Elite athletes know that their minds can be their best asset or their worst enemy. No matter how much skill and talent they possess, their mindset can either help them fulfill their greatest potential or hold them back from doing their best.
To make it to the Olympics, athletes must be mentally strong. And to build that mental muscle, many of them rely on sports psychologists and mental-strength trainers to teach them the mind exercises that will help them perform under pressure.
Here are three things the greatest Olympians have trained their brains to do:
1. They Regulate Their Emotions
Swimmer Katie Ledecky is known for keeping her Zen-like way of avoiding stress. In an interview with Vogue she said she doesn’t feel the pressure when she’s in a swim meet. She keeps focused on her goals and stays calm, even when she’s up against the world’s toughest competitors.
Elite athletes know which emotions help them perform at their best. While one individual may do well when she’s excited, another one might excel when she’s completely calm. Self-awareness and emotion-regulation skills are key to performing under pressure.
Mental-strength trainers help athletes develop preperformance routines that help them get into the right frame of mind. While pacing around the room is likely to raise an athlete’s anxiety, listening to inspirational music might evoke just the right emotion.
How this can work for you: Walking into an interview when you’re really nervous or calling a potential client when you’re feeling down could be disastrous. Pay close attention to your emotions and think about how you feel when you’re performing at your best. Then, take steps to get yourself into the right frame of mind before you approach an important situation.
2. They Know How to Stay Focused
It’s easy for an athlete to get distracted by the audience, the competition, or the sheer excitement of going for the gold when competing in the Olympics. And one second of distraction often makes the difference between getting a gold medal and not medaling at all. Perhaps you saw the picture of South African swimmer Chad le Clos looking over at Michael Phelps during their race?
Elite athletes practice staying in the zone. That means concentration won’t be a conscious struggle while they’re competing. Some athletes recite mantras, such as “Give everything,” to keep themselves on track. Others regularly practice mindfulness so they can be fully aware of each moment.
How this can work for you: When you’re giving a speech or a big presentation, getting distracted by the audience could throw you off track. Make sure you know your topic well enough that your presentation is like second nature. Then create a positive affirmation, like “You’ve got this,” to say to yourself if you start to get rattled.
3. They Control Their Physiological Responses
Studies have found a correlation between self-regulation and world ranking. Athletes who are better at regulating their body’s response to stress—respiration rate, heart rate, and the activation of their muscles—are likely to perform better than those who struggle.
Many elite athletes incorporate biofeedback in their training. Data collected by various sensors and devices that monitor the electrical activity in their muscles or skin temperature help them learn to use their thoughts to control their physiological responses.
Gymnast Simone Biles can be seen placing her right hand on her stomach, closing her eyes, and taking a deep breath before she performs. In an interview with ESPN, her mental-strength coach, Robert Andrews, said that that relaxation technique is something they’d been practicing in his office and he was pleased to see she was using it to stay calm in the Olympic games. “When she over-rotates, she’s too amped up. When she sticks it, she’s in the zone,” he said.
How this can work for you: Being able to keep your body calm under stress will help you think more clearly and behave more productively. Take slow, deep breaths when you’re faced with a stressful situation and you’ll be better equipped to keep your body calm.