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Getting schooled by our Olympians

Working adults can learn from Schooling and his fellow athletes lessons on hard work and discipline
Saturday, August 20, 2016 - 05:50
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DREAM AND WORK AT IT: Schooling demonstrated through action that when discipline, focus and talent collide, nothing can stop you except yourself.

NOW that the (gold) dust has finally settled and our swim champ Joseph Schooling returns to his studies and training in the US, it's life as per normal for Singapore.

Or is it? I would like to think not.

Exactly one week ago, he made history and brought this small nation to its feet.

At the young age of 21, he has shown us - and the rest of the world - that nothing is out of grasp if we put our hearts and minds to it. He is the proverbial David who slew Goliath.

While our Olympians get some well-deserved downtime, perhaps we can also take a moment to take stock of our lives.

It's a fact that most of us will never make it to the Olympics or break records or become the greatest in our field. And it's perfectly fine if not all of us aspire to be.

But if there's something that we can take home with us, it's that as long as there's the will, we too can lead lives that are less ordinary.

Aiming high

It feels trite to talk about what we can learn from our Olympians - it's almost like we are not worthy.

And to be clear, it's not just winners that we should admire and celebrate. Every single one of our Olympians including fellow swimmers Quah Zheng Wen and Quah Ting Wen, paddler Feng Tianwei, rower Saiyidah Aisyah, sailors Justin Liu and Denise Lim, are all worthy of mention.

Many forget that to even qualify for the Olympics to represent the country is already an amazing achievement.

To reach their dreams, all of them have had to navigate a labyrinth of obstacles, from a lack of funding to conquering inner demons. They face naysayers and armchair critics - often people who will never come close to achieving what they have accomplished.

This is a road paved with sweat, tears and heartache.

One athlete in particular who has returned empty-handed but inspired the nation is Aisyah, the first and only Singaporean rower to qualify for the Olympics.

She first came into the spotlight in 2013 by winning a SEA (South-east Asian) Games gold medal in rowing. But she failed to repeat her performance in subsequent big competitions as pressure and nerves got the better of her.

It was a hurdle she eventually learnt to overcome, with the help of a mental skills coach. But to bring her performance to the next level, she made the hard choice to go alone and train full-time in Australia in 2015. The costs of living and training overseas took their toll, and her mother even offered to sell their family home to make ends meet.

Instead of giving in to despair or taking to social media to deplore the lack of funding, she started a crowdfunding effort early this year that raised almost S$14,000.

Aisyah's tenacity just to get to the Olympics is enough to put us to shame.

Ditto for Singapore's golden boy. After he made history last week, Schooling reflected poignantly: "It's been a tough road, I'm not going to lie. The first guy through the wall, it's always bloody."

He has shared openly about his struggles, with 2012 being the lowest point in his life. It was his Olympic debut as a 17-year-old, but a series of unfortunate events resulted in a poor showing. Coupled with an unfortunate injury and a self-professed attitude, it almost caused him to give up swimming that year.

Thankfully, he managed to pick himself up again with the help of his family, friends and coach. Look where Schooling is now.

In theory, we often seem to know what exactly we should do, but we don't always follow through. Days go by, followed by weeks and then years. And finally we tell ourselves that it's okay, life doesn't always go as planned.

If that is a rut that you are stuck in, be it at work or your own personal life, perhaps a review of your goals are in order.

Schooling knew since the age of six that he wanted to be a world champion.

His single-minded vision was what propelled him and kept him going for the next 15 years of his life and brought him to the world's biggest stage for sport.

But that doesn't mean you must aim to be the CEO or the top salesman in your company. It can be as simple as trying to get home on time to have dinner with the family instead of working 24/7. Or just making the time to mentor your younger colleagues at work.

We all have different priorities in life and that's okay. But in everything, there should be a desire to aim higher instead of settling for the status quo.

The grind

Schooling revealed his daily schedule to the media during his short trip back.

On a typical day, swim training starts at 6am, followed by classes until noon, a quick lunch break, weights training, swim training, dinner, and then homework and studying from after six till midnight. And this cycle repeats.

In total, it's about six hours of training and six hours of studying a day. And that's not counting going to class.

But even from a young age, he understood that to get to the top, he needed to put in the daily grind.

The back-breaking, thankless work that you are doing now? These are some of the things we all must endure to reach our goals. It's putting in the work day in and day out, even when you don't feel like it and even if the payoffs are not guaranteed.

That's resilience.

Edgar Tham, chief sport and performance psychologist, SportPsych Consulting says that the ones who succeed do so because they are mentally tougher.

"They are the ones who have the ability to handle mistakes, setbacks, disappointments and even adversity better. . . and it's often due to their mental toughness that makes the difference. I believe it's often a mindset issue rather than anything else."

This doesn't just apply to elite athletes competing on the world stage.

For those in the workplace, many of us are technically skilled and have the knowledge to do the job. But when it comes to crunch time and things don't pan out, we crumble. We have neglected the mental preparation to deal with demanding or stressful moments.

As Mr Tham says: "The key phrase here is 'mental readiness'."

Schooling's ability to persevere and fight didn't come about overnight. It is an iron will refined by the fire of failure and disappointment.

It comes from years of sacrifice, waking up at the crack of dawn to slog it out in the pool and gym when your friends are out there having fun.

It comes from learning to bear the weight of a country's hopes on your young shoulders.

It comes from having messed up in moments that mattered the most, such as Schooling's experience during the 2012 Olympics.

Imagine if he threw in the towel then.

As cliched as it may be, Schooling demonstrated through action, that when discipline, focus and talent collide, nothing can stop you except yourself.

As Lim Han Ee, a performance psychologist at Emerge Performance sums up: "To be mediocre or to be great, it is entirely a matter of choice and ours to exercise. Schooling exercised his choice, saw it through and has now inspired a nation."

On that note, take a bow, all of you who have carried the Singapore flag. You have helped a nation - young and old - to dream dreams again.