Handling Olympic Sized Pressure?

Every four years the World pays attention to who is who at the Olympic Games. It has been four years since Vancouver but how many of us in Canada have really followed our 2010 stars such as Alex Bilodeau, Charles Hamelin, Christine Nesbitt, Maëlle Ricker etc through the incredible ups and downs of their 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons? We see them as defending champions like it was yesterday but a lot can happen in four years. Winning a Gold medal is tough. Winning after winning can be even tougher. We often hear it is those who can merely survive the pressure that will come out on top when it counts.

Most of us can’t even begin to imagine the pressure some athletes feel while competing at the Olympics, especially as we sit, screaming at the TV with a beer in hand on our comfortable couch at home. However, in my humble opinion the ones that thrive rather than merely surviving are mentally aware and prepared for the following three factors:

1. Respect for the Luck factor! The best athletes prepare their best and take care of everything that is in their control. But as we can observe everyday in Sochi right now, sometimes equipment fails, or another athlete crashes someone out, the conditions can deteriorate, a body just doesn’t respond physiologically…the list goes on. Just watch our Short Track athletes for a little while and you’ll understand that luck is part of the game AND the excitement of it. Those that get angry and frustrated at every unlucky moment won’t have much mental stamina and toughness over the long haul!

2. Focusing on the Process. This is easier said then done but despite all the hoopla and distractions, the athletes that can stay focused on the simple, and previously well practiced, step by step routines of their performance – all the things that are in their control –  will give themselves the best chance of doing their personal best. They race for themselves, they compete and fight to the end by staying in every moment. I’ve often asked athletes to answer two questions in relation to a big performance goal: What is the worst thing that can happen? What is the best thing that can happen? If you can answer both and be prepared to face and accept both then you can be freer to just perform and enjoy the opportunity.

3. A Lasting Love. This may sound cheesy but the best performances often exude a real love and joy for the sport that transcends extra pressure and high expectations. Think of figure skaters who draw us in to their performance through their passion and joy of skating versus those going more mechanically through the motions. The former athletes have developed a perspective that their life in sport is a long journey and every moment is another opportunity to challenge themselves and grow. They handle the Olympic sized moments with the same attitude as any others – I love my sport, I’m glad you’re watching, and I can’t wait to show you what I can do today!

Perhaps ironically, those athletes that decide to define success in sport only by their Olympic moments, by winning or “losing” an Olympic medal, will only add undue pressure to themselves.

Finally, consider the wise words of Commander Chris Hatfield as he was interviewed as asked about his advice for athletes by Peter Mansbridge on CBC on January 20, 2014:

There are very, very, very few people who win Gold at the Olympics. If you say, “If I don’t win Gold than I’m a failure, or I’m letting somebody down or whatever”, then what if you win Silver? What if you win Bronze? What if you’re binding comes apart? What if Lufthansa doesn’t bring you gear? What if one of all those millions of things that happen in life happen? And only a few of the people who go there are going to win Gold….It is a very rare, singular moment in time (an event) in the continuum of life. You need to honour the highs, and the peak moments, you need to prepare your life for them. But recognize the fact that the preparation for those moments is your life. And in fact that is the richness of your life. And anybody who goes to these Olympics, shouldn’t just say, “Hey, I was at the Sochi Olylmpics” I would much rather hear them say, I prepared for the Sochi Olympics for twenty years and these are the things that happened and these are the things that I learned. And when I got to Sochi it was great and I did my race. And I placed 8th or 1st or 92nd. The challenge that we set for each other and the way that we shape ourselves to rise to that challenge is life. 

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