What It Takes To Be An Olympian: 3 Common Myths

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games going, Coach Ken Vick hits an amazing mark.  He’s now had athletes in eleven Olympic Games.  It’s been across countries and sports, giving him a unique view of Olympic athletes.

A Diverse, Global Sports View

Ken Vick started as a performance coach almost three decades ago and worked with his first Olympic athlete preparing for the Sydney Olympic Games. Vick’s first exposure to Olympic athletes was as a coach in the sport of weightlifting.

“Olympic sports were always a passion for me.  I was a Weightlifting coach for several international level lifters. The intensity and passion of athletes pursuing their Olympic dream is unique,” says Vick.

That passion continued as his career in sports performance progressed.  He’s coached athletes that have gone on to 11 different Summer and Winter Olympic Games.  And it is not just individual athletes he’s had experience with. 

He’s also been the Global High-Performance Director for Velocity Sports Performance overseeing the training of national teams and even entire Olympic Committees.

Team Great Britain Volleyball needed to prepare for the 2012 London Games and Velocity was tasked with helping them in the year leading up to them.  “Starting to see the differences in Olympic systems was revealing,” says Vick

The Chinese Olympic Committee had been a top nation in the medal count, but in 2013 they started working with Velocity in a few targeted sports and several of their provincial programs.  A few years later Velocity had deployed its systems and staff of performance coaches and sports medicine specialists to the other side of the globe to prepare for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Coach Ken Vick reviews training data with an athlete preparing for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“The experience of deploying Integrated Support Teams on the ground in China and advising their teams was incredible.  There were incredible cultural and systemic differences, but we had a unique perspective on the athletes themselves. It really highlighted commonalities among elite performers,” comments Vick.

Velocity has worked with Olympic athletes in 32 different sports from 17 countries.  This has provided Coach Vick with a unique perspective on what it takes to be an Olympian.

Myths About Olympians

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about Olympic athletes. A lot of people will assume it’s all about genetics and talent.  While that’s clearly a part, Coach Vick thinks there is much more.

Here are some of the myths he hears when talking about Olympians with others.

To Be An Olympian You Must Specialize Early

During any Olympics, it is common to see videos of the athlete in their sport. These stories of athletes starting their sport at a young age are often equated with early specialization.  Meaning they start focusing on their sport and serious training at an early age.

There is no doubt some do.  They find a passion for a sport they love early on. 

In other parts of the world, athletes are almost entirely developed in national Olympic programs. These usually force them to specialize in one sport from a very early age.  “I’ve worked with athletes in other countries who moved away to a regional training center and started getting paid by the age of 10 years old.  Training day in and day out is almost all they’ve known for their whole life when they hit a high level,” shares Vick. 

This approach derives from a nation trying to be efficient and targeted in building as many Olympic Champions as possible.

It’s also helpful in sports like figure skating and gymnastics where athletes have traditionally peaked at a young age.

The Multi-sport Olympian

However, many Olympic athletes actually play multiple sports for quite a while.  According to a 2012 study by the US Olympic Committee, the majority of US Olympians played multiple sports into their teens. 

What it takes to be an Olympian; Team USA
The reality that Olympic athletes don’t all specialize early is a surprise to most people.

According to Vick, there’s a reason why a diverse early sports experience are part of what it takes to be an Olympic athlete. “There’s a major downside to specializing early.  It limits the overall athleticism of the athlete and puts repetitive mental and physical strain on an athlete early.”  This can lead to injury and burnout.

“One of the very reasons we’ve worked in some other countries is to solve this problem.  They have too many athletes achieving an elite level only to end up hurt and out of competition.  The wear and tear on them from early specialization has been obvious to our sports medicine staff and the lack of overall developed athletic skills is clear to our performance coaches.  They are clearly skilled in their sport, but they made too many with drawls and not enough deposits in their athleticism bank account, so to speak”

THE REALITY:  While starting in the final sport early is helpful, athletes benefit from diverse athletic experiences into their teen years.

Olympians Are Fearless

Imagine walking out into a crowded stadium with the pressure to perform to perfection in a physically demanding event. You represent your family, community, and the nation whose colors you wear.  All after a lifetime of training, sacrifice, and dreams.

For most mere mortals, this would overwhelm our ability to focus and cope.  The stress and anxiety levels would be off the charts.

So to be an Olympic athlete you must not feel this way, right?


It’s not that Olympic athletes don’t have these feelings (and more), it is what they do with them.

Returning to sports after covid

Managing Fear and Anxiety

“Where ever I’ve been in the world, and in any sport, the top athletes learn how to manage these emotions.  They have developed a perspective that makes it bearable.  They embrace it as part of the process and maybe even something they can enjoy in some way.”

The training for many Olympic sports is a long grind.  They are physically demanding, have little financial or technical support, and they are seen until the Olympics rolls around every 4 years.

What keeps them going?  Optimism and enjoyment of the process.

“ I remember being in another country where the athletes were selected at a young age and moved away from home.  Sport for them was a job and had been for most of their life.  At the time the US women’s team was there training with them for a joint camp for two weeks. 

On a training day, I was observing our performance coach and physical therapist getting the team ready.  Most of the athletes in the training hall were sullen and lacked energy.  Then we heard some noise.  It slowly built from a low rumble into some music along with the sound of voices laughing and joking.  The energy was clearly high.  You could hear the positive vibes. 

Then walks in the US squad.  They had a spring in their step and smiles.  They were enjoying the process even in the middle of a grinding training camp.  One of the other athletes asked, why are they so happy.  She lost that and though one of the top-ranked athletes in her sport, wouldn’t go on to make it to the Olympics.”

To handle the stress of competition and the grind of training, athletes need to have optimism they can improve and make it.  This comes from their personal outlook and what they’ve experienced along the way.

THE REALITY: A sense of optimism and a belief that they can improve and make it is required to become an Olympian.

Olympians Were Always Great At Their Sport

When someone ends up at the pinnacle of their sport it is easy to believe that they were always good at it.  You’d think they were always the best from a young age and excelled.  Turns out that’s not exactly the case.

“Yes, most athletes had some success at their sport early on.  It’s part of why they decided to do it; because they were good at it or their family’s supported their effort.   But that they were always the best and highest-ranked is false.  In fact, evidence in a lot of sports shows that athletes who were junior champions, don’t make it to be elite or Olympic champions later. ”

Part of the reason is that development is not always linear.  Whether it’s learning techniques, tactics, or physical development, there are periods where most athletes struggle.

Vick agrees, “The struggle itself might be part of what builds Olympians.  Almost every Olympian I’ve know has had plateaus, obstacles, and setbacks.  How they preserve and continue to work and learn, that’s the mark of a champion.”

One of the most common setbacks is injury.  Whether minor or major, injury is a part of high-level sport.  You cant push the human body to its limits of performance without occasionally going too far.

“Coming back from injuries is one of the biggest places we see that resilience is a required quality for Olympic athletes,” says Vick.  “I’ve seen far too many high levels and extremely talented athletes who don’t have the mental, emotional, and physical grit to come back from injury”

THE REALITY: Success is rarely a linear growth path.  There are obstacles and setbacks which require mental, emotional, and physical resilience to become an Olympian.

USA Olympic athlete Maddie Godby works through a strength training session at Velocity Sports Performance.

More Than Just The Obvious

Vick concludes, “I think the biggest myth is that these are just genetically gifted and uniquely skilled athletes who are expressing their go-given talents.  In fact, they are athletes who conquered a challenging path physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

And that’s part of why we are all so inspired by watching these Olympians.