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Michael Phelps May Have the Most Medals, But is he the Best Athlete?

With 22 medals to his name, Michael Phelps has entered the history books as the most decorated Olympic Games athlete ever. We may never see another athlete accomplish what he has in our lifetime. But, does that make him the ultimate athlete of the Olympic Games?

Some may argue that perhaps that title belongs to Usain Bolt. Although, Bolt's four gold medals (and counting) may pale in comparison to Phelps' arsenal of medals, some will quickly point out that not everybody swims but everybody runs. So, are all gold medals equal?

Have you ever wondered why certain countries seem to dominate the medal count when it comes to the Olympic Games? True a country's population may play a role, but did you know the single most predictive factor of a country's medal count at the Olympic Games is Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? GDP per capita is indicative of a country's living standards. One might assume a greater GDP allows a country to provide the facilities, coaches and infrastructure to develop various sporting opportunities, thereby giving way to greater performance results.

And what about the likeliness for an athlete to be successful in a given sport?

Similar to GDP, turns out there is another monumental factor at play -- depth of competition. By this I mean, how many people in the world participate in a given sport. For example, if one is competing in a sport that involves only 10 nations, versus a sport which involves 220 nations one's likeliness for medalling is greater in the sport with 10 nations.

Mitchell and Stewart (2007) have proposed a Competitive Index for Sport by evaluating the characteristics associated with sporting success and the participating countries for the various sports. It was determined that the most competitive individual sports at the 2004 Olympic Games were athletics, swimming, and shooting, respectively, while modern pentathlon, gymnastics trampoline, and canoe kayak slalom scored lowest on the competitive index.

Mitchell and Stewart found that it was possible to rate the competitive quality of a given sport and the chances for success, whereby the lower the competitive index score the greater chance an individual stood to be successful at the Olympic Games.

For example, the International Ice Hockey Federation has 70 member nations (and two affiliate nations), which is pretty remarkable and competitive, and for that reason you can understand why winning the World Cup in hockey is a big deal to Canadians. However, consider the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) which has 212 member nations, and with the allowance of three athletes per country to compete in a given event at the Olympic Games, suddenly the possible depth of competition can be as much as 636 world-class athletes. It's no wonder why winning the gold medal in the 100 metre is one of the most coveted medals in the world.

While the size of the competition field is one aspect, another thing to consider is the resources and opportunities at hand. Perhaps the reason why sports like Athletics (Track & Field) and Football (Soccer) are the most participated in the world is because there is minimal barrier to do these sports. The cost of equipment/facility is negligible, compared to a sport which may require ice time, a sailboat or a horse.

Consider the fast paced and exciting game of polo which requires horses to be ridden in three minute intervals. As such, each polo player must have several horses, and each horse can cost you $200,000 plus sheltering, veterinary and travel expenses. It's not surprising that most of us have never played polo in our lives. Likewise, the same may be said about the numerous other disciplines where resources and opportunity plays an integral factor in participation. We know in Canada alone, one in three families cannot afford to have their children participate in organized sport.

Even amongst elite level athletes, resources play a big role in the success of an athlete and the difference between good and great. As a world-class athlete, I've experienced and witnessed the incredible impact that support, resources and finances have on performances. It is the difference between eating healthy, receiving necessary therapy, having your coach travel with you to competition and not. This can be the difference between a gold medal and a eighth place finish. I've witnessed far too many athletes miss out on that podium because they didn't have the necessary resources.

The birth-rate effect, described by Maxwell Gladwell in the book Outliers, discusses how being born early in the year influences one's chances of becoming an NHL player. However, researcher Jean Cote (whose works Gladwell cites in his discussion of the birth-rate effect) points out that actually where one is born (birth-place effect) has a greater impact on an athlete's chances for success (Côté et al., 2006).  The reason -- resources and opportunity.

We must be exposed or presented with the opportunity, to ever really know what hidden abilities lay within us. I know this fact all too well. Really, if I wasn't working at McDonald's that one random day when I was 17 years old and asked if I wanted to learn how to high jump, I would never have become an Olympian. It's as simple as that. Which often leaves me wondering how many untapped "talents" are out there and never developed?

Going for Gold
The road to the Olympic Games and the podium is a hard one, no matter the sport one comes from, or the resources and opportunity in place. At the end of the day, nothing can replace the passion we as athletes must have to relentlessly pursue excellence, through lactic acid, broken bones and fatigue. It is a fire that must inherently burn to be sustained. Still it is worth contemplating (in the back of your mind) how depth of competition, resources and opportunity, as well as other factors may contribute to the achievement of a gold medal. Most importantly, how many "other" possible Olympians are out there, that could have been?

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Motivation slide7

Three Kinds of Athletes Most Likely to Medal at the Olympics

The Olympic Games...what might seem like a four-year cycle of preparation, is for most athletes decades of training, clocking in tens of thousands of hour of intense sessions, just for this moment.

As an Olympian, I can tell you that nothing quite prepares you for what it is like to compete at the Olympic Games except one's firsthand experience. Sure an athlete may have competed at a World Cup, or a World Championship -- sometimes providing a more competitive field than the Olympic Games themselves (depending on one's sport) -- but there is something different when the world Olympic proceeds the word Games. Perhaps that is why far and few athletes medal at their very first Olympic Games.

So, what does it take to be a medalist at the Olympic Games? Well, to answer that question would be like explaining one of the natural wonders of the world. It is an involved question. Many researchers have conducted studies in the area, and still we are continuing to uncover more answers to this question. Indeed, there are physiological and biomechanical attributes that are necessary, as well as good coaching, support, training environment and of course mental acuity. In fact, often most athletes and coaches will dedicate much of their time to the physical, technical, and nutritional components of training, while neglecting the mental aspects. Ironically, at the Olympic level an athlete's state of mind can be all the difference between a podium performance and placing fourth.

When it comes to the Olympic Games, be prepared to observe three types of medalists. The first medalist is your favoured athlete. This is the person who has had a consistent successful series of past performances leading into the Games. They may be even undefeated. And since sport confidence is influenced most by past performances, these athletes' confidence may be larger than life itself. The medal is theirs to lose and that may be their paradoxical dilemma. If they allow a sliver of doubt to enter, they may unravel their seemingly unflappable assurance and provide the gateway for a non-favoured athlete to beat them.

The veteran is the second type of athlete you can count on to snag a medal. Unlike the "favoured athlete" they don't necessarily rely on recent past performance to build their assurance of a medal. What they are able to do is call upon the many past performance success they've attained throughout their athletic career. They have perfected the art of coming back from a major setback and competing under pressure, as they've watch their competitors falter. They've seen it all before! They could be ranked tragically in the dust to the favoured competitors, but do not count them out. They know how to get it done when it counts. It is likely what has allowed them to last as long as they have in their sport.

Finally, there is the unknown, whom I like to refer to as the wild card. This athlete may not be favoured to win. They have flown under the radar and may have even barely qualified for the Olympic Games. As a result no one is expecting anything from this athlete and that, my friend, makes him a dangerous competitor. The ability to compete with the feeling of nothing to lose and reckless abandonment is one of the greatest gift an athlete can experience. It allows an athlete to get out of their own way (mentally) and allow themselves to do what it is they are inherently able to do. Often when these athletes medal, many will view them as the underdog and for that warm our hearts. Everyone loves to see an underdog succeed!

There will be many more types of medalists, all with different ways to climb the podium. Certainly, to be an Olympian is an incredible accomplishment, but to walk away from the Olympic Games with a medal is beyond a dream come true.

Citius, Altius, Fortius.

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sport psych

What does it Take to Medal at the Olympic Games?

Listen carefully and you'll notice the barrage of comments referencing the monumental role mental state has on the performances of athletes competing in the Olympic Games or a major championship sporting event. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times before - often the difference between a podium performance and going home empty-handed is the difference in one's mental state.

It's an interesting phenomenon. Most athletes will spend countless hours meticulously mastering a technique, watching film, understanding their opponents' weaknesses and strengths, and how to read plays. The gym will bear witness to an insane level of intense, hard, and aggressive training, where giving into muscle pain is not an option. Nutrition and sleep are strictly regimented.

There is no question -- everything is taken care of to ensure the body is ready to perform on the grand stage of the Olympic Games... Well, almost everything. Too often the one area coaches and athletes seem to overlook is psychological skills training. With SO MUCH invested, I wonder why coaches and athletes still leave mental training to chance. It has to be included in training just as much as physical training is.

Part of the problem rests in the belief that mental toughness is an innate trait -- either you are born with it or you are not. To work on mental prowess must mean one is mentally weak, or a headcase. Or does it?

As a consultant in mental performance, too often I will have athletes approach me for help only when there is a problem and a major championship is quickly approaching. I call this "looking for a Band-Aid." Not enough time to really solve the problem, but in the meantime we can work on something to get you through the competition. This is like never running before and asking for help to run faster in time for the Olympic Games happening in two weeks. Training the mind is just as important as training the body.

In fact, confidence just might be the cornerstone behind any and every great performance. As Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think you can or think you can't, you are right." Confidence can allow an athlete to achieve the impossible, while lack of it can provide a gateway for doubt to enter, resulting in a lesser performances.Great mental training preparation should include learning how to build and control confidence in spite of a poor past performance or the performances competitors are posting. Additionally, imagery, simulation training, distraction control, and goal strategizing implemented in a periodization training plan are just a few ways mental training can be used to improve performances.

Now, there are some athletes and coaches who get this right. For example, Michael Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, has discussed his various attempts to train the mind, creating conditions for Phelps to prepare for the unexpected, attributing much of his success in the 2008 Olympic Games to it. Likewise, Rosie Maclennan, Canada's first gold medalist at the 2012 Olympic Games has discussed her use of mental training for preparation at a major games. I'd hazard a guess that most Olympic Champions will attribute much of their success to their mental acuity, while many who fall short of their goals will reference deficiency in their mental state as a contributing factor. Indeed, the mind is a powerful muscle!

Whether you are an athlete or not, the power of one's mind should never be underestimated. It is the difference between good and great.

Citius, Altius, Fortius,


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