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Winning, losing, taking part and knitting

Watching the Olympics over the last fortnight gave us the chance to witness the sheer, exhilarating joy of winning, and also the lowest depths of despair when, in that one moment that mattered, everything went wrong ….

Of course that final moment of winning or losing matters. But it’s the many moments before, and indeed after, that really count.

In a recent episode of BBC’s Desert Island Discs, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill said that rather than being known for all her accomplishments, she wants “to be remembered for those moments of hard work on the track that no one saw and those years of dedication and sacrifice that you make as a sports person, not for those amazing key moments you have, but for everything that takes you on that journey to that final point.”

I love watching the Olympics. It’s such a privilege to watch athletes operating at their peak, and to think about the many hidden moments, and the deeply held attitudes and beliefs, that tell the whole story. And we can take many lessons from Tokyo and apply them to our family at home!

Lesson #1 It’s ok not to play

Perhaps the biggest story from Tokyo was Simone Biles’ choice to remove herself from competing in the events that she has spent a lifetime preparing for. She decided to listen to her own body and mind and she trusted herself to make a decision that was the right one for her and her team – despite huge pressure from all around her to compete and to win.

It cannot possibly have been an easy choice, and more than likely she was conflicted, but she did what she believed was right for her and her teammates on the day. As she said “I thought it was best if these girls took over and did the rest of the job — which they absolutely did, they're Olympic silver medalists now. I'll usually persevere and push through things — but not to cost the team a medal.”

Simone understood that the team’s win was more important than her time in the limelight. She knew her performance would not have been team-worthy on the day, and she was willing to pass the opportunity on to others.

Lesson #2 Learn to lose to learn to win

It’s easy to remember Tom Pidcock’s win in the mountain bike competition, but it’s the two riders who didn’t complete the race who are etched in my memory.

Both were having great races and then things went horribly wrong. Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel crashed after flying over a rock, and the tyre of Czech cyclist Ondrej Cink blew out. Their disappointment and frustration, after years of hard work and dedication, was heart-breaking.

Every athlete develops a Growth Mindset to cope with these moments. A Growth Mindset tells them that, however devastating failure feels in the moment, it is also the foundation for learning and growth. Matthieu and Ondrej will, no doubt, pick themselves up, review the race, identify any mistakes and start planning for the next race.

Failure is really hard work. It hurts to fail. When we’re young, the feelings are so uncomfortable that it’s very tempting to give up. We need to help young children learn to manage the horrible feelings of disappointment, frustration and upset, rather than pretend failure is easy. And we need to help them recognise that there is always an option to try again by valuing effort and attitude over achievement.

So, as our child learns to do something, we celebrate their effort and attitude, and highlight the small improvements that come from that. We say ‘I noticed how you look ahead and really concentrated on cycling in a straight line, and you kept pedalling at an even speed, now you can keep up with your sisters’.

And when they stumble and fall, and things go wrong, rather than saying ‘wow, that’s a disaster, you’d better stop doing that’ or ‘don’t worry about it, just get up and go again’ instead we empathise with ‘that’s tough, despite everything you tried, it didn’t turn out the way you hoped’. The advice and encouragement to get back out there only work after the empathy!

Lesson #3 How to share the win

In the mens’ high jump competition, Qatar's Mutaz Essa Barshim cleared the bar set at 2.37m, and his Italian competitor Gianmarco Tamberi applauded. Moments after, Tamberi cleared the same height. Barshim then attempted 2.39m and failed. If Tamberi cleared 2.39, the gold would be his … But Tamberi didn’t clear it either. In the video, it’s possible to hear the referee discussing the possibility of a jump-off when Barshim asks if they can both have a gold medal and forego the jump-off.

These two athletes pushed each other to be their best on the day and knowing they had done everything they could, they opted to share in the win. Here’s the video link if you missed it on the day

Lesson #4 You’re never too old … or too young

While gymnastics is usually a sport for those in their second or third decade, Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina showed that when you really love something, you can show up, compete and do your best even in your fifth decade! At 46 years old, she was competing in her eighth Olympics!

At the other end of the age range were those in their second decade: Sky Brown took the bronze in Women’s Skateboarding at 13 years and 28 days and became the youngest medallist ever; and the perfect performance of 14-year-old Chinese diver Quan Hongchan won her a gold medal.

Age doesn’t have to be a barrier. Although it may bring some physical and mental limitations, a love and passion for a sport, or other activity, is something we can develop at any time, and hold on to! It brings us huge benefits, and teaches us many things about ourselves and others. So help your kids find a passion or two!

Lesson #5 Have a go-to keeping calm strategy

We all go through stressful periods in our lives and waiting to compete, or hear the results, ranks right up there. Tom Daley knits between dives which, for him, is highly meditative, although for me it would be more stress-inducing! Ski racer Mikaela Shiffren does word search puzzles before a race, and Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill listens to Nicki Minaj’s ‘Moment 4 Life’ to lift her confidence and motivation as part of her preparation. What do you do to help yourself during stressful moments? What is your go-to strategy? What music do you love to listen to? What creation have you knitted? And if you feel you need a new strategy, what do you think would help?

Now we eagerly await the start of the Paralympic Games which will undoubtedly bring more awe-inspiring performances and stories of dedication and inspiration!