Four Secrets to Handling Pressure Like an Olympian

  • Perform under pressure like an Olympian.
  • Erin O’Donnell

This month, all eyes turn to Rio to watch elite athletes perform at their best:  The tiny gymnast who turns backflips above a narrow balance beam. The sprinter who rockets off the starting blocks. The high jumper who floats sleekly over an impossibly high bar.

Given the roar of the crowd, the intense media coverage, and the fierce competition, how do these athletes perform at their best? To discover their secrets, we consulted elite athletes and psychotherapists who work with athletes of all stripes to perfect their mental game. Here’s their advice for managing stress like an Olympian.

  • Olympians focus on what matters. Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan, who holds two world records and won two silver medals at the 2004 Athens games, says that at his swimming peak, he was skilled at ignoring everything but his training. “Athletes learn very quickly to focus on one thing, and to prioritize very, very clearly,” he says. “Try calling Kobe during practice. He’s not going to pick up. He believes what he’s doing is more important.” In contrast nonathletes are tempted to respond to every ding of their phones, which triggers stress and anxiety. Rogan, now a psychotherapist at Paradigm Malibu, a residential treatment center for teens, and sports psychologist for the Brazilian Olympic swim team, recommends giving yourself permission to carve out interruption-free time that you devote to tasks critical to your goals. 
  • Olympians analyze their best and worst performances. The best athletes know what they need to perform well. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Rogan suggests: “Ask yourself: When are you your best self, and when are you at your worst? Really take the time to look at that at a granular level.” What did you do on that day you closed the tough deal? Did you get a good night’s sleep? Did you run that morning, or eat eggs for breakfast? Did you feel confident about your data? Jeff Nalin, PsyD, cofounder and executive director of Paradigm Malibu, says he uses this technique with teens struggling with addiction and depression. On days when his patients feel good, he encourages them to consider why. “I’ll say, ‘You’re doing something that’s working right now. Let’s look at it and dissect it.’” This kind of analysis takes guts and insight, but ultimately builds confidence, he says.
  • Olympians know how to get centered. Luke Salas, a former professional baseball player with the Texas Rangers organization and Cuban national league, says he completed a centering ritual before each at bat. “The on-deck circle was about mental clarity for me,” Salas says. “I was smelling the dirt, smelling the grass, focusing on being in the moment. I wasn’t thinking about my batting average or how many more hits I needed to get to my .350 goal.” Similarly, Rogan focused on each stroke and his flip turn, which prevented him from getting derailed by the noisy crowd or big-picture worries. In the same way, nonathletes might focus on the individual tasks that add up to success, such as staying on message or ensuring that each customer interaction is friendly. 
  • Olympians stay flexible. We’re not just talking about joints and muscles. Top athletes “are the ones who adjust the best,” Nalin says. “If they have a bad outing, they get an idea about what they did, and they make adjustments.” The same applies to successful people in other fields. “I find that people who are at the top of their game are really very curious,” Rogan says. They are willing to adjust their routines and are open to feedback.
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