There we were, watching the women’s team gymnastics event–and by “women,” I mean “girls,” because, let’s be honest, they’re not yet women, which makes the amount of pressure these girls deal with even more incredible. You probably don’t need me to tell you what happened, but to summarize: the American team was challenging the Chinese for the gold, and then were dealt a huge blow when one young gymnast on the team fell during her routine. They didn’t give up hope, though. There was still a chance they could get the gold if everything went their way. And then that same girl fell again on her next routine.
The second error was clearly a direct result of the first. You could practically see her head out to that floor routine thinking, “I have to redeem myself now–but what if I don’t?” The stress had turned into a mind game, and it was one she wasn’t winning.
And that’s when my stomach started to hurt. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing I do in a high stress situation–get so upset over making one mistake that I go on to make another one. Like worrying I said something stupid at a dinner party, and, in my panic, saying something even stupider. Or being so anxious I won’t be well-rested for an important day that I can’t sleep at all. My mind doesn’t seize on challenge like meat to be devoured–instead it whines, curls up, and offers its stomach up to be clawed like a terrified, submissive animal.
So I relate to poor Alicia Sacramone. What I don’t relate to is how most athletes manage to hold it together in the heat of unbelievable pressure. Whenever I watch Michael Phelps swim, I wonder how he was able to sleep the night before, knowing what he faced the next day. Lord knows I wouldn’t. Of course, that’s what makes a competitor a competitor–that ability to relish the challenge, to dig in deeper when things look tough, to get angry at the prospect of defeat and fight even harder when cornered. Me, I’m already defeating myself before I’ve even started.
But there’s hope–maybe not for me but for my kids. We took all four of them mini-golfing today at a great little place about half an hour away from where we’re staying. My ten-year-old daughter hasn’t played a lot of mini-golf in her life and it showed. But she strode enthusiastically from hole to hole, a smile on her face, and, somewhere around the 12th hole, announced, “I’m going to get a hole in one this time!” (The triumph of hope over experience, as Dr. Johnson might have said.)
She didn’t get a hole in one. But the fact that she thought she would, that she could announce it confidently, that she shrugged off the failure when she didn’t and eagerly moved on to the next hole–all of that made me happy.
The irrepressible energy of the confident is worth more than all the athletic or academic skill put together. Maybe my duaghter won’t defeat herself at every turn and expect the worst like her mother. Maybe she’ll expect to succeed, and, because of that, will succeed a lot of the time. And, even more importantly, when she does fail, maybe she’ll think, “Next time I’ll succeed,” and that alone will keep her from falling that second time.
Maybe her own mind will be her biggest supporter and not her greatest critic.