Olympic Spirit for Writers – Gold Medals Ahead?

Sonja Henie

Olympic Spirit for Writers – Gold Medals Ahead?

Every few years, during the summer or winter Olympics, I share these thoughts on the Olympic spirit – the traditions of training hard, setting lofty goals, and appreciating the fellowship of others who share our special passions. There is much that we writers can learn from these ardent competitors.

One of the problems with writing is that we often can’t imagine practical things like training and practice and competition . . . we don’t set realistic plans . . . and don’t do the day-to-day things needed for success. You may want to be a great writer. Want to get published. And you sit down and write, sometimes without any real feedback, coaching, or self-knowledge about what your real strengths are and how to get better.

I’m struck (negatively) by the titles of instructional books for writers: Write Your Novel in a Weekend, No More Rejections, The Wealthy Writer. Nice marketing titles, and the contents may contain a lot of valid info . . . but the premise is misleading, I feel.

Better to look at the successful habits of the Olympic Athlete.

1. Work Hard.
The Olympic competitors didn’t get there by sitting on the couch, wishing they were in the Olympics. They got up each morning, put nose to grindstone, shoulders to weights, feet into skis and skates and running shoes, and trained themselves to perform well.

2. Have a Training Plan.
You won’t get that Random House deal or win the Upper Slobovian Literary Prize without a plan for sending out many queries, getting short pieces published, making lots of contacts, going to conferences, developing networks of people who can help you.

3. Break It Down into All the Parts.
Evan Lysacek, American figure skater and gold medal winner in the 2010 Olympics, in responding to the Russian whiner Evgeni Plushenko’s insistence that landing a quad jump should have won him a gold medal, pointed out that (surprise!) you are judged on everything that happens when you step on the ice. Every stroke. Everything that people see in your performance. So the better you are at understanding and improving all the little things, the better you’ll do at winning the big one.

4. Train with the Best.
It’s often overlooked, but winners often have worked with good coaches and picked good training partners. It doesn’t always happen on your own. Last night [this post was written during the 2010  Winter Olympics in Vancouver] in the Ice Dancing finals, the pairs that won the medals tended to train with other top competitors. It helps to have others around you to set the bar high. And it helps to have skilled coaches who can deliver positive feedback for the good things, but also point out those flaws, weaknesses, habits that you’ve fallen into that are keeping you from that next level, and to help you know what to do next.

5. Pick the Right Niche.
You aren’t going to be good at everything. For every Bode Miller who can win multiple events, there are the specialists that pick and train for specific events and types of venues. For instance, speed skater Shani Davis was a gold medal contender in the 1500 meters, but admitted that his long stride was best suited for a speedier track; he had a harder time on the rough Vancouver ice. Look long and hard at where you actually excel. It’s not always what you want to be good at. I’m struck by the Olympic competitors who started in one event, but then switched to another and found success.

6. Don’t Let the Judging Throw You Off.
Some events are won by pure, unquestioned speed. But a lot of the competitions are subject to judging. The winners win at the whim of judge’s tastes, selective application of standards, perhaps nationality. Yes, occasionally you’ll fall victim to the French judge–syndrome (the maligned figure skating judge of the 2002 Olympics who admitted to voting based on outside pressure). Guess what: happens all the time in literary and other fields, too! Take-away: if an editor gives you the thumbs-down, don’t crumble. Move on to Plan B.

7. Look Ahead to the Next Race.
I love the athletes who can enjoy today’s results, but are also always looking ahead. What happens today is worth honoring, whether victory or defeat. But you can influence how you do next time . . . by focusing on it far before that next competition arrives.

8. Strive for a Personal Best.
I love this approach. Good athletes and good writers don’t achieve success overnight. Instead, they stay focused on improvement. Often, small increments are the best. Many small stepping stones is a more realistic way to get across a big river than a few giant leaps. What is your current personal best? What can you measure and improve? The number of responses to your best blog post? Moving up to a better class of rejections? Achieving better sales next month than this month? Measuring something is a key part of making it better.

9. Enjoy the Pageantry.
Take time to smell the roses. I think it was Scott Moir who said to his partner, Tessa Virtue, in the pause at the end of their gold-medal ice-dancing routine for Canada: just look around, enjoy this moment. Life is surprising, amazing, eccentric. Appreciate all the minor sports, the competitors from Ghana or Peru, the friendships, the brief, brief moments of glory in the sun, and all the human friendships and ambitions and passions that lead to that.

10. Go for the Gold!
What causes someone to sit on a little bench on top of a mountain chute, then shoosh down and up to fly the length of a football field with boards on your feet? I love the story of Vinko Bogataj, from (then) Yugoslavia, the Slovenian ski jumper made famous by the ABC Wide World of Sports as the “agony of defeat” poster child. He was the ski jumper who slipped on the down-run, tumbled off the jump, and landed in a wild heap, suffering a mild concussion.  But according to the Ski Jumping USA homepage, Vinko was taken to the hospital for observation . . .

. . . where he promptly phoned the ski club to confirm his competitor registration for the following year. He returned to jumping, later to coaching.

We writers don’t have Olympic moments . . . at least, not on TV. But we’re as crazy, in our own way. We’re committed to things that others don’t always understand why we do them, things that don’t always earn us a lot of money. We suffer the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.

And we can learn to be great at what we do.

We can learn to be Olympians.

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[First published during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.]

Post Author: Philip Martin is an author, editor, and indie-book publisher with long experience in the book trade. He is the author of several books on writing and literature, including How To Write Your Best Story, A Guide to Fantasy Literature, and The Purpose of Fantasy. Director of Great Lakes Literary (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), he provides editorial services, develops websites for writers, and speaks at conferences to help emerging writers develop their craft and career.


  1. Wow. Thanks, Philip. This article came at a perfect time for me. Especially the part about picking the right niche. To train with the best is what I seek. You said:

    (And it helps to have skilled coaches who can deliver positive feedback for the good things, but also point out those flaws, weaknesses, habits that you’ve fallen into that are keeping you from that next level, and to help you know what to do next.)

    Great advice, and difficult to come by.

  2. Thank you for the reminder about training each day.

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