The London Olympics are just around the corner, and as we watch Olympic hopefuls complete to qualify and then head off to the Olympic Games to represent our country, many of us wonder what’s going through their minds. How are they standing up to the intoxicating possibility of victory and the devastating possibility of failure? And how are they keeping both of these dizzying possibilities at bay while they concentrate on their training? Most important for many of us: What can we learn from their experience, and how can we put these lessons to use as we approach our own training sessions and our own lives?
Of course every Olympic athlete, every regular athlete, and every person are different, and the thoughts that pass through the mind of one person approaching an extreme challenge will vary widely from the thoughts of the next person. But while thoughts and emotions may vary, the stakes of an athletic competition are essentially the same. In many events, there can be only one gold medal winner in a broad field of competitors. The rest will go home with various feelings about their position in the final ranking, but only one of them will be the ultimate victor.
For some of these events, concerns about injury and even death can crowd in among already complex feelings about winning and losing. And some Olympic athletes have more riding on the outcome than just the glory of victory. Many Olympic contenders, like the rest of us, struggle with personal relationship, career, and financial issues, some of which can be resolved by an avalanche of endorsements in the event of a win. And win or lose, many of them have invested and will continue to invest huge sums of money and time in their training, as well as personal and career sacrifices that might pay off in the event of a victory. But what happens if they lose? Most important, how do elite Olympic athletes handle these high stakes and keep these intense concerns at bay?
As it happens, modern Olympic athletes recognize the significance of this challenge and understand that the tasks of navigating risk, managing anxiety, and staying under physical control during emotional extremes are more than most people can handle on their own. Olympic athletes realize that these tasks exceed the resources of common sense and intuition, and they enlist the help of professional sports psychologists who team up with their coaches and trainers. Working together, psychologists and trainers can help Olympic athletes stay positive and focus their physical and mental attention on the task at hand.
Another serious concern that threatens to undermine both the mental health and the sports performance of Olympic athletes is the pressure of public attention. Unlike professional athletes who compete publicly on a regular basis, Olympic athletes are amateurs who typically spend most of their lives training and working in obscurity. The focus that turns toward them as the games approach can be sudden, extreme, and often dizzyingly fleeting. Sports psychologists suggest that the intense nationalism of the Olympic Games can compound this already excruciating pressure. While professional athletes may represent a city or a business franchise, Olympic athletes are called upon to represent an entire nation, and their sports performance is expected to reflect on Americans as a whole. The psychological impact of a win or loss can have ramifications that extend far beyond the life of the individual competitor into infinite areas of politics and culture.
How do Olympic athletes handle this pressure without allowing it to undermine their sports performance? The presence of a strong personal support network can provide a positive influence and reduce some of the personal pressure. And the guidance of a sports psychologist can help Olympic athletes learn to compartmentalize, or control the times and places that they allow certain thoughts and feelings to enter their minds. Outside of the field of competition and training, it may help athletes to contemplate the high pressure stakes of victory and defeat. But on the field, Olympic athletes must learn to put these thoughts aside and direct their full attention to miniscule aspects of sports performance and technique.
Intense training (typically exceeding 10,000 hours according to popular wisdom) can bring Olympic athletes to the qualifying rounds and then to the Games themselves. But this relentless training can also condition the body of an athlete to take over from the mind during moments of extreme mental and emotional pressure. When the mind is fraught, scared, pulled in multiple directions, or dizzy with delusion, the body can often revert to and rely on the lasting effects of years and years of repetitive, highly refined physical motion. During a few intense seconds when sports performance is all that matters, the highly trained body has a way of following through on a course of action without allowing the mind to interfere.
Many of us wonder what happens to the mental health of Olympic athletes after the games are over and both the pressure and the attention are gone. According to experts and sports psychologists, former Olympic athletes tend to have a high rate of resilience that allows them to carry forward with relatively stable and functional lives. Most of them move on to healthy careers, meaningful relationships, and low levels of mental health problems and substance abuse. This may be because Olympic athletes tend to be stable and resilient people to begin with, or it may be because relentless training, intense pressure, and Olympic glory teach lasting and valuable lessons. Nobody can say for sure.
What can we learn from Olympic athletes about pressure, motivation and mental preparation? This depends on both the specific observer and the specific athlete in question. This year, as the games approach, keep a close eye on your favorite Olympic hopeful. Learn what you can about her life, and watch her carefully as she moves from the qualifying rounds to the games themselves and beyond. She has something that most of us don’t have, though it may take some careful observation and insight to determine what it is. If we pay attention to the athletes we love, both on and off the field, we can learn from their triumphs, their failures, the pressure that drives them forward, and the elements of determination, love of play, and core character that make them great.