I live for the lightning
to strike twice.
About a month ago, The Husband and I were watching the replay of final figure skating free skate for the Sochi Olympics. My competition background gives me sharp eyes for mistakes and successes in form and execution. I pointed out a few things to him that I found interesting about the competitors, and, as a result, we got into a discussion about failure and success in high-pressure situations.
Champions, to abuse a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me.
Well, yeah, you’re saying to yourself in a teenagerish voice. That’s because they’re champions, Courtenay. Duh.
Well, yes and no, y’all. From my background as a competition Irish Dancer and a career journalist, I can definitively that the elements that make a champion ultimately comes down to a list of traits.
Champions and future champions:
1. learn from failure.
2. practice every day.
3. show excellent self-assessment and self-correction skills.
4. perform consistently in high-pressure situations.
It would be easy to wail on about the advantages of money and good support. Yes, those things do help, but they don’t consistently produce champions. Not to knock the power of money—money can buy you the best equipment and the best training and put forth travel opportunities for competitions, and trust you me those things do help quite a bit, but they aren’t the absolute predictors of success.
You could also posit that past success predicts future success. But that hypothesis fails quickly in messy real-life situations. Besides that, hypotheses of that sort feel flat out ridiculous, don’t they? It’s the snake swallowing its own tail. Q: How do you succeed? A: Well, first you must succeed. (Bullhockey!)
Everyone has seen at least one low-ranked competitor break through to the top level of their competitive field due to some use or permutation of the traits of champions I listed above. My feeling on this phenomenon is that, in the right situation, failure can be a great teacher for a late-blooming champion.
What I don’t know is whether these traits can be learned from the ground up, or whether temperament and tendency predicts the ability to adapt, learn, and thrive in competition. (If you have any thoughts on this, let me know in the comments!)
While these five characteristics show up again and again in sports and competitive dance champions*, traits like this should but don’t always equally apply to accomplished artists in non-performance fields.
Take photographer W. Eugene Smith, for instance.
While Smith proved himself able to perform consistently under pressure and he practiced his profession every day (save the two years after his combat injury), he had that typical high ego-low self-esteem thing that can really throw an artist to the ropes, even one like Smith.
Regardless, this famed war photographer managed to succeed despite fear, to thrive despite failure, and to innovate despite the ridiculous attentions of fame.
I gotta tell you—I’d take a dozen W. Eugene Smiths over a thousand regular champions any day. There’s just more there there.
* Really, any performer whose abilities can be quantitatively and qualitatively measured fall within these margins also. (Like who? Competition-trained classical musicians being a good example here.)
UP NEXT! An Our Sunday Best about photographer W. Eugene Smith’s break from convention, his wife, and his suburban life!
Our Sunday Best is Bluebird Blvd.’s original award-winning feature series. Established in 2011, Our Sunday Best has covered everything from multimedia haiku to fantastic failure to Tenzing Norgay. For the last two years, Our Sunday Best has focused its lens on a history of modern photography.
Accept no inferior substitutes! And don’t take any wooden nickels, you hear?
PSST! And tomorrow being St. Patrick’s Day and all, we’ll have another wild totally CONFIDENTIAL Irish step-dancing story for your reading pleasure coupled with a St. Patrick’s Day 5-Minute Dance Party that’s been a guarded secret for weeks! (EEEEE! I can’t wait! Come on by! I’ll put the coffee on!)
ABOUT THIS SONG/VIDEO: Olly Knights (often misspelled as “Knight”) is a recording artist in the UK equally famous for his solo work as well as his work as part of the music duo Turin Brakes. This song comes from his self-produced release If Not Now When? (also available direct from the artist on the Olly Knights Etchshop. The video is by internet-savvy filmmaker/film tech blogger Philip Bloom.