In each Olympics- for every thrill of victory, there is an agony of defeat. What makes some athletes perform at their big moment, while others falter?
There are a few reasons that the Olympics is an especially stressful event. For one, they only happen every four years. For many sports, like badminton, table tennis, and even diving and swimming, this is the only time their sport gets international coverage. Also, a great deal of money can be at stake. Sponsorships can be made or lost based on how an athlete performs in the Olympics.
In the spotlight, one athlete may thrive, while another may crumble. As one can imagine, it varies from athlete to athlete. A psychiatrist from the University of Maryland monitored the brain wave activities of athletes during performance. He found the minds of expert athletes are more able to tune out disruptions and external noise than beginners.
In a study done in 2004, a sports psychiatrist studied the brain activity of 250 athletes. He similarly found that winning athletes were better at tuning out negative thoughts and were able to focus their attention on the job at hand. Those who struggled could get easily distracted and focus on thinking instead of just doing.
Fortunately, coaches and athletes these days are more accepting of the idea that sports psychology can play a role in improving performance. In fact, the number of full time sport psychologists hired by the US Olympic Committee has increased from just one to six over the past 20 years.
There are some things all athletes can do before an event to reduce stress. Firstly, recognize that feeling nervous before a game or event is normal. It can help to prepare both mentally and physically beforehand to be better prepared for that moment. For example, some athletes use positive visualization – taking a couple of moments to imagine the event going well. It may also be helpful to know the conditions before arriving, and to get there early. Lastly, take it one step at a time. Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson used to ask himself: “What matters now? The race that I’m about to run and nothing else in this moment.”
It’s even not too late to reduce stress during an event or game. It is important to focus on the task at hand rather than the outcome. Plus, pay attention to the details when you’re in the moment. Some gymnasts are so worried about the completing the complicated moves that they lose focus on the simple elements and often mess up. Also, for some people, performing like you don’t care about the outcome can help as well….and don’t forget to breathe.
In addition, there are strategies for coping with the outcome. Review what happened, while focusing on what you did well. Acknowledge the mistakes, but don’t dwell on them.
Without realizing, parents can definitely be a major source of sports stress. One researcher says some parents over-identify with their child’s experience and define their own self-worth based on the success of their children. They may use the word “we” to describe their child’s sports achievements, like “We had a great game today.” Some parents also allow themselves to dream of the money their kids can make through their athletics, which is an unrealistic expectation. Very few athletes reach the Olympics or are able to play sports for a living.
Experts believe that pushing children too quickly up the development ladder will actually slow their progress. It can dampen their motivation and hamper the skills they’ll need to be successful later on in their sport.
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