Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
The incredible atmosphere generated by these extraordinary Olympics has ignited a new excitement that even after all the bunting has come down and the torches doused, the British will experience enduring change.
We’re all going to pull together much more, be nicer to each other, achieve excellence, because we’ve been inspired by our magnificent athletes.
But psychologists and psychiatrists know from bitter experience and scientific research, that personal revolutions are much more elusive. Often we think we’ve altered, yet we tend to revert to type.
This is famously known within psychology as the ‘school reunion’ effect. You left school thirty years ago, so as you amble back to that school reunion, reflecting on all those transformative life experiences you’ve endured since, you conclude you’re now a completely different person. Walking into the old school hall – a shock – everyone is, more or less, exactly the same as when they were 16 years old. The only thing that has changed is they are wrinklier and fatter.
Then you realise everyone else there is also thinking that, about you.
Personal and social revolutions are possible, but they usually demand more than one transformative peak life experience. Our athletes are not going to compete in Rio merely on the emotional high produced by these games.
We can learn from the daily stories of personal transformation they represent – after all each performance, whether it won a medal or not, is in fact a testament to the possibility of individual makeover. They did it – but if we’re going to learn from them – we need to see behind the podium to the psychology that produces transformations.
Get inside the mind of the gold medal winner in our previous piece here, but this is where the news gets a bit tough so brace yourself – much of what generated the inspiring performances reflect sentiments which the rest of us reject.
Does Team GB really reflect Britain? It’s success might have been achieved precisely because it operates in a way completely different from how the rest of the country works. Can we stomach this unpalatable truth? We need to if Team GB is going to teach us the lessons we all need to learn.
At this particular moment, the media isn’t interested in helping us confront our personal demons – it just exhorts us to feel wonderful about this special moment – so as a special psychological service – we’ve listed below for the first time the dark yet powerful truths, which if understood and adhered to, mean Britain as a whole country really can improve in the way British athletes did.
Dark Truth (1) Competition: All elite athletes understand competition is fine; it drives up standards and is absolutely the only way to produce the best. Fair play and justice, yes, but also seek to stand out.
Dark Truth (2) Universalism: Sport is open to all irrespective of age, class, creed, sex. You are judged entirely and exclusively on the quality of your performance. Nepotism, prejudice and favouritism are out. Don’t judge a book by its cover – give the deserving a chance.
Dark Truth (3) Diligence: Nothing is achieved or achievable at international level without hard work, fortitude, perseverance and absolute attention to minute detail. Personal sacrifices, long, strenuous preparation, all demand stamina for the obsessive journey.
Dark Truth (4) Success: Coming second is not good enough. This is the opposite of the “all shall have prizes” philosophy. Only a few have the right mix of ability and effort. A culture of success accepts and celebrates special rewards for real achievement.
Dark Truth (5) Self-Discipline: You have to lead a life of ascetic self-discipline and self-control where all habits need to be healthy while temptation is constantly resisted. Pleasures of the flesh will be sacrificed for the aspiration.
Dark Truth (6) Magnanimity: Be gracious in defeat and admire openly those better than yourself. Hubris is a sin, humility a virtue.
Dark Truth (7) Fair Play: No cheating (i.e. drugs), no knifing opponents in word and deed. No put-downs, insults, ridiculing others. Be totally honest and respectful. Accept personal accountability, obey legal and moral obligations.
Yes these Olympics can change Britain, but only if we confront and embrace these dark truths as a nation. Our dominant athletes may offer superior guidance and philosophies than our squabbling politicians. Winning performances speak to truths no one pursuing mere popularity dear utter.
Team GB were clear about their ambition, resolved to the sacrifice, united around the plan to achieve targets and availed themselves of the necessary resources, emotional as well as physical.
If we don’t learn these vital lessons from these Olympics, we’ll return to our previous flabby selves in no time.
But if we do, yes, there is now a unique opportunity – a rare turning point in history; the whole country can become a ‘Team GB’ – and inspire the world.
The prize is within our reach, let’s not fumble it now.