What You Can Learn from Olympic Athletes

Sports psychology and mental training from elite athletes can benefit everyone, and not just when exercising.

March 1, 2010

Go for the gold: You don't have to be an Olympian to use the secrets that elite athletes know.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The Vancouver Olympics have taught viewers a lot about what athletes are willing to go through to succeed in their sports, whether it was watching Joannie Rochette's bronze-medal-winning figure-skating performance four days after her mother passed away or seeing snowboarder and liver-transplant-recipient Chris Klug end a 27-year career in what will likely be his last Olympics. It could seem to the average person that these people have superhuman mental and physical abilities that allow them to be so successful, but really, the tricks they employ can be used by all of us.

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"One thing I wouldn't want to suggest is that Olympic athletes are somehow different from the rest of us in terms of their emotional and psychological makeup," says Andrew Meyers, PhD, professor in the University of Memphis Department of Psychology faculty, who focuses on sports psychology. "They deal with the same trials and tribulations we all do."

Olympic athletes work hard, but their success depends heavily on goal setting and mental training. Here are a few things you can learn from them:

#1: Set ambitious goals then break them down. "I was always struck you see these relatively young people who are able to say 'Four years from now I want this thing to occur—for me to stand on a podium, and to have accomplished something special,'" says Meyers, who worked for a short time at an Olympic training center. "They have the ability to set a long-term goal but to make it real to themselves every day."

Obviously, determination is a key factor in getting through those four years, says Richard Suinn, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Colorado State University and a past team psychologist for U.S. Olympic athletes. But setting "subgoals," he adds, is what moves them forward. "Subgoals are concrete, observational steps that one aims to accomplish, as each step leads closer and closer to that end," he says. Whatever your final goal, whether it's losing weight, getting fit, spending less money, or finding more time for hobbies, set small achievable goals that you can track, for instance, to lose two pounds per week or eat out five fewer meals per month. "Once you can literally chart your progress—in pounds lost, in number of words written, in tasks completed—such information helps maintain the motivation to keep at it," says Suinn.

Read on for more mental tricks used by elite athletes.

#2: Listen to the Boy Scouts. And "be prepared," not just physically, but mentally as well. "Few athletes can perform at max level without putting in the time to train and to prepare," says Suinn, but their preparation for competitions extends beyond just physical training to include things like planning their attack, working on concentration, and managing stress. If you have a big presentation at work coming up or your long-term goal is to watch less TV, don't just worry about whether your PowerPoint slides are flashy enough or how you're going make it without knowing what happened on Lost. Plan for those potential obstacles that could hinder your success. "Stresses can be anticipated and handled, positive thoughts can be instilled, and actions can be rehearsed repeatedly until they become second nature," says Suinn. He recommends visualization, which has become a common tool that athletes use to prepare for events. "It combines relaxation with imagery to rehearse the skill demanded under the real-life setting," he adds, and can be very helpful in improving focus and concentration. You can also practice mindfulness meditation, which not only eases stress but may even boost your brainpower.

#3: Have a healthy balance in your life. "Olympic athletes have a tremendously laserlike focus on one goal," says Meyers. "And that's an admirable quality. It takes an amazing amount of dedication to live like that." At the same time, he adds, that's not always a good thing. "There has to be some balance. It's not always healthy to be that focused, that zeroed in, on something that makes the other aspects of your life take a backseat and disappear." He points to the skier Bode Miller as a prime example. Four years ago, Miller was favored to win all sorts of medals and failed on virtually every count. In the intervening four years, he had a child and gained a little stability, and has turned his luck around in Vancouver enough to win three medals. "Here's a guy who has enhanced his athletic performance because he did something we all do—get married and have kids," says Meyers. "You have to find consistency and stability in order to be successful."