Watching the Olympic Games is always a treat for me. The pressure on these athletes to put in a “performance of a lifetime” helps some thrive, while others struggle. I was fortunate to work at the Olympic Training Center (based in Colorado Springs) in the early 90s, helping young athletes develop their mental skills as fully as their physical skills. We were always working on improving consistency, mental toughness, and focus.
There are a lot of good books available for athletes looking for that elite mindset: Toughness, by Jay Bilas; Choke, by Sian Beilock; In Pursuit of Excellence, by Terry Orlick; Eleven Rings, by Phil Jackson. But for a quicker look at the mental habits of elite athletes, you should read the recent column by Carolyn Gregoire of the Huffington Post. This article, The Brain-Training Secrets of Olympic Athletes, is superb: current, on-target, and with many helpful links.
Gregoire focuses on five practices that Olympic athletes use to reach their peak. (She also makes it clear how we can use these strategies in our own lives — a focus of my own practice and blog.) So, without further ado, here are the strategies that Gregoire highlights:
(1) Visualize the outcome you want. I would add that you should also visualize what you will do when something sets you back — a mental contingency plan.
(2) Meditate daily. It seems daily that there is a new finding on the benefits (psychological and/or physiological) of mindfulness practice. Being in the moment is, not surprisingly, a key skill in high level performance.
(3) Evict the obnoxious roommate in your head.
“Do your thoughts tend to lift you up — or are you constantly tearing yourself down with an inner monologue of fear, self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness? Great athletes, through all the challenges they face, are able to exert a great deal of control over the way they talk to themselves, and they’ve managed to evict the”obnoxious roommate” living in their heads that tells them they can’t do it.” ~ C. Gregoire
(4) Set smarter goals. Goal-setting sounds so basic because it is. It is simple to do. But it is also simple to do poorly — for example, setting outcome goals without also setting the process goals. Set daily goals. Build on small successes. Emphasize what is in your control — attitude, effort, focus — rather than things like times, points, or places.
(5) Go with the flow. Gregoire closes her piece with the idea that Olympic athletes need to be able to achieve “flow,” that state of mind in which time seems to slow and when one feels fully immersed in the activity. Flow is not a random event. In fact, it is much more likely to occur if you have committed to the first four strategies listed above. Mostly, it is a function of quieting the mind — allowing yourself to achieve the confident, but calm mindset. This doesn’t mean you can’t be aggressive if that’s your style. But it does mean that you shouldn’t have to force it.
Well, back to my nightly watching of the Winter Games. So inspiring…