Train Your Brain for Competition
Need to perform under pressure? Go inside the mind of an athlete.
For those competing on the ultimate athletic stage, mental fortitude is as critical as physical. Going head to head with elite athletes is one thing; doing so while the world is watching is quite another.
Enter the United States Olympic Committee's team of mental health professionals, who know a thing or two about performing under pressure and what it takes to come out on top. We tapped a few of these sports psychologists for ways to master your mind and get it done on game day.
Learn to relax
“Most of us have no idea what the feeling of relaxation is even though we are told to relax all the time,” says Dr. John McCauley, Ph.D., a clinical and sports psychologist who’s worked with Olympic athletes. Relax with self-statements (for example, thinking “my eyelids feel heavy” can actually make them heavy.) Relaxing your body helps you pick up on places where you might hold tension—and once you can calm your body, you can move on to calm your mind.
Distraction is a functional defense. “If you are chattering in your head, you don’t have to listen to the pain in your heart,” says Dr. McCauley. Focus with his concentration drill: Get a piece of fruit and sit down at desk. Look at fruit and have nothing but fruit thoughts. “That usually lasts about 8 seconds before a distracting thought comes in,” he says. When you catch yourself thinking of something else, re-focus by focusing on different aspects of the fruit such as texture, size, and shape. “The skill in learning to concentrate is not to stay focused, but to re-focus.”
Place a one-inch square of paper in the middle of a piece of black paper. Have someone hold this about 6 feet in front of you. Stare at it for two minutes, then look at a white wall. You’ll see an after image. Close your eyes and try to bring the image back up in your head once it disappears. “When you visualize, the muscles you used are stimulated. You don’t really feel it, but neurologically, the experience is going on.” Visualization takes practice, but if you work at it, the process can help you conjure up images of crossing the finish line or completing your pre-race routine—simulating the feeling of competition or relaxation and building both experience and confidence in what you’re doing.
Get back to the why
We get so lost in being busy that sometimes we forget why we’re doing things. But the “why” is the core, says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph.D. a certified sports psychology advisor to the U.S. Olympic Committee. “For most people, a medal isn’t enough to carry the day,” she says. So if you hit a roadblock, think back to why you started doing something in the first place, or even try a different sport or workout in addition to your training to even the balance.
Trust in the process
You’ve trained hard, but it’s race day and you’re panicked. “On any given day, water is still wet, the track is still there, and gravity still works the same way,” says Dieffenbach. Think: I did my homework. Let’s just let it happen. It can help normalize the stress, she adds. “It’s not like you’re going to get to an Ironman and there will be some extra element, like they added sharks to the water.”
Plan around big events
“When you have a big event, it needs to be about more than that one thing,” says Dieffenbach. “Roll around and get dirty in the whole experience in a way that doesn’t distract from your race,” she says. That way—no matter the outcome—you’ll come away with something cool and exciting. If you’re running a marathon in a new city, stay an extra day and visit a museum, she suggests.
Establish a mental routine
“There are a lot of misconceptions about being calm, cool, and collected,” says Mark Aoyagi, director of Sport & Performance Psychology at the University of Denver who also works with Olympians. “What really matters is knowing when you perform best.” Build awareness by looking back on your best performances: What did you eat? How much did you sleep? Reproduce those things, he says.
Manage your energy
It starts with breathing, says Aoyagi. “Breathe slowly and deeply with a focus on the exhale to calm down, and take quicker, deep breaths with a focus on the inhalation to bring activation level up.”
Don't just 'block out the crowd'
We’re told to block out the crowd, but the way our minds work, we can’t block out anything if we’re thinking about it, Aoyagi says. Instead, focus your attention somewhere else—your breathing, a song you’re listening to, or last minute preparations.