What It Takes To Be An Elite Athlete


What It Takes To Be An Elite Athlete

What does it take to be an Olympic hopeful?

Quinn McDowell

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For elite athletes, the chance to compete in the world’s greatest athletic competition carries an enormous cost. This cost is exacted over the decades of training, sacrifice and diligent preparation for a brief moment of competition that will occur many years in the future. By the time most athletes get the chance to compete in the Summer Games, they have invested between 10,000-15,000 hours in perfecting their craft. 

The daily routine for most Olympians is maniacally focused on becoming the best athlete possible through training, diet, nutrition, visualization and recovery that consumes nearly every moment of their waking hours. 

Finally, the commitment that is required of all world-class athletes never guarantees results. Athletes can work for years preparing for the qualifying process only to miss out on limited roster spots by hundredths of a second. Injuries can derail years of training by hampering athletes’ performance in the most crucial moments of their competitive timelines. 

With landmines waiting around every turn, the process of becoming an Olympian can be daunting. This begs the question; What kind of character is needed to persevere through this physically and mentally grueling journey? What kind of inner fortitude must be cultivated to become an athlete who can handle the triumph and disappointments of Olympic competition? 

In short, what does it take to be an Olympic hopeful?

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“Excellence is mundane. Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.” Daniel Chambliss, The Mundanity of Excellence

The pursuit of an Olympic medal is birthed in the millions of mundane moments that no one will ever see. The unseen hours, the grueling training sessions and the common moments are the building blocks of character. 

The discipline required to remain consistent and committed to this Herculean endeavor is no small task. And yet, the athletes that embrace the “mundanity of excellence” can build the character necessary to become the type of people capable of winning a medal. The task of character formation is an exercise that does not always deliver immediate returns on your investment. 

We must always train with the future in mind. Daniel Coates put it this way,

“Character cannot be summoned at the moment of crisis if it has been squandered by years of compromise and rationalization. The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. The only preparation for that one profound decision which can change a life, or even a nation, is those hundreds of half-conscious, self-defining seemingly insignificant decisions made in private. Habit is the daily battleground of character.”

Habit is formed in the boring moments, the mundane moments, the moments away from center stage, hidden from the bright lights. The price paid in the crucible of these private battles (of the mind and will) can lay the foundation not only for high performance on the field of competition, but lifelong character that leads to a life of excellence.


“Christians are people who wait. We live in liminal time, in the already and not yet. Christ has come, and He will come again. We dwell in the meantime. We wait.” Tish Warren Harrison, Liturgy of the Ordinary

The games only come around every four years. Four years is a long time to wait. There is a lot that can happen over the course of 48 months, and yet, the skill of expectant, patient waiting becomes crucial to the process of character formation. Olympians, like Christians must learn to live in liminal time. 

We must learn to exist in the in-between of Christ’s resurrection and His return, between the already and not yet, between brokenness and the healing that is to come, between the decay of today and the renewal of all things tomorrow, between the first coming of Christ and the end of the story. 

Patience is not a virtue that is commonly extolled in our modern age. Living in an on-demand world can distract us from the benefits that accumulate while we wait. The power of perseverance is found in the postponement of gratification when our souls are forced through the refining process. Diamonds cannot be formed without pressure and gold is not refined without fire. 

Job reminds us of this ancient truth, 

“But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I shall come out as gold” (Job 23:10, ESV).

To wait is to submit ourselves to the process of refinement. For thousands of Olympians around the world, the four years leading up to the games are an exercise in waiting. Like excellence, the patience required to wait may seem like a waste of time, but in fact the contrary is true. 

To become a champion (and a Christian) means waiting with patient expectation, with a hope that all things will work together for good. It means embracing the slowness of character formation and the excruciating process of delayed gratification, so that we might become the type of people who can persevere. 

As we think about the Summer Games, we are reminded that waiting is not a passive process. Instead, the ability to wait is a necessary prerequisite to becoming all that God created us to be.

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