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A Tribute to Excellence:  What Makes an Olympic Athlete?


C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D. & Annellen Simpkins Ph.D.

Now, with the twenty-eighth summer Olympics underway in Greece, we watch people from all over the world performing amazing feats of strength, speed, flexibility, and skill. We see Olympic athletes who are endowed with great physical abilities, which they develop to the peak with long hours of careful and arduous training.  But what sets the winning Olympic champion apart from all the rest?  The answer is found in Mind. The mental aspects of the finely honed skills are crucial to the victory of the athlete.  Mind and body work together to help shape an Olympic champion.    Their ultimate unity brings ultimate performance.  

For decades, champion bodybuilders have extolled the virtues of using mental exercises when lifting heavy weights. They believe that power and muscle development are greatly assisted by the mind. While working out with specific exercises, such as bench press and arm curls, they visualize their muscles contracting, getting pumped up with blood, and growing larger and stronger. Tom Platz, a renowned bodybuilder, had a saying: “Whatever can be conceived can be believed; whatever can be believed can be achieved.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, seven-time undefeated Mr. Olympia champion, visualized his biceps as mountains, growing in size as he trained. He felt that visualization helped his arms become one of his greatest assets in bodybuilding. At one time, the highly effective Russian program in Olympic lifting included mental imagery as an important part of the training regime. The athletes used mental imagery not only to perfect the lift, but also to help surpass their limitations and reach greater potential.  But this must be combined with something else to gain the edge needed for ultimate success.

Overcoming Limits:  Winning Mind

            The concept or image that athletes have of themselves, including their potential and capacity to win, tends to stabilize and guide them and their behavior, but it can also be a hidden limit. To achieve excellence, to break a record, or to win a difficult game, great athletes have to be willing to be open-minded about their limits, to entertain the possibility that they may surpass them.  After all, personal concepts of limits may not accurately reflect the actual limits, nor the actual  capacity.  So they immerse themselves in the process of the moment. They do so by setting aside concepts and simply being there fully, with a willingness to excel. Truly great athletes know how to do the best they can at the time, without concern for the outcome while they are in the midst of competition.  Concern for outcome is afterward, to ratify what has transpired.

In sports, the willingness within becomes the will to win, a vital variable for success.  Players must give themselves fully to the moment of action, doing what needs to be done. Mind, body, and spirit then function together in action as one. In Oneness with action, the impossible becomes possible.

            This fencing story illustrates:  A Zen master named Shoju Ronin was visited by a number of swordsmen who wanted to improve their sword-play. His talk over tea inspired them, but they were skeptical. They believed their rigorous training in martial arts skills made them superior in the world of real competition.  The Zen Master decided to teach them.  But he knew that mere words were not enough to convince them.

      So instead of engaging in more conversation, the Ronin challenged them to try to strike him with their swords, while he used only a fan to protect himself. Amazingly, they could not find an opening to attack and eventually had to admit defeat. Another monk who had watched the entire encounter asked how this was possible, since the master had never practiced with a sword. Shoju Ronin answered:

When the right insight is gained and knows no obstruction, it applies to anything, including swordplay. The ordinary people are concerned with names. As soon as they hear one name discrimination takes place in their minds. The owner of the right eye sees each object in its own light. When he sees the sword, he knows at once the way it operates. He confronts the multiplicity of things and is not confounded. (From D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 1959)

This applies directly to fencing but also to all other goal-oriented sports that may have nothing to do with weapons. The quality of mind, the same mental focus can be applied to any Olympic sport. And when you combine these mental skills with dedicated training,  the athlete  transcends  and becomes an Olympic champion!