[This post is a bit belated… I forgot I wrote it last month and just found it in my drafts!]
I understand that there are political, social, economic, etc problems with the Olympics. Like every institution, it’s flawed in many ways. And yet as a psychologist and a Canadian I am fascinated by the Olympics.
In the span of 2-3 weeks of watching the Olympics I feel like I was able to witness and sometimes feel a fraction of Olympic joy, pride, victory, defeat, humility, frustration, sadness. Olympians use self-control and internal motivation to train for years and years for that one moment to perform. Sometimes, their best happens and they win. Sometimes they do their best and still lose. Sometimes – for whatever reason – they don’t perform at their best and their hopes are dashed. But they pick themselves up and keep going. Sometimes re-appearing the next Olympics (I’m thinking Chris Del Bosco, Alex Harvey…) seeking redemption and it still doesn’t come.
The Olympic path is an uncertain one. It requires dedication, self-control, countless hours of training, and it all comes down to one moment, one performance. My job is one of patience and less measurable results. sometime even unknown results. Does that student remember a thing once they leave my class? I have no idea. I hope so. But it’s not measured. How can I be the best teacher I can be without a finish line? I train for countless hours without a coach, but with passion. There are awards, but I have to choose to put myself out there and reach for them… maybe that’s what makes the difference between an Olympian and a really good hobby athlete. Olympians put themselves out there to reach for markers of success, publicly and sometimes even when they face certain defeat. They show up anyway. Maybe that’s part of what being an Olympian really is: putting yourself out there to be tested in a very public way, and dealing with whatever success or defeat comes along.
I think one of the many important ways that my career differs from an Olympian’s is that my path is not a zero sum game. I think sometimes I forget this. If I make it to becoming a gold medal teacher, there can be — and I hope so! — many people sharing that podium with me. The world is a better place when more teachers are more effective.
Watching the Olympics also brings out my fierce Canadian identity. There’s something about the Olympic winter games that just grabs my spirit and reminds me that I wear red and white for so may good reasons. To cheer for a fellow Canadian in whatever sport I’ve never heard of means I’m part of a shared community with that person. And Canada tends to do well, particularly in the Winter Games, which probably influences my interest too. To the extent that my self expands to include their successes, I can claim a little tiny piece of their victory as mine too (called BIRGing, or Basking in Reflected Glory, in social psych circles). Waking up to find out we won a medal or two is like a little present. Does it make a difference in my life? No, not objectively. Does it add a tiny boost to my national pride? Yes.
Academically I’ve been interested in issues of goal setting, self-control, motivation, and identity for a very long time. Perhaps it’s no surprise then how addicted I get to the Olympics and Paralympics. But it’s more than that. There was something about being in Vancouver for 2010 that changed how I feel. Being there to spill out onto the Cambie bridge with hundreds of other Canadians after the men’s hockey team won gold… that was pretty magical. We were all dressed in red and white, laughing, cheering, singing the anthem, high fiving strangers. I can’t think of another time I’ve felt more like my ingroup was all Canadians. It was beautiful.
Goal striving, emotions, self-control, identity, self-expansion… these are realities of the day-to-day that get magnified for me during the Olympics. I finished watching the closing ceremonies feeling a little more connected, a little more aware of humanity and what we can accomplish alone and together. If we can do great things athletically as a nation, maybe we can do great things in other domains too. Maybe I can be bold enough to put myself to a public test, learn from the results, and fight to improve even more. Maybe I can be like an Olympian too.