When Clara Hughes was sixteen years old, she was flipping through the channels when she chanced on coverage of the 1988 Olympics. Canadian speedskater Gaetan Boucher was preparing to race, and as she watched him glide along the track, she had one thought: I want to do that.

“The fact that this was happening just two provinces away made my dream more possible, allowing me to be more emphatic: I am going to do that!” wrote Hughes in her book, Open Heart, Open Mind. “It was a heart-stopping, life-affirming moment… The next day, I said to my mom, ‘I want to speed-skate in the Olympics.”

Clara Hughes
That brief moment shaped Hughes’s path for years to come, a path that led her to six Olympic medals. Of course, there were a lot of obstacles along the way, but that first step – setting the goal – was key.

But setting the goal is just the beginning. What do you do once you’ve started making your dream a reality?

Here are five ways Olympians set and reach goals. And whether you’re aiming for the podium or that corner office, they can help you achieve greatness, too.

Make your goals visible

Here’s some great advice from Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Sr., featured in The Champion’s Mind:

“The two most important parts of setting goals are that you write them down and that you put them someplace where you can see them every day. When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kickboard I was using every day in practice. I couldn’t escape them, but the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.”

Hall recommends the fridge and the bathroom mirror as two great spots to post your goals, but you can also try something a little more digital (and something you might see more often): your passwords.

See (and feel) success

While putting your goals somewhere you can actually see them is a great trick, sports psychologists encourage athletes to also work with mental imagery. Moving beyond the idea of “visualization,” athletes use a full, kinesthetic process of imagining that includes the feel of the wind, the roar of the crowd – every element of a jump, match, or race.

The key, according to sports psychologist Nicole Detling (who works with Olympic athletes) is to envision success. “It’s absolutely crucial that you don’t fail. You are training those muscles, and if you are training those muscles to fail, that is not really where you want to be. So one of the things I’ll do is if they fail in an image, we stop, rewind, and we replay again and again and again.”

Next time you’re getting ready for something big – a presentation or negotiation – try it. Find a quiet spot and run through the scenario in your head. Feel everything that goes into it – more than anything, though, feel yourself succeeding. Take that feeling with you and see how it can impact your performance.

Think small

When Dave Brailsford took over as head of British cycling in 2002, the team was not known for its Olympic prowess, having never won a single gold medal at the games – ever.  Four years later, the British cyclists won seven golds in track cycling at the Beijing games. How did they do it? By putting Brailsford’s MBA to work and applying the theory of marginal gains.

Brailsford’s theory was that if his teams looked at every element that went into competitive cycling (from aerodynamics to bike maintenance to how they slept) and aimed to improve every area by just one per cent, the incremental gains would pile up and make for big changes – and big successes. He was right.

Get help

Olympians – even the ones who compete in solitary sports – are never alone in their success. They have coaches, physiotherapists, psychologists, equipment manufacturers, families, friends, and on and on – a lot of people go into making it to the podium, even when just one of them gets the medal.

Find your team, find your coaches, and find your fans. Know your own strengths, and know where you might need help. Maybe you need a coach of your own. Figure out what – and who – you need to make it to the next step on your path to greatness, and make it happen. Nobody does it alone.

It’s never too late

Clara Hughes started training with a speed skating club almost immediately after that moment at home watching TV, but it took fourteen years for her to realize her goal of skating in the Olympics. Along the way, she did a lot (including win two bronze medals for cycling), but that goal was still there, just waiting for her to go back to it.

If you’ve found yourself off track, just ask: is there a dream I should be dusting off? What can I do to make it happen?

Then do it, one per cent at a time.


See also:

Inspiring quotes from Canada’s Olympic athletes

Career lessons from Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne

Tips from the major leagues: how to deal with getting fired

5 things the Golden State Warriors teach us about teamwork


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