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The Greatest Show on Earth

After two action-packed weeks, we are getting some sleep again and are able to get things back on track after spending these two, bleary-eyed weeks watching the best-of-the-best compete at the highest level.  What comes now is an opportunity for us to learn from ‘the greatest show on earth’.

The London 2012 Olympic Games had it all – amazing displays of peak performance, great examples of sportsmanship, and absolute insights into the importance of the mind’s role in elite sport.

Additionally, and equally as interesting, the Olympic Games provided low-lights of under-performance, poor attitude, and poor mental preparation for competition.

It is now an excellent time for us to look at the importance of the mental game and the definition of the phrase ‘the mental game’ within the context of the biggest sporting event on the planet.

Three major concepts came from the Games from my perspective. The first concept is the importance of self-awareness, which involves having a clear understanding of ourselves, and what does and does not work in major competition as far as the mental aspect of performance goes.  The second concept involves emotional control and understanding emotional control and how it’s attained.  The third concept is attitude and its impact on performance.

Self-awareness is essential to peak performance at major competition because athletes need to understand what helps them perform well and what doesn’t.  When an athlete truly understands themselves then they are able to use their energy in actions that will increase their chances of peak performance.

Having this self-awareness helps an athlete avoid emotional surprises like the stress and pressure of a nation’s expectations and what impact that can have on their sleep, their focus, their mood, and even how their body feels.  A limited understanding of oneself means that athletes leave themselves open to being unprepared and unable to manage themselves well enough to perform well when it counts.

This is a learning curve for most athletes, however preparing for these circumstances in advance of the competition is vital so that we can do things well at ‘the big show’ and perform to our peak.

The second major concept is that of emotional control.  Emotional control is not about an athlete changing their emotional state.  Emotional control is about an athlete being in-charge of their emotional state rather than letting their emotional state dictate play.  An excellent example from London was Sally Pearson.  The weight of a nation rested on her shoulders, and she responded by doing what she had to do get the result.

What she achieved was far from easy.  Her gold medal winning performance was achieved through her years of hard work in preparation for London plus the fact that she was able to accept that she was nervous, stressed, and pressured and use techniques to keep her focus where it was needed.

A second example of emotional control was that of Usain Bolt after his double gold in the 100m and 200m events.  He specifically spoke about his pre-race confident and showman-like interaction with the crowd as his way of not over-thinking things and his way of not letting the nerves get to him.

These are both great examples from the track demonstrating the crucial role of emotional control.

The third major concept obvious during the Games was that of attitude and it’s impact on athletic performance.  It is common for athletes’ emotions to be a little random during the Olympics, which is a challenge to change, but their attitudes are far more controllable.

Many athletes and squads seemed to get their attitudes right, while others did not quite reach the required mindset.  We need to look at these Games to provide examples of what attitude works to perform at our peak.  The attitude/s that is most effective for peak performance will vary from athlete to athlete and from sport to sport, but there are some basic requirements for peak performance.  Resilience, professionalism, and hunger are three requirements for optimal attitude that spring to mind.

These three characteristics are not emotions, but they are things that can be controlled and will have a positive impact on performance.  Let’s revisit the example set by Sally Pearson in terms of these three characteristics.. We see her resilience in her handling a pre-Olympics defeat by American Dawn Harper, her professionalism in dealing with media attention, in addition to her hunger to leave no stone unturned in her preparation for her pursuit of Olympic gold.

Attitudes are seen in people’s actions and reactions.  Some of our athletes had their attitudes spot-on before and during the Games and some did not.

The mental game plays such a huge role in the Olympic Games because in every event there are a number of athletes that are good enough to win gold.  They are physically and technically capable, so what will be the difference between a gold medal and no medal?

There has been a lot said about Australia’s performance at these Games and there will be a lot more said in the coming months.  It is important that we understand that a lot is being said, not because of the number of medals we did or did not win but because, in several cases Australian athletes did not perform to their potential.  If we review our swimming team’s performance we see that athletes and coaches are not so much disappointed because we only won one gold medal, but the disappointment stems from the belief that our swimmers were good enough to achieve so much more.

Something to keep in mind is that we need to use these Games as a learning experience and as a way to move forward to achieve at our peak in the future.  These Games can be a springboard for future success for our athletes if we learn from London.

If we don’t learn and change from the lessons, then we can expect the same kinds of results in Rio.

Bring on the next four years of harder and smarter work, bring on challenge of optimal mental preparation, and bring on Rio!

Matt Ahlberg | Sport & Exercise Psychologist MAPS