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The intense ways Olympic pressure can impact an athlete's mind.

“The battle that all athletes face, the successful and the less successful, is the battle of the two big voices that are in their heads.

One that says ‘I’m well prepared, I’m ready to go,  I’m focused, I’m composed, I know what I need to do to execute my race plan’…so there’s that voice, which I call the ‘do’ voice.

And then the opposite voice which I think rattles around in the backs of all of our heads, is the ‘don’t’ voice. ‘Don’t make a mistake here, don’t let everybody down, don’t embarrass yourself.'”

As a spectator of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, there is one question that I haven’t been able to shake:

“How is a human being possibly able to perform under that amount of pressure?”

We have watched human beings run faster than we once thought was biologically possible. We have seen one man win his 23rd gold medal. We’ve watched, in awe, as Simone Biles delivered time after time in the gymnastics, winning four gold medals and one bronze.

But we’ve also watched competitors who hold world records, fail to perform anywhere near their best. We’ve watched teams who were tipped to win, seemingly crack under the pressure. We’ve heard one athlete in particular describe her loss as “the biggest choke in Olympic history“.

Mamamia spoke to one of Australia’s leading sports psychologists, Jeff Bond, who has attended nine Olympic games as an accredited psychologist. In his 22 years with the Australian Institute of Sport he has also attended numerous World Championships and Commonwealth Games. He is best known for his work with Pat Cash and the Australian swim team.

And he revealed to us a side of the Olympic games that does not receive any coverage.

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Bond explained that the Olympics is far more a psychological contest than a physiological one.

Once the athlete makes their way to their event, all the preparation is done. The technical aspect is there. But in terms of their mind –  it can “either be in control of the athlete or out of the control of the athlete”. Their performance is all about “what goes on between their ears”.

With one voice saying ‘do’ and the other adamantly saying ‘don’t’, every athlete ultimately decides: “Which voice are they going to allow to speak loudest?”

Bond has worked with a number of sports people who have “suffered from nerves, or they weren’t on their game.” He says that when this occurs it would seem “that the psychological preparation of these athletes hasn’t been totally complete”.

Some coaches deliberately set up distractions to test the focus of the athletes. Bond explains that the Olympic environment is set up in a way “that is designed to test them”. It is about bringing the best athletes in the world together, under the most trying conditions imaginable.

Isobel Bishop takes a shot against Brazil. Image via Getty.
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That might mean "100,000 people sitting in the stands, or television cameras in your face, or standing next to Usain Bolt, or standing on the blocks next to Michael Phelps. There are so many distractions. The actual medal count itself. The potential for sponsorship is a distraction. The media coverage is a distraction." In Bond's words, "some athletes really, really struggle with it."

Just as Olympians train their physical bodies, so too do they train their minds. Bond recalled one of Australia's best shooters who had an unconventional way of "preparing himself for the distractions". He would deliberately lie on an ant nest, and fire at the target from his back, allowing the ants to crawl over him. Even to someone with very little understanding of sport at an elite level, I can see how the ants serve as a perfect metaphor for anxiety.

Bond says that the most successful athletes, are those who are able to "keep their focus and keep their composure".

michael phelps girlfriend
Michael Phelps secured his 23rd gold medal. Image via Getty.

So, what is an athlete trained to think about before they begin a race? Are they meant to think about, well, winning?

The answer is resolute 'no'. Winning is the last thing you should be thinking about.

Bond spoke about swimming as an example:

"When you're standing on the blocks the first thing an athlete needs to be thinking about is composing themselves and controlling their breathing and their muscle tension....

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"I've heard swimmers talk about 'I'm focused on diving through the smallest hole I can in the water...' Which sounds interesting doesn't it?

"The next thing...'then I think about my under water work...then it's breaking the surface...and then it's into my stroke...and then they'll talk about their stroke length, their stroke rate...'"

The best athletes, simply, are able to induce a state of flow, and stay there.

Bond has spoken to swimmers who talk about "feeling on top of the water", or rowers who describe being able to "hear the bubbles under the boat". Their performance becomes "effortless".

It is when an athlete begins to contemplate winning, or considering the sponsorship deals, or allows the thought "what if I f*ck this up?" to enter their minds, that they lose their focus.

Alanna Kennedy reacts after the Matildas loss to Brazil. Image via Getty.

According to Bond, psychological composure is much harder for some than it is for others. But he insists that it is a skill that anyone can learn.

"There are some people who have reactive personalities. There are people who are very excitable. They're the ones who are most difficult," he says.

This brought us to the subject of the 'choke'. I asked him what, as a sports psychologist, he understands the 'choke' to be.

He reflected that although it's a "pretty unfortunate term" it is one used time after time by athletes. He described it as "a lack of psychological composure brought about by feeling the weight of expectations, being totally distracted and overwhelmed by the excitement. You can choke just by thinking about 'what if I make a mistake here?', or 'what if I fail?'"

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So, in layman's terms, is a choke almost like a panic attack?

Bond said that sometimes "...that's how bad it can get."

He recalls watching the women's final at Wimbledon a number of years ago, and the underdog was ahead. She looked like taking out the match - all she needed was to deliver a successful serve and she'd win the tournament. He reflects "...she lost composure so badly that the first serve actually bounced before it hit the net. Now, you think about a professional tennis player, who has practiced countless hours and countless serves, who's serve is so bad that it actually bounces before the net...she went on to lose the match by the way."

I asked Bond how you go about counselling an athlete after loss, which gave way to a fascinating discussion.

"It's a very difficult thing to do, particularly around Olympics," he responded.

"People who under perform at the Olympics tend to do a runner. They tend to take off. They either want to get out of the village and head off with their families...some of them drown themselves in drink because they want to try and forget it. They're very hard to catch at the games.

"We've tried it at multiple games... we've tried to do a formal debriefing process. Not just for the ones that under perform but for those who win as well. Because it's a very challenging thing once you've won something. So it works at both ends. It's not just the people who stumble who need to debrief properly. It's also the people who get the medals."

Some athletes become severely depressed because of a "significant under performance". He says that some are "stumbling around in a daze, quite depressed for some months afterwards." Bond even referred to athletes who had suffered "...a version of PTSD because they've been traumatised so badly by their performance."

Incredible women at the Rio Olympics. Post continues after gallery. 

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The psychology behind the trauma is something that your everyday person, sportsperson or not, can somewhat relate to.

"Most elite athletes at that level have a significant proportion of their self belief tied up in their sport. So when sports going well they feel good about themselves and when sports not going well it's, er...Some athletes feel that they don't exist outside their sport and that's a very dangerous place to be."

Bond highlights the difference between confidence and self-belief.

"Confidence is something we can retrain, relatively quickly sometimes. Whereas core self-belief, once it's shattered, takes an awfully long time to rebuild. Psychologists spend a lot of time speaking to people about the importance of self belief, and never letting, the more superficial aspects of our lives, our sporting performances, shatter our core self belief."

So whether that's our jobs, our partners, or our skill on the sporting field, allowing external variables to dictate our self worth is indeed a dangerous game to play.

Perhaps that is why we have all found the Olympic Games so compelling; because we all know how it feels to fail or succeed at the one thing we prize ourselves on most.

The psychology of these athletes is the untold story of the Olympic Games.  It's worth considering that the athletes' experience doesn't end at the closing ceremony.

Most of all, it's crucial to remember that beneath it all, athletes are not superhuman automatons, but rather human beings just like you and I.

Featured image: Getty

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