Sometimes all of your fears come true. This is what happened to Olympic Gold medalist and Elite Performance Coach Marlon Devonish in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. This week’s blog explores how Marlon faced his fears and how that eventually made him the person his is today.
The moment I felt my hamstring pull I knew I had done too much. The Sydney Olympics represented years of preparation and a chance in of a lifetime to achieve my goals. Then within one training session and one too many sprints. My dreams were in tatters. I didn’t know it then, but it was just the start of my long journey back towards fitness and a more mature, resilient and prepared Marlon Devonish winning Olympic gold four years later in Athens.
Fear is a normal human behavior. Regular readers of my blog will have read how I learnt to surrender to my nervousness and fear before races and how that made a difference to creating a positive mental state before races. There are other fears however, that are more engrained and difficult to shift. They lurk in the subconscious and can affect your decision-making and performance.
I’ve met people who have had a debilitating fear of failure or a fear of getting into trouble with their boss or peers. I’ve also worked with people of all ages who feel social or peer group pressure inhibits their ability to take the next step. Some fears stem from activities that have happened in the past and others may seem completely irrational and/or logically but still seem very real to the person affected. Personally, one of my fears is being a burden to others – I will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid even the possibility of imposing on others. It’s not always rational but in my mind, but it is very real.
All the people I have spoken to who have been courageous enough to speak out to me about fear are already on the path to beating it. Building self-awareness allows you to bring your fear into the conscious mind that allows you to acknowledge and surrender to it. Elite performers in all areas of student life, business and sport take time to reflect and get to know themselves better. Here at the British International School in Shanghai Puxi, we encourage our students to have a healthy relationship with fear and other performance limitations to see fearful situations as a challenge to becoming a better and more rounded global citizens. Furthermore, to look back and understand how one overcame their difficulties.
To be clear, I always race to win. An inherent competitiveness within me yearns to cross the line ahead of the pack. It is not the losing that bothers me, it has always been the under performing that I hated. Many people associated losing with failure and the world can be very black and white when you are a professional athlete in the public eye. The irony is, despite all my successes at national and international level, I have lost far more races than I have won. If I don’t win, it’s all about WHY I failed to perform and how I can either win next time or get closer to winning in the future. Everything in training or in competition, applied in the right way can be a learning opportunity. Nothing is wasted.
“I have lost far more races than I have won. If I don’t win, it’s all about WHY I failed to perform and how I can either win next time or get closer to winning in the future.”
At BISS Puxi we talk to the students about failing forward. Creating an environment where the students can challenge their limits. In doing this, they can surprise themselves with what they can achieve. However, progress is not linear. They have ups and downs and typically they fail a few times until they pick themselves up, learn, practice and win. So applying yourself, facing your fear of failure, getting beaten or looked down upon by others is very much part of the peak performance process.
As an athlete there is a very real fear that lives with you everyday and that is injury. You must push yourself to your absolute limits as you strive to be the worlds best but push yourself too far and your risk causing an injury that will bring your dreams and the dreams of all those supporting and working with you crashing down.
The 2000 Olympics in Sydney was my first Olympics. I was a young athlete in the senior team and I was in the shape of my life. I was so close to reaching everything I had strived for I could taste it. I was prepared, confident and ready.
In one of the training sessions leading up to the race I pulled my hamstring. Injuries are part of sport and the GB team had a great medical team to help. Having a regular access to the best physiotherapists in the country was an important advantage. The team were incredibly supportive and were able to help me get back up and ready for the race.
Despite the recovery, the old fears of letting people down and being a burden to the team rose up within me. However, I felt that if I could just dig deep and channel everything I had for this opportunity I could win this race. I believed I could do it and the GB selectors had faith in me so I went to the race for my chance for glory.
On race day I felt good and ready and as the starters gun went I flew out of the blocks. I entered the bend with everything I had but on that day my speed over the course of the 200 meters was not there. It was nowhere near my peak performance and although I put every ounce of what I had psychologically, but physically, my body was not right and I fell away from the pack. It was truly, one of my darkest hours in sport.
I cannot describe the sense of disappointment at that moment. A deep hollow sense of underachievement overwhelmed me as that opportunity of a lifetime evaporated into the Sydney night time. It had taken everything I had and so many sacrifices in my short 23 year life to get to this point, and it took a milli-second for my hamstring to pull and for my dreams to come crashing down around me. It was a crushing blow to me, my coaches and everyone who had supported me.
But from these dark moments, grows strength, maturity and resilience. I had been forced to face my greatest fears and over a period of time, the torment of a dream shattered and the experience of the support and strength of the community around me helped me become stronger. The strange thing about fear is that 90% of the time that fear never reflects the reality. That was my case, my coaches, my community, my family, in fact everyone who is really important to me rallied round to get through my dark time together. My fears, were unfounded.
After winning the Olympic gold four years later in Athens I was often asked what made the difference to winning and losing. I can honestly say that being forced to face my fears in Sydney and failing forward were instrumental in my eventual success. There will always be races you win and races you lose, although losing can be painful, but if we can see past our limitations, fear being one of them. Your successes could be there for you to experience.
Next week we look at G for Goal setting where I talk about the difference between setting goals and executing them.
To read other Marlon's blogs, please click here.