Want to become a better athlete? Train your brain. Even the best athletes in the world struggle with pre-race jitters, fear, self-doubt and pressure. Just like how they hone their physical craft, they work diligently to strengthen their minds, shut out the noise and set themselves up for success. The power of mental toughness grew especially apparent at this year’s winter Olympics, where minds won (or lost) many medals. Here are our top four tips from the pros on how to up your mental -- and hence physical -- game. (And have more fun doing what you love, in the process!)
1. Love yourself. Recognize and accept your feelings and how you feel. Nervous? That’s okay, own it. Before the slalom ski event at the Olympics this winter, Mikaela Shiffrin was so nervous from shouldering the pressure of being the heavy favorite that she vomited before the race. She finished a disappointing (to her) fourth.
“Just nerves again,” she recounted with a smile, despite failing to live up to expectations. “Instead of focusing on the good skiing that I know I can do, I was conservative. I was almost trying to do something special and I don’t need to do something special. I just need to ski like myself and I’ll be fine.” Two days later, Shiffrin composed herself to win her third Olympic medal, this time in the alpine combined.
Loving yourself as you are today and being honest with who that person is, proves integral to success. We can only decipher what we need and what we need to do when we accurately assess ourselves. This mindset applies to training, too. Tired today? Take it easy in your workout so that you can bounce back strong and eager to crush. Try to focus on the big picture and remember that ebbs and flows in training and performance are natural, even necessary, rather than using each day to prove your fitness and ability to yourself.
2. Failure is your friend. If you get nervous before races or hard workouts, especially ones you care a lot about, you may be overly focused on the outcome. Instead, focus on the process. Also, reframe your mindset around failure. “Failure” -- whether it be a tactical error, a bad race, or an injury -- is an opportunity for growth, not a reason to give up.
One way to shift your mindset from focusing on the outcome to the process is to remember that we actually derive more satisfaction from the process, not the result. As Gretchen Rubin writes in “The Happiness Project,” “The fun part doesn’t come later, now is the fun part.”
Olympic figure skater Nathan Chen verbalized this sentiment. A “disastrous” mistake-riddled short program in Pyeongchang lended him perspective, freeing him to skate with passion and joy in the free skate. He pulled off an unprecedented six quadruple jumps to win that section of the program.
3. Positivity is power. “I for sure want to win every race,” double Olympic champion in the Super G ski event and parallel giant snowboard event, Esther Ledecká, said in Pyeongchang. “But the first thing is to enjoy and have good fun with what I’m doing with my sports.” Olympic champion nordic skier Jessie Diggins also embodies the energy of exuberance. Balancing the grueling training and racing of cross country skiing with an almost impossible sparkling positivity, Diggins along with teammate Kikkan Randall not only became the first American women to ever stand on a nordic skiing podium at the Olympics, they also won Gold.
Diggins’ happiness extends to racing. “I loved it so much I actually giggled,” Diggins said of her gold medal performance. “This was arguably the most important race of my life, but somehow amidst all the craziness, I was having FUN.”
Not only does happiness help calm nervousness and excite empowerment, it makes pain bearable. As Diggins explained of her gold medal performance, “I’m just happy enough to be able to will myself to suffer the way nobody else can.”
Diggins pumps positivity into her brain through her headphones. “On the bus to the [Olympic] venue I turned on my headphones and bumped the Shakira station,” she recounted. “Just try listening to the dance beat on that station and not feel happy, I dare you.” Whether it be tunes, writing down something positive about your training or yourself each day in your journal, or repeating a positive mantra to yourself mid race, find strategies that fill you with excitement and enthusiasm.
4. Relax. While jitters before a workout or race can be useful, too much of them can be destructive. Train your brain to relax by putting athletics in perspective. One way to do so is by remembering that your competition is just as human as you, no matter their results.
One way to relax is remembering why you participate in sports in the first place. Which is hopefully to have fun! “We got ready for the [Olympics] final, and nerves were high,” Diggins said. “I’d also never felt more fired up and ready to just go out there and do what I love!” And set your expectations accordingly, and in terms of elements that you can control. After all, you can’t control the weather, the competition, or even how you will feel at any particular moment. So it is futile wasting energy worrying about them. “For me, the only disappointment that I will actually feel is if we somehow don’t give it everything we have, and if I go out there and race and manage to somehow hold back.”
Another way to assuage your nerves: remind yourself that athletics, at the end of the day, is just one privilege we are lucky enough to do. “The aim is to move with the greatest possible freedom toward the realization of the best within us,” Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four minute barrier in the mile, wrote in 1955. “This is the quest of a lifetime, and sport plays only a small part in it.”