Think Like an Olympian

Training to be an Olympian is always hard. It requires long hours of physical training, sacrifice as a personal and social life is put on hold, focus, determination and the ability to remain mentally tough. While it’s the physical side everyone focuses on, because it’s the most visible, it’s the mental one that actually makes a difference big enough to deliver the medals.

In the parlance of sports psychologists and performance coaches this is the transition from “training to braining” where the tough lessons taught during the arduous training routines translate into mental toughness that allows top performers to stay calm and collected under pressure.

Consider the latest sterling moment of success when Germany’s Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot, ranked 13 at the time faced the judges and had to deliver a flawless performance and a perfect score to stay in the game. Under these conditions the pressure is such that the mind folds and the body soon follows. Nervousness, stress and the kind of mental storm that is usually experienced when people are placed under intense pressure like this create ideal conditions for making mistakes, underperforming, missing vital cues and failing to adjust to the situation. None of this happened in this case.

What is remarkable here is not what the couple physically did. Although their physical performance is mind-boggling; to be able to move at such speed on the ice and yet perform movements in relation to each other and the ground that most people can’t even comprehend speaks volumes about mental model building, the ability to map surroundings, spatial awareness and eye-training that prevents dizziness, it’s the mental one that won the day for them.

To be able to move so flawlessly and execute the difficult maneuvers being asked of them requires a mental calmness and determination that comes under “mental toughness”. That’s only developed with specific mental focus. Techniques which peak performers from all walks of life apply in order to deliver a top-notch performance under pressure.

The commonalities of their approach allow us to understand how we can think like them too:

Expect the unexpected. Keep your mind primed. Things will happen that will not be part of the ‘plan’. By expecting this they fail to surprise us and they don’t phase us.

Don’t get distracted. In any kind of play from the battlefield to the boardroom and the playing field to the game called life, a plethora of events happen all the time. Identify what’s important and focus only on that. Everything else is a distraction and distractions use up mental resources that weaken your ability to perform the way you should.

Focus on the moment. Yes there is an end goal and yes there is a plan but really all that matters is each step that is needed to get you there. From your starting position you never control the end goal nor do you have a lot of power to change the plan. But if you perform each step really well then the end goal will be achievable anyway.

Ignore mistakes. Mistakes will always happen. Learn from them but don’t dwell upon them as the reason for your imagined failure. You’re only setting yourself up to fail if you do. Use each mistake to get better.

Love what you do. Every activity has a process. If the process itself doesn’t fill you with a sense of joy it is unlikely that you will ever be able to consistently get the outcomes you want. So learn to enjoy every moment of the process itself.

Develop grit. Don’t give up. The moment things get really difficult the first response is to pack up and leave either mentally or physically. Don’t. Stay in the moment. Enjoy what you do even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Learn to get past this difficult stage so you can get where you want to.

It’s not about you. Inevitably what we do becomes part of who we are. Who we are helps us find the tenacity necessary to continue to do what we do. But there has to be some perspective. We are all more than just the sum of our parts or the outcome of an activity. You may fail at what you’re trying to do. You cannot become undone. Focus on why you did it. Focus on why that is important to you. But do not link a positive outcome with a feeling of self-worth. That will only make you realize just how much you have to lose which will only pile up more pressure at a time when you can do with less.

Baby steps are your strength. Whatever it is you are doing is made up of small steps. If you try and focus on everything at once it will overwhelm you. You will be caught in no-man’s land where your mind is locked between the past, driven by your memories and the future, driven by your fears. That way nothing you do in the present will ever be performed well enough to make a difference. Instead, focus on exactly what’s important right now. The small steps that govern technique and performance in the now.

They’re just eight steps, but if you truly master them you will be able to rule yourself instead of letting it be ruled by circumstances.

Drawn from material from: The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions