Lessons We Can Learn from the Olympics

At home, we’ve really gotten into the games this year. It’s amazing to see these young Olympic athletes put forth their very best, and then rejoice with them in victory, or weep with them in their defeat. I’ve learned a lot from these games, and have found some interesting parallels with our profession as linguists, some of which I think are also some of life’s most important lessons.

Appearances can be deceiving   To me, coming from an area where you can find just about any nationality, some of the athletes look and act like the typical American teenager. It’s only when I’m able overhear the languages they’re speaking, or notice the team colors that I realize that they represent a rich heritage and tradition different from what we know. This reminds me of a time when I interpreted for an indigent plaintiff in a civil matter, of whom my first impression was deceiving. He was very unkempt, both in clothing and in facial hair, and was extremely rambunctious. This impression was shot down like a skeet target when I witnessed an extensive conversation between him and the court attendant, wherein he proved to be a veritable expert in the social and political issues of his country! He spoke with great confidence and wisdom. Lesson learned.

Every team member counts   The Team USA women’s gymnastics “Fab 5” brought this point home for me when they achieved the team gold. Each girl had strengths to contribute, and none stood out more than the others overall. When I think of all the specialties we represent as linguists, it’s hard not to wonder if any is inherently more important than the other. True, there are fields that require an incredible level of expertise and skill for a solid performance, but as a profession we are all standing smack-dab in the middle of a cultural divide and ensuring that others can achieve their goals. Recently, interpreters on a social media site I follow discussed the importance of seeing ourselves as one, each with something to contribute, whether in a hospital, a court, a conference or as the voice of international figures… the list goes on. Much like the sports team in a relay, each one of us reflects on the other, and can leave a lasting impression about linguists in general. Within our ranks we should be supporting each other, as a team, for the good of the profession.

Consistent preparation is essential   I continually saw athletes preparing both physically and mentally for their task. There were the gymnasts who would take the floor and practice their acrobatics while waiting for the meet to begin; swimmers who donned fat headphones to listen to music and get in the “zone”; divers who had very specific rituals with hand towels. They all had something they did on a consistent basis that they seemed to need for optimum performance. In my view, the best linguists take their preparation very seriously: step-by-step methods to tackle a translation; the ideal office set-up; voice preparation before a long day of simultaneous interpreting; a deep breath and a wardrobe and resources check prior to taking the stand with a witness. This is something beyond the “homework” part of our preparation; it’s something a bit more individual, more personal. Each of us has to figure out what we should be doing in preparation for our task, and make a habit of it for the sake of consistent success.

Criticism is part of the game   I was a little surprised at many of the reactions that the athletes had to the judges’ scores after a performance. Rather than a look of extreme anger or disappointment at low scores, I perceived introspection, as if each was graciously taking the score as constructive criticism rather than an all-out attack on their skills. This was enlightening because each seemed to be so focused on achieving whatever the judges would call perfection that they didn’t react like the stereotypical professional athlete who wants to punch some unsuspecting referee’s lights out. We can learn from this, colleagues. Our performance is absolutely subject to criticism and even when we’re being judged by somebody who hasn’t been in our shoes, it is still valuable feedback we have to consider when reflecting on our skills. Rather than getting defensive, we’re smart to sit back and listen to the message, and its source, and be open to the possibility of polishing even the most honed skills based on the feedback. In the end, no matter who the judge or referee is in a sport or in our profession, he will call it like he sees it, and we will be impacted in some fashion.

A great performance is inspiring and educational   Many of the stories told by and about the successful Olympians included the history of why they decided to pursue their sport. Somebody along the way had inspired them and they thought, “I can do that!” True, not everyone who thinks they can achieve Olympic fame will get there, but having a goal to strive for is important and can give great satisfaction and meaning to life. Moreover, the athletes seemed very genuine when they would congratulate each other at the end of a race or performance, and often appeared very attentive when they watched their rivals in action. Whenever I have the opportunity to edit the work of another linguist, I make it a point to learn and be inspired by the way language is expressed or a certain term is rendered. It’s educational to watch how my colleagues perform on the witness stand or listen to the interpretation of an important political speech. We can’t make the mistake of closing our minds to improving, even after we’ve achieved our desired status or position as linguists. Much more than just taking continuing education or passively improving over time, it behooves us to take active steps whenever possible to find these opportunities to be inspired and educated.

“Greatness is for all of us”   This line from a commercial during the Olympics was worth noting. Each of us has something to contribute to our profession. When we make strong efforts to be selected for a team, whether by physical or mental skills, it is our absolute duty to continue to strive to stay on that team. As linguists, we may not get the constant feedback that an Olympian does at the Games, but none of us is immune to that sudden difficult client or highly complex assignment that could make or break us. Although the definition of greatness may vary for each professional in our field, we need to be sure that our resolve to achieve it is fitting for the specialty we profess to practice.

In closing, this short but hopefully thought-provoking list of parallels between the profession of a linguist and an Olympic athlete highlights the fact that our performance matters. No matter how tempting it may be to sit on our laurels when we’re experiencing some down time in our day, consistent and focused preparation is how to achieve success. Whether the gold medal is a job well done at the end of a day, the end of a contract, or the day we retire, it has to be an amazing feeling to know that we’ve done well. From half a world away we are being provided with the ultimate example of achievement in a young athlete’s life, giving us an excellent opportunity to be inspired and moved by it in our own professional lives. Go Team Linguists!

0 thoughts on “Lessons We Can Learn from the Olympics”

  1. James Pixley says:

    I always knew that you would be a winner… always. From the first time you spoke, your Mom and I absolutely KNEW where you were headed! We were right. And, you have 4 children (not so little any more) that will give YOU the same wonderful thrill that you gave us when you decided to excel. I only hope that you can feel the tremendous pride, here. All my love, Pookie…. Dad

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Ah, forgot to mention the pride of the Olympians’ parents watching anxiously from the stands. I guess this must be similar to how proud a mentor or teacher feels when the budding linguist finds success. 🙂

  2. Kathleen Shelly says:

    I loved this essay! When I am watching the Olympics, I often think to myself: “How can they perform that way in front of millions of people?” But you’re right–there is a certain amount of mental preparation involved, and it’s something I do every day! It may not be in front of millions, but there is still the need to perform and perform to the best of one’s ability. Thanks for the insights, Jennifer!

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      So true! I could definitely identify with those close-ups of the athletes concentrating and taking those last deep, nervous breaths! They were also able to shut out the crowd, seemingly, like we can ignore the dozens of eyes staring at us from a jury box!

  3. Gio says:

    Well said, Jennifer. Discipline, self-confidence, determination, knowledge, respect and humility are some of the ingredients that make a successful professional – regardless of arena.

    1. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

      Hi, Gio– that’s a great way to sum it all up!

  4. Carolyn says:

    Interesting read. I would have never thought of comparing the Olympics to translating or interpreting, but yes, I can definitely identify with the concept of having many eyes upon you!! Great read. Thanks, Jennifer.

  5. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Thanks, Carolyn! I was so impressed by the gymnasts, especially; these girls are so young and were great at handling the pressure! Thanks for commenting!

  6. Inna says:

    Thank you, Jemmifer! Interpreters have been compared to many challenging occupations. But it seems you have found a better parallel.

  7. Jennifer De La Cruz says:

    Hi, Inna! Thanks! It sure hit home for me to see those gymnasts so focused! That’s how I feel when I’m interpreting for an expert witness and when I pull off a really hard term it’s like sticking a landing after a double flip off a vault– with no hop at the end! 🙂

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