Of course elite athletes are naturally gifted. And of course they train hard and may have a phalanx of support staff – coaches, nutritionists, psychologists. But they often have something else that gives them an edge: an insight, or even an epiphany, that vaults them from the middle of the pack to the podium. I asked several star athletes about the single realisation that made the difference for them. While every athlete's tale is intensely personal, it turns out there are some common themes.
Like many distance swimmers who spend endless hours in the pool, Natalie Coughlin, 30, used to daydream as she swam laps. She'd been a competitive swimmer for almost her entire life, and this was the way she – and many others – managed the boredom of practice. But when she was in college, she realised that daydreaming was only a way to get in the miles; it was not allowing her to reach her potential. So she started to concentrate every moment of practice on what she was doing, staying focused and thinking about her technique. "That's when I really started improving," she said. "The more I did it, the more success I had." In addition to her many victories, Coughlin won five medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, including a gold medal in the 100-metre backstroke.
Manage your 'energy pie'
In 1988, Steve Spence, then a 25-year-old self-coached distance runner, was admitted into the US Long Distance Runner Olympic Development Programme. It meant visiting David Martin, a physiologist at Georgia State University, several times a year for a battery of tests to measure Spence's progress and to assess his diet.
Structure your training
Meredith Kessler was a natural athlete. In high school, she played field hockey and lacrosse. She was on the track team and the swimming team. She went to Syracuse University on a field hockey scholarship. Then she began racing in Ironman triathlons, which require athletes to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run a marathon (26.2 miles). Kessler loved it, but she was not winning any races. The former sports star was now in the middle of the pack.
Helen Goodroad began competing as a figure skater when she was in fourth grade. Her dream was to be in the Olympics. She was athletic and graceful, but she did not really look like a figure skater. Goodroad grew to be 5 feet 11 inches. "I was probably twice the size of any competitor," she said. "I had to have custom-made skates starting when I was 10 years old."
It is so easy to stay in your comfort zone, Goodroad said. "But then you can get stale. You don't go anywhere." Leaving skating, leaving what she knew and loved, "helped me see that, 'Wow, I could do a whole lot more than I ever thought I could."