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A letter to the younger sportswomen in me – A lesson from the Olympics

A lesson from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games

How absolutely absurd are the Winter Olympics? Dare I say you need to be some kind of crazy to participate or even attempt some of the events offered. I spent way too many hours in front of the TV screen in recent months deliberating the details of the Winter Olympic sporting codes. As a common sport fanatic, after watching a few hours of a single event, I turn into a professional myself and start coaching the competitors through the TV screen.

Apart from curling, which may be the single event that I may actually be able to participate in, every other sporting code can be summed up into: how fast can I go down this slope, ramp, or tunnel on various pieces of equipment without breaking every bone in my body or causing serious bodily harm. Just think about that for a few minutes. And as if that didn’t endanger your life enough, at the end of the ramp you can jump… as high as possible and as far as possible… for fun. Absolute insanity, that’s what the Winter Olympics are.

How Norway Outshone The Rest at the Olympics

During the 2018 Winter Olympics there was one nation that completely outperformed and outshone every other country. This wonderful nation is the Norwegians. Let me put their result in perspective for you quickly. Not only did they win the medal tally, they managed to win the entire Olympic Games with all of 109 athletes. So they had 109 athletes and won 39 medals, that is a success rate of 36%, the USA had 242 athletes and won 23 medals (10% success rate), and the second largest contender, Canada, had 225 athletes and won 29 medals which gives them a 13% success rate. What a phenomenal result for Norway.

Interestingly enough, a few days before the end of the Olympics usatoday.com interviewed Tore Ovrebo, the Norwegian Olympic Committee’s director of elite sport and they asked him how as a country they had managed to develop and/or create such a powerhouse of elite athletes. You may find his answers to be slightly nauseating if you’re the kind of sport fanatic that does not consider sport to be a ‘fun’ pastime.

Firstly, Ovrebo mentioned that he believes that much of their success stems from their youth sport structure which focuses on completely disregarding the scoreboard up until the age of 13, kids may compete and participate as they wish but there is no podium at the end of the day. This allows for sport to form part of the childrens social development and therefore their motivation for participation is to have fun with their friends and not to win trophies.

See, Norway’s elite sport committee’s concern is not to have the highest ranked 10 year old athletes in the entire world, but rather on developing the best-rounded mature adults which become Olympic gold medalists. This theory goes hand in hand with the long-term player development model developed in recent years.

Towards the end of the interview Ovrebo mentions 3 aspects which continue to motivate his most elite athletes (I added my own touch here):

  1. They are highly motivated to compete & participate with their friends, building relationships along the journey
  2. Their continued participation in sport is centred around having FUN, (there it is, that nauseating feeling) and the pure enjoyment that they experience when competing
  3. The individual athletes single focus is on personal development and this leads to winning medals

Sport is an amazing phenomenon as it offers us the opportunity to develop all of these values with very little effort, whether we are coaches, parents or players, we are all exposed to this opportunity of sport.

One thing that I can pretty much guarantee is that the wins and losses that we experience will all become faint, distant memories in the years to come, but the team mates that become best friends, those do last forever. One of the most special things about the countless years that I have spent alongside the hockey field is knowing that I have made enough friends to ensure that I have a bed to ‘crash’ in or someone to buy me a cup of coffee in every single province in South Africa.

Festivals and tournaments are special. They bring a large amount of like-minded, talented individuals from all over SA together into a confined space and force interaction on and off of the field. This aids in some way for us to create and build friendships. This is an opportunity for us to interact with the incredible people around us, whether in or out of our team environment. Coaches interact with one another, learn from one another. Become better together.

The second point taken from the Norway Olympic team is: HAVE FUN. Cherish the opportunity of participating in sport and being ‘on tour’.  Unfortunately, we have a revolting tendency to be overly competitive in all of our sport participation.

Yes, it is important that we strive to win and perform at our very best, BUT, this should never be to the detriment of sportsmanship.

Sportsmanship makes the game and participation fun. It shows the players around you that you value them, that you value the sport, and that you actually value your own participation. Pass the ball back to your opponent after a free hit has been blown, help your opponent up after a tumble or clash, encourage your team mates and dare I say encourage your opponents too. These things cost you nothing but create an environment of enjoyment and fun: an environment that we can all actually prosper in.

Sportsmanship is the outward expression of the inward love and passion that you have for the game.

It creates a team environment that people want to be a part of.

The third and final point that Ovrebo mentions is that the single focus of his elite athletes is on a journey/process of personal development. It’s the focus of being better today than you were yesterday, every day. Sport has the unique ability to not only reveal but also to build character. Participation itself does not build character, but competing and competition does.

  • Competing builds understanding that persistence leads to the reward
  • Competing builds humility as we are exposed to a game that may be grossly unfair
  • Competing builds confidence as we achieve things we didn’t think were once possible
  • Competing reveals leaders who continue to put the team first through much adversity
  • Competing reveals discipline and commitment, as sportsmen & women we don’t get to do what we want to do, we do what we need to do in order to be successful
  • Competing reveals sportsmanship, through severe frustration can you sacrifice your personal pride for the good of your team and for the good of the game

Every match we play is an opportunity to further our own personal development. Furthermore, sport provides us with the opportunity to develop a unique set of skills and qualities which are transferable into every aspect of your life. Skills and qualities such as effective communication, time management, accountability, perseverance, dealing with failure, trusting others, and self-belief to mention a few.

In closing, there is a quote by Steve Prefontein (famous USA middle/long distant athlete) that goes like this: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice your gift.” Our gift may not be the best sporting hero the world has ever seen, that’s not the point. We all have our own unique set of gifts, our purpose is to figure these out as we journey through life’s adventures and then to use them to the absolute best of our ability.

Use your gifts to compete. Have fun.