Bob Richards, former Olympic gold medalist, spoke about goals at a motivational symposium in 1980, during my college years. At this life-changing event, goal-setting and utilizing goals became a priority for me. Richards won the Olympic pole vault gold medal in 1952 and 1956. To this day, I smile reflecting on his commercials for Wheaties. He would do handstand push-ups while stating, “Wheaties is the breakfast of champions.” As the first athlete on the cover of the Wheaties cereal box, he was the General Mills spokesperson for all their cereals from 1956 till 1970. Bob Richards is a motivational speaker, an ordained minister, and currently lives in Waco, Texas, on a ranch with his wife of fifty-four years.
As is often with life-altering events, it was pure serendipity that my wife Barbara and I attended Bob Richards’ motivational talk. We eagerly accepted a last-minute invite from Barbara’s sister. Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner had won the 1976 modern decathlon and was also scheduled to speak. As an athlete at the University of Minnesota, I was excited to hear Bruce Jenner, the “greatest athlete,” as the decathlon world champion was commonly referred to. I knew about Bob Richards because of Wheaties cereal.
Bruce Jenner spoke first. He discussed his decathlon gold medal and the years of training required to win the gold medal. I don’t remember much of his talk, although I am sure it had many memorable moments.
Then Bob Richards took the podium and immediately captivated the audience. His jet-black hair complemented his chiseled face and bright eyes. With clearly defined muscles and a barrel chest from years of pole-vaulting, he reminded me what an Olympic athlete looked like. Mr. Richards has probably given hundreds if not thousands of inspirational and motivational speeches throughout his career. I never anticipated the life-changing speech he gave that day. The over-capacity crowd was in for a life-transforming speech. Although this day is embedded in my heart and mind, I have no way of knowing the impact his speech had on other attendees.
Some forty years later, I remember the four guideposts for motivation that defined his speech. I have passionately discussed these topics for many years with family, friends, my own children, and kids I have coached.
Here are the guideposts:
- Set goals and write them down.
- Be willing to pay the price for those goals.
- Believe you deserve great things to happen to you.
- Allow the possibility you may not achieve your goals.
Mr. Richards used many sports metaphors throughout his talk. He discussed what hard work and having goals meant to him and to numerous other athletes. Writing down goals and having a plan of action to achieve them was something he suggested. Everyone has goals we are striving for: winning the competition, losing weight and getting fit, working at a hobby regularly, graduating from college, finding a new career, getting a promotion, or raising a family. Indeed, everyone has his or her own “gold medals” to win in life.
However, to win our own gold medal requires paying the price. We need to put the sweatpants on and do the work: run the extra wind sprints at the end of a difficult football practice, make the additional sales call at the end of the day to reach quota, or as a student, put in more study time and participate in the extra credit, or be willing to make the many sacrifices necessary to raise a family. In other words, we need to do the work to win the prize and accomplish our goals.
The third guidepost is about our attitude. Believing we deserve great things reveals an interesting perspective about our attitude. Attitude is a specific way of living your life. Many of us live our life not believing we deserve the best life can offer. Sometimes it is finding the best in life’s tough and challenging times that presents the opportunity for us to grow rather than becoming bitter or not improving at all.
Often, when we accomplish all three of the above, we still do not attain our goal. If we have written goals, work hard for our goals, and have a great attitude, yet we don’t receive the promotion, win the game, receive a B grade versus the A, have we failed? Mr. Richards shared many stories of successful athletes who set goals, did the work with the right attitude, and yet did not reach their ultimate goals.
The one I fondly remember is the story of Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia, United States pair figure skaters. They were five-time U.S. champions and world champions entering the 1980 Olympics. About two weeks before the Olympics, Randy pulled a groin muscle. They kept it a secret and believed it had healed enough to compete. When they entered to skate for their first program in the Olympics, Randy fell performing a jump. The crowd gasped. The television audience and the stadium crowd wondered what had happened to the reigning world champions. He had taken a painkilling injection, which caused numbness, and he did not have the usual feeling in his injured leg. They could not compete, let alone accomplish their lifelong dream of winning an Olympic gold medal. Why did this occur? Was it chance, destiny, bad luck? Was it a bigger plan from God? Only one person or team gets the gold medal, while all others (including Randy and Tai) fall short. What is to be learned from this?
Reflecting back on Bob’s speech, his fundamental message is clear and simple. It is the process, the journey to aspire to our goals, which most vividly defines us. It is not the achievement of the goal, but the hard work and the progress made along the way. It is the person we become in the daring achievement to “go for the gold.” Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that is good.” As Bob Richards accepted the gold medal around his neck, it took about two minutes for the national anthem to play. That was the end. He achieved his ultimate goal of winning the Olympic Gold Medal. He challenged those of us listening to embrace the joy of that single moment of metaphorically winning our own gold medal. However, more importantly, he said, we need to understand the greater treasure and gratification, in all the work we perform, to try and stand on the podium and win our own gold medal.