As I watched some of the world’s best athletes compete last month, I started thinking about all of the time, energy and resolve they devoted over the past four years to earn a brief, but well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Spotlights that may last as little as a few minutes (think skiing, ice skating, or snowboarding). And from there, only three of the top eight or ten competitors from across the world actually win a medal. Considering odds like that, I am amazed that anyone would want to devote that much time for a payoff that seems so distant. But thousands of athletes do. Every four years. And here’s what we can learn from their efforts:
The Power of a Motivation and a Belief
While only one person can win the gold medal every four years for an event, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Olympic hopefuls imagining, and believing, that they have what it takes to be the one to win it. And with the strength of their convictions, they train for years to have the opportunity to bring the dream to fruition.
Similarly, you must ask yourself what motivations you have driving you to improve your physical activity or eating habits. It could be running a 5K, feeling better about yourself, setting a good example for your children or wanting to make sure you’re able to enjoy your golden years just as much as (if not more than) your younger ones. When you find the right motivation for yourself, you will sense that something inside you has changed; an internal switch has been turned on that makes living more healthfully an easier decision. I call this moment “Flipping the switch.” Everyone’s switch is different and it may change over time. The key is to explore in this moment, what is so important to you, that it’s worth living healthier for. Then go get it!
Focus on Your Strengths
(This example is slightly outdated, but works well.) Being six feet, four inches tall with a long torso, a huge wingspan and hypermobile joints, Michael Phelps was designed to have the potential to be a great swimmer, not necessarily a great gymnast or Olympic weightlifter. And so he trained to become arguably the best Olympic swimmer the world has ever known. If he trained every day of his life, could he have become a good gymnast or weightlifter? Probably. But the best ever? Probably not.
So when you’re choosing what changes to make to improve your eating or physical activity habits, consider your strengths:
- - Do you like to cook? Try preparing a few big-batch, healthy meals to eat throughout the week. Or try looking up and cooking some new, healthy recipes that look tasty. Or make it a point to try cooking with a new fruit or vegetable every week.
- - Always on the run but don’t mind eating your fruits and veggies? Make it a point to pack or pick-up some healthy snacks to have with you every day that have a fruit or vegetable in them. Or review the menus of restaurants you frequently go to and determine the healthiest options available that you may enjoy eating.
- - Prefer to focus more on physical activity? Review your weekly habits for opportunities to sit less, walk more, or get one extra workout in. The best changes to make are the ones that are easiest for you to do.
Results Come From Preparation and Practice
Olympians spend the majority of their lives preparing and practicing for the Games. They create training plans. They spend hours practicing daily. Many even meditate and imagine themselves successfully performing in the Olympics (visualization has been shown to have very positive results in high-stress situations such as in competitions, when speaking in public or when dealing with a food craving or temptation). But remember, even the best swimmers, skiers and hockey and basketball players did not know how to swim, ski, skate or shoot a basketball at some point in their life. They had to learn it. And then practice to get good at it.
Eating better or becoming more physically active usually requires learning new skills or improving upon some of current ones (i.e. your strengths). Learning to cook a new vegetable, tracking your energy to determine when you’re tired and can be most benefited by a healthy snack, learning how to perform a few new exercises or assessing your daily routine to find ways to walk more. All of these changes are probably not a part of your current daily routine, therefore it will take time and effort to integrate them (but do choose the easiest one for you).
The first step is creating a simple, but detailed plan on how you’re going to make the change. If you’re going to workout one more day per week, what day will it be? When will you do it? For how long? What exercises will you do? Will you go with a workout buddy? The more details you can determine ahead of time, the more likely you are to actually do it.
Then go for it…and be willing to make mistakes. Even LeBron James misses a shot every now and then. The key is accepting our mistakes, learning from them and always aiming to improve. If you remember one thing, remember this: “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” The more you practice, the easier the change will become, until it becomes a new, permanent habit. And the results will follow.
No Olympian is an Island
Most, if not all, Olympians had help getting to where they are today. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of the greatest athletes have some of the best support systems around them. Athletes have some combination of coaches, doctors, dietitians, physical therapists, friends and family guiding and supporting them. Having a support system provides a source of positive motivation and accountability for when times are good and when times are tough.
Your pursuits for living healthier should not be taken any less seriously than an athlete training for the Olympics. Both of you are pursuing meaningful, personal achievements (what flipped the switch for you?), so both of you should be provided with the greatest opportunity to succeed. And that means creating a support system for yourself in addition to all of the tips listed previously.
Create a list titled “My Support Team” with three columns: Name / Contact Info / Support Role. Make a list of at least three people that can support you in your pursuit of eating better and moving more. Ask a friend to be a workout buddy. Ask a relative or close friend to be someone you can call to vent to when you’re having a stressful day and you feel tempted to make poor eating decisions. Ask a colleague who may be very fit or a great cook to give you a few pointers. Hire a great nutrition or fitness coach to motivate and guide you. Create a team that maximizes your chance for success.
The 2016 Summer Olympics are two years away and will be held in Rio de Janeiro. Where will you be in 2016? How will you feel? How will you look? Who will be around you? How will you be eating? How active will you be? What will your life look like? Now go get it!