Four Questions: How Athletes Handle Olympic Pressure

UA sport psychologist Amy Athey says the world's elite performers trust their training and do their best to stay in the moment, trying to not overthink what they have prepared to do.
Aug. 19, 2016
UA sport psychologist Amy Athey: "High performance when millions are watching brings unique challenges."
UA sport psychologist Amy Athey: "High performance when millions are watching brings unique challenges."

Amy Athey knows all about athletes.

As a sport psychologist at Mississippi State University, the University of Oregon and now the University of Arizona, she has worked with them on a regular basis. And as a former college basketball player, she found that mind work to be a natural fit as she began pursuing her clinical psychology doctorate in the late 1990s.

"This is just another part of their training," she says.

With the 2016 Olympic Games commanding center stage for one more weekend, we asked Athey for her insight into what the world's elite athletes have been experiencing in Rio de Janeiro.

Q: In your experience as a sport psychologist, what have you observed that sets the elite athlete apart?

A: An elite athlete is most noticeably described as amazingly gifted physically, technically and tactically in one's sport.  Yet, I have found that those optimizing their craft at the highest levels embrace a commitment to preparation and a mindset of relentless pursuit of being their best. Often overlooked, when the lights are flashing, are the many hours of sweat, tears and frustration. Elite athletes embrace that process as they come to utilize the emotions as fuel in the pursuit of the next challenge. When needed, they are able to focus on that which is most important and trust that they can execute all that has been trained. Indeed, there are tremendous sacrifices and adversity in this pursuit. Yet, elite athletes have the grit to embrace the process.

Q: What is the most important aspect of an athlete's mental "conditioning" for the big stage of the Games?

A: High performance when millions are watching brings unique challenges. Distraction management is key, as the athlete will have to find ways to integrate the intensity of the Olympic Games and not be pulled away from his/her process and execution. My colleagues at the Games offer consultations for athletes to re-center on their preparation and execution as well as manage the emotional intensity of the experience. The emotional energy building up to the performance can help many optimize in execution — yet, if too intense, the emotional flooding can get in the way. Indeed, this mental preparation begins long before the Games and is rehearsed, much like physical training. Elite athletes continually refine mental skills throughout their training cycle so they enter the Games prepared in all regards.

Q: Right before competition, what kind of self-talk will an athlete use to settle his or her mind and focus?

A: When elite athletes execute high performance, often you will hear them describe having a quiet mind during the time of performance. So, the irony is finding ways to help quiet the internal chatter. This is a highly individualized process and one that is rehearsed and refined throughout one's training, similar to the physical, tactical and technical skills. Some athletes want to utilize music to find rhythm or help regulate emotional energy. Some may want to be social with coaches or other athletes. And some may prefer a quiet, mindful practice. The key is finding what works best to help one focus on what matters most in the moment. Mindfulness and present-focused approaches are common. And simple focal cues can help give the mind something to occupy itself with while not overanalyzing. Indeed, when it comes to high-performance execution, it comes down to trusting the body to execute all that has been automated — we actually want our mind out of the way.

Q: Which emotions will an athlete typically experience after the Games are over?

A: This, too, can be a highly individualized experience. Some athletes enter the Games looking for personal bests, some to medal. Many of my colleagues assist athletes in coping with the transition that comes after the fanfare or even disappointment. For some of the athletes, they may have a period of time where they take a break from training before coming back for next year's competitions. Others may be facing retirement from their sport. So, indeed, this can be a time of heightened emotion and change.