“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
When Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, said this at the turn of the 20th century, I’m not sure he’d know about the pressure to win that faces today’s athletes, including the pressure they place on themselves. Yet his words helped me reconcile my Olympic performances.
I was an Olympic rower who competed in the lightweight double sculls. In Athens in 2004, we won our heat in a World’s Best Time and won our semi, only to come 4th in the final. In Beijing 2008, we entered the regatta as current world champions, only to come 8th overall.
To have such outstanding results leading into an Olympic final makes failure on that stage seem even more devastating. It’s not just a 4th or 8th place. It means we didn’t live up to expectation or race at our objectively true potential.
I felt acute disappointment lined with embarrassment after my performances in Athens and Beijing. I’ve since spent a long time thinking about it and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still hurt.
Nobody, certainly not world champions and record holders, goes to the Games for “a cup of tea and biscuits” as Anna Meares put it. Nobody who knows the satisfaction of standing in the middle of the dais while their anthem plays, mentally prepares for defeat. That’s what makes it so difficult to accept. So how do you cope with producing recent, exceptional performances only to be defeated on the biggest stage?
The first week of the Games saw many Australian Olympic Team ‘Gold Medal Favourites’ not hitting their recent form. In swimming, Cam McEvoy and the Campbell sisters had races in their respective 100m freestyle finals that did not meet their expectations.McEvoy had posted the third fastest time in history earlier in the year. Bronte Campbell was reigning world champion and Cate Campbell current world record holder. They all made the finals with wins and record times only to come 7th, 4th and 6th respectively.
Cate labelled her performance as a ‘choke’ and McEvoy had ‘stage fright’ according to the head coach, but it may not be exclusively mental vulnerabilities that cause an exceptional performer to walk away from a competition empty handed. Regardless of the cause, defeat can weigh heavily on a champion athlete.
Cate Campbell said in her post-race interview “I’ve always said I didn’t need a gold medal to have self-worth. I guess that’s now being put to the test.”
Perspective gets blurred or lost completely in the fishbowl that is the Olympic Village and it’s easy to lose your sense of worth, especially as you think back to four years of your hard work.
Your meaning, so salient for the last four years, has gone, and you think you have nothing to show for it. It is only with time passing that you regain your perspective and realise your achievement in striving, contesting and competing at the highest level.
It is normal and healthy to feel pain and fall in a hole after defeat, but what can help athletes in this situation climb back out?
Savouring your achievements. Having recent success may make things more painful, but how would you feel if you’d never won that championship or broken that record? I often asked myself the question, would I trade my world championships and record times to make the pain of defeat go away? Not on your life.
Thinking about and being grateful to the people who have helped you get there.
Gratitude is a wonderful healing balm. It makes people feel good to receive it, and it makes you feel good to give it. I felt like I had let my family down, but feeling and showing gratitude towards them helped lessen that feeling.
Looking forward. When you are ready, think of the next goal in your life and get excited about it. Find meaning in something new, or in the next four year journey.
Go forward focused on the journey. In rowing, it helped my performance to focus on the process more than the outcome. I’ve found it to be helpful outside of the boat too. Life is not just about results.
Switch off. I am grateful social media was not as big a ‘thing’ eight years ago. I’ve heard of current athletes getting a friend to read them the good posts and tweets, then they switch off the rest – a very good idea.
Control only the controllable. This well-worn sporting saying is valuable for life. You can’t go back and change the result, but you can control how you react to it.
Amber Halliday is a three-time world champion and Olympic rower who is currently completing her PhD in psychology.