Intro: A few years ago I had an SAT student who went to a private high school for young elite athletes–specifically skiers. I was so impressed at this student’s ability to turn on her competitive edge and mental tenacity that I couldn’t help but ask her how she did it. She referred me to Olympic Gold Medalist Barbara Ann Cochran, who is now a world class sports psychologist.
These articles were originally targeted for test-takers, but they’re so full of incredible advice that I’ve edited them to be applicable to everyone hoping to develop their mental toughness. You can see them in their original format at Crash Course In Mental Toughness for Test Prep.
EK: What exactly is mental toughness and mental preparation?
Think about it: are there contests (tennis matches, baseball games, ski races) in which the most skilled athlete did NOT overcome all other lesser skilled athletes? Of course! What’s the difference? Mental preparation – all those things that go on between the ears during a competition – one’s thoughts, beliefs, goals, and attitude – and then ultimately what the body experiences emotionally. Athletes must learn to focus their energy and perform at peak levels to become the best of the best (or simply to DO their best). Indeed, the success of a competition is as much determined by the mental readiness of the athlete as the skill level already attained. In fact, the best trained athlete can fall flat on his face if he is not prepared mentally.
When I competed in the Olympics, I was twenty-one years old. I had been racing since the age of five. I had been a member of the U.S. Ski Team for six years. It was my fourth year racing abroad, my first time in Japan.
Yet, for this race I had prepared better mentally than I had for any other race.
Some was accidental; some was part of my routine.
Here’s how I was able to perform my best:
I set goals:
As a youngster, I had set a goal that I wanted to win a gold medal in the Olympics. I didn’t obsess about it, but it was there, like a planted seed, waiting for the right conditions, waiting to be nurtured, to grow, to blossom. The goal I focused on was doing my best. That didn’t mean to be the best, just to do my best. If I skied faster than any other racer and that was my best, so much the better. But I also had to accept the times I had performed to the best of my ability and lost.
I chose a positive attitude:
The subconscious mind believes anything you tell it. So I just told it, “You can do this; maybe not as well as you’d like or as well as someone else, but you can do this!” With practice, I knew I would get better. In training, I didn’t worry about the 59 turns that were bad; I thought about the one turn I did well. I knew that if I did one turn well, I could do more. I concentrated on the skills, not the results. I could control what I was doing – I had no control over what anyone else was doing. I also gave myself the freedom not to win. No matter how the race turned out, as long as I had tried to do my best, I was a good person – I was okay.
I believed in myself:
I believed that if I worked hard enough, anything was possible. In Sapporo, I knew I had developed the skills to win the slalom and the giant slalom. I also believed that the most important thing was striving to reach my goals. I learned tremendous lessons through the attempt, rather than through the actual attainment. The gold medal was the icing on the cake.
I loved competition:
Even when I didn’t think I had a chance of winning, I wanted to compete against the best. I liked to watch them, to see what they were doing that I wasn’t. Often my performance improved when I skied with better racers. I also could judge how much more I had to improve to get to that level.
I visualized myself doing well:
In every competition, I ran the courses in my head before I ever left the starting gate. I knew where the gates were, where the bumps were, where the ice was, what line I wanted to be on, where I should start my turn, where I could step to gain more speed – I saw myself completing the course, and completing it to the best of my ability.
I reduced the pressure I put on myself:
I allowed myself to think thoughts that actually reduced the pressure. I told myself, “Just do the best you can. Work on the skills; let the results take care of themselves. If the French can win, I can, too!” At the Olympics, after I was leading after the first run, I did start to get nervous. I started to think, “What would it be like if I did win? What if I did win?” But I realized I had to calm down or I wasn’t going to be able to do anything. So I told myself, “Okay, you’ve won the first run and not very many people have done that! No matter how this race turns out, you can always be proud of your first run.”
I thought of my Dad. Two years before the Olympics, I had competed in the World Championships. After the first run I was in 6th place. I knew I could move up and win a medal. Dad was standing at the top of the course before the second run. I was nervously waiting for the start. I confided in Dad and told him I was worried about how I was going to do. He responded, “I always thought you were the ‘cool cucumber’ in the family!” And I thought, “Yeah, I guess I am!” I stopped worrying and won the silver medal. So I thought about that at the Olympics. My last comment to myself was, “You should do all right!
I practiced affirmations:
To reinforce a belief you have or to overcome an undesirable belief, you can use affirmations. An affirmation is a positive declaration, stated in the present as if the desired result were already happening. When I was 21, I had no idea what an affirmation was. It wasn’t until many years later that I became aware of them. But looking back, I realize now that I had practiced affirmations before the Olympics, simply because I answered the same questions over and over. Reporters from newspapers, magazines, and television wanted to know how the U.S. Ski Team would do in the Olympics. They also wanted to know what my chances were in winning a gold medal. My response was the same, “The U.S. has a very good chance of winning medals. There is a lot of talent on the team. Both the men and the womenare capable of winning.” As far as I was concerned, I told them, “I know I have the skills to win. I don’t know if that will happen on that particular day, but yes, I am capable of winning.”
I controlled my emotions:
Because I did the seven things listed above, I was able to create an inner climate that was calm, confident, focused, and truly loving what I was doing. Because my emotions were under control, I could do my best. And my best was good enough! Before going to the Olympics, I didn’t know if I would win at the Olympics, but I knew I could win in both the slalom and the giant slalom. I won the gold in the slalom and came in eleventh in the giant slalom. I believe my gold medal performance was directly related to my mental preparedness.