Take a moment and watch closely the images to the left…
Watch the complexity of the Olympic level gymnastics routines from the 1950s, and then watch the routines from the 2016 US Olympic Trials Gymnastics Competition. What a change! But complexity in competition changes relatively slowly, you have to compare a sport across decades to see the differences. Most of the time, sports are stable, on performance plateaus with decreasing distance between the best and the rest; and then as if all of a sudden, an athlete will arise and take the sport to levels never dreamt possible. How? These athletes elevate the technical complexity of the sport and by doing so out perform their competition by margins that sports commentators struggle to explain.
We remember names – Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, Katie Ledecky, Misty May & Kerri Walsh, Simon Whitfield, Boitano vs Orser, Gretzky, Crosby, Alex Bilodeau, Mikael Kingsbury, Joannie Rochette, Elvis Stojko, Shaun White, Chloe Kim, Ester Ledecka, Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin – but what we do not remember as easily is the change in technical complexity that these athletes introduced or improved upon in their respective sports.
We remember who, but we forget why.
We forget that it wasn’t that the athlete came, but what these athletes brought: they elevated the technical complexity of the sport enriching it for all.
That Dick Fosbury revolutionized the high jump by introducing the Fosbury Flop, few will recall. That every Olympic level high jumper today executes the Fosbury Flop in competition, few appreciate. That David Berkoff revolutionized swimming by extending the time spent underwater in Backstroke with the Berkoff Blastoff, few will recall. That Michael Phelps took the Berkoff Blastoff and by applying it to the Butterfly and Freestyle strokes went on to become the most decorated Olympian of all time, few appreciate. That Caeleb Dressel is taking what Phelps did with the Berkoff Blastoff and by adding amplitude into the kick is rewriting American sprint records across all the swim strokes, few appreciate. That long and lanky Usain Bolt rewrote the template for sprinters which was strictly short and stocky, few know and few will recall in years to come.
We remember athletes but we remember them as if they were exceptions, genetic wonders, one of a kind miracles; instead we should remember them as pioneers… athletes who cut a new path, developed new techniques or built upon existing ones to take the sport to new levels. If we remember them as pioneers, then there is also nothing stopping us from being pioneers ourselves. If we remember them as pioneers, then we are in a position to believe that if they did it… so can we.
Instead, we choose to remember athletes as if their level of performance was an inexplicable ability to push their physiology and psychology to levels beyond the capability of mere mortals, or an ability to tolerate more pain than humanly possible. And in so doing, we disrespect what they truly accomplished, we detach the endless hours and years of training they performed from their performances, and we write narratives to dismiss their accomplishments and achievements as if obtained at birth by a magic wand which blessed them with ‘natural talent’.
Why do we do this? Fear. We are afraid to recognize them as individuals who decided to train more intentionally, more specifically, as individuals who decided to train more than anyone could imagine someone training. We do this because we are afraid to respect that where they decided to dedicate themselves to their purpose, we decided not to. We are afraid to go “all in” to the extent that these peak performers went “all in” on their dreams, on their goals, on their purpose. We are afraid to admit that we have been willing to settle for part time passion, instead of going “all in” for an “all out” life.
The difference in what we believe may seem insignificant, but it isn’t. By believing that peak performing athletes were born different – as in exceptions, as in genetically different from everyone else, differences which yielded a physiology and psychology perfected for peak performance – we think we are only narrating a story-line to explain away their achievement; that’s not all we’re doing. By narrating that their achievements are the result of an athletic privilege bestowed to them as a birthright, we write the narrative which excuses our own lack of achievement: by believing we were not born different, we excuse ourselves from achieving different from everyone else. We try to explain that we are not different, because we were not born different. Deep down we know that this is a lie: we are all born different, there are no two of us – not even twins – who are absolutely alike; but instead of accepting our uniqueness, instead of exploring our differences we want to hide in anonymity, we run and hide in social groups, in social norms, we chose to run from our differences out of fear of being unique.
The path to living an extraordinary life is simple… realize you were born unique and your obligation to explore and expand your uniqueness.
The path to living an empty life is just as simple… deny you were born unique and deny your obligation to be you, instead try to be everyone else, what everyone else likes, what everyone thinks they like and thinks they want.
I challenge you to be you.