How Olympic Athletes Deal With Stress

I cannot fathom the amount of pressure an Olympic athlete is under during the Games; it's a concept so permanently far from my reality that I'm literally incapable of understanding. But it's probably beneficial for any human to do a little digging into how Olympic athletes deal with stress — because if they can do it on a global scale, I can do it, like, at my office.

For the majority of Rio competitors, these couple of weeks are the highlight of their entire lives. They are the culmination of sacrifices and financial burden and passion and childhood dreams — and when you add to that the pressure of propping up your country's reputation, us non-Olympians might be able to grasp maybe one 100th of the magnitude of the event.

So how do Olympic athletes do it? Strategies definitely vary by sport — swimmer Michael Phelps and trap shooter Corey Cogdell, for example, probably have vastly different techniques. But according to a recent study, athletes who embrace the pressure and try re-framing their anxiety have a better chance of succeeding.

Those findings actually remind me of an old Humans of New York post that I still think about on roughly a weekly basis: In response to the question, "If you could give a group of people one piece of advice, what would it be?", an incredibly wise woman said, "There’s three things you can do when life sends a wave at you. You can run from it... You can also fall back on your ego and try to stand your ground, but then it’s still going to clobber you. Or you can use it as an opportunity to go deep, and transform yourself to match the circumstances. And that’s how you get through the wave."

So here's how five Olympians get through the wave. Maybe these techniques are worth trying for non-competitors, too. Perhaps we should all give them a shot.

1. They Put It Into Perspective

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In an interview with Health Magazine, swimmer Missy Franklin explained that putting the race into perspective can help with competition jitters. "I start to think about the things that aren't going to change in my life, regardless of what the impact of that race is," she said. And she's right — win or lose, at the end of the day, you're still you. And you're pretty great.

2. They Tune Out Others' Expectations

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Not only is Simone Biles preternaturally gifted and driven, she also seems unfazed by this whole, "record-setting Olympic career" thing. And that may be because her stress-management technique is ultra-simple: Tuning people out. “I tune it all out because if I let other people’s stress get to me, then I stress myself out more than I need to,” she said in an interview with Vanity Fair .

3. They Set Goals

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The media doesn't seem to know what to do with Katie Ledecky. She's a once-in-a-generation talent, but she refuses to pander to journalists and TV hosts. When Vogue visited her at her home several months before Rio, Ledecky was straightforward about how she deals with pressure: "I’ve just always set goals," she said. "When I was a kid, I would write them down, and I would work toward them, and that’s still pretty much what I do."

4. They Breathe


Gymnast Aly Raisman, who I feel I would be good friends with IRL, is a big believer in breathing in and breathing out. Which is deceptively easy. "For me I think the most important thing is just breathing and staying calm, and being positive — trying to stay confident even though you obviously are nervous," she told Health .

5. They Turn To Alternative Medicine

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While the benefits of cupping, the hot alternative therapy technique made famous by Michael Phelps, remain relatively unproven, the belief that it's helping can actually make a difference in an athlete's performance. The power of persuasion is real, my dudes.