Good to Great

Recently I visited the U.S. Olympic Training Center here in Colorado, one of only three in the nation, where elite athletes live and train full time. It’s like a college campus, but instead of classrooms there are different kinds of gyms for everything from martial arts to volleyball, gymnastics and weightlifting.

In order to qualify for residence at the Olympic Training Center, athletes must be ranked in the top 10% of their sport nationally. Once they’re in residence, their job is to train, usually six days a week, five to six hours a day. Even their eating and sleeping patterns are designed to maximize their fitness. They give up pretty much everything else in their lives—they move away from their families and friends, and most don’t have outside jobs—in pursuit of making the Olympic team and becoming the best in their sport.

Even with all that sacrifice and training, there’s no guarantee they’ll make the U.S. Olympic team, and if they do, they might not win any medals.

Their passion for their sport drives them, along with their deep desire to win, to be the best, to stretch themselves beyond their previous limits—to overcome personal hurdles, to look past the pain and see how far they can go.

What impresses me the most is this: These athletes are talented and gifted beyond the ordinary. They’re already elite before they get to the training center. They’ve won hundreds of competitions in their sport. They know they’re “good.” So what do they do? Do they sit back and expect coaches to come knocking and invite them to join the Olympic team?

No, they do the opposite. They give up everything and work harder than ever to take themselves from good to great. They spend at least 40 hours a week focused on improving their game. And they were already one of the best.

I hope you think about this whenever you’re feeling frustrated that your writing and publishing journey is so difficult. Just because it’s hard work, it doesn’t mean you’re not good. Sometimes it’s hardest for those who are the best.

Commitment, dedication, persevering, and working harder in the face of stiff competition – these are the traits of a winner.

Feel like you’re working really hard? Good. Don’t stop.

Have a big setback? Only you can choose whether it will be the end of your dream, or a motivator to press ahead with renewed strength.

Are you weary? Time to decide whether you’re passionate enough to keep pursuing your dream.

“Success is measured not in how many times you fall down, but by how many times you get back up.”

Q4U: What are some other ways the writing journey is similar to an Olympic athlete’s?

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Anonymous on August 7, 2010 at 2:52 PM

    >"What are some other ways the writing journey is similar to an Olympic athlete's?"

    Performance-enhancing drugs

  2. Anonymous on August 7, 2010 at 12:06 AM

    >ARJules and Sandra D. Bricker – GREAT points!

    I see in both Olympic athletes and writers the need and importance of positive reinforcement and encouragement from the system. Maybe you like gymnastics but If you're not showing enough skill, then you won't be attracting the top coaches, and you won't make it to the Olympics.

    As a writer, you need to be seeing some small victories such as contest wins or placements, positive feedback from teachers, writing groups, workshops, zines, editors (who you're not paying). You don't have to make it the Olympics of writing (NYT bestseller, Booker Prize, etc.), there can be success at different levels. But you need to get some kind of success, however small, or you're not listening to the advice you've been given.

    Big difference between the two paths: most people know that they cannot be an Olympic athlete.

  3. Rebecca LuElla Miller on August 4, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    >GREAT point, Rachelle. Thanks for the challenge and the reality–"good" tempts us to rest on our accomplishments rather than push us to greatness.

    How can an author "train"? By reading, first and foremost. By writing and re-writing, revising and polishing. By listening to instructors and receiving critiques and trying new things.

    No, writing is not a science, but what the great athletes do isn't science either–otherwise there would be a lot more of them at the top.


  4. Author Sandra D. Bricker on August 4, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >A recent blog that I wrote pertains to this subject in a way.

    I compared the focus of your writing to an Olympic athlete in training. Basically, a swimmer who doesn't make the team doesn't just turn and say, I think I'll ski down that mountain instead. As WRITERS, we want to write everything. But as AUTHORS, we tend to gravitate toward a brand. For me it's romantic comedy; for others it might be suspense,literary fiction or perhaps cozy mysteries.

  5. Tea with Tiffany on August 3, 2010 at 9:49 PM

    >thanks 🙂

  6. ARJules on August 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM

    >I haven't read through all of the comments so this may have been touched on.

    I think one of the ways the truly greats get to be great is that they listen to their teachers and those who came ahead of them. When they get feedback, they listen to what is said, refrain from taking it as an insult, absorb the information, and apply it. When a coach tells an athlete they they can perform better if they do x,y,z, the athlete doesn't take it personally. They know that the coach is giving them information to make their performance better.

    I think writers should do this with information given to them by agents or editors. If an editor wants to cut a scene, and you think it's essential, ask yourself "Did I convey what I needed to convey in this scene?" Absorb the information, apply it, and make your manuscript better.

    Did I just get on a soap box?

  7. Katy Kauffman on August 3, 2010 at 4:58 PM

    >Endurance, skill, determination.
    And lots of time!
    Thank you for the illustration.

  8. kmfields on August 3, 2010 at 1:34 PM

    >My golf teacher had a saying: You get good fast and better slow. What he meant was that, as a beginner, you have so much room to improve that the improvements come in big leaps. However, as you get better, the improvements in your game aren't as readily apparent and can take longer to achieve. I think (I hope) I'm somewhere in that 'better slow' phase, with a lot of the rookie mistakes behind me.

  9. T. Anne on August 3, 2010 at 1:20 PM

    >It can be a difficult struggle when you don't feel you have much of a cheering section, when the industry constantly reminds you of how impossible the odds are, but belief and desire can conquer a lot of demons. Passion is the fuel that drives me to succeed.

  10. Kathleen@so much to say, so little time on August 3, 2010 at 1:11 PM

    >What a great analogy. I've always admired the selfless dedication of the Olympians, but I never thought of how it might look translated into my own life.

  11. Scott Russell on August 3, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    >Not really knowing what I was getting into, I wrote a fantasy novel. It had been on my heart for four years and then I finally did it. I knew very little about the industry. What I did find out are three thing:
    1) I've learned that I needed to write, rewrite and then write some more all along learning about such techniques as active voice vs. passive voice, showing vs. telling, etc… Similar to my experience with football. Speed vs. strength, footwork vs. pursing the ball, etc…

    2) I've learned that there is more subjectivity in writing than in most sports (minus ice skating, etc…)

    3) The most disheartening thing that I've learned is that I've put all of this time and effort into the genre of fantasy, which seems to be the sports equivalent of ping pong. In other words, very few people are interested in it. However, I press on and write on in the genre that I enjoy, always chasing the dream.

  12. Susan Panzica - EternityCafe on August 3, 2010 at 12:16 PM

    >Oswald Chambers said, "Good is the enemy of best." Whether sports or writing or anything else, if we settle for what's good, we'll miss His best.

  13. Ken Hannahs on August 3, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    >To those who are differentiating between writing and athletic training, I was also an elite athlete who had to hang up his cleats after a career-ending shoulder dislocation. To me, when I found writing, and found that I had some skill at it, I found myself approaching it very much in the same way I did baseball when I played. Namely, by attacking it as hard as I could every day.

    My old high school coach would always tell us "No matter how hard you work, there is always someone working harder," and I took that to heart. As a competitive person, I always want to be the best, and I work VERY hard every day because I always want to be the best at what I do.

    Sports taught me that drive, and even though I don't play competitively anymore I still try to outwork everyone, every day. The only difference is now I'm writing instead of throwing a baseball.


  14. Richard Albert on August 3, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    >I agree that there are some similarities, and exploring them is an interesting exercise. But at the risk of becoming contradicting, I have to believe there is too much differentiation. As Timothy stated, sports is more science than art where writing is more art than science.

    Athletes have relatively short, fast paced careers that often lead to mild success then burned-out retirement. Writers may or may not have long term careers, may have varying degrees of success, and often fade away or write until old age.

    Athletics, by its nature, requires the participant to be young, strong, and flexible. Writing takes a maturity that is often only honed later in life and extends far into our twilight years. We have the ability to take more time in completing our “training.”

    If we have a bomb of a book, we can dust ourselves off and try again. That isn’t always the case for an Olympic athlete. Many sports for the Olympics are one-shot deals. If they don’t get the gold, they don’t always get to try again.

    As for similarity – dedication and hard work are both obvious. The requirement of a strong support group is paramount. Success can be fleeting (the advantage we have is that it doesn’t have to be).

  15. Michelle DeRusha on August 3, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    >Your thoughts here remind me of Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers." Gladwell repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. Can't recall exactly how he came up with this formula.

    I'll be honest, the thought of writing for 10,000 hours before I get published, or become an "expert," makes me die a little bit inside!

  16. LynnRush on August 3, 2010 at 9:43 AM

    >Love that quote. It's so true about the how many times you get back up.

    I think the fact that you do get back up is what makes you more of an olympic athlete (or one in training). Because it's then that you decide to persevere and push through injury and sacrifice.

    Might not get the medal, like you said, but I try and focus on what I'm learning through the journey as well. It's a wonderful ride!

  17. Teenage Bride on August 3, 2010 at 9:38 AM

    >This was a great post. really inspirational. I have often wished that I had some sort of athletic talent.

  18. kathy taylor on August 3, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    >Similar? The "story" is most inspiring when the challenge has been most difficult. I'm a sports movie junkie: Miracle (I lived in C Springs while the team was there training); We Are Marshall; Coach Carter; Seabiscuit. I could go on and on…

  19. Heidi Chiavaroli on August 3, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    >Thank you so much for this inspirational post, Rachelle! One of the reasons I love reading this blog is that you're so real…but very positive at the same time. Thank you!

  20. Heather Sunseri on August 3, 2010 at 8:59 AM

    >The dedication of Olympic athletes always inspires me to push myself harder in lots of areas. They really are amazing individuals. I love this insight into the training facility as well. What a neat experience for you, Rachelle.

  21. Cheryl Barker on August 3, 2010 at 8:50 AM

    >What a motivational — and encouraging! — post, Rachelle. Thanks for pumping us up! 🙂

  22. Sarah Forgrave on August 3, 2010 at 8:50 AM

    >I'm an Olympics addict, so I LOVE this comparison. Whether we've arrived or not, there's always something more to reach for. Thanks for sharing!

  23. Carrie Dair on August 3, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    >Things in common? Lots of sweat, careful dieting (due to sitting instead of exercise though), and LOADS of encouragement from friends and loved ones.

    Thank you for the great pep talk! OH! That's another good thing we all have in common. 🙂

  24. Jason on August 3, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    >Thanks for the encouragement…you really are awesome that way!

  25. Timothy Fish on August 3, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    >I somewhat agree with Anonymous 5:48. I think I see more dissimilarities between writing and sport than I see similarities. True, in both it seems that some people are genetically designed for it while others aren’t and hard work pays off, but in sport it is pretty clear what a person has to do in order to improve. If you can’t jump high enough, you work on the jumping muscles. If you can’t throw far enough, you work on the throwing muscles. In sport, time and distance can be measured. In writing, we don’t have much we can measure and we don’t have a regiment of exercises we can do in order to improve. It’s ironic. Sport is something of a science and there’s more open discussion of how to train for it than there is of how to write fiction and yet writing is an art form.

  26. Janet Oberholtzer on August 3, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    >Another similar thing a writer needs to do that an athlete does is taking times of rest.

    After an intense time of physical training, a body needs rest to get the full benefit of the exercises. Rest allows the body to become stronger – muscles, tendons and ligaments that were stretched to the limit become stronger during times of rest.

    So writers need to allow time for their brains/minds to rest in order for them to recover and be strong for the next writing time.

    And interestingly, a great time for a mind to rest can be during physical exercise. Many writers are runners/walkers or maybe it is that many runners/walkers are writers … because their brains have time to just be as they run/walk.

    So happy writing and happy running/walking!

  27. Rick Boyne on August 3, 2010 at 8:10 AM


    There's a bona fide sermon in there!

    Atta girl!

  28. Susan Bourgeois on August 3, 2010 at 8:10 AM

    >I think it's a great comparison. You made a strong point when you stated that an elite athlete is already set apart from others in their sport. Why is there a need to strive to take it any further?

    I come from a family that includes three generations of Division I scholarship athletes. My daughter was a U. S. Swimmer. This is one of the toughest sports out there that requires practice for up to 3-4 hours a day during the week with swim meets on many of the weekends.

    Even if you're the state champion, the best in your state, like my daughter, there are always others out there with the same or stronger abilities.

    If a writer eventually writes a bestseller, chances are, she's not going to stop writing. She's going to want to continue to test her abilities and take it further in most cases. John Grisham didn't stop at one novel.

    From what I've heard him say on TV, his first books weren't accepted either. He almost had to discontinue writing due to the needs of his young family. Then, one of his novels was accepted.

    No, many of the elite athletes will not make the cut to continue to the Olympics but at least they will be able to realize they had a tremendous opportunity to test their abilities to the fullest by training along side the best in their sport. They can walk away with their heads held high with no regrets, knowing they gave it their very best.

    They will also be able to watch the elite athletes they had the honor of training with compete. They will never have to wonder whether they could have made it to the Olympics or not.

    In a way, this is similar to what many of us are doing right now. We're testing our talents in the hopes of giving it our best shot. We're training and attempting to perfect our craft so that when we submit our work, we'll be able to make the cut and be on the road towards becoming a published author.

    What's a few rejections or DQ's (disqualifications) as we call them in swimming, along the way if we're one day able to reach our final goal.

  29. Karen Lange on August 3, 2010 at 8:04 AM

    >Thank you for the encouragement. This is so true not just for writing, but in all areas of our lives.

  30. Julie Evans on August 3, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    >Olympic runner Eric Liddell said, "I believe that God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure."

    Writing, for me, is like that.

  31. pamlaux on August 3, 2010 at 7:22 AM

    >Having a team of writer friends to coach you through your writing experience can help. If you need affirmation during the process and to know you’re not alone during your commitment to writing, join several writers groups. There are always other writers out there willing to give advice. Fellow writers are great at encouraging other writers to keep going. In the end; commitment, dedication and working hard are similar traits of writing as in any sport or occupation. To be a winner, you have to keep working like one!

  32. AlphaChick on August 3, 2010 at 7:06 AM

    >This is such an inspirational post – thank you.

    Perhaps another similarity is sleeping, eating, and breathing it…I had a breakthrough with the plot of my first novel yesterday, and I tossed and turned all night, in and out of dreams about writing! I have no doubt these Olympians in training sleep, eat and breathe their sports too.

    Although perhaps they don't sleep badly like I do, they must be exhausted every night…

  33. Wendy Paine Miller on August 3, 2010 at 6:57 AM

    >You get the shakes after going the distance knowing you’ve poured your heart into it. I imagine that’s what holding your first book in your hands might do—inspire the shakes (if only emotional ones).
    ~ Wendy

  34. Anonymous on August 3, 2010 at 6:48 AM

    >I used to be an elite athlete and I can tell you it is not really like writing at all.

    When you're an athlete– especially when you're a good athlete– you have a whole team of people behind you (teammates, coaches, trainers) pushing you to succeed. You have a whole team of people who believe in you and recognise your talent. When you're an athlete you can't just rock up to training whenever you feel like because your coach would skin you alive. You can't slack off in training because your coach would skin you alive. You can't let anything distract you from training for even a moment because your coach would skin you alive.

    I guess there are similarities in that sport is a hell of a lot of hard work for very little reward, but in regards to support and motivation there's no comparison.

  35. Julie on August 3, 2010 at 6:15 AM

    >Great post!

    I have often likened my novel-writing process to a marathon run…I've been at it for 10 years now, weaving it in amongst 'life' (school, marriage, babies, teaching career)…and I haven't given up yet!

    And won't! Every time there's a disruption, either from outside (life occurrences) or inside (self-doubt, writers block)I find myself re-affirming my commitment, saying to myself: I'm doing this!

    I think writers are by nature tenacious and stubborn. For most of us, its a labour of love and we won't let it go.

    Thanks for a great post!

    Julie Johnson

  36. Buffy Andrews on August 3, 2010 at 6:08 AM

    >Amen, Sister. March on!

  37. Jody Hedlund on August 3, 2010 at 5:55 AM

    >Glad you decided to write this up, Rachelle. Those of us aspiring to be in the Olympics of writing, can't wimp-out or throw in the towel when things seem tough. We have to endure the hard work as part of our training regimen. Thanks for being such a great coach! 🙂

  38. Em-Musing on August 3, 2010 at 5:42 AM

    >Just what I need to hear this morning. Thanks, as always.

  39. miss ali on August 3, 2010 at 3:03 AM

    >amazing post- thankyou! I agree with all of the above suggestions on the similarities between writing and sport. My thought may be that nothing comes easily or for free. You need dedication and will-power. You may never win the gold, but the journey will make you a better, stronger person anyway.

  40. Marja on August 3, 2010 at 1:20 AM

    >Awesome post, thakns a million for your encouragement! Other similarities:
    1) there might be a prize at the end…??
    2) we all need people who cheer us on
    3) we need a good coach
    4) no glory without a fight!