The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, was a spectacle of athletic greatness. We watched remarkable feats of physical prowess from athletes as wide ranging as alpine and nordic ski racers, figure skaters, snowboarders, sliders, and, yes, even curlers. We shared in the emotional highs of victory and the emotional lows of unexpected defeat. In interviews before and after their competitions, we heard words of confidence, excitement, doubt, fear, worry, humility, grace, perspective, exuberance, and relief. And we saw demonstrations of unyielding determination, expressions of team support, wonderful acts of sportsmanship, and camaraderie and congratulations among fierce competitors.
During these quadrennial meetings of the world’s best winter athletes, I am constantly on the lookout for attitudes, strategies, tools, techniques, and lessons that I can use to better understand what makes them so successful. I then share these newfound insights with the next generation of athletes I work with in the hope that they can put those lessons into action in their own sports development that will enable them to reach the same improbable pinnacle of athletic excellence.
With all that said, let me share with you the most important lessons I gleaned from this past two weeks’ extravaganza of winter athleticism.
Mental Imagery Rules
As any follower of my writing knows, I am a mental imagery evangelist. I believe it is the most powerful mental tool there is and it can, in and of itself, take athletic performances to new and higher levels. I believe so strongly in the power of imagery not just from my professional use of it with the many athletes with whom I have worked, but, long before I became a sport psychologist, for how it literally transformed my own ski racing career as a youth.
One of the most noticeable aspects of watching athletes in almost every sport was the omnipresence of their use of imagery in their competitive preparations. Whether Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White, Nathan Chen, or any number of other athletes in almost every event during the Games, we saw them closing their eyes and moving their bodies to the internalized images and feelings of their soon-to-happen competitive performances.
Here’s the lesson: Though I will continue to hammer home to any athlete who will listen the importance of using mental imagery consistently within and outside of their sport, I don’t know what more young athletes need to know to buy into the power of imagery than to see the best athletes in the world fully committed to the use of imagery on the biggest stage in sports.
It Happens to the Best of Them
When we’re watching the world’s best athletes perform consistently at such a high level, it’s easy to think of them as superhuman, somehow possessing of attributes that separate them from the rest of us mere mortals. Yet, at every Olympics we see our idols be as human as the rest of us. To paraphrase an old adage, Mikaela Shiffrin puts on her speed suit one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Which means they aren’t perfect, they sometimes fail to perform up to their ability, and, yes, they can get nervous just like we do before a big event.
We certainly saw this in alpine ski racing where Shiffrin, the dominant female slalom skier of the past five years (one Olympic and three World Championship gold medals) failed to medal in the slalom, finishing fourth, after throwing up from nerves in the starting gate and skiing uncharacteristically conservatively. Another prohibitive favorite to win gold in the men’s slalom, Marcel Hirscher, made an uncharacteristic mistake and failed to even finish the first run of the slalom. It was the first time he hasn’t finished a slalom in more than two years!
Here’s the lesson. Don’t think Olympians are so different from the rest of us. Sure, they inherited exceptional athletic genes. And, yes, they have put in many hours in the gym and on the field of play that lead them to a level of technical and tactical skill that places them at the top of their sport. But, ultimately, they are flesh and blood and minds and hearts that are little different from our own. Perhaps the only difference is that, through their many years of athletic success, they have learned how to handle the pressure and focus their efforts to great success…except when they aren’t able to.
There is no doubt that experience helps at the Olympics. The simple reality is that, in general, having been there before, having succeeded at the highest levels of sport in the past, helps. That’s why Yuzuru Hanyu won his second consecutive gold medal in men’s figure skating in PyeongChang and the U.S. women’s hockey team won gold after heartbreaking defeats at the hands of their long-time rival, Canada.
Experience makes the Olympics, an otherwise daunting and overwhelming event, familiar, predictable, and controllable. And the confidence and comfort that seasoned athletes gain from previous high-pressure experiences often allows them to rise to the top under the glare of the Olympic spotlight when less experienced athletes crumble under the distractions.
Here’s the lesson: The knowledge, understanding, and tools gained from previous experience can help prepare athletes for the demands of big events. Commitment, determination, and patience will allow you to persevere in the face of plateaus, setbacks, and failures to gain the necessary experience that will serve you well when you perform in your equivalent of the Olympic Games.
…But Experience Can Lead to Expectations
And expectations are often the kiss of death when it comes to big events. Expectations (and some additional complicating factors) were Bode’s kiss of death at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, in which he was the “Face of the Games.” expected, however unrealistically, to win five gold medals, yet came away without any. Four years later, at the Vancouver Games, without the burden of expectations, Bode skied like, well, Bode and came away with a gold, silver, and bronze.
As we saw a number of times in PyeongChang, experience doesn’t always work in athletes’ favor. Case in point, Lindsey Vonn, a favorite in the super-G and the overwhelming favorite in the downhill, left with “only” a bronze medal to end her Olympic career. Additionally, Felix Loch of Germany, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in luge, finished fifth in PyeongChang after leading going into the final run.
Expectations act as a metaphorical weight vest on athletes. They create pressure, shift them to an outcome focus, produce anxiety, and cause them to obsess on “what happens if…” scenarios which also hurt motivation and confidence. In other words, expectations create a perfect psychological and emotional storm that is extremely difficult to navigate through.
In PyeongChang, Shiffrin appeared to fall victim to these expectations. As one of several “Faces of the Games” (along with Nathan Chen, Vonn, and Evgenia Medvedeva), the expectations and pressure placed on her by the media has been immense. She won the giant slalom gold, but expectations were lower in that event because she was not the favorite. But, as I noted above, in the slalom, for which a victory seemed like a sure thing given her recent dominance, she vomited before the first run and skied two atypical runs that were tentative and mistake-ridden. After the race, she admitted to feeling nerves.
In contrast, Ester Ledecka had that extremely rare combination of experience and no experience. Let me explain. Ledecka did have experience as a snowboard racer who competed in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. As the gold medalist in the snowboard parallel giant slalom at the 2017 World Championships, she has shown that can she rise to the occasion in big events. At the same time, she had zero experience and no expectations placed on her as she competed in the women’s super-G event in PyeongChang. This unique combination served her well as she came out of nowhere (her best super-G finish on the World Cup had been 19th) to win the gold medal.
Here’s the lesson: If you enter a big event with expectations, you can’t ignore them because they will always be the “pink elephant” in the room. It’s important to acknowledge rather than resist the expectations (Have you ever tried pushing against a pink elephant?), either dismiss them or reframe them as goals to strive for instead of burdens to carry, and then shift your focus onto the real priority (i.e., having fun and performing your best), and identifying what you need to do to perform your best.
Prepare for Everything, Accept Anything
Particularly in the skiing and snowboarding events, these Olympic Games were plagued with schedule changes due to adverse weather conditions. These athletes often didn’t know whether they would be competing on their scheduled day of a competition and, if not, when they would be competing. Also, the rescheduling often didn’t work in athletes’ favor. Case in point was the back-to-back scheduling of the women’s giant slalom and slalom which meant that Shiffrin didn’t get the sleep she needed between events to be totally on her game.
Even on the days of some of the events, the weather played a big role in the outcome. High winds were present at the alpine, snowboard, and ski jumping events. Athletes often had wind holds that kept them standing or sitting at the start for long periods. This uncertainty and the effect of the wind on skiing and riding impacted the athletes both physically and mentally. On the physical side, the hanging out in the cold meant that their bodies got cold and tight, meaning that their bodies might not perform as hoped. On the mental side, the wind could have caused distractions, doubt, and stress over the effect it would have the athletes’ efforts.
Here’s the lesson: Do everything you can to be as prepared as you can to perform your best. Take complete control over everything you can control that will make a difference in your competitive efforts. At the same time, for many Winter Olympic sports, S&%t happens that you can’t control. In these situations where it is easy to have a mental meltdown, the best thing you can do is to control what you can control, accept that which you can’t control, and recognize that your competitors have similar challenges, so it’s not the S&%t that happens, but how you react to it that matters. Your ability to be flexible, adaptable, and agile in the face of so much uncertainty will help you stay motivated, positive, calm, focused, and intense, with the goal of overcoming those challenges and allowing you to still perform your best under the challenging conditions.
“That’s Why They Play the Game”
It is a quadrennial rite of passage for the media and sports pundits to make medal predictions and, even worse, anoint Olympic champions before the Games begin (“His/her victory is assured!”). Such efforts not only put undue expectations and pressure on athletes, but, more importantly, are wrong as often as they are right. To quote the legendary sportscaster, Howard Cosell, “That’s why they play the game.”
Sometimes the favorites win (and we say, “You see.”), other times they don’t (and we feel for their pain of failed expectation). More frequently than you’d think, the unknown (relatively speaking) or the underdog wins (and we celebrate because, by gosh, that could be us), most of the time they don’t (and we don’t notice). Conditions change. Outside factors influence the outcome. The victors revel and the defeated commiserate. The Olympic Games end. The athletes go back to their usual training and competitive routines. We the viewers feel relieved at not having to watch every night when we might rather be doing something else, but don’t want to miss out.
Here’s the lesson: There are no sure things in sports. If you’re a spectator, don’t put much stock in predictions. If you feel the burden of expectations in your sport, recognize that it’s little different from what your sports heroes feel. To relieve yourself of that pressure, realize that if you succeed, it’s not the medal that you will remember, but rather that incredible feeling of having left it all out there. If you fail, realize that, though you will be disappointed, you will bounce back and you will be fine. Sports are fun to participate in and watch, but keep them in perspective. Sports aren’t that important and life goes on.