I am obsessed with watching the Olympics right now – there are so many lessons to learn. It’s funny, I used to watch the Olympics when I was a kid with admiration and awe, and then I was fortunate and competed in two Olympics.
The awe is less so, because I know to my core the WORK that you have to put in to be good enough to compete on the world’s stage, but my admiration is unwavering. Olympic athletes are just exceptional to watch perform.
The other thing that is happening for me is that I’m seeing everything through the lens of the inner game. Now that I have more science and language around the process I experienced, I think the thing that separates what is fairly even talent at the highest level, is not genetics, with the exception of the Usain Bolts, Michael Phelps, and Kerri Walsh’s of the world.
When I see triumph and defeat, I’m looking for insight from those experiencing it, as to the mindset that is underneath their experiences. Our psychological framework often gets revealed in the interviews after competition.
“What happens from the neck up is often the hand at play in separating those that win from those that do not, and who can perform consistently well on any stage.”
I’m going make the assertion that all 11,000 athletes are gritty. They’ve done difficult and boring for long periods of time, and they’ve perfected that process. Some are maybe better at deliberate practice than others. I wonder how many have trained, as Mike and I talked about in the podcast, to have more moments feeling what it is like to be you at your best – on or off the field of competition.
It’s a skill to drop into that space where it’s just SO good to be you, and what I know now, is that training your mind is one way to increase the frequency of getting there. So, what I’m seeing are upsets already in some of the team sports.
I’m seeing people who are favored to win in individual events, either crushing their competition, or getting tight in the last few meters and “losing” the race. I’ve also heard people watching say things like, “he just doesn’t look like himself” or “they look really in sync with each other,” and “she’s really on tonight.”
I could be wrong, but I still think that the Olympics feels different than any other competition we compete in as athletes. Part of that is the emotions we attach to it, but part of it is also just the whole machine. So many bells and whistles.
You can try to make it feel exactly the same, and I think maybe some can, but when it doesn’t, the real question is, how do you respond? Self-talk (confidence), optimism, calm, focus (being present), control, etc. are all mindset skills that help us adjust when things are difficult, and also to be more optimal when things are good.
I heard Michael Phelps say last night in regards to Chad le Clos’s pre-game antics, “He does his thing, I do mine.” That’s control right there – focusing on what’s in your control, which are our thoughts, actions, effort and attitude. Everyone has the capacity to be great at relentlessly focusing on what’s in our control and how we respond to situations.
Mike often says, excellence happens in the present moment. You can train your mind to guide your thoughts toward present moment focus, as well.
Mara Abbott of the U.S. cycling team just missed out on a medal when 3 cyclists passed her in the final seconds of the race. After the race, she was quoted as saying, “The ironic part is that, you’re in that situation and you don’t actually believe you can win. You know the people are behind you, and you know they’re chasing you and you think about winning an Olympic medal and you think that’s something that could never, never happen to you… And I didn’t believe it until I passed 200 meters to go. Then I thought, ‘Oh my god, oh my god,this is going to happen.’ And then they passed me, I guess.”
That’s what they say about the “counting your chickens before they hatch” quote. It’s a great example of self-talk, which is where confidence comes from. It’s also a great example of focus. All of those thoughts she had in less than 40 seconds of race time, took her away from the present moment, and possibly away from flow state.
“When we think about the future or the past, it’s difficult to be optimal in THIS moment.”
It’s also a testament to what an optimistic framework allows people to accomplish.
The thought that “something good is about to happen” leads to a much different performance than “what if I lose” or “I’m not supposed to win,” “what if they catch me?” For Abbott, “oh my god is this going to happen” and then they passed her.
Her story just resonates too clearly with me. I vividly remember thoughts that took me away from the present moment during the gold medal match in the London games in 2012.
In the 1st set, crossing sides of the net after we beat Brazil by the worst margin they had ever lost, I had the thought “is this really going to happen, we’re really going to win gold?” Then we lost the next three consecutive sets, and it felt like we could never get momentum going in our direction. They made changes and we didn’t have the mental skills to adjust, nor the culture to help each other.
I also distinctly remember 15 points into the last set reaching a point where I felt hopeless and thought “what if we lose, is this really happening, all that we’ve worked for?” It’s so easy to go down the path to either of those places, and away from the present moment.
“Focus is a decision, and refocusing is a skill that we can train.”
What if our team had the psychological framework that something good is about to happen, and that voice was credible because we had been through and responded well to tough situations in the past to know that it is actually possible for something good to happen next, and we have whatever it takes to adjust?
Here’s the lesson in that: What thoughts do we all need to have to be our absolute best, and can we quickly and relentlessly guide our thoughts back to that when we get distracted?
“Think about how many times a day you get lost in a thought that distracts you and takes you away from the present moment.”
How ingrained is multi-tasking becoming in our society and work place, switching back and forth between tasks and ideas? We’ve almost trained ourselves away from the ability to deeply focus on one task at a time, one moment at a time.
“If you can’t do it off the field of competition, if you don’t take repetitions daily, focusing and refocusing, imagine how difficult it would be under the “pressure” of the Olympic lights when you know the world is watching you?”
The last thing I’m going to riff on is this idea of bouncing back from set-backs, which we all have and have seen many of already during the Games. When I was at my best, I was able to analyze my performance on these two questions: 1) What went well? And, 2) What can I get better at?
We all want to be great learners, but when we perceive or experience pressure, threat, and adversity, it becomes very difficult to maintain a growth mindset.
I found the quickest way to move on and grow was to stay on the vein of improvement, and that counts for micro moments, as well. Each point, and each contact. Each moment.
It’s too easy to go down a spiral, led by poor self-talk, and self-critique, of what went wrong and how we’re not good enough, if we allow it. If I ever made two mistakes in a row, it was not a technical glitch, it was that I was either on the last play, or on that dangerous shame spiral.
Knowing how to guide your thoughts is so critical. Lots of great examples to learn from already this Olympics.