The Olympics, Part I: Insights from Marc Kennedy

The 2016 Summer Olympics happened while the blog was on vacation. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about the event, for many of the same reasons that were so eloquently expressed by fellow blogger Caitlin Constantine. And after the event ended, I read a very thoughtful and critical article which got me thinking about how the Olympics  affect the structure and funding of amateur sports in Canada.

So I’m going to write two posts related to the Olympics. This, the first post, is about a wonderful speech by an Olympic athlete that I heard earlier this year. The second, which I’ll post later on, is about how, while the Olympics are supposed to inspire people to get active, their effects on amateur sport may be making it more difficult for non-elite athletes to do that.

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In June, I had the privilege of hearing a talk by world and Olympic champion curler Marc Kennedy.

This wasn’t the first time that I’ve been at a presentation by a high-achieving athlete. My cynical self was expecting a recycling of the usual themes in these speeches: “work hard”, ”have a dream”, ”fight through setbacks”, ”never give up”. But instead, Kennedy’s speech was a very insightful and honest look at the realities of performance at an elite level  – and a lot of what he said has relevance to work and to life, as well as to sports. These are the points from what Kennedy said that really stuck with me.

  • High performers always look at where they can improve. Kennedy won his 2010 Olympic gold medal as part of the Canadian team skipped by Kevin Martin, who is considered one of the best competitive curlers ever. Kennedy said that when he joined Martin’s team, one of the things that he immediately noticed was that, after every game and competition, Martin would look at the scores and at the video to see what he or the team could work on for next time. That didn’t mean they didn’t celebrate their accomplishments as well, but Kennedy was amazed that someone who was likely the best in the world at what he did was still looking for ways to be better. He learned from that the importance of being honest about the quality of your work, and the importance of being pro-active in identifying where improvement was needed.

    At the start of his speech, Kennedy told us that he considers his Olympic gold medal to be "everybody's medal" because of all the support his team got from Canadians - so he brings it to events and lets anyone who wants to hold it or try it on. Here he is, putting the medal on an audience member. (credit: @MacEwanBusiness)

    At the start of his speech, Kennedy told us that he considers his Olympic gold medal to be “everybody’s medal” because of all the support his curling team got. So he brings the medal to the events he attends, and lets everyone hold the medal or try it on. Here he is after his speech, putting the medal on an audience member. (credit: Twitter/@MacEwanBusiness)

  • Being the best also means watching what others are doing. When Kennedy was on Martin’s team, they had an astounding run of success in 2008 – including a Canadian championship where the team didn’t lose a single game,  and a world championship where they won 10 of 11 games. When the team won the Olympic gold medal in 2010, they won every game they played in the Olympics. But Kennedy had a really interesting take on that level of success. He told us that the team was so good, and so dominant, that they didn’t really notice how much better the other teams were becoming. And when other teams started getting more competitive with them, Martin’s team then had to struggle to figure out how to respond. After winning the 2010 Olympics they didn’t qualify for the 2014 Olympics, which was extremely difficult for them.
  • Don’t downplay or ignore problems – talk about them. Kennedy told us that the four members of Martin’s team were all dedicated athletes committed to being the best, but there were also many strong personalities. It gradually became apparent that different members of the team had different visions of what they wanted to achieve, or different ideas of how to get to the team’s shared goals – but the team members weren’t good at talking about their differences, and preferred to avoid conflict. One member of the team left in 2013, and when Martin retired in 2014, Kennedy joined a new team skipped by Kevin Koe (whose former team won the world championships in 2010). Kennedy told us that his experience with the previous team has led this team to be much more open with each other about their issues, and to talk through their problems instead of concealing them.
  • Become comfortable with the uncomfortable. Kennedy’s current team works with John Dunn, a sports psychologist at the University of Alberta, and one of the things that Kennedy says has been most valuable to them is Dunn teaching them to learn to “being comfortable with the uncomfortable”. Dunn reminds them that when they go to a competition, everything is going to be different from what they’re used to in their training. The ice will be different, the arena will be different, they’ll be staying in a hotel they’ve never been in before, they’ll be eating different food. All that unfamiliarity can all make an athlete uncomfortable and can affect their performance. But Dunn teaches them to recognize that things are going to be different and unfamiliar, to be ready for that and to accept it, and to go on from there to do what they’ve prepared to do.

And obviously Dunn’s advice has been helpful – just a few weeks before Kennedy spoke to us, his team won the 2016 world curling championships.

I really appreciated getting to hear Kennedy talk, and his speech gave me a lot to think about.

One comment

  1. Welcome back from blog-vacation, Fiona! Thank you for sharing Marc Kennedy’s lessons with us — especially the reminder that no matter how skilled or experienced we may be at something, there’s always room to learn and improve.

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