Motivational Psychology of Olympic Champions—Lessons on Persistence and Positivity

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The Olympic cauldron has been fired up and the games are in full swing at Rio 2016!

The festive and colorful opening ceremony at Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro signaled the start of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. It has been an amazing journey so far. Watching the amazing accuracy of Ginny (Virginia) Thrasher, the gold medalist in the women’s 10m air rifle event, or the record-breaking performance of Michael Phelp’s, or any of the performers you have to wonder what makes them so special. Amazing achievements—physical or mental—require an indispensable ingredient, motivation.

Motivation can be considered the foundation of all athletic endeavors, lets look at what psychological techniques help make top athletes the best of the best, and how the rest of us can utilize these tricks. But first let’s look at how Olympic athletes’ mindset differs from the rest of us.

12 Psychological Factors That Make Olympic Athletes Special

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, Olympic champions have the following mental qualities that set them apart.

Of course, you don’t need all of these if you are looking to deal with normal stressors. The main problem that people have is lack of motivation.

Motivation Methods Used By Elite Athletes

Mental motivation methods are unique but some underlying principles can be extrapolated from studies in sports psychology. Dealing with stress is vital when it comes to remaining motivated in the game. These coping strategies aren’t exclusive to athletic endeavors, they are equally applicable to any challenging situation in life. Think of them as the silver bullet for handling major stress factors. Here are some scientifically proven tips for dealing with immense pressure:

1. Talk to Yourself—Rationally

This coping method was identified by a study involving 17 champion figure skaters. A majority of the athletes reported practicing a logical examination of stressful triggers, isolating what can be controlled and then building a mental web of positive thoughts. When the stakes are so high, the competition itself seems like a major stressor, a rational way to handle it would be to convince yourself it’s just for fun.

2. Love the Effort (Or At Least Accept It)

An athlete who starts to associate negativity with the sport is on the fast track for burnout. Studies have shown negative mental attitude is worse than exhaustion or even defeat. Enjoy the process as much as you enjoy the actual competition.

3. Develop and Maintain an Unshakeable Belief in Yourself

This might sound like a cliché but it’s a proven fact, optimism and believing in yourself works. Mental toughness is a common trait among Olympic champions. That doesn’t mean they don’t doubt themselves, it just means they believe the positive thoughts and ignore the negative version of mental narrative. According to sports psychologist, Jean M. Williams:

“Critical to this control of cognitions is self-talk, and the key is to always accentuate the positive and not engage in self-defeating cognitions. At the same time, it is important to realistically assess successful and unsuccessful behaviors without engaging in counterproductive cognitive attacks on the self.” – Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance by Jean M. Williams, University of Arizona

4. Learn to Anticipate Upcoming Challenges

Research on the structural differences between athletes’ brains and normal brains showed that the insular cortex region of the athletes was different. This relatively small region enables athletes to anticipate their future physiological states accurately. As a result, the brain quickly readies the necessary resources, ultimately leading to superior performance. This might seem like an obscure fact that can’t be applied in normal circumstances, but the studies show that your insular cortex develops with practice. The advice to take away is to be mindful of how your body reacts in stressful situations. You will be better equipped to handle the emotional torrent than washes over you.

5. Find a Great Mentor—One Who Thinks Zen Not Autocratic

A mentor can be anyone, a boss, spouse, or parent, for athletes this role is fulfilled by their coach. Research has shown that a democratic style of instruction works best in extremely stressful high-stakes environments. Good feedback helps reinforce and motivate. Guidelines with a reasonable explanation are easier to internalize and follow.

Towards “Citius, Altius, Fortius”!

The official motto of the Olympics is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger). What does it take to be faster, higher or stronger than your competitors? Most people would immediately say, genetic advantage, however this is just a part of the formula. Natural talent and ability can only get you so far, success is far better probability if you simply stop thinking and act.

The games will continue till August 20th, you can check the official schedule here. Keep watching and remember, these near-superhuman feats of strength are a result of three simple things:

  1. Persistence
  2. Positivity
  3. Pushing through the pain

Together they create a mindset of psychological resilience. These three factors are not limited to sports, they can be used to tackle any challenge in life. So, now that you know the secret of champions, go for the gold!

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