By definition, all Olympic athletes have extraordinary athletic ability combined with mastery of a physical talent and skill. But what does it take to win? Research highlights the role of psychology in athletes who win gold. Optimal performance has as much to do with mental agility as it does with physical ability.
Here are eight secrets of Olympic medalists:
1. Knowing How (and When) to Push Hard
A great athlete knows when to push beyond their mental and physical boundaries and when to hold back. It’s about impulse control – the pause between thought and action to assess what is needed in the moment. This requires flexible thinking and self-knowledge. Knowing one’s strength’s is important—it is also important to be aware of areas that require extra effort and more work.
Productivity, better health, efficient problem solving and success are all linked with optimism. It’s not about being blind to the realities of life and circumstance (physical or mental setbacks, weaknesses, weather conditions) but seeing them as temporary hurdles rather than permanent roadblocks. Great athletes don’t quit when they fall down. They exhibit resilience and grace in the face of disappointment.
A recent study found that motivational self-talk helps athletes improve in strength and endurance-based tasks: “The mind guides action, if we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior,” says sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis.
4. Setting Specific Goals
The most successful athletes set specific goals. Of course, the ultimate goal of an Olympian is to win gold but the daily objectives leading up to the games (to beat their best time by 1 second, to land the triple axel, to perfect their form as they make the first turn) matter more for improving actual performance.
5. (Healthy) Perfectionism
Healthy perfectionism balances an athlete’s high standards with flexibility. Healthy perfectionists are not haunted by past mistakes but learn from them, whereas unhealthy perfectionists are overly concerned with control and exhibit an all-or-nothing mentality.
Studies suggest that visualization training is comparable to physical training. Olympians don’t just think about participating and winning their event they actually feel what it would be like to compete and take home the gold. The more intense the focus is on their goal, the more the Olympian is able to tune out distractions, anxiety and stress. This type of focus can best be practiced through mindfulness and meditation on a regular basis.
7 . Routine
Research implies that routine is a vital aspect of success. Routines create balance, focus, healthy habits, self-discipline, resilience and stamina—essential ingredients of a successful athlete and in life:
A routine can steady an athlete amidst the buzz, distractions and anxieties inherent to the games, and help them perform at their best.
8. Finding Flow
Great athletes know how to get “in the zone.” It’s the opposite of multi-tasking: they are so engaged in what they are doing that they lose time. Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow, describes it as:
Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
The Olympic Games are a testament to the potential and capacity of the human body and mind. Imagine what you could accomplish if you thought like an Olympian every day. In the spirit of the 2014 Winter Games, apply some of these strategies to your own life. After all, the secret to winning may be learning how to fail:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
– Michael Jordan
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman