The Olympics captivate us because we get a front-row look at people performing at the height of their abilities to the point that they almost seem superhuman. And because we’re of the same nationality, we feel connected to them. Their victories become our victories.
But the truth is that the average person doesn’t have much in common with an Olympian. These athletes are wholly dedicated to their sport and work tirelessly for years (often from a young age) for one singular moment of achievement… while we watch them from the comforts of our couch.
If you feel like you’ll be missing out when the Olympics take place in Rio come August, you’re not alone. There’s a reason why participation in sports and fitness activities increase during an Olympic year. Fortunately, you don’t need to emulate an Olympian’s physical workouts to train like one.
The road to a gold medal starts in the mind. Olympian runner Lynn Jennings once said that “Mental will is a muscle that needs exercise, just like muscles of the body.” In addition to a rigorous physical training schedule, most athletes engage in exercises that cultivate mental toughness because they know that a weak mind can undermine their physical prowess.
But mental fortitude doesn’t just help when you’re trying to run 100 meters as fast as humanly possible. It powers everything you do, whether it’s managing stress, stabilizing your moods, or just being able to get through the day.
We’ve gathered some Olympian-certified mental exercises and methods, showing you how you can apply them to your everyday life.
Visualize the road to success
The act of visualization is simply a mental rehearsal for a desired outcome. The Russians pioneered its use for athletic competitions, and now most athletes use it because even a few minutes of visualization can have a big impact on mental performance. But visualization doesn’t just help with sports, it can also help temper anxiety and depression or help you get ready for everyday situations.
Always a nervous wreck before your work presentation? Mentally walk through it – from the set-up to the last slide a few times a week. You’ll be surprised at how relaxed this will make you feel. Need to have a difficult conversation? Think through the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario in your mind. You’ll walk into that conversation feeling more prepared.
When visualizing, many people focus too much on fantasizing about success. Turns out that this type of visualization can actually get in the way of you achieving your goals. Because you’ve already achieved the success mentally, you start to assume that the process of getting there should be easy, which then makes you less likely to want to deal with any obstacles that may pop up (and they always do). Instead, imagine the things you need to do to achieve your desired outcome and then picture yourself working around any impediments.
Mentally scan your body
When your mind is going a million miles a minute, doing a simple body scan can help silence all of that mental chatter. Many people do a body scan while lying down in a quiet room, but I’ve done it while riding public transportation.
Just plug in your earphones, use the Rainy Mood app to drown out background noise, and close your eyes. Start paying close attention to how every part of your body feels, beginning with your toes and moving all the way up to your head. Just recognize that your body exists and take note of any sensations that you feel. That’s it. It’s a really simple exercise that can help you center yourself, even in the midst of chaos.
Use positive visual triggers
As a leading sports psychology consultant, Jim Afremow, PhD has worked with countless elite athletes, coaching them with proven methods that help them be their mental best. In his book The Champion's Mind, he recommends the use of scheduled visual triggers to help you stay focused on any goal. That can mean using your phone’s alarm as a simple reminder to “crush that meeting” or “stay positive”.
I use something similar for my morning alarm. Changing my alarm text to “Great day”, has completely shifted my morning mindset. Because the first thing that I see when I open my eyes is so positive, it really sets the tone for the rest of my day. And, in turn, my “Great day” alarm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This doesn’t mean that I never have a bad day. But starting the morning on a high note does make it easier for me to handle whatever is thrown my way.
Mental toughness can be achieved with just a few minutes of practice every day, and you can do these exercises anytime anywhere. Make it easy for you to get started by fitting one of these methods into your daily commute or use it as a nice way to take a small break from the day.
Yes, it’s amazing to see these real-life superheroes reach new athletic heights every four years, but don’t let their endeavors overshadow your personal triumphs. Sometimes it’s the small successes that make a big difference. For example, using one of the above techniques to manage your stress could better your familial relationships over time. And that’s worth more than any gold medal.