Becoming an Olympic champion is no easy task. Just being selected to go to an Olympic games can be a difficult challenge in itself. To give you some idea about what it takes, most of Team GB’s athletes are full time. That means this is their job, they work every day, usually 5 -7 days a week for 364 days per year (normally a day off at Christmas). They dedicate 4 years to an Olympic cycle for in some cases for only around 60 seconds of performance. Here I open up the secrets of the mind of an Olympic champion.
They control the controllable
Nearly everything at an Olympic games is controlled for. Clothing, equipment, nutrition, hydration, travel, accommodation, spare equipment, technical training, mental training, physical training, tactical training, performance analysis, awareness, planning. In the four years leading up to an Olympics everything that can go wrong is thought about and planned for. Nothing is left to chance and a plan is in place for every eventuality.
They focus on the performance
Thinking about the competition, the media, the fans, the sights, the enormity of the task is a big no no if you want to be an Olympic champion. Winning is everything it can mean the difference between funding for the next 4 years or struggling through with no money. Olympic champions focus obsessively on what they have to do for the time it takes to win a medal. Usually they will have 2 or 3 specific process or performance cues to focus on throughout the event. These things will be designed to ensure that they perform to the highest standard.
They obsess over their goals
Olympic champions set targets. They know what they have to achieve, when and how they are going to do it. They work to develop their strengths first and their weaknesses second. If athletes feel like they are good at something they will do more of it. Olympic champions set performance, process and outcome goals. With the importance being given to the performance and process, they are the most controllable.
They embrace the nerves
Anxiety and nerves are part of the deal. They can’t be changed, and are inevitable when it comes to competing on such a big stage with millions of people watching around the world. The butterflies or raving heart that athletes get when faced with a challenge is actually a good sign. It shows they care about what they are going to do, and shows that the body is ready to compete. Adrenaline, extra oxygen in the body, more blood pumping round the body faster are all signs of anxiety, interestingly they are all useful for a good sporting performance.
They talk to themselves
Throughout the Olympics you will see athletes talking to themselves. Sometimes these are very short, quick statements that give them some kind of cue. In other performances that are a bit more complex they will recite longer scripts of information that will help them with performance. Some athletes will have this written down, others will have it all memorised.
They ask ‘what if…’
As I mentioned before everything in controlled for at an Olympic games. Nothing is left for chance. Most Olympic champions will go through an exercise where everything that could go wrong is thought about, these are then used as ‘what ifs’ (e.g. what if I drop a point…). At this point potential solutions to these problems are developed and agreed with the support staff, coaching team and athletes. Everyone knows the plans and they are obsessively adhered to. Again nothing is left to chance.
They understand their brains.
Olympic champions understand exactly what is going on inside their head at all times. They know themselves, their thoughts, feelings, physiological reactions, and behaviours inside and out. They spend time getting to grips with what’s going on and they get used to challenges they face.
They put themselves under pressure
I recently heard that the New Zealand rowing team make the hardest day in training a lot worse than they could ever imagine the hardest day in competition. This kind of pressure training is actually the key to great successes at an Olympic games. The pressure at the games is immense and the things undoubtedly don’t go their way. Olympic champions train in the worst possible conditions; they get good at responding to unpredictable events. If the conditions are poor then Olympic champions are the ones that are out there practicing, getting it right. Only then do they know they have trained for everything.
They have a plan, and stick to it
I know I’ve mentioned a lot of planning. It is hugely important so I’m going to mention it again. Olympic champions have a plan for every eventuality and they stick to it. At a games it’s easy to get lost in the moment and forget what you planned to do. Olympic champions know their plan, and stick to it no matter what is happening on the day. If things go wrong the plan is what they can go back to no matter what. Sticking to the plan builds confidence and controls against unpredictable events.
They visualise the win
Olympic champions have already seen themselves win the event before it’s even happened. They spent hours rehearsing the event, going over what they had planned, practising in their mind. The visualisation or imagery techniques can give an athlete the confidence they need to go into a game knowing what they want to achieve, and how to achieve it.
They have fun and make friends
Sport is about having fun, enjoy the time you spend doing it and making friends with the people around you. Olympic champions are friendly, warm, and know how to talk to people. This not only makes a games easier when you get swept away with the hustle and bustle of an Olympic village but having a good support network of friends, family, teammates, coaches, support staff and other athletes actually buffers against stress, helps mental well-being, and makes competing easier. Interestingly research suggests this social support can also buffer against non-impact injury.