July 21, 2021

The Olympian mind-set and what we can learn from it

A track sprinter breaking through tape at the finish line

Madison, Wis. – The Olympic Games generate excitement around the world because they highlight, in part, what humans can accomplish.

Athletes get far on physical ability, but what separates the truly elite from the rest is how they use their minds. Having a strong mindset can be one of the most powerful tools for succeeding in the face of competition.

According to Shilagh Mirgain, distinguished psychologist at UW Health, we can all learn from how Olympic athletes mentally prepare for their sport to improve our own performance in challenging situations, whether it’s competing as an amateur athlete, giving a presentation at work, playing an instrument, taking a test or doing a project at home.

A strong mind might not win an Olympic medal, but a weak mind will lose you one, Mirgain said. She offers the following mental skills to improve any aspect of our performance in stressful situations:

  • Access an optimal zone of performance: Olympic athletes recognize the zone where they perform the best. Finding the right physiological and emotional state often enables athletes to best compete. We can learn to access our own optimal zone by identifying a time when we performed well and thinking about the characteristics that went into doing our best, then bringing those same qualities to an upcoming task.

  • Manage stress: Olympic athletes’ training includes learning how to handle big-event nerves. They develop plans for dealing with anticipated stressors, which can include creating a pre-competition routine, or series of actions and thoughts that help them mentally prepare for success. We can do this by simply realizing that we have some control over how we interpret our stress. Positive stress (excitement) can be good and can push you during a high-pressure moment. Brief relaxation strategies like breathing exercises or listening to music can help you keep that performance anxiety to a minimum.

  • Focus the mind: Olympic athletes need to have laser-like focus on the task at hand, and they do so by staying in the present. They learn to bring complete attention to the task at hand by using the pressure in a positive way. Learning how to stabilize the mind in the moment, not worrying about outside influences or possible failure, are key mental skills for Olympians. Practicing mindfulness is a great way for anyone to cultivate focus.

  • Practice positive thinking: Olympic athletes monitor what they think and say about their performance. They learn how to replace negative thinking with encouragement. We should all listen to what we are saying to ourselves about our performance. Correct negative thoughts by consciously thinking more positive thoughts. In time, interrupting negative thoughts and replacing them with constructive ones will have a real effect on your performance and overall outlook.

  • Recover from setbacks quickly: One thing that sets elite athletes apart is their ability to bounce back after a setback. They let go of mistakes and refocus their mind on what’s next. Luckily, it’s a skill we can all learn. Start by remembering that there are only successes and learning experiences, and that when things don’t go well, we can learn from it.

  • Four-year goals: Olympians don’t succeed by chance. Start setting and working towards long-term goals and incorporate mental training to help you. Building an Olympian mind-set has a lot of benefits for your game, your career and your life.