A sports psychologist who trains Olympic athletes reveals the keys to performing under pressure

When we talk about athletes training for a competitive event like the Olympics, it’s easy to focus on the physical piece: how much they eat in a single day (hint: a lot), how they craft the perfect physique for competing, and how they relieve pain.

That other piece — mental training — can seem more, well, squishy. What does it even mean to be psychologically prepared for a race? You can’t quantify it the way you can count calories or reps.

Still, many competitive athletes attribute their success at least partly to their mental state before and during the game — one went so far as to say that she has to “maintain a positive mindset because golf is 80 per cent mental.”

Business Insider recently spoke to Kristin Keim, a sports psychologist who trains competitive athletes, several of whom are competing in the Olympics. Keim is currently in Rio supporting Megan Guarnier, a top US women’s cyclist. (Guarnier placed 11th in the women’s road race this week.)

Keim told us that the exact mental-training regimen she uses differs for each client. But in general, she aims to help athletes create a “toolbox” from which they can draw when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed — and it’s full of the same tools she would recommend to anyone under pressure at work.

For example, she teaches clients to “control the controllables,” as opposed to the events that are largely out of their hands. To that end, she encourages athletes to develop a routine that they practice before training and before the race itself.

Another common part of training is visualisation. Keim often prompts her clients to visualise what their entire day will look like — from waking up, to going to work (if they have a day job), to going on a two-hour bike ride, for example.

Again, it’s about taking control over what you can. Yes, the day will be stressful, but instead of getting overwhelmed by it, Keim’s clients learn to say, “I’m in the drivers seat. I’m in control. I’m going to have a smooth day.”

She’ll also encourage clients to keep a journal, especially if they’re feeling overbooked or having trouble sleeping.

With Guarnier specifically, Keim helped her stop overthinking. “Just trust you’re the best,” Keim would tell Guarnier and other clients with similar struggles.

Interestingly, Keim said the easiest part of the Olympics is often the race itself, compared to all the buildup and expectations before it. When the athlete starts cycling, or running, or swimming, she said, they’re “back home.” She tells them: “Get into the race, find your groove, and just do your thing.”

The overarching theme behind all the tools Keim uses is mindfulness, and she often incorporates meditation into her training regimen — even if only for 10 to 15 minutes a day. (She’s a fan of the Headspace program, and has written two posts for their blog.)

In general, she teaches clients to stay in the moment, as opposed to letting their thoughts drift to their past or future performance — and this is a fundamental part of meditation. Thinking about the future can create anxiety (research backs this up) and thinking about the past can contribute to depression, she said.

The goal with all these practices is to get to an optimal arousal level for the competition, which usually means trying to feel excited as opposed to anxious.

That same principle applies to prepping for an important meeting with your boss, or giving a presentation, or racing to meet a project deadline — in other words, situations most of us face every day.

Keim said self-talk is huge, no matter whether you’re an Olympic athlete or a working professional. She often teaches clients to reframe their negative thoughts. So for example, instead of thinking, “I’m not good at public speaking” before a talk, you’d think, “I’ve practiced and I’m prepared.”

Perhaps the most important part of training with Keim is learning to appreciate what’s unfolding right in front of you. “We all need that reminder,” Keim said.

She recommends taking a moment to tune into all your senses: What does the world around you really look and smell like?

Ultimately, whether you break a world cycling record or give the best presentation in history, Keim said it’s about “enjoying this moment.”

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