While watching the Olympics, we can’t help but gape in wonder. Olympians demonstrate unrivaled athleticism, some breaking world records and others running faster than our best days on the treadmill. But as competing athletes at the Tokyo Games have demonstrated, Olympians are much more than their medals.
Their wins are satisfying to watch because they're just like us—people whose successes are a result of years of hard work. It does not come easy and, as Simone Biles’ withdrawal from gymnastics events demonstrated, it involves physical, mental and emotional strength.
Olympic coaches, who spend their lives training athletes, know this better than any sports fan watching from the sidelines. They understand that constant training is important, but that decompressing is, too. They listen even when no words are spoken, so that when an athlete does lose, it doesn’t feel like an opportunity wasted, but a learning experience. They know how to pick athletes back up when they fall in a match and in life.
We asked these coaches about what it really takes to be an Olympian, what people can learn from athletes, and how to rise after failure.
Rely on others when help is needed
Maurizio Zomparelli, the fencing coach for Hong Kong’s national team in Tokyo 2020, was just 19 years old when he started his career as a professional coach. Now, almost 40 years later, he has helped secure Hong Kong’s first medal in fencing and first gold in 25 years, when Cheung Ka-long won against Italian Italian Daniele Garozzo. Zomparelli attests to teamwork for individual achievement.
“I firmly believe that the collaboration of professionals and athletes’ staff is one of the most crucial aspects in preparing for competitions,” he told VICE.
Through this, he said, athletes’ training programs would be “well-coordinated and maintained,” allowing them to maximize their entire day.
“Training, nutrition, mental health, recovery, physical therapy, and even athletes’ sleep quality must be considered by the staff. There are 24 available hours in a day as an athlete and all 24 hours are important,” he said.
Coach Zomparelli with his fencing team from Hong Kong. Photo: Courtesy of Maurizio Zomparelli
Allow time for distractions
Stefanos Mamalis, who coached Greece’s track and field team during London 2012 and Rio 2016, said it’s essential for Olympians to distract themselves from the competition.
“The mind and body are connected. I know many athletes who were physically strong, but didn’t go through the proper mental preparations,” he told VICE. As a result, they couldn’t achieve the goals they set. If one’s mental health isn’t there, he said, then everything falls apart and “nothing is OK.”
As individual athletes are lauded for their physical accomplishments, their mental health is often an overshadowed issue. Besides Biles, Naomi Osaka shocked the tennis world in June by pulling out of the French Open, citing bouts of depression. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, said in an interview with ESPN that he had suicidal thoughts throughout his stunning career. He’s now a mental health advocate, and has since retired from swimming.
To improve one’s mental health, Mamalis said it’s important to talk about emotions, but also to watch “YouTube videos, movies, any distraction to get mentally stronger.” Engaging in activities entirely separate from one’s focal goal, he said, allows for inspiration and relaxation.
British diver Tom Daley has said that knitting helps him find calm and mindfulness amid stressful times. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, he was seen knitting while watching the women’s 3-meter springboard final on Sunday, and then again during the men’s 3-meter springboard preliminaries on Monday. He has even credited knitting for helping him win a gold medal at these Summer Games.
Reflecting on mistakes is just as important as success
As world-class athletes, Olympians are required to “sacrifice and have strong will-power,” Zomparelli noted. It’s common to train everyday, “pushing your body to its limits, with no weekends, sick days, or holidays,” he said.
But harder than having no breaks is the reality that, even after all the sacrifice, victory is still not guaranteed.
“You are most likely to fail many, many times before you win. And this is precisely the moment when athletes show their character—in the pursuit of victory even after failure,” Zomparelli said.
To recover from what can feel like a gut-wrenching defeat, the fencing coach said it’s important for him and an athlete to “cool down” first. Then, “together we analyze the bout, the tournament in general, and other data to understand where we can do better,” he said.
For Mamalis, the most important thing to remember at the end of the day is to take “five minutes every night, and think about what you did that day.” Recording what went right and wrong not only helps you relax, but also makes the mistakes just as valuable to one’s progress as the right decisions. Research has shown that reflection helps people understand past events and can also lead to more rewarding futures.
Work on small goals for big achievements
The only certainty during the pandemic is just how little we know of what tomorrow will bring. It’s difficult to keep routines, to stay motivated and to plan.
For athletes, whose careers are dependent on regimen, COVID-19 restrictions were particularly stressful. Zomparelli said “the risk of cancelation and postponement of the Olympics certainly created difficulties with repercussions on the motivational and mental state of the athletes,” not to mention logistical difficulties in organizing training sessions.
To regain some control of the circumstances, Zomparelli and his colleague Greg Koenig created simple checkpoints for their athletes.
“Focusing on the task to be performed is the key to success. Sharing daily commitments to achieve goals with other teammates strengthens the team spirit and makes triumph a tangible and probable experience,” he said.
Stop when it’s no longer fun
After finally achieving that dream you’ve wanted for so long, it’s difficult to say that you aren’t OK. To admit that reality looks nothing like your expectations can feel like its own defeat. But Mamalis said enjoying what you do is more important than perseverance.
“If you don’t have fun, you must stop,” he said. “If it’s not making you happy and is causing you pain, you must stop and do something else in your life. It’s not necessary to stay sad to continue.”
Life is not all about winning. There are dark days and happy days. Days when nothing seems to go well and days when hard boiled eggs are perfectly runny. Its fortuitousness is unavoidable, but what we can do is learn how to ride the waves.