The Olympic Mindset
When the world is watching a US athlete let an Olympic medal slip out of her hands there is someone suffering right alongside her. His name is Peter Haberl, and he is a Senior Sports Psychologist for TEAM USA. According to Peter, his job is to
“help normalize unpleasant emotions for athletes at The Games.”
Here are the top lessons I learned from Peter during a recent interview:
It is a myth that champions are always cool, calm and collected. That’s not how the mind works. Peter has trained many champions from various sports and confirms that anxiety, fear of failure, self doubt, and comparison plague everyone. Knowing that one is not alone with his or her mental party-crashers makes It is easier to normalize the unpleasant emotions and thoughts of competition. If you care about the outcome and outcomes are uncertain, it is quite rationale to have anxious thoughts during a performance.
The Olympic journey almost always begins with an act of love. Champions love what they do. That’s why they devoted more and more time to their sport. At least that’s the hope, because, the siren call of the five Olympic rings offers a very conditional brand of love. A proper heart check is therefore, probably the best starting point for any struggling competitor. “Why do I do what I do?” should be exercise number one. (See Karen Chen’s comments on rediscovering her love of skating here).
Awareness, attention, and values are the three key teaching pillars for Peter and his athletes. After listening to Peter’s interview a few times, I think values is the best pillar to start with. As Peter explained, what you value is a reflection of who you want to be, and is a much more controllable factor than outcomes. Outcomes focus you on what you want to get, and are much less controllable. Understanding who you want to be as a person helps stabilize you when the world or the moment is trying to squeeze you into outcomes-focused myopia.
Awareness is powerful. It can separate you and the performance from your anxious thought producing factory. As the mind starts to offer an unproductive story like, “this isn’t going well – I’m letting everyone down,” don’t try to quiet the inner editor or make it go away. Be aware of unpleasant thoughts, but don’t try to kick normal inhabitants out of your mind. Rather, acknowledge doubt, fear, worry, anxiety as normal then say “I’m reclaiming attention. I will finish my next task as a responsible human being.” No one wants to experience the unpleasant thoughts and emotions, but it turns out they are very common and very normal. Normalize unpleasant thoughts and emotions.
The currency of success is attention, not thoughts or emotions. Thoughts and emotions are often counterproductive.
Anxiety before or during a performance has beauty. It is a strong indicator that one really cares about something.
Gratitude is an antidote to an outcome-focused performance. Gratitude is built on values that are alive, and active in your mind on a daily basis.
Practice being grateful.
Fear of failure is a common traveler on this (life) journey. It walks hand in hand with the unknown. Don’t try to make fear of failure go away. “Ah, this is what’s supposed to happen when we really care about something” is a better response when you sense fear of failure creeping into your mind.
Gold comes when we are present. Outcome is future. The best performances happen when you are not focused on the podium, but are in the present, giving your attention to your next responsibility. I like what Karen Chen told me recently. She said, “I know I’ve got more to share – more for others to enjoy. I want to go back (to the Olympics) and deliver my best.” One mind hack to keep you in the here and now is to say, “I’ve got more for others to enjoy. It’s not all about my personal glory.”
If you want to build a foundation for long term success in any discipline, start by establishing (or re-establishing) what your values are and the kind of person you want to be. Remember that every champion faces doubt and anxious thoughts. When unpleasant thoughts and emotions surface tell yourself, “ah, this is normal. I really care about something here. The best thing I can do is practice reclaiming my attention and do the next responsible task.” If you can supplant thoughts about winning the gold with giving people something golden in your work to enjoy with you, the moment will be yours. Lastly, the process of building an Olympic mindset is accelerated when we practice gratitude, the antidote for outcomes-based living.
Thank you for reading. And thanks to Peter for taking time out of his demanding schedule to empower us with world class teaching. Give to Team USA today: http://donate.teamusa.org
Dr. Adam C. Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org)