Olympics: Why it’s the Biggest Mental Battle

When the fittest, strongest, fastest athletes on the planet take sport’s biggest stage at Rio they’ll draw global gasps of admiration. They always do: the Olympic Games are a showcase of beauty and brawn.

But don’t be suckered — the real leader of any athlete’s medal campaign is a body part not heralded for its good looks — the brain.

As a sports psychologist I’ve witnessed up close the unique and hefty mental demands of Olympic competition.

Lining up against the world’s best talent is intimidating enough. But global television audiences, the expectations of country, sport and family, and the immense sacrifices born of years of hard graft, place an unprecedented burden on performance.

Many athletes who compete in sports that barely rate a media mention year round suddenly find themselves centre stage and carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation. No pressure, kids (and some of them are kids).

Athletes are told to soak it up, to enjoy the Olympic Experience — but the subtext is prove your worth (or else). And fun is a lofty goal when you can’t sleep, you’re vomiting into a rubbish bin with nerves and your thoughts are in turmoil:

  • Are all those years of training going to pay off?
  • What if I disappoint everyone who has sacrificed for me?
  • What if I make a fool of myself in front of millions?
  • If I crash and burn will I get another chance; do I have four more years in me?

Those fears aside, the many distractions of the Olympic environment pose an insidious threat. Rio’s angst-inducing backdrop includes Zika virus, security threats, high-profile athlete withdrawals, the Russian doping scandal and the usual myriad of health and safety concerns.

And that was before the party even started.

The Village itself is a microcosm of psychological challenge. While life on the Inside sounds enviable, athletes frequently come up against challenges they had not anticipated. That’s why seasoned campaigners often choose to stay away or move out until their event is over.

First, it’s easy to be starstruck. Selfie with Usain Bolt or Serena Williams? Breakfast alongside Le Bron James or Michael Phelps?

Are you serious? What am I in Brazil for again?

Second, day to day living can be testing. Shared bedrooms can seem cramped and claustrophobic, especially after the novelty wears off. The lack of privacy and sleep can spark anxiety; athletes in individual sports often struggle with feeling overwhelmed as part of a big team — and also feel lonely within it when athletes from team sports roam in packs.

Third, interpersonal conflicts inevitably break out. Negative or noise roommates can drive you crazy — three weeks is a long time to spend with someone you don’t like or who keeps anti-social hours. Endless security checks, the lack of variety of food, onerous travel to training, managing your time before and after your event, and the sheer volume of people can all turn up the heat.

The buzz, the bodies, the colour, the hormones, the tempations of the fast food outlets and innumerable bowls of condoms throw up some challenging questions:

Is everyone having sex? Should I be having sex? And should I have fries with that?

Losing focus is a trap with nasty consequences, especially for rookies to the Olympic arena, because if you don’t keep your eye on the ball or the shot or the waves or whatever it is…you’re gone. And the fallout from that lasts longer than any selfie will.

No athlete goes to the Olympics not caring about his or her performance. Most of them care way too much. They know they have an at least partly tax-payer funded job to do and one that can potentially hold sway over the rest of their life.

Some will win at Rio; some will not. Some will exceed expectations, some will leave sick with disappointment, some will burn with shame. For those that triumph, the celebration is not just of physical conquest; they will also have beaten themselves — and a complex and uniquely stressful environment.

For the rest, if they’ve tried hard, we should spare them our wrath. They’ll have their own mental ghosts to wrestle with.


Did this strike a chord with you? If you want to talk more tweet me or write a response here on Medium. If you want to see more hit follow, or visit karen@onthecouch.co.nz

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