Rio 2016: What does it take to become an Olympian?

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Rio 2016: Four years of waiting comes to an end

There is a powerful image called "The Iceberg Illusion". At the top, peeping out of the surface of the water, is the tip. It is labelled "Success". This is the aspect of the story of champions that we get to see.

During these Olympic Games, for example, we will witness champion gymnasts jumping with immaculate grace, distance runners sustaining a tempo that seems barely believable, badminton players who can find the line with unerring accuracy, archers who can thread an arrow into a tiny target.

This is magnificent and inspirational. It will keep us captivated for the next few weeks.

And yet when it comes to world-class performance, there is something that we don't see: the sacrifice that turned these people into champions in the first place. The sweat, the dedication, the waking up at 5am when your body was crying out for more sleep, the failures, the good habits, the discipline, the drive, the persistence.

It is when you get to the competition venue, and face the best of the world, that you discover who has given it more behind the scenes. Who has woken up earlier? Who has trained with their heart and soul? Who has given it their all, not for the last four days, or four weeks, but the last four years?

This is the hidden story of success. The true story.

Iceberg Illusion
The Iceberg Illusion illustrates all the hard work - and setbacks - that go towards making a success

Overnight stardom? It's an X Factor myth

The problem is that the X Factor culture we live in today insinuates that success happens instantly for the super-talented. It is about overnight stardom, instant gratification. It deludes us into thinking that if we are blessed with genius, we need only step up to the line to become a superstar.

In other words, the entire focus is upon the tip of the iceberg.

But that is not how success really happens. Not in the real world, and certainly not in the Olympics. We need to focus more upon what is beneath the water line because only then will we have the resilience to journey towards our own potential, whether we are Olympians or anything else.

Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey
Paula Radcliffe and Jo Pavey have enjoyed extensive success in long-distance events - yet Radcliffe never won an Olympic medal, and Pavey is chasing her first in Rio

If success is a sprint, then why bother to carry on when we haven't reached the top in the first few weeks? Might as well give up and try something else.

If we recognise that success is a marathon, however, we are able to draw upon deeper reserves of energy and inspiration, and we have a much greater capacity to deal with the setbacks, challenges and failures that are an inevitable part of life and learning, and can sustain our motivation for far longer.

This is sometimes called growth mindset - the idea that what we get out is ultimately about what we put in. Talent may be important, but it is never enough without application. Growth mindset recognises that the deepest question we face is: what are we doing beneath the waterline?

That mindset has propelled many of our greatest Olympians, and has kept them going when others fell by the wayside. It is the questing spirit that is so central not just to the modern Games, but to its ancient incarnation, too. It is the spirit that keeps us watching.

Can you deliver when it really matters?

So, you have put the work in, you have arrived in tip-top shape, you are in the form of your life. And yet you arrive on the line, or in the call room, or on the mat, and your heart is beating faster than normal, your hands are perspiring, your vision is suddenly playing games. At this moment, there is one last quality that defines a champion.

Can you deliver your best when it really matters, with the eyes of the world upon you? The pressure at the Olympic Games is unique. Mess this up and you have four more years to wait for another chance - if you get another chance.

The Olympics is a test of preparation, and technique, and durability, then, but it is also - pre-eminently - a test of nerve.

Serena Williams
Serena Williams has four Olympic gold medals - in addition to her 38 major tennis titles

At the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, I choked. I failed to progress beyond the group stage in the men's table tennis event. The pressure was too intense, I was too worried about losing, and my fine motor skills seemed to evaporate in the metaphorical heat. It was a huge, numbing disappointment.

But it taught me something else. Dealing with pressure is another aspect of performance that can be worked upon. It is not just a matter of turning up and hoping for the best, but building a set of tools and techniques that can absolutely help you to nail it when it really counts.

In other words, growth mindset is not just about preparing the body, but also preparing the mind.

The Olympics is the ultimate test of both.

Matthew Syed is a former Olympian and author of Black Box Thinking, a book about high performance

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