August 8

What Can We Learn From The Olympians?

Language Learning and the Olympics

At this time when all the news is filled with the excitement and the feats at the Olympics, and hearing quite a lot of the medalists talk about what it took for them to get there, it caused me to reflect about the mission that language learners face.

There usually is no great competition in language learning to work towards, and there are not that many language learners who want to achieve to the medal standards, however I believe there is a lot we can learn from any adult who has achieved significant results in their own field.

As has been previously discussed, as children we all (well virtually all ) achieved spoken proficiency to the level of our peers, but as adults most people struggle to achieve that same level of competence in a second language. There are of course many reasons for that. In these pages you may have come across posts talking about the importance of the strategies we use, the kind of practice we we do as well as the issue of the mindset we bring to the task

These 3 factors are evident in any field where success is the aim. So let’s look at what the athletes past and present, have talked about as keys to their success.  (Feel free to add additional quotes below!).

Olympics and language learning“I wouldn’t say anything is impossible. I think that everything is possible as long as you put your mind to it and put the work and time into it.”

Michael Phelps

“When anyone tells me I can’t do anything, I’m just not listening anymore.”

Florence Griffith-Joyner

“The first thing is to love your sport (language?) Never do it to please someone else. It has to be yours.”

Peggy Fleming

“I’m trying to do the best I can. I’m not concerned with tomorrow, but with what goes on today.”

Mark Spitz

“It’s all about the journey, not the outcome.”

Carl Lewis

“You have to train your mind like you train your body.”

Bruce Jenner

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Michael Jordan

 ” I don’t think limits”

 Usain Bolt

Even if we don’t want to achieve the tremendous success in language learning that these athletes have achieved in their disciplines, there is a lot we can take away from these quotes. We could explore each one for quite a while, teasing out the meanings and the implications for language learners.

However just taking a cursory look at them today will reveal that for these people, it was all about what they did with themselves. It was about they did moment to moment with what they were doing. This is all to do with mindset. They taught themselves to:

  • believe in themselves and their abilities
  • see their mistakes as opportunities for learning
  • enjoy the process
  • be present at each moment 

And that’s just for starters!

The Power of Doubt

Your mindset can help build you or do the opposite.  Doubt is the single biggest destroyer of ultimate success for elite performers. We can see numerous example of this in any sport. There is even a term we have come up for that, “choking”. People have said and written a lot about this over the years. The Australian swim team, for example entered the Olympics with many of them having recorded the best times coming in to the games. However most of them performed well under expectations. Why? One reason for that was the overwhelming pressure they felt and the resulting doubt they felt about their own ability.

Doubt can undermine us and what we can achieve. Here is where infants have it all over us. They never doubt themselves. They are completely in the present, never concerned about what they did, or what they can achieve. Doubt about our ability to learn languages occurred when we were taught to learn a new language in a school by a well meaning teacher who asked us to memorise:

  • sounds of the new language
  • grammar rules
  • vocabulary 
  • phrases

believing that by doing this we would learn to speak the new language. What they didn’t understand is that:

  1. We all develop different skills in memorisation. Those whose skills are not so good, thinking that memorisation was essential for learning the language, begin to believe that they will have troubles learning the new language. In other words doubts enter their minds.
  2. Even those who were successful at memorizing can find they problems transforming what was learned into confident spoken skills. So these learners also come to doubt their skills

This dynamic helps to explain why so many language learners struggle. You don’t have to be an elite performer to have doubt affect you in your progress, no matter where you are along the continuum.


A reworked version, first appearing 4 years ago.


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