I love the Olympics.
For two years at a time, I could not care less about sports. I don’t watch sports on TV, I don’t go to sporting events, and when I’m running, I’m always listening to an audiobook, so it doesn’t count as exercise so much as story time. But that all changes when I hear that Olympic anthem.
I’ll watch anything. Doesn’t matter what sport it is. Summer or Winter Games, whether the USA is in medal contention or not…if it’s on TV, I’ll watch it. And I can’t help but notice how little the difference is between taking home a medal and going home empty-handed.
The athletes at the Games are all at the top of their performance. All the skaters can do a triple axel, and all the bobsledders can hop in and steer. The skeleton sliders all know how to sign their wills before they jump on that ridiculous sled going headfirst at 80 miles an hour down a sheet of solid ice.
In bobsled this year, the difference between the gold medal finish and the guy in 20th place was 2.5 seconds. In skeleton, it was less than a second. Between the gold and silver medal women’s figure skaters was 1.31 point, out of over 200 points scored.
The difference between winning and losing is all mental at that level. Every athlete is capable of performing to within a tiny fraction of the expertise of their competitors. What makes a winner is their ability to control their minds.
You can see it in the warmups. They’re nervous, excited, trying to focus on what they have to do to get that medal. Some of the skiers and snowboarders who’ve been to the Games multiple times are able to relax and concentrate, while others who are newer get completely psyched out. They make mistakes they would never make at home where the only danger is… the potential for broken bones, paralysis, brain damage, and death. But not medals. When that gold is on the line, it eats at their minds, and you can see it in their faces before their runs.
Of course I’m going to relate this to writing, because when you’re a writer, everything relates to writing.
Once a writer reaches a certain level of skill (which we call “Craft”, and it’s thing like grammar and punctuation, but also sentence structure, plot development, character arcs and all the things you shouldn’t notice when you read a good book because they feel so natural), we’re all on a fairly level playing field. There are standouts, as in every career, but the vast majority of us are at a similar plane of competence. We can all write a good story.
That’s where the mental part comes in. I’ve seen it so many times. The really talented writers who can’t get out of their own way enough to actually finish a novel. The ones who finish, but get mired in the process of finding an agent or publisher and never follow through. Some of those will give up and self-publish something that isn’t ready, and the poor reviews or lack of sales will destroy them. Others will just give up and quit writing.
It becomes a mental game, and there’s no gold medal at the end. Finishing the race of completing a novel leads to the new race of editing and revision. Finishing that race leads to the soul-crushing exercise of trying to get an agent to represent you. Finishing that process leads to more revisions and edits, and on to the soul-crushing exercise of submitting the manuscript to publishers. And if you’re lucky enough to cross that particular finish line, now you get to begin the lifelong process of promoting your book so it doesn’t languish at the bottom of the sales charts where no one will ever read it.
I know writers who are turning out stuff that’s better than most of what’s published by the Big 5. You’ll never read their work, though, because they get stuck on one of those early races and can’t get past it. I know of plenty who aren’t so skilled at the craft, but excel at the mental game, and are out there making a living by never giving up.
As in bobsledding, alpine skiing, or figure skating, the difference between the winners and the also-rans of writing is often measured in tiny percentiles. When I watch the Olympic athletes compete, I’m only seeing the finished product…their published novel of work. I’m not seeing the years of sacrifice it took them to get to the starting line. I only see what they can do today, when the pressure is on. When you read a novel, you’re only seeing the gold medal race, and not the years of work and practice it took to produce it.
The Games are coming to a close now, and I won’t likely watch a lot of sports again until the next time a torch is lit. But I’m working on my own mental game, practicing my literary triple axel and my headfirst slide down the ice track. When you read a novel with my name on it, I hope you can hear my anthem playing, and see that gold medal hung around my neck. And now it’s back to the practice rink to get ready for the next Olympics.