Check out episode two of this special four-part series of Phenomenal Grit featuring four-time Olympian and Quest Ambassador OAM Cate Campbell where we discuss Improving in Small Increments.
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Enjoyed the conversation? Read Cate's bespoke article below to learn more about her ideas on improving in small increments and how to build a healthy relationship with success.
It has been fifteen years since I competed at my first Olympics in Beijing 2008. At the time I was a fresh faced, 16-year-old school girl who didn’t even have her driver’s license. I won a bronze medal in the 50m freestyle in a time of 24.16 at those Olympic Games and since then my life has changed a lot. In the intervening years I graduated high school, got my driver’s license, bought a house, moved interstate and went to another 3 Olympics. Yet, in those fifteen years, my personal best in the 50m freestyle has only improved by three tenths of a second. In fifteen years, my personal best for the women’s 50m freestyle went from 24.16 to 23.78. One could argue, I haven’t progressed very much at all.
To put 0.38 of a second into perspective, if you have your phone handy, open up the stopwatch app and try to hit 0.38. It’s an alarming small amount of time. Your finger has barely left the start button before you have to stop it again. Now I want you to imagine that you have trained over 30 hours per week, 50 weeks of the year. Woken up at 5am six days a week, with no public holidays or long weekends. You have pushed your mind and body to their absolute limits, stretched your physical and mental capacities to breaking point. Poured blood, sweat and tears into this endeavour, year in and year out and in fifteen years it has led to a 1.57% improvement. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?
Perhaps it is crazy, but I would argue, that an athlete’s ability to remain focused and driven even in the face of marginal improvements is the secret to long term success. If you are feeling stagnant or frustrated, here are three ways to reframe your thinking:
Focus on process, not outcome.
Focusing on the process rather than fixating on the outcome is a fundamental principle for personal growth, success, and well-being. While outcomes are the tangible results we strive for, it's the process that shapes our journey and ultimately determines our ability to achieve those desired results. This is not a new or revolutionary idea and yet it is a powerful one, and a cornerstone which we must keep coming back to.
By placing as much value and attention on the process as we do on the outcome, we are much more likely to be adaptable, creative and maintain motivation. We are able to find small wins and milestones to celebrate along the way, meaning that even if the result isn’t exactly what we wanted, we can still look back and see the value in the effort we put into the process.
Swimming is an extremely objective sport. With the unrelenting clock as our task master, you either make the right time or you don’t. This rings true in training as much as it does in racing. When my coach gives me a set in training, I know what times, stroke counts and stroke rates I am supposed to be holding for every 50m. In an objectively ‘successful’ set, I will have hit all of my target times, stroke rates and stroke counts. If I miss them, it is immediately, glaringly obvious.
If I was only focused on the outcome, a training session where I do not hit my targets would be seen as a failure, a waste of time. Yet being able to shift my focus away from the outcome and onto the process allows me to adapt my definition of success for that session.
For example, in a recent training session, I was tired and sore, my body had been pushed to its limits and I was struggling to make the time cycles of the session. Instead of dwelling on my failure to hit my times, I shifted my focus onto my breathing technique. By the time the session was over, I still hadn’t made my time targets, but by shifting my focus, I had managed to improve an area of weakness in my stroke. In this way, I was able to turn an objective failure of a training session into a subjective success.
Acknowledge the role of luck.
Our world is split into things that are inside our control and things that are outside of our control. Now, as much as we would like to think that a result is inside our control, in reality there are a myriad of factors beyond our control which impact success or failure. Some people call it fate, some fortune, some divine intervention, colloquially though, it is referred to as ‘luck’.
You can have ‘good luck’ and ‘bad luck’. Be ‘out of luck’ or ‘in luck’. When some people fall, they seem to hit every lucky branch on their way down, while others plummet unaided to the ground. You never know when your luck is ‘up’ or when you are going to be ‘down’ on it. Whichever way you look at it, luck will play a significant role in every facet of your life.
Often, we are quick to acknowledge the role luck plays in our failures. We grasp and reach for reasons outside of our control as to why we were unable to reach our desired outcomes. We are quick to shift responsibility and accountability to soothe our wounded egos. Yet when we win, we are quick to take all the credit for ourselves. We are happy to bask in the glow of our own genius and extoll merrily over our brilliance. Both of these approaches inhibit our ability to learn and grow from an outcome.
Acknowledging and accepting the role luck plays in success and failure sets you up for long term success. It softens the blow of defeat and helps us critically analyse victory. Having a healthy appreciation and relationship with luck allows me to pick myself up after a bad race and keeps me humble and honest after a win.
Diversify your definition of success.
In my sport of swimming, the objective measure of success is an individual Olympic gold medal. I have been to 4 Olympic Games and am currently in training for my 5th and yet I have not won an individual Olympic gold medal. This raises the question: am I successful?
In my nearly 20-year career I have broken numerous world records, become world champion, and won Olympic gold medals as part of a relay team. I have 23 international medals, 8 Olympic medals, and if I qualify for the Paris Olympic Games next year, I will be the only Australian swimmer to compete in five Olympics.
If I only allowed myself to measure my career based winning an individual Olympic gold medal, then the achievements I have accomplished in the past 20 years would count for nothing and my career would be deemed a failure. I would also probably have retired or given up a long time ago. Failure hurts more than winning feels good, and if I saw every performance which did not result in an Olympic gold medal as a failure, there is no way I would still be in the sport.
Would I like to have won an individual Olympic gold medal and will I be trying to win one in Paris next year? Absolutely. But, even if I don’t, knowing that I have given everything I can in pursuit of that goal can I be satisfied with my career without one? Also, yes.
By broadening our definition of success, we give ourselves the opportunity to find joy and accomplishments along the way to a lofty goal. It dulls the sting of failure and perhaps can lead us down pathways we hadn’t planned on exploring.
There are just under 300 days to go until Paris next year. Each day offers a new opportunity to get a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. I first dreamed of going to the Olympics and winning a gold medal when I was 9 years old. I never dreamed that at age 31 I would still be pursuing that same goal. While I might not have achieved the dream of that 9-year-old girl (yet) my career has taken me to places and given me experiences I could never have imagined.
Success looks different at age 31 than it did at 9, and all I can say is how incredibly lucky I have been to spend the past 20 years of my life striving and failing. Learning and growing. Winning and losing — often by impossibly small margins.