‘What makes Heroic?’ wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.
Interesting question. What would your answer be?
His was profound in its simplicity: Heroic is to face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope.
I think this means being able to face that which we are most afraid of, while holding onto hope that it will all be okay in the end. Isn’t this what great athletes do all the time?
After years of training and preparation athletes get one shot every four years to become Olympic Champion (or to even just become an Olympic athlete) or Commonwealth Champion, and one shot every two years to be World Champion. That’s not a lot of opportunities, so you can understand why some get really nervous.
Yet the great athletes get up and perform when it counts. They are able to face the fear of failure (their greatest suffering) while holding onto to the hope that they will be okay.
Although each has his or her own strategy, common to all is the ability to embrace the pressure and use it to enhance performance. Great athletes don’t shy away from the pressure, in fact they often seem to pile it on themselves – think of Michael Phelps stating before the 2008 Beijing Olympics that he was going for 8 Gold medals, or Usain making no secret of the fact that he wanted the Triple-Triple at Rio. As the great Michael Johnson said, ‘Pressure is nothing more than the shadow of great opportunity’.
The ability to do this, I think, is based on Bravery. Let me explain.
In a letter written by novelist Nicole Krauss to artist Vincent van Gogh, she explains that we are able to override patterns of thinking that ‘loop’ in our heads – often those of self-doubt – but that this requires enormous effort and focus. She goes on to say that despite the effort required, it is not laziness that prevent breaking the loops, but rather, fear. She writes:
Fear, being anticipatory, is always without knowledge. It is a mental calculation based on the future unknown. Bravery (however) is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.
I love that bravery is smarter than fear!
It’s not that great athletes are unafraid, but they are able to outsmart fear by focusing on a deep knowledge, and trust, in themselves and their ability. This is bravery.
In sport, this trust is built on the foundation of preparation. As the Navy SEAL saying goes: You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That’s why we train so hard.
So to all the athletes competing in the XXI Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast, trust your preparation, be smart and be brave!