Mental toughness in the Olympics and how you can apply it in all of life’s arenas

As the Winter Olympics and Commonwealth Games have drawn to a close this year, it is a good time to reflect on what we can learn from the events. We can clearly admire the amazing skill and strength of the athletes and maybe some people aspire to push themselves physically, however, I think we can all learn something from these inspirational men and women when it comes to mental toughness and the ability to perform at such a high level while under such immense pressure.


What is most clear from watching these athletes is four important components of mental strength that can be applied to all of life’s arenas, be it at the office, or at the top of one of PyeongChang’s peaks.


1. Know the final destination


When Olympic Athletes arrive at their competition ground, they go in there with a goal in mind. More than likely, this final destination will have been imagined from a very young age, when perhaps they themselves watched a bobsledder reach soaring speeds down the narrow, icy track.


No longer is sport seen solely as a physical activity, but rather engages all the senses through mental stimulation. In fact, it is this mental visualisation that athletes such as Lyndon Rush, the Canadian Bobsledder engage in that highlights the importance of psychological aspects, just as much as physical training itself. Rush, alongside his physical training, engaged in visualisation by imagining certain curves he would encounter on his race.


Such an idea of visualising a track and training mentally has applications to any goal in life. By visualising particular content, the individual deeply engages with the content by going through the motions, be it curve 8 on the olympic track, or an upcoming presentation.


As the Olympics showed us, the individual is only in control of the process, that is the start and the finish. It is impossible to control external issues such as weather or how well other athletes will perform. Therefore, by focussing on getting to the final destination in mind, one can prime the brain to achieve it.


 2. Distract to Relax


One of the most memorable sights of the recent winter Olympics would for many have been the Finnish team knitting right before their competition. Whilst this may seem foreign and strange behaviour to engage in right before something so crucial as an olympic event, there is both logic and evidence behind picking up the needle.


Anitti Koskinen, one of the Finnish snowboarder coaches, encouraged his athletes to engage in knitting as a form of stress relief to keep the individual light before events. Knitting provided them with a window to focus on something within their control versus the unpredictable nature of their imminent competition. Even professional athletes such as these snowboarders, who train for years, need a distraction to focus their minds. As the British Journal of Occupational therapy found, knitting has therapeutic benefits with calming effects particularly helped by the rhythmic nature of the activity keeping the individual in the present moment rather than worrying about the upcoming competition.


The Finnish may be on to something here with this novel idea of knitting. Now, I’m not saying we all need to go out and buy knitting supplies, but rather find something that works with our lives but as the same result.


3. Steps


When watching the Olympics as a kid, it is very easy to imagine yourself in the position of standing on the podium with a gold medal hanging round your neck. In the case of Olympic athletes themselves, they share similar aspirations as those watching from home. Whilst the caliber is different among individuals, the common factor is a desire to achieve success and one’s goals.


Jim Afremov, a mental coach for Olympic competitors believes mentality is most important when it comes to competing. For him, whatever one’s goal is, it is essential to do two things to achieve these goals; to write the goal down, and to place the goal in a place where they are seen everyday. By doing this, individuals are constantly reminded of their goals, and are able to focus on the actions that will allow them to achieve it.


It is such steps that see individuals achieve their goals. We may not all aspire to be Olympic athletes, but by setting actions for how we can achieve goals, we too can be winning at our own games.


For these Olympic athletes, the ability to control their nerves whilst maintaining composure is crucial but no easy feat, and achieved through years of dedication and training physically and mentally. Whilst we are not all going to be awarded Olympic medals, we can change our mental approach to reflect those of professional athletes.


So I challenge you, next time you watch a sporting event, don’t just be consumed by the physical feats, but instead, focus on the psychological side and what skills you can take from them – perhaps it’ll encourage you to become an expert knitter, who knows?


Further Readings:


Mind games – The psychology of Olympic competition

Olympians are using camouflage and the colour blue to get ahead in the winter games


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