Olympic Athletes Are Not Like The Rest of Us

Last week, while Michael Phelps was winning more swimming gold medals at the Olympics, my wife, Heather, read an interview with his coach. In it, the coach was asked, ?Is he a better athlete today than he was four years ago’?

The coach replied, ?No, but he is a better person.?

And that comment got me to thinking about the temperament and the personality that separate world-class athletes from the rest of us. Having had the good fortune, during the last 30 years, to have gotten to know relatively well a dozen or so international riders, and having interviewed several dozen more, I thought this week I’d offer my own insight into what makes them superb competitors. Sometimes they’re also excellent trainers and horseman, but sometimes that competitive drive compromises their horsemanship.

The simple fact is that people training for international competition, especially for a championship like the Olympics, have to be extremely focused and, thus, rather selfish. Top athletes, including top international riders, have a drive, a focus, even a tunnel vision that most of his simply do not have. They can’t let themselves be distracted by other people?s needs, issues or problems. Their needs and problems have to be absolutely primary in their lives, often to the exclusion of anyone else. I suspect that’s what Phelps? coach meant?to be as exceptional as Phelps has been for the last decade, you almost have to be a lousy person.

I tell our students that one factor in any kind of athletic achievement is that you can never be satisfied with your performance, and this is especially true with horses, because you’re dealing with another thinking animal and because you can do it for a long, long time. You could always ride better, and your horses could always go better. You never reach the summit of perfection on a horse’s back.

Top riders are constantly searching for and reaching for the next level. I tell our students them that even though Phillip Dutton has had an exceptional career (He’s won two Olympic team gold medals) and trained dozens of horses to the advanced level, I know that he doesn’t think He’s reached the summit of his riding yet. He’s just thousands of feet higher up a much higher mountain than the rest of us.

Top athletes are often very difficult people to deal with. For one thing, they’re often geniuses, people who do not see the world the same way the rest of us do. Their minds are far more nimble, their senses more acute, and their reactions are faster, so things we don’t notice or don’t react to can set them off, positively and negatively.

Top riders have to cultivate owners to pay for horses for them, and the fact is that, sometimes, they will pretty blatantly use owners for their own purposes. I have seen top riders forge genuine and lasting relationships with their owners, but much more often it’s really a case of one, or both, using the other to further their own interests. Sometimes that’s just fine for both, and sometimes somebody feels very slighted.

Top athletes have to have a large ego, and usually they have to be the best at everything they do. They can’t play a friendly game of golf or tennis with friends. A video game, a card game or a board game, is a serious contest. Driving or grocery shopping is a race.

Ego can be a challenge, though. Top athletes are often haunted by doubt and fear. They worry, ?Am I good enough’ Have I trained hard enough’? And they worry?sometimes insatiably?whether their competitors are getting an edge.

That worry or fear can be a very strong driving force, but it can also be crippling. it’s, I think, the main reason why some top athletes have alcohol- or drug-addiction problems. Somehow they’ve got to slow or stop the voices in their heads.

An example of this is Mike Plumb, who competed on more Olympic teams than any other U.S. athlete (eight, from 1960 to 1992) and won the three-day team gold medal in 1976 and 1984 and the individual silver in 1976. Mike was both driven to excellence and haunted by fear, and he revealed in a gripping profile in the Olympic Preview Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse that he suffered from alcohol addiction as a result. Mike allowed that his drive, and his alcoholism, compromised his horsemanship over the years, and I’m sure that’s a painful realization for him. it’s been very sad hearing from friends of Mike?s decline over the last several years, and I’m glad that He’s gotten the help he needed and is bouncing back.

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