An Olympic-Musings Post: Inner Critics and Big Dreams


Okay, if you’ve been around me online or in person over the past two weeks, you have perhaps picked up that I am an Olympics junkie.  And, I know, because someone in an online chat last night reminded me, that many people are feeling Olympic-saturated right now.  So, if you’re in the over-saturated group, I apologize.  I couldn’t help it.  I won’t get a chance to respond with these metaphors for another two years.  Other people have written about lessons that we can take from the Olympics (one of those was Dr. Ashley Soloman in a post I included in Wednesday’s MWB round-up).  I have been struck by two big themes.

Inner Critics

The first big theme for me is the power of our own internal critic.  Consistently, over the past two weeks, I have watched individuals and teams perform athletic behaviors that are well out of reach for most of the world.  And the reason they are able to reach those heights, beyond some natural talent, is hours and hours of dedication, sacrifice and training.  The lists of things that are given up by elite athletes in pursuit of their dreams is astounding.

And consistently, over the past two weeks, I have watched individuals talk themselves out of their best performance.  I have watched them crumble when they came up slightly short of their goal.  And, because this is how I’m wired, I have been amazed at how the internal critic has the power to rob an experience of its joy, to sneak underneath years of effort and disrupt.

All of this reminded me that I want more people to gain the self-compassion and caring that it takes to rob an inner critic of its power.  That’s one of my key goals as a psychologist.  I noticed a huge difference between the Michael Phelps of four years ago and the Michael Phelps in the London Olympics–and I think that the reason for that was his own statement that, “I chose to look around and smile more,”–he chose to let his inner critic have less control.  Have there been moments of possible joy that you have lost to your inner critic?

Big Dreams

Like people all over the world, I was touched and inspired by South African runner Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee since childhood and paralympic world record holder in several track events.  This year, he pursued a lifelong dream of competing with able-bodied athletes at an Olympic event.  Not only did he qualify for the Olympics, but he made the semi-final round in the 400 meter sprint.

His story, and his joy in achieving his dream, reminded me that it is important to define our own dreams.  So often, we allow ourselves to be limited by things that are external, or by the feedback of others.  One of my happiest moments with a client is to hear from them that they have chosen to pursue a dream that they had been holding back in the past.  What about you?  What dream are you missing out on?  Which one would you like to pursue?

Thanks for indulging me in my Olympic side-road.  Next week, we’ll be back to regularly scheduled programming.


Image Credit: Olympic Rings on London Bridge by Craig Deakin via Flickr

11 thoughts on “An Olympic-Musings Post: Inner Critics and Big Dreams

  1. Hi Ann,
    Haven’t posted anything in a while because my comments don’t show up, but I’ve been reading your blogs. We’ll see if this one sticks!

    Like you, I love the Olympics and have since I can remember. Sports teaches us so much about ourselves, what it means to dig deep; fight against all odds and not give up, skills we all need in life. This year I’m going for something I never imagined, having my own talk show. The behind the scenes to get a show like this is staggeringly difficult, even though the “network” has given it the green light. We’ll see what happens.

    Thanks for your insight,

  2. I find the human drama of the Olympics fascinating, too. Did you hear this story on NPR?

    It featured two athletes from previous Olympics Games who didn’t win medals. They both talked about how difficult it was to enter the real world again after intense training, and the challenge of sharing the joy of the Olympics experience with people who always start by asking, “did you win a medal?” I also think it’s fascinating to think about what it’s like to have a sport as your passion and be at the top of your performance level ever when you’re in your 20s (or teens!). I’d like to think that I’ll keep improving as a musician for quite some time yet.

    1. Rachelle,

      I hadn’t heard that story yet. I also like the idea that I can improve in my work and my craft as I grow older. I think it would be intimidating to peak in your teens or 20’s. I hope that those athletes have good support in other areas of life.


  3. Learning to appropriately deal with our inner critic is a life long process. Sometimes that monitor is helpful. More often it seems to hold us back. Big dreams help give us focus and move us forward.

    It skill it takes to be an athlete at the Olympics is amazing. Wonder if we can change our culture from asking “Did you win?” (as pointed out by Rachelle) to “Tell me about your experience…”.

  4. Hi Ann, As someone who enjoys the olympics also, I love this post, especially the part about the inner critic. Whatever our own personal olympics are, letting go of the punitive inner voice is only a good thing.
    Excellence with compassion for self and others. I wish that for all of us. Thanks, Allison

  5. I love this post, very insightful. I, too, find it fascinating that people train and are at the top of their game in their twenties, and then injury and “old age” creep up! I love the world of sports psychology, it is fascinating to me to see our culture so saturated with young ppl with tough inner critics and injuries at such young ages in our middle schools & high schools.

    1. Kathy,

      I learned a lot from my friends who specialized in sport psychology. As a parent, I know that I am drawing on that as I encourage my children to explore activities because they are enjoyable or interesting–not with the goal of centering an identity around those activities.


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