How Athletes Train Their Minds for the Olympics
Sports psychologists weigh in on the challenges of being among the best in the world
During the women’s downhill race on Wednesday, Bode Miller, who has been an NBC color commentator for the alpine ski events at this Olympics, offered some insight on the mental toll of his former profession.
“Everyone says that the pitcher’s mound is the loneliest place in sports. I would say the Olympic start gate is the loneliest place,” Miller said. “You have hundreds of millions of people focused on you. There’s no one who can help you. You’re alone at that point. You’re fully exposed.”
Such is the psychological weight of competing in the Games that even stone-cold killers like Mikaela Shiffrin aren’t unaffected. The 22-year-old two-time gold medalist confessed to throwing up out of nervousness before the first run of her slalom race last Friday. Granted, with the exception perhaps of Austria’s Marcel Hirscher, Shiffrin has had more pressure on her than any other athlete in Pyeongchang.
How does she deal? We asked a few sports psychologists for their tips on performing in such a high-stress environment.
Remember: The Past Is Dead and the Future Is Uncertain
“Pressure in itself usually doesn’t exist in the moment, if that makes sense. If you’re thinking, ‘What if I crash? What if I don’t do well? What if I make a mistake?’—all those what-ifs bring your mind into the future, into hypothetical situations that have not occurred yet. Or, as was the case with Aksel Svindal who crashed in the downhill in Beaver Creek and then came back the next year, you can be like, ‘Oh, this is where I crashed.’ Then your mind is in the past. In both cases, the pressure is coming from somewhere that’s not here in the moment. I work with my athletes to be present, to take a deep breath and ground themselves and simplify their focus so they don’t find themselves overanalyzing. They cue their body in the most simple of ways to do what they know how to do instead of standing in their own way.”
—Stephanie Zavilla, director of sports performance at Winter Park Competition Center
Curse at Self-Doubt
“Physiologically, our bodies like to respond to Olympic moments as if we are in danger. This is much like how your body responds when you watch a scary movie. You might calm yourself down by telling yourself, ‘It’s just a movie.’ Well, athletes also remind themselves that they aren’t in danger by altering their outlook about the pressure, focusing attention on the strengths they have implemented to achieve high-level performance and talking, or even cursing, at the self-doubt. The athletes who tend to run into performance problems are the ones who don’t hold themselves accountable to any sort of positive action, and instead go through the motions of a performance, with their body out there competing but their mind disconnected—as if they are watching themselves compete and hanging back to see what the result might be.”
–Caroline Silby, sports psychologist for the U.S. Figure Skating Team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games
Accept What You Can’t Control
“Athletes sometimes get themselves into trouble by thinking they can’t be anxious or experience that thought, whatever that thought is. They might know the things that they should be saying to themselves, and yet it’s not always that easy…When an athlete has just had either a good or a less impressive performance, it’s easy to get stuck on what just happened. And yet, when we are able to categorize what just happened as an uncontrollable and concentrate on the task at hand, which is much more controllable, then it’s easier to perform.”
–Tim Herzog, licensed clinical professional counselor
Think Like a Samurai (But Remember You’re Not a Samurai)
“A really big transformation I try to help athletes make is to realize that the sport they’re playing is not who they are—it’s what they do. Sometimes that helps them deal with a very deep level of pressure, because they have this monumental fear of failure. But, to me, mental training is also about making peace with and even working through all of your ultimate fears. If you’re consciously trying to avoid failure, you’ve already lost, because you’re not going all in. So you have to make peace with the possibility of failure. Some of the concepts I talk to athletes about are like samurai training. Samurais were doing sports psychology and mental training way before this even existed. With the samurai, unlike an Olympian, their life was on the line. A samurai has a bad day and they’re not coming home. They had to make peace with their ultimate fear, which was losing their life. If they made peace with that, they could let their sword do what it was trained to do.”
Enjoy the Experience
“I think the pressure to make the Olympic team can be just as significant, and in some cases more significant, than actually being at the Olympics themselves. There really is something special about saying, ‘I was an Olympian.’ Most kids who are training for the Olympics, their goal is to make the team. Their goal is not to win a medal. If you go back to the opening ceremonies and remember all those athletes who came in—most of them are just glad to be there. The media doesn’t want to tell that story because it’s not interesting in the moment. After you make the team, you could actually argue that, for a lot of kids, there’s a release. It’s like, ‘I did it, I made the team.’ Medaling, then, that’s all just gravy.”