In the Forum
Sports: The 2006 Olympics
Where are the Champions? The Praised Generation
Why did these Olympics seem so lackluster? Where were the American champions that in the past made every day of the games so thrilling? Instead we had the figure skater who, after he missed the bus to the rink, skated a mistake-riddled and soulless performance. We had the skier, who waiting for the fog to lift, lost her focus. We had the skier, known for his carousing, who had little to show on the slopes. And we had the many athletes who simply announced “I guess I didn’t have it today.” What is this “it” and is it something you just wait for or is it something you dig down and find?
I’m not talking about the athletes who were fighting their way back from injuries, or the ones who gave their all and were beaten, or even the ones who succumbed to the tremendous pressure of the Olympics. I’m talking about the ones who phoned it in.
When we look at real champions, we find something completely different. For example, how many times in his professional career do you think Jack Nicklaus failed to make his shot when a tournament depended on it? Once! Did he feel great and were the conditions perfect on every one of those winning occasions? Billie Jean King said explicitly that the mark of a champion is the ability to win when things are not quite right—when you’re not playing your best and your emotions are not the right ones. Here’s how she learned what being a champion meant.
King was in the finals of the U.S. Open playing against Margaret Smith, who was then at the height of her greatness. King had played her over a dozen times but had beaten her only once. In the first set, King played wonderfully. She didn’t miss one volley and she built a comfortable lead. Suddenly, the set was over and Smith had won it. In the second set, King again built an impressive lead and was serving to win the set, but before she knew it, Smith had won the set and the match.
At first, King was befuddled. She had never built such a commanding lead in such an important match. But then she had a Eureka! moment. She suddenly understood what champions are: people who could lift their level of play when they needed to. When they are in a pinch, they suddenly “get around three times tougher.”
Jackie Joyner-Kersee had her “Eureka” moment too. She was 15 years old and competing in the heptathlon at the AAU Junior Olympics. Everything now depended on the last event, the 800-meter race, an event she dreaded. She was exhausted and she was competing against an expert distance runner whose times she had never matched. She did this time. “I felt a kind of high. I’d proven that I could win if I wanted it badly enough. ...That win showed me that I could not only compete with the best athletes in the country, I could will myself to win.”
Mia Hamm said she was often asked “Mia, what is the most important thing for a soccer player to have?” With no hesitation, she answered, “Mental toughness.”
What happened to our 2006 Olympians? My hunch is that they were the victims of praise. Told constantly by well-meaning coaches, family, friends and fans how much talent they had, they relied too heavily on their talent to carry them through. My research shows that praising people’s talent—as opposed to their hard work or good strategies—does not give them mental toughness or lasting confidence. Instead, it makes them fragile in the face of pressure and adversity. They expect “it” to always be there when they need it and do not learn how to go and find it.
I did this research because I saw a whole generation of children being praised lavishly for their talent and intelligence in the name of self-esteem building. I have been waiting with some dread for this generation to grow up to see the effects of this praise. We saw it in Torino.