How Do Olympians Deal With Nerves? 8 Things Mental Skills Coaches Train Them To Do
We all get nervous from time to time. But when your job is based on performing extreme feats of agility and strength in front of hundreds, thousands, or millions of people, it’s fair to say that you may be more familiar with that nervous feeling than most. In addition to their physical training, Olympians and other elite athletes often undergo what’s called mental skills coaching in order to harness their anxiety around performing to become better athletes. “Once athletes get to [elite] levels, the difference between winning and losing is often times not a physical difference,” Ben Oliva, a Mental Performance Coach at Sports Strata in New York City, tells Bustle. Certain techniques can help athletes hone their skills for consistent success, but as these sports psychologists tell Bustle, these are strategies that you can use even if you’re not an elite athlete.
“People assume that you have to be an elite athlete in order to work with a mental skills coach, but the truth is, anyone that is involved in any type of performance can benefit from mental skills training,” Carrie Cheadle, author of On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance, tells Bustle. “It’s about assessing your strengths, understanding your weaknesses, and then learning, practicing, and implementing the mental skills you need to help achieve your own goals.” Mental skills coaches have seen firsthand how anyone can benefit from these stress-management techniques. “The pressure an Olympian feels at the top of their Olympic run is not very different than the manager feels when he has to make a board presentation,” says Oliva. “Sure, the stakes might be higher, but for the person who it's happening to, it feels the same.”
There are tons of mental skills that these professionals teach their clients, but these are eight that literally anyone can benefit from, athlete or not. All it takes is an open mind, and, as with any new sport, lots and lots of practice.
1. Increasing Your Awareness
In order to effectively manage your nerves, you need to be aware of the situations where you're stressed in the first place. Doing this requires taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture. “Digging into [your] values, the why of why we perform and compete, helps to deal with setbacks and frustrations,” Lynda Lahman, a Certified Professional Coach, tells Bustle. For someone who isn’t an athlete, this can look like re-examining the passions that brought you to your job, for example, or the values you hold dear in a relationship. Then, take a holistic view of what your day looks like when you’re stressed, and when you’re not, and take note of what happens when you’re feeling your best. “The first step is increasing awareness about what is happening in your mind and in your body when things are going well and when things aren't going well,” says Oliva. He suggests asking yourself, “What does it look like when I'm truly at my best, and how can I do that as often as possible?”
2. Reset Your Goals
Instead of stressing out about the outcome of your goals, try focusing on your process instead. That way, you won't get anxious about the factors that you can't control. "If you judge yourself and you judge your goals only based on the outcome, it becomes very anxiety-provoking because you don't have control over your outcomes," says Oliva. "On the other hand, if you can focus in on things you can actually control — things like preparation, effort, attitude," you can more appropriately assess how you personally are able to meet your goals.
Additionally, it will benefit your mental health to reframe your way of seeing the outcome — the classic 'glass half full'. "Most elite athletes hate losing more than they hate being beaten," Lahman tells Bustle. "Being beaten means someone had a better day despite both athletes leaving it all on the field. While frustrating, it is less devastating than feeling they contributed to their own failure." For non-athletes, this means focusing on your own efforts instead of comparing your success to that of those around you. When you're in your yoga class, instead of studying everyone else's form, remind yourself what brought you to your mat in the first place. Be mindful of what you have control over, and set your goals with that in mind.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness is a wonderful way to pull your brain back into the present moment and refocus your energy. Take an action that you routinely repeat every day, and pay close attention to what you're doing. Lahman suggests honing in on brushing your teeth as a way to practice. "Learning to let go of random thoughts by simply coming back to the action at hand will train their minds to do the same when performing," she says. Even if you're not an athlete, singling out a mindless action every day can help strengthen your overall awareness. "Apps like Headspace and Insight Timer can be great places to start with guided meditations and instruction," says Cheadle. Try it the next time you're washing the dishes or making your bed — focus in on the sensation of moving the sponge across the plate, the temperature of the water, how much effort it takes to scrub away food. "Where you put your attention changes how you experience things," Oliva says.
4. Adjust Your Self-Talk
The pep talks we give ourselves can often directly affect our confidence levels and the way we perform, on the field and literally everywhere else. But surprisingly, a lot of people tell themselves the wrong thing, such as to relax (which seems counter-intuitive). "It actually brings attention to the stress rather than to the actions they need to be doing," Lahman says. Instead, athletes and non-athletes alike can focus on creating a mantra that is tailored to their own mental landscape. "You have to focus on the right thing at the right time every time." Oliva says. "The only way to do that is to have reminders, or you're going to forget."
5. Use Your Breath
Paying attention to the way you breathe is a fantastic mechanism to harness in order to bring down your stress levels. Breathing straight from your diaphragm, rather your throat, can offer great breath support. Additionally, breathing for four seconds at a time, in and out of your nose, can help lower your heart rate. "Using diaphragmatic breathing [can] slow down our breathing and reverse the fight or flight response, or manage the response," Oliva adds. Even if you're not an athlete, practicing control over your breathing is a stress-relieving way to start and end your day.
6. Visualize Your Success
Your imagination is an incredible tool when it comes to picturing your success. Calm your nerves by focusing all your energy on visualizing the outcome you desire, rather than negative thoughts. "It’s much easier to ‘look where you want to go’ rather than trying to stop negative thoughts," Lahman says. The more vivid the imagery, the better. "When you are visualizing, you are using some of the same neural pathways you would be using if you were actually engaging in the activity," Cheadle tells Bustle. This doesn't only apply to the Olympic arena: you can use visualization to motivate themselves in everyday life. "If you are planning to work out after work and you’re starting to hear the siren call of the couch at home, you can spend five minutes at your desk visualizing yourself putting on your workout clothes" Cheadle says. "See yourself going to the gym and feeling excited and eager to get in your workout."
7. Reframe Your Nerves
Be wary when it comes to labeling your feelings as 'bad' or 'good', or judging them in any way. "If you are experiencing the physiological symptoms of feeling anxious (butterflies in your stomach, racing heart, etc.) and you label those feelings as 'bad,' it can intensify the anxiety you feel. Instead, try reframing what you feel as energy," says Cheadle. The belief that your body is just excited can block out any fake news your brain might be sending you.
"When we're put in a stressful situation, our body responds by really preparing to fight or flee in order to stay safe," says Oliva "The question is then, does [you] go, 'I'm freaking out, I can't perform like this?' Or [do you] go 'oh, there's my fight or flight response. I knew that was coming and I know how to handle it.'" Reframing your nerves as a potential energy source can help you harness that feeling to your advantage, whether that's by making you hyperfocused on delivering that presentation, or serving as motivation to finally have that serious conversation with your partner.
Of course, the only way to be able to reap the benefits of these techniques is to practice them again and again. "The key is that this is a skill like any other skill," says Cheadle. "You have to practice so that you will be able to use the skill in a moment when you really need it." Oliva suggests focusing on one different skill every day — start with an affirmation and try to repeat it to yourself every time you have a moment of doubt, or commit to engaging mindfully in one mindless activity. "The truth is it takes practice and it takes repetition [...] to stick with it," Oliva says.
Many people are predisposed to believe that mental discipline is a hereditary trait, instead of an acquired skill. But the truth is, people are not born confident, self-assured, or motivated. These characteristics are acquired through practice and perseverance — for athletes and nonathletes alike. It is only when we treat our minds as we do muscle that we can truly begin to flex our mental prowess. The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, think about what your favorite Olympian would do. Chances are good it's something on this list.