10 lessons creatives can learn from athletes

By Caitlin Kelly

As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.

But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.

Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:

Dancers work through pain every day
Dancers work through pain every day

Pain is inevitable, suffering optional

We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.

Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?

It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.

A great coach is essential

I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!

Practice, practice, practice

I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.

Take time to notice -- and smell!
Take time to notice — and smell!

Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge

In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.

Stamina is key!

It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness  — is often what separates champions from also-rans.

What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?

No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?

Just keep writing (and re-writing!)
Just keep writing (and re-writing!)

Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you

Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.

Is this your best sport?

If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.

Working through pain is simply part of the process

We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.



25 thoughts on “10 lessons creatives can learn from athletes

  1. Best preparation for anything in life I have had was living amongst world class Kenyan runners when my husband was competing. What I learned from them is that one’s inborn talents are the tools we’re given, we should spend our time honing them rather than worrying about how they compare to other people’s. Also, when they would lose, which happens pretty regularly at that level, take what you can from it and move on. They rethought successes much more than failures because p, as they out it, you’ve got to figure out how to repeat what you’ve done right! And generally, not measuring people’s worth as people based on their career of financial successes or the times they ran, after all, as Yobes Ondieki, an incredible Olympian pointed out, running is what we do, not what we are.

  2. One of your best. Sound advice with some hopeful encouragment, particularly for those who may struggle without contentment. I was a more serious ahtlete as a youth and still love the physical challenges of working up a sweat and developing skills. As you note, for us writers, strong drive has to be activated and kept in shape as with all endeavors of value. Thanks, Caitlin, as always.

  3. I love the separation of pain and suffering. Never thought about it that way. You can wallow or keep moving, right? And the go/go/go culture–oy. We need to find time for reverence for a holiday and just plain life. That one, you’re right, will have to be self-imposed because our cultures don’t seem to value it much anymore . . .

    1. It’s a Buddhist thing….Jose learned it in a teaching from his Lama, Surya Das. I see too many people focused on their own suffering when so many others can, and do, tough it through.

      Rest is so key…we behave as though we were all machines, thanks to the insane American obsession with “productivity.” I loathe that. I would prefer to “produce” less and create more.

  4. So interesting to hear your thoughts as an athlete. I’m athletic myself and played field hockey and rowed in college, now I’m suffering from back pain only in my early 20’s! Though pain is prevalent among those who push hard, don’t you think there’s a point when you’ve got to stop? Or lower the bar and your expectations? I agree that resilience is also a huge part of the equation… Physically speaking I know tons of athletes who regret the physical toil they put themselves through. But YOLO right?

    1. There’s pain and then there’s PAIN…:-)

      Seriously…I’ve got deteroriating joints (left knee, hip replaced 3 yrs ago) as a result of all my athletic activities, so I’d warn caution from a few decades down that road. So, yes, you do have to stop. The question is when and for how long and at what point? I only gave up playing squash 3x week after I had o have both knees repaired. I still miss it!

  5. This actually applies to those who aren’t in the “creative” field as well. I’m a nurse and pain is everywhere at work. Seeing your patient’s suffering can pretty much cause transference and it can take a toll on the emotional well being of the hospital staff if we’re not careful. Another thing I love about this post is that you mentioned pain is part of the process (achievement-wise). I actually believe that pain will never go away and that misery is a choice.

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