Mental Training Pays Off – Vancouver Olympics 2010

by Dr. Stephen Walker, PhD, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychogists

What do you get when you employ a positive mental attitude, strong self-motivation, well managed goal-setting, effective self-talk, a disciplined visualization of your upcoming performance, competent stress control, determined focus and concentration, and an ongoing dedication to establishing and maintaining productive relationships with both your teammates and your coaches?

You get success.  And when you combine those ingredients with physical skills and a well trained athlete – you get medals….lots of them.  Successful athletes at this years Olympics in Vancouver demonstrated skill and tenacity that was both physical and mental….
….. – and for most – their success was the culmination of years of practice, dedication, and conditioning.

Bode Miller will leave the Olympic Games having accomplished what no other American alpine skier had done.  After a disastrous games in Torino, Italy – Miller refocused himself on his goals, shook a bad attitude, settled down and dedicated himself to perform his best.  His self-talk was relentlessly positive and drew his focus to concentrating only on those factors under his control.

Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater, and Chad Hedrick both overcame personal losses, managed what were clearly strong emotions, and channeled the added inspiration to motivate themselves beyond expectations – achieving medal winning performances.  Julia Mancuso was reminded of her friend, CR Johnson‘s, “love of skiing” to overcome a disappointing GS and comeback strong.  Although she didn’t medal in the event she was the defending Champion in – she was able to let go of a zillion distractions and love skiing just as CR did.  Overall, she performed beautifully – winning two silver medals in the games – and staked her claim as one of America’s premier alpine skiers.

Every athlete sets goals, but sometimes they are focused on outcomes…rather than dedicating themselves to attend to the “process” of the performance.  No one country was more guilty of this than the Russian Hockey team – anticipating Gold from their world cup successes – but not attuning to the fundamentals in play that got them there.  The Soviets underperformed and finished 2-2 as they were eliminated in the preliminary rounds.  Their results as contrasted with the upstart USA and juggernaut Canadian Hockey teams was noteworthy.  Both the USA and Canadian teams have emphasized playing “one period at a time”, maximizing their strengths and training their weaknesses as they finished 1-2 in the medal count.  The Gold Medal game was arguably the best Olympic hockey game of all-time as Canada took the gold with a 3-2 win in overtime.

Positive self-talk coaxed many of these athletes to success even when the odds were against them.  Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong illustrated this better than most as they experienced success both individually and as a team in an event Americans had rarely been close enough to sniff at a medal.  They supported themselves admirably by constantly offering up reminders of their strengths and focusing on “how” they could make up for time differentials lost in ski jumping on the nordic track.  They talked to themselves and each other throughout the competitions, and created a positive momentum that launched them onto the podium.

Visualization techniques were evident in more events than any other as athletes like Lindsey Vonn appeared to be ‘dancing’ with her eyes closed in the que leading up to the starting gate.   But no athlete did a better job than Jeret “Speedy” Peterson as he not only wrote out his goals on paper – but – he incorporated a very focused form of visualization (PETTLEP) in preparing for and landing the “Hurricane” – a here-to-fore never performed aerial in Olympic competition.  Peterson landed the most difficult aerial in the event to claim a Silver Medal.  His focus and concentration proved to be stellar as he took a calculated risk, planned for it consciously, and succeeded.

Controlling stress was at a premium throughout the entire Olympics as speed skaters fell at the start, half-pipe artists “forgot” their routines, and gifted athletes succumbed to the pressure in every venue.  The best conditioned athlete proved to not always be the most successful – as time and time again – emotional and mental control proved to be an essential ingredient in determining who made the Podium.  Congratulations to them all.  Thanks for reminding us of the importance of training the “WHOLE” person.

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