Few people get to see the most important part of an athlete’s performance.
This is a place in the Olympic park that few people get to see. It’s in the nooks and crannies of the mind where the Olympics are won and lost. This is the inner santum where the last few moments will be spent before stepping into the mega-wattage or competition arena just a few yards down a corridor. It is here that the athletes perform the highly secretive and truly bizarre routines designed to take them into the zone.
Some athletes pace from foot to foot, others go into half trances, some have eyes closed, visualising optimum performance. Some have bizarre superstitiions, others have silent prayers. The most surreal part of sport, which is often the most fascinating, is just before the competition begins. These are highly solitary moments, you are alone with your thoughts or perhaps demons but in many sports solitude is impossible. You are confined to spend those final moments not on your own but in close contact with your competitiors. It’s here that the mind games go into overdrive.
‘From my perspective, these are the guys I have a new battle against who are standing in my way of achieving my objective of winning a gold medal’.
-Michael Johnson, four times Olympic champion
‘I never looked at it as personal. I didn’t think they were trying to destroy my dreams or beat me. They were simply trying to win. I didn’t own winning. I just wanted to win’
-Carl Lewis, nine times Olympic champion
The interesting thing is that Champion athletes (according to Tom Bates, sports psychologist) with the gold medal mind set, will not see winning a gold as a problem at all they will perceive it as a privilege.
‘I quite enjoyed it actually .. because the pressure is so high at that point .. and all other things being equal .. it’s the person who handles that moment, that pressure .. at a particular time best .. that’s going to have the best performance. There was one competitor who asked to pray together. I’m not praying with you. Most of the guys did it. I didn’t, I’m not going to do that. I’m about to go to battle’
The biggest irony in Olympic sport is that however good you are, however many sacrifices you make, it all counts for nothing if you can’t deliver when it really matters.
Four years of preparation for just a few defining moments of action. This is in many ways the ultimate ‘sliding doors’ moment.
So, the key question is: do the psychological rituals the athletes use, in the dressing room and continue to use in the arena, actually work? In short what do we really know about the dark art of performance psychology.
‘You’re already under a tremendous amount of pressure. Knowing the significance of the moment. This is what you’ve been training for so very long. This is what you’ve been preparing for. This is your dream come true, to be there, and you’re just that close.’
‘You will always have an internal voice saying this is dangerous run away, run away’
-Chris Boardman, 1992 Olympic gold medallist
‘A psychologist would always say ‘control the controlables’. As in you’re not in control of the weather, you’re not in control of the opposition, you’re not in control of the tv, the audience, the crowd, the event or the .. you know, that’s all beyond you’
-Sir Matthew Pinsent, four times Olympic gold medallist.
‘you can only control how you perform when the gun goes off’
‘You narrow it all the way down to something incredibly simple’
‘It’s ironic now that I’ve lost my faith but my faith I think, gave me perspective .. to a degree .. to disassociate myself from the outcome’
-Jonathan Edwards; 2000 Olympic gold medallist.
Confidence to some extent depends on ignorance.
‘You have to do the best you can, then let the chips fall as they may. I can only be as good as I can be and cross the line and see what that got me. It’s a very calming, focussing and quite inspiring thought’