Athletes get far on physical ability, but what separates the truly elite from the rest is how they use their minds. Having a strong mindset can be one of the most powerful tools for succeeding in the face of competition.

According to a distinguished psychologist at Harvard Health, we can all learn from how Olympic athletes mentally prepare for their sport to improve our own performance in challenging situations – whether it’s competing as an amateur athlete, giving a presentation at work, playing an instrument, taking a test, doing a project at home or thriving through a Pandemic.

“A strong mind may not win an Olympic medal, but a weak mind will certainly lose you one,” Michael Phelps, American swimmer and most-decorated Olympian of all time.

Here’s how Olympians sharpen their mental fortitude and how you can improve any aspect of your performance in stressful situations:

1. Access an optimal zone of performance

Olympic athletes recognise the zone where they perform the best. Finding the right physiological and emotional state often enables athletes to best compete. We can learn to access our own optimal zone by identifying a time when we performed well and thinking about the characteristics that went into doing our best, then bringing those same qualities to an upcoming task.

2. Manage stress

Olympic athletes’ training includes learning how to handle big-event nerves. They develop plans for dealing with anticipated stressors, which can include creating a pre-competition routine, or series of actions and thoughts that help them mentally prepare for success. We can do this by simply realising that we have some control over how we interpret our stress. Positive stress (excitement) can be good and can push you during a high-pressure moment. Brief relaxation strategies like breathing exercises or listening to music can help you keep that performance anxiety to a minimum.

3. Laser-like focus

Olympic athletes need to have laser-like focus on the task at hand, and they do so by staying in the present. They learn to bring complete attention to the task at hand by using the pressure in a positive way. Learning how to stabilise the mind in the moment, not worrying about outside influences or possible failure, are key mental skills for Olympians. Practicing mindfulness is a great way for anyone to cultivate focus.

4. Practice positive thinking

Olympic athletes monitor what they think and say about their performance. They learn how to replace negative thinking with encouragement. We should all listen to what we are saying to ourselves about our performance. Correct negative thoughts by consciously thinking more positive thoughts. In time, interrupting negative thoughts and replacing them with constructive ones will have a real effect on your performance and overall outlook.

5. Recover from setbacks quickly

One thing that sets elite athletes apart is their ability to bounce back after a setback. They let go of mistakes and refocus their mind on what’s next. Luckily, it’s a skill we can all learn. Start by remembering that there are only successes and learning experiences, and that when things don’t go well, we can learn from it.

Olympians don’t succeed by chance. Start setting and working towards long-term goals and incorporate mental fortitude training to help you. Creating an Olympian mindset has a lot of benefits for all aspects of your career and your life.

This graduate of Miami University and Duke University, who is Trinidad and Tobago’s first Olympic rower, won silver at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru and made her Olympic debut for T&T at the last Summer Games in Brazil 2016. She was T&T’s first athlete to feature at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

Q: What fuels the tenacity to overcome all odds?

“I think you have to take a step back and ask if the goal in mind is something that you REALLY want as opposed to something you think you should want because, as with any difficult goal or objective, when the going gets tough, you’ll ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” and if you don’t have a good answer, you won’t have a reason to keep going. So, one really important step to setting yourself up for success is to really articulate TO YOURSELF why you’re walking the path you chose so that when the going gets tough, you can remind yourself of those reasons and push on.”

How do you cope with the stress?

“It depends on the source of the stress! For competitions, I try to focus on the things I can control. I can’t control how fast my competitors are or whether it’s storming on the day of my race but I can remember to work through my race routine and take care of all the small details (warm-up, my equipment, etcetera) to ensure the best chance for a good outcome.”