Olympic Athletes Use These Mindset Tricks – You Should Too

9 min read

June 20, 2024 -- I got cut from my high school basketball team. In my only marathon, I momentarily thought I’d lost bowel control. (It was the guy limping ahead of me.) And in the Men’s Senior Baseball League over-60 division, I’m hitting a torrid .182.

My sporting life has been one long series of sobering comedowns. Just when my ego led me to believe I was approaching mastery, I’d be reminded that I wasn’t.

As we watch the Olympians in Paris, their inspiring athletic achievement will also serve as a painful reminder of our own shortcomings -- physically, anyway. 

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But what if we could steal some of their mental strategies? Is it possible to transfer Olympic athlete psychology to ordinary human psychology? And by doing so, might we feel more positive day-to-day, handle adversity a little better, and even nab a few personal wins?

The answer is unequivocally yes. I spoke with several experts, including two senior sports psychologists at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) who’ve worked with hundreds of athletes across dozens of sports in a combined 22 Olympic Games. And although they’re prohibited from divulging which athletes they’ve coached, they all agreed that everyone can use the same mental tricks to boost everyday performance, manage stress, and strengthen mental health. 

Here are 10 things you can watch for in the Games and try to apply personally:

No. 1: Build Cognitive Flexibility

High-pressure competition demands what Olympic sports psychologist Karen Cogan, PhD, calls “cognitive flexibility.” This is the ability to adjust your behavior to a changing environment, and it’s key for managing stress and adversity. 

To build this skill, Cogan works through different scenarios with athletes: What if you’re in medal contention, and you must nail one final dive, sprint, or javelin toss to win? What if your event is starting soon but you left your credentials at the Village, and security won’t let you into the venue? What if a family member dies back home? The list is endless, and most of these things won’t happen, but it encourages creative thinking and having a flexible mindset.

Cogan, who has supported eight Olympic Games, says ordinary people can benefit from the same type of preparation. Let’s say you’re meeting with your boss to ask for a promotion. What if they flat out say you don’t deserve it? What if they agree to a new title but only a piddling raise? What if you get stuck in traffic and miss the meeting?

“If you think through ahead of time what could go wrong and you have strategies for dealing with them, then if one of those things happen, you’ll be able to pull from your practice,” she said. “The reverse also works. Practicing your best self, your best performance, ahead of time can also help you behave that way.”

No. 2: Set a Bedtime Alarm

Recovery is vital to performance, not just in sport but in everyday life. “When you’re building toward a high-stress moment, you need more sleep than normal,” said sports psychologist Sean McCann, PhD, who has supported 16 Olympic Games. Most people, even Olympic athletes, do the opposite. “The tendency is to cut the recovery piece down when getting ready for something big, and that’s the exact wrong time to do it.”

Everyone thinks to set a wake up alarm, but to prioritize rest, McCann has his athletes set a bedtime alarm on their phones. It doesn’t mean they must be asleep by then, but it’s a reminder they should be heading in that direction. So if the alarm goes off at 9:30 p.m., switch the screens off, get ready for bed, and maybe you’re out by 10:15.

No. 3: Develop a “Quiet Eye”

After the 1988 Calgary Olympics, Joan Vickers, PhD, pioneered a gaze technique that is still being taught by Olympic coaches today. It’s called “Quiet Eye.” 

Using eye-tracking devices, she was able to pinpoint where athletes were looking just prior to executing a task. Where their gaze was focused could determine success or failure, she found.

In basketball, for example, the best free-throw shooters focused on the front of the rim just before launching the ball, and the best baseball hitters focused on the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand. The duration of this focus varies with the activity. Golfers fixate on the ball for 2-3 seconds, while hitters spend just 250 milliseconds.

“The eyes are part of the brain,” Vickers said. “They lead to a neural-processing system that takes up about 40% of the brain itself.” Having a Quiet Eye primes the neural pathways that then trigger the motor response – the shot or the swing that’s been trained with thousands of previous repetitions. When athletes are stressed or distracted, their gaze wanders and performance declines.

The same is true in everyday life. Studies have shown where, when, and for how long law enforcement veterans focus their gaze during pressure situations. One UK/Canadian study found that surgeons with the cleanest sutures tended to focus on the precise location of the knot before making each loop. Not a SWAT-team member or doctor? Then just try looking deeply into a loved one’s eyes before work, for example. Your priorities will be clear and you will approach tasks with intention.

No. 4: Identify Three Positives in Each Day

Olympic athletes tend to be self-critical. “When I ask a figure skater how practice went, she might say, ‘It sucked. I was off-balance on my triple axel, and I fell a bunch,’” said McCann. “So, I’ll ask, ‘What percentage of time were you working on your triple axel?’ And she might say 10%, which means 90% of her practice probably went well.”

“There’s a tendency to focus only on the thing that isn’t going well and take for granted the stuff that is,” he said. “So, my challenge is to reframe their thinking and help them take a more balanced perspective.”

This strategy is applicable to your life. Maybe your 3-year-old crayoned a picture of you on the living room wall. But the kid also scrawled “I luv mom” underneath. Or maybe your partner has been annoying you with some of their idiosyncrasies. But if you take a step back and look at all the joy they’ve brought to your life, those little things won’t seem so bad. 

“This technique can be really useful for someone in a high-pressure job,” says McCann. It can be something you do at the end of the day to reframe what might otherwise keep you up at night. “Or it can be something you do weekly or monthly as part of your ongoing self-evaluation,” he said. 

No. 5: Try the ABC Method

Cogan uses this technique with Olympic athletes who’ve lost their focus or feel off-balance in stressful situations. It has three components: Action, Breath, Cue.

 Action entails doing something physical – taking a step back, rolling tight shoulders – that temporarily removes you from the situation and provides a moment to regroup.

Breath is simply breathing in whatever way you prefer to settle your nerves, bring down your heart rate, and recenter yourself.

Cue is a word or phrase with some special meaning to you. It should be easy to remember and instrumental to the challenge at hand. Strong. Smooth. Confident. I can do this. These are just a few examples.

Cogan uses this technique as she travels the country giving presentations. “I still get nervous in front of groups,” she admitted, “but before I go on stage I’ll step outside the room, take a few deep breaths, and say ‘Calm.’ It works well in airports, too.”        

No. 6: Create Mental Inboxes and Outboxes

This is a simple trick that McCann uses to help his Olympic athletes handle distractions and stay focused. It works like email. Something pops up in your inbox that needs doing. But instead of addressing it immediately, delay your response. And be specific. Say: “I will handle this on July 1 after the Olympic Trials are over.”

“This approach gives your brain some satisfaction,” said McCann. “You’re not dismissing it as unimportant. You won’t feel guilty about not doing it. Rather, you’re prioritizing the order of things in your life that you’re dealing with and not letting them distract you.”

No. 7: Create a Pre-Performance Routine

McCann has worked with Olympic shooters for 25 years, helping them build pre-competition routines. These work on several levels:

  • A routine helps make new environments and situations feel familiar.
  • A routine discourages overthinking by helping keep the activity automatic.
  • A routine enhances feelings of control and confidence.
  • A routine helps the brain focus.

Routines are not the same as superstitions, he said. There’s nothing magical about them. Rather, they are reality-based habits that help you assume the proper mindset for performance. For an Olympic shooter, that might be checking the firearm and other equipment, getting into position, gazing at the target, and letting out a slow breath.

You can do the same thing in everyday life before entering any important situation. For example, before making a call, salespeople could write down a list of questions, highlight two or three important points, freshen their breath, comb their hair, and so on. Likewise, before a presentation, show up early to run through your slide deck, check your mike, make sure there’s a glass of water on the podium, listen to “Who Let the Dogs Out” – whatever works for you.

McCann likes a quote from Will Durant: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

No. 8: Strive for Excellence, not Perfection

“I run into perfectionism a lot with Olympians,” said Cogan, “but rarely do they ever achieve it. If you look at diving or gymnastics, it’s rare that anybody ever gets a perfect score.” Perfectionists are more likely to suffer low self-worth, anxiety, and depression. So rather than striving to be perfect, which is unrealistic and stressful, Cogan encourages her athletes to be excellent. It’s a subtle shift in mindset that can ease the pressure and make a big performance difference.

No. 9: Focus on the Job, Not the Outcome

Here’s an irony. Athletes who say their goal is to win an Olympic medal usually won’t achieve that. If they’re preoccupied with the objective, then they’re probably not as focused as they should be on their training.

“That medal is an outcome,” said McCann, “and it’s not going to happen if you don’t do your job.” The job is physical training, nutrition, recovery, and mindset.

The trick is to break it down into “behavioral steps,” he said, “and that can be very difficult in a lot of environments because the outcome is so important. But you never really control the outcome. There are too many variables. What you can control are the pieces that make the desired outcome more likely to happen.”

Say your goal is to get promoted at work, make more money, buy a big house, and retire comfortably. That’s fine, but those are all outcomes. Better to focus on what you must do every day – be on time, dress professionally, follow direction, speak up at meetings – to get noticed. In other words, do the job. When you do, the outcome will take care of itself.

No. 10: Stop Comparing Yourself to Your Former Self

“I’ve had two athletes in the last couple of weeks come to me and say, ‘I keep comparing myself to how things were 2 years ago when everything was going perfect and I was setting new personal best times. Maybe I’ve already peaked.”

McCann advises them to stop making comparisons. Instead of looking to the past, focus on the recent. How has your performance been trending over the last 3 months? What are your current data points in your current reality?

This advice is valuable as we age. So many of us get down on ourselves because we’re comparing nearly everything we do with 10 or 20 years ago: I don’t have as much energy, I can’t do what I used to do, and what I can do I don’t do as well. Stop. This is a fruitless endeavor because your younger self will always be physically superior. Reframe things: I still have enough energy to do the things I enjoy, I’m smarter and wiser, I’m better at getting what I want out of life. 

See? Don’t you feel better already?