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Mind Games: Emotions can be an athlete's biggest betrayer

Mental skills allow athletes to manage competitive stress, block out distraction, elevate their confidence and implement effective goal-setting strategies. Collectively, this allows athletes to demonstrate nerves of steel in the grandest sports arena — the Olympic Games

Handling the pressure was the difference for Canada's Penny Oleksiak and Australia's Cate Campbell

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Penny Oleksiak emerged from relative obscurity by winning gold in the women's 100-metre freestyle, a victory that had as much to do with mental strength as it did with swimming ability. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In the summer of 2016, a 16 year-old girl from Toronto became a household name overnight. 

Penny Oleksiak, the first Canadian summer athlete to win four medals in one Olympic Games, was virtually unknown before the Rio Olympics. Just a year earlier, when Toronto hosted the Pan American Games, she wasn't even selected to represent Canada.  

So, how does an athlete like this go from being good to becoming great?

I interviewed two groups of Olympians who had either made a seminal transition like Oleksiak — winning a medal at either the Olympic Games or a world championships on three separate occasions over a span of five years — and another group of Olympians who couldn't find the same success.  

When I asked the athletes who won medals how they did it, they identified mental skills as the critical factor. More surprisingly, the Olympians who were capable of winning medals and never did believed their struggles with mental skills prevented them from becoming great.  

Among other things, mental skills allow athletes to manage competitive stress, block out distraction, elevate their confidence and implement effective goal-setting strategies. Collectively, this allows athletes to demonstrate nerves of steel in the grandest sports arena — the Olympic Games.

Talk to any Olympian and they will tell you about a time when they were young and fantasized about competing at the Olympics.  

Oleksiak vs. Campbell

But realizing this dream can cause emotions and feelings that can betray even world record-holders as they battle for a gold medal.

In the pool with Oleksiak when she won gold in the 100-metre freestyle was world record-holder Cate Campbell. In the heats and semifinals, Campbell set two Olympic records and was the clear favourite to win the gold.  However, in the final she finished a disappointing sixth and later described her performance as a massive choke

"I think that the world got to witness possibly the greatest choke in Olympic history a couple of nights ago [in the 100 freestyle final]," she said later.

Australia's Cate Campbell admits she "choked" in the women's 100-metre freestyle swim. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

'The process' is key

The desire to win can cause some athletes to lose sight of the little things they need to do, often referred to as the process. The process are the actions athletes must execute to be successful in their performance. 

In the first 25 metres of that race, Campbell went out too fast and by the last 50 fatigue set in. She later acknowledged that her focus shifted the day before the final, and she began to feel the expectations of others for her to win. Sometimes focusing solely on the results can create feelings of anxiety and worry, dramatically impacting an athlete's performance.

But when an athlete's nerves begin to betray them, it doesn't have to end in disaster. Much like a thermostat that regulates the temperature in a house, athletes need to be able to identify when they are too excited — or too calm — and adjust. 

Athletes adept in this mental skill will monitor how they are feeling while they are warming up or competing and regulate their level of excitation as needed. For example, if they begin to feel like they are getting too pumped up they may engage in some deep breathing exercises. Elite athletes may even couple this with positive self-talk, to redirect them back to the process.  

Escaping expectations

Athletes best able to control their nerves and treat the Olympics as any other competition embodies a distinct advantage over their competitors.  

Oleksiak appeared to have mastered this secret recipe in her Olympic debut. Even for her, she far exceeded her expectation of only making a few finals or even a semifinal. Her brother, NHL player Jamie Oleksiak, attributed it to her ability to treat the Games like any other swimming competition.  

Certainly, being a newcomer on the scene can allow an athlete to fly under the radar and escape the expectation of a nation, which a favoured athlete inevitably endures. This allows an athlete to get out of their own way (mentally) and to do what it is they are inherently able to do

Undoubtedly, Oleksiak provided the world with a crash course on how a previously unknown athlete can become an Olympic champion seemingly overnight with the right mindset.

As you watch athletes compete in the Pyeongchang Games, see if you spot how athletes are managing the pressure.

About the Author

Nicole Forrester

Nicole Forrester, Ph.D., is an Olympian and an assistant professor at Ryerson University, specializing in the psychology of sport and high performance. She is also a registered consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. nicoleforrester.com; @nicoleforrester

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