How do you train like an Olympian? This year, we are going to see the biggest sports stage in the world, with fencing taking center stage more than it does at any other time. Naturally, many fencers and many fencing parents are wondering how they can train like these incredible Olympians.
The Olympics are very cool because we have so many resources to learn from these athletes. They don’t keep secrets about how they got to where they are. You can literally just go and listen to them, soak up the information. When you talk to Olympic fencers, they tell you how they got there and what their lives were like. There are similarities that run through their stories, and these are some of the themes that are very common.
Encourage big thinking
Allow yourself, or your child if you’re a fencing parent, to think big.
This isn’t just to do with the Olympics, but with anything in life. The reality is that someone is going to get to the top of the podium at the Olympics. It’s not just in sport though. Kids, and all of us if we’re being honest, need to realize that their dreams are not out of reach.
The people who get to the Olympics? They are just like you and me. They are regular people who got there through smart work, through hard work, and through passionate work. They are not superhumans.
What is important here though is that you give this big thinking a path. You want to be a cartoonist? Well, you’ll have to draw every day and eventually go to school for art in order to do that. You have to go to the right college as well, and you have to be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up.
Not everyone can be a famous actor or an artist for Disney. Not everyone can be a CEO of a large corporation. Not everyone can make it to the podium at the Olympics. But no one made it to any of those places without first dreaming of it and following that dream. You have to have the dream in order to make it there.
All Olympians have in common someone who believed in them and encouraged their dreaming. You can be that person. Don’t tell kids that things are impossible. If you find what you love and you give it everything, well then you can make it happen.
Encourage daily discipline
You cannot get around this one. Olympic athletes have a level of discipline that happens every day.
There is no amount of raw talent that gets someone to the highest level of sport. Natural talent can help, of course it can help. However, without daily discipline, it’s a road to nowhere. The highest level athletes in the world work hard for their achievements. They don’t skip working out because they are tired. They don’t call out of their private lessons. They don’t take summers off or long holidays.
Balance is definitely important, and everyone needs time off now and again. Academics and other activities are important for any fencer, for anyone. Keep in mind that Olympic level fencers almost always have day jobs. These are not professional athletes who spend all day with coaches and personal trainers and nutritionists. One of the most extraordinary things about Olympic level fencers, particularly those from the United States where we don’t have institutional training for our athletes, is that they are real people.
That being said, they are real people who train really hard to get to their level. The go to their fencing clubs on days that they don’t want to. They are uncomfortable and push their bodies. It’s not easy. What they will universally tell you, and you can read this and listen to it in interviews, is that the work and hard parts are rewarding too. The payoff, not in terms of medals or podiums but in terms of personal fulfillment, well it’s worth it.
Sugarcoating the reality of the discipline it takes to become a champion isn’t helpful for anyone. But making it seem impossible isn’t helpful either. Striking that realistic balance between realizing that this is a whole lot of hard work, but it’s a whole lot of hard work that is attainable, that is the sweet spot.
Sometimes passion takes a long time to find. Many athletes who get to the Olympics go through several sports before they find the right one. They might start out with Little League, then go to martial arts, then basketball, then finally find their real passion in fencing.
It can be frustrating for kids and for parents when nothing seems to stick. What is common among all of these things is the passion for athleticism and for pushing themselves.
Olympians have self-discovery in common. They have the fire inside of them that makes them keep on going. That fire doesn’t just happen – it is encouraged by the people in their lives. Parents and family members of champions encourage these athletes to follow their passion, whatever it is. Olympians are so inspiring in part because they seem to know who they are. That’s remarkable and it’s powerful.
This is a wonderful lesson that applies well beyond just fencing or even sports. All of us are looking for the thing that makes us excited to be alive. Instill in kids the importance of finding the thing that they are passionate about. It’s ok if they take a while to find it. It’s ok if they have to try several different things. You have to stick with something for a while to find out if you like it of course, often a season at least in order to figure out if a given sport is going to be that passionate thing. However, if something is not a fit then it’s not a fit and it’s ok to move on.
We have to foster the potential in people. No matter what that potential points towards. Give them the chance to find out if they are champion fencers.
This sounds like crazy advice, but it’s actually one of the most important ways that we can train like champions. Winning all of the time is not the mark of the true champion. The mark of a true champion is the ability to get back up when they get knocked down. If you do this, well then you are going to come back stronger than when you went down! The best way to learn is not to win all of the time. In fact, we learn more when we fail than when we succeed.
The more that a fencer fails, the more they are learning and growing. If they are dominating their matches all of the time, well that means most likely that they need to go up in rank and go against better opponents that can challenge them more effectively. There should always be an opponent that a fencer can face who will get a point or more against them. Even the top fencers in the world are challenged – no one dominates totally.
Those athletes who cannot handle failure are doomed to repeat it again and again. Encouraging failure means that fencers can learn to recover from it. Shaking off a lost point or a lost match is so very important in winning the match next time.
This talking about failure always makes me think of the great quote from the movie Rocky Balboa, where Rocky is talking to his son.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
Right here he’s talking about the importance of recovering from failure. Honestly, very little in training for high level competition is as important as learning how to fail, how to learn from that failure, and how to pick yourself up and keep learning and growing.
This is key and cannot be overstated. Athletes who make it to the Olympics rely on mentorship. We aren’t just talking about finding the best teachers or the coaches with the biggest names. We’re talking about athletes and coaches who connect and light the fire within each other. There is no one-size-fits-all mentor. Even the best fencing coaches in the world cannot train every fencer to their highest ability.
This process is about the relationship that develops between a fencer and their coach. It’s the synergy that matters. Yes, your child’s fencing coach needs to have a certain level of expertise in fencing if they are going to train your child like a champion, but just as important as that expertise is the connection they have with your child. Not every fencer fits with every fencing coach.
The incredible thing about this is that fencers and coaches, when they have the right chemistry, create a nearly magical relationship. It’s more than the two of them combined. We see this in the great Olympic fencers, who all have coaches that they connect with and who have shaped them.
In the sports world in general, we commonly see powerful mentorship as essential for success at the highest level. Finding the right mentor can make all the difference.
Look beyond the Olympics
This is perhaps the most beautiful part of this whole process. The Olympics are only one part of the puzzle. Living like you’re aiming for the Olympics is going to teach fencers and their families big lessons about life that will be important, even if they never make it to the games.
The Olympic dream might get your child to fence well enough to get a scholarship to college. Or to win a National Championship. Or you know what, the Olympic dream might just get your child to build themselves up so that they can follow some other dream that is their real passion. It might get them to feel confident enough to avoid pitfalls in their adolescence that might have otherwise turned them down the wrong road. It might give them a community or a lifelong friend.
Following a dream like making it to the Olympics as a fencer is not wasted time! Not even if a fencer never gets close. It’s not about the winning. It’s about the passion and the growth that happens along the way.
There isn’t one answer to the question of how to live like an Olympian, but rather there are many answers. What makes the Olympics so inspiring and so important are that they teach us to aspire to be something more, and that kind of living leads us towards success all around.
[ Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images ]