A journey of Olympic proportions begins with a determined step

Persistence and sacrifice are central to success, says UAB expert who competed on the world stage as a teen.

The road to London was not without wrong turns and dead ends for Summer Olympians, says one University of Alabama at Birmingham expert, but overcoming detours is essential on a journey to greatness.

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“There are about 10,000 athletes in the Summer Olympics. With the world population at about 7 billion, the chances of making it that far are about 1 in 562,400,” Bill Mallon, past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

Slim chances and high hurdles can make an Olympic-size goal seem unattainable, but with the right moves you can cross the finish line.

“I remember watching the Olympics when I was about 10 years old and deciding I wanted to represent my country,” says Lauren Whitt, Ph.D., UAB Wellness coordinator and a member of the U.S. Youth National Soccer Team that won gold at the 1999 Pan American Games.

Whitt says she had to commit to training and sacrifice things like free time and vacations, but desire and a plan to succeed helped keep her motivated.  

“The path to achieving big dreams is similar for all of us. We have to make personal sacrifices, be determined, disciplined and break down an overwhelming goal into manageable pieces,” Whitt says.

“We can’t decide we want to be a runner today, buy new shoes and run a marathon tomorrow. We have to train our legs, we have to fuel our bodies with proper nutrition and build the mental stamina to complete the course."

Gitendra Uswatte, Ph.D., UAB associate professor of psychology, agrees.

“Each goal should become progressively more ambitious, in incremental steps. If you want to be an Olympic swimmer, look to be the best on your school team, then in your state and so on,” Uswatte says.

This may make the process seem lengthier, but you have to crawl before you can walk, Whitt says.

“We can’t decide we want to be a runner today, buy new shoes and run a marathon tomorrow. We have to train our legs, we have to fuel our bodies with proper nutrition and build the mental stamina to complete the course,” says Whitt.

Uswatte says perspective is important. Keep the big picture in mind.

“If your training is not fun and you’re tired and don’t feel like practicing, then take a step back and think about the reasons you are doing this,” Uswatte says. “Put it into the context of your overall goal.”

Overcoming setbacks is central to success, Uswatte says, as is the ability to objectively and impersonally critique your shortcomings.

“If you lose a race and say it’s because ‘I’m not fast enough,’ that’s a personal characteristic that is difficult to change. But if you say you lost the race because ‘I didn’t train enough’ — that’s a behavior that is relatively easy to change,” Uswatte says. “It’s counterintuitive because you shouldn’t make excuses for yourself, but if you make impersonal attributions, your mood recovers faster and you are more likely to do what is needed to improve performance.”

Whitt says no matter what happens, you can’t give up when the going gets tough.

“Elite athletes have won and lost a million times before they get to the Olympics. If they had quit after the first challenge, they never would have made it there,” Whitt says. “Response to failure separates the successful from the unsuccessful. Accept the failure, learn from the mistake and refocus on the challenge ahead.

“If you fail at one step, you are not a failure,” Whitt says. “Expect that you will fall down at various points and have a plan for getting back on your feet.”

Try again, Whitt says, if you don’t accomplish a goal the first time you reach for it. Reevaluate your progress as you go and make changes as necessary.

“Any time we put effort and heart into realizing one dream, the byproduct of that work will result in skills that will help us achieve others,” Whitt says.

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