I have been unsure whether I have the right to tell this story, as it revolves around someone other than me, but I will do, because it only shows that person in glowing terms, and it shines a spotlight on a tragically common misconception around high-performers. I see this misconception as holding so many people back, and it really needs to be dispelled.
In the Rio 2016 Olympics I was competing for Team GB in the sport of fencing. It was the morning of our event and I was going through my standard routines in the warmup area along with all the other competitors. At one point I went to the toilet and from the cubicle next to mine I could hear someone being violently sick. Now, there are plenty of people in and around an Olympic venue, including a bunch of officials, volunteers, facility workers etc, so it wasn’t necessarily anyone I knew. I came out of my cubicle and slowly washed my hands, wondering if the other person would come out so I could see who it was. Sure enough, out of the cubicle stepped one of the Italian team fencers, Daniele Garozzo, and he looked white as a sheet. I thought to myself, “Poor guy, he must have caught food poisoning or something, and right on the day of his debut Olympics”.
I leave the toilet and forget all about it as I get on with my preparations. My competition day ends fairly abruptly with a loss in the first round to a strong Chinese fencer, but Garozzo…
well he goes on to win the gold medal - his first ever major win at senior international level!
Seeing him win the Olympic title, and comparing that to the figure I saw just that morning in the toilets, I just couldn’t make sense of it at first. Surely you don’t just recover from some horrible stomach bug that quickly and then outperform your wildest dreams? It was after some more consideration that I realised that he must have just been suffering from a monumental bout of nerves that morning.
So, what is the misconception I was referencing at the start? That’s the idea that the very best in the world are always uber confident in themselves, never have self-doubt, or performance anxiety, and they just get on with the job of performing to their potential. What I saw that day confirmed in technicolour that even the very best can suffer doubts and anxiety the same as anyone can. The difference is that those real, elite performers have learned how to accept it all and perform regardless!
There has been a recent, significant shift in the field of performance psychology towards an approach called Acceptance Commitment Training. Simply put, ACT promotes that it is fruitless to try and change how we feel in any given moment, so we would do better to simply accept the emotions and then commit to specific actions with positive intent.
That day in Rio, Daniele Garozzo taught an absolute masterclass in how you can accept an almighty wave of negative emotions without giving them the slightest power over you, and then go on to achieve your wildest potential.
I think everyone should have the opportunity to learn this lesson once and for all!