.
These truths raise a crucial question: can coaches and programs ensure athletes will develop adequate resilience and perseverance? Creating challenging and positive physical, mental, and emotional learning environments is the best place to start. By encouraging athletes to identify and value character development and care about their personal growth as well as their athletic success, coaches can make the lessons of blood, sweat, and tears valuable. From my own years and experience teaching and coaching various sports, I have defined a few underlying tenets of character-based development. Although much of this might seem obvious, coaches sometimes fall prey to “business as usual” or “old habits” when working with athletes and teams. Consider the following checklist as a quick self-evaluation of sound character-based coaching principles.
- Foster athletes’ desire to learn, train, play, and compete. Do coaches operate on the premise that sport is fun and every athletes is capable of progress? Do athletes want to play and practice? Are they happy to be there?
- Set performance objectives that align with key values and character traits. Do athletes know the values and character the team represents? (e.g. Many winter sports clubs and teams list core values as Excellence, Integrity, Respect, Passion, Dedication, and Teamwork – how do these programs tactically incorporate these values into their training?)
- Combine high expectations and standards of training with high support. Do coaches state and model high standards and recognize athlete progress towards them?
- Use methods and drills that require hard work, resilience, and perseverance. Do athletes feel adequately challenged? Do they have frequent opportunities to face obstacles, fail, try again, and ultimately succeed?
- Encourage athlete accountability for both success and failure. Do athletes take responsibility for their effort and development? Or do they make excuses and credit or blame others?
- Develop athletes’ capacity for self-evaluation, goal-setting, resilience, and perseverance. Do athletes help set their own goals? Do they evaluate their own progress?
- Help athletes discover their individual learning style and skills. Do athletes recognize, employ, and address their own individual strengths and weaknesses?
- Instruct according to individual learning styles – some athletes need to be pushed while others need to be nurtured.
With the support of coaches and programs who subscribe to these types of character-based practices and development, athletes will organically become capable of embracing the skills they need to excel in the face of injury, exertion, and disappointment, certainties during any athlete’s career. Steven Nyman, Jacqueline Wiles, and Tommy Biesemeyer have all assumed and exhibit these character traits in abundance – and their performance and response to their Olympic-squashing scenarios should be a lesson to us all. Get back up, keep at it, and go for it – again, and then again. Blood, sweat, and tears are the tools coaches can use to chisel athletes into resilient, tenacious, healthy, balanced, positive, whole athletes. Even at the Olympic level, blood, sweat, and tears form the most precious mettle.