As the Olympics Begin, Mindset Will Play a Large Role in Who Medals

Sam Obitz / July 26th, 2012 / No Comments »

Since the Olympics only come around once every four years, they often wreak havoc on many athletes’ mental game. For some athletes,  just the knowledge that failing to medal means four more years until their next opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal, is enough to throw them off their game. Others place such overriding importance on winning a medal that they tighten up during competition and underperform.

There’s probably no better example of this than winter Olympian ice-skater Michelle Kwan. Despite dominating the world of figure skating from 1996-2002, she never won a gold medal in the Olympic Games. Though she was a record setting nine-time USA champion and five-time world skating champion, Kwan never performed her best in the Olympics. Many felt this was a result of her lifelong dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympics getting into her head, thus making her tight in both of those competitions.

As hockey great Mark Messier said, “The only pressure I’m under is the pressure I’ve put on myself.” When you want something so badly, and especially when you only have one chance at getting it every four years, you tend to put undo pressure on yourself to get it now. This is counterproductive as it only promotes tightness and inhibition which are both correlated to underperformance.

Athletes I have worked with have had much better outcomes when they trust their training (both mental and physical) and enter their competitions with a refined indifference to potential outcomes. This keeps them relaxed and focused on the process and usually leads to flexibility and optimal performance. Their bodies know what to do, if they have prepared optimally, and any thoughts they have in regards to outcomes simply interrupt what they have trained so hard to do and make their success less likely.

The reason for this is that once we have achieved a level of competency in any activity (or expertise in the case of Olympic athletes), that skill becomes automated in us, and any thoughts that intrude on what we are doing take us out of our optimal (automated mode). Conversely, when we are learning something new we need to think about what we are doing to develop that skill, so that it will eventually become automated in us. However, while we are learning a new skill those thoughts required to learn it keep us from performing optimally.

For those with a scientific bent, the two activities mentioned in the previous paragraph use different parts of the brain. The non-automated learning takes place in the pre-frontal cortex section of your brain, while automated performance is under the control of the basal ganglia section of your brain. When both are activated at the same time, performance suffers often catastrophic effects.

So if you want your best chance of medaling, it’s important to focus on enjoying the experience and letting your training take care of the rest. Those who are able to do that, will likely exceed their goals and maybe even bring home some precious metal in the form of a medal.

 

You can follow Sam on Twitter: @SuperTaoInc

 

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