If you haven’t been watching the Winter Olympics, you’re missing out on some seriously good competition. The Games have been full of exciting and surprising upsets, strong anticipated wins, and a lot of heartbreaking underperforming. All in all, just what you’d expect for the Olympics.
But, why do we expect upsets and underperforming? These are Olympians we’re talking about. Shouldn’t we expect them to consistently perform at the very peak of their sport? Aren’t they physically prepared to excel? With such high-pressure competitive situations, it’s often mental preparation and mental toughness in the moment that makes or breaks performances.
So, what are the mental obstacles Olympians experience?
Self-doubt and worry
Overanalyzing their own, or their opponents’, performances
Difficulty recovering from mistakes
Nerves (racing heart, butterflies, jitters)
There are plenty more obstacles we could add to this list, but you get the point. Why are Olympians susceptible to experiencing these mental hardships? Overall, they’re under immense pressure trying to live up to enormous expectations and realize their dreams. They dedicate their lives to training for this opportunity. Their sport carries extreme significance and meaning for them.
With all of this in mind, how do Olympians get mentally prepared to perform consistently well at the Games?
Mental training is part of their overall training routine: Trying a skill for the first time during a game or competition isn’t the best way to be successful with it. You need to practice it in training, making adjustments and getting comfortable and confident. Mental training is no different. Top athletes make mental training part of their routine, regularly learning and implementing skills to help them manage anxiety and activation, improve imagery, and sustain confidence. This regular dedication to mental training means that under pressure, these skills feel well-learned and habitual and athletes can rely on them.
They prepare for how they will feel: Having an idea of where you’ll compete and who your competitors will be can help you prepare mentally for how you’ll handle those situations. Adding in how you’ll feel – physically and emotionally – is very important. Planning for the nerves (both cognitive and somatic) that you’ll feel as well as any emotions of excitement, distress, or composure, helps you identify the strategies you want to use to ensure that you feel how you want to feel to compete at your best.
They prepare for how to handle stressful or unanticipated situations: There are only so many things we can control in sport – and life, for that matter! No matter how diligently athletes train and prepare, they cannot control unexpected events that could throw them off course. Olympians take time to identify possible stressful situations and how they’ll handle them (i.e., if equipment breaks, if an event gets delayed a day).
They develop and trust their routine: Finally, Olympians follow their routines. A routine is a series of actions athletes take to get physically and mentally prepared. A routine helps athletes focus on what they can control, alleviates stress, and enhances confidence and composure. Routines include sleep habits, nutrition, physical warm-ups, and mental warm-ups. Olympians know what they want to do, when, and how that helps them. Under immense pressure, relying on a routine is both comforting and effective.
Of course, not all of us are Olympians. But, we can still learn from them and their commitment to mental and physical training.