Last summer’s Olympics reinforced our awe at the physical prowess of top-level athletes. But these Games were unusual in that they also opened our eyes to the mental health struggles so many competitors face. Hearing some of these heroes talk so candidly about their fears, anxiety and depression was startling because we think of athletes as supernaturally able to handle high-pressure situations.
Noted clinical psychologist Judy Kuriansky, PhD, was not shocked at the athletes’ struggles, knowing how demanding peak performance triggers stress, but she was pleasantly surprised—and appreciative—at their public admission during press interviews about their vulnerability and willingness to seek help. Their combination of competitive drive and sober self-assessment perfectly embodies what Dr. Kuriansky calls the “Olympic state of mind.” You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to go for the gold in your own life—here are her 12 tips for doing just that…
Keep your eye on the ball. Whatever your goal, let your passion carry you far. Inevitably, there will be moments when you stumble and lose inspiration. Push through those moments, and get back on track. Lean on loved ones and friends to remind you of your dream and rekindle your waning spirit.
Strive for perfection. Advice-givers often proclaim, “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” or they warn that perfectionists destroy their own self-esteem by never feeling good enough. I strenuously disagree that you should stop along the way if you are striving to be flawless. Instead, remember what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said about being the best at whatever you do—if you’re a street sweeper, sweep streets as Michelangelo painted. In other words, be the best street sweeper. No one ever won a gold medal by practicing a little and then saying, “Good enough.”
Never let your guard down. As a high school runner, I once lost a race because I was ahead and became overconfident, so the runner behind passed me by. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. Letting your guard down can mean lowering your personal standards or failing to keep an eye on the competition. Either can be fatal to your cause. If you have dropped your guard and lost out, learn your lesson and step up your game.
Listen to the cheerleaders in your head. Because of the pandemic, athletes at the Tokyo Games had to perform without the adrenaline fuel of fans and supporters cheering them on in person. They could see their loved ones on screen at the end, but during their events, they needed to remember that they were loved and supported by multitudes of well-wishers.
No matter your pursuit, pause periodically to replay in your mind the voices of those who believe in you. Remind yourself of a compliment, a glowing evaluation or an award. Sadly, it’s normal to let a single negative voice drown out dozens of positive ones, so it’s crucial that you develop the mental habit of shutting out the negative and amplifying the positive.
Dream big, and take what’s yours. Many of us suffer from “imposter syndrome”—the belief that when good things happen to us, we don’t deserve them…or when we’re put in positions of leadership or prominence, we think that we’re a fake who doesn’t really belong. Don’t surrender to those feelings.
That may be easier said than done, but it’s worth working on it. There is an effective technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called “thought-stopping” where you train yourself to recognize negative thoughts, wipe them out of your mind (like deleting an e-mail) and replace them with positive thoughts. That’s triage to get you through the moment, but to truly overcome imposter syndrome, you need to go back into your childhood and confront the voices that planted those seeds of self-doubt in your mind—the teacher who mocked your dreams, the parent who was embarrassed by your assertiveness, the friend who criticized your presentation. You might do this self-exploration on your own, thinking about your past experiences and imagining, confronting and dismissing these nay-sayers, or get a therapist schooled in analytic approaches to help you.
Be yourself. That’s a hackneyed phrase, but there’s truth in it. Some superstar athletes don’t fit the traditional “body type” of their sport, but they embraced their differences and excelled on their own terms. Instead of running away from the qualities, experiences, strengths and limitations that make you unique, accept them as your own path to success. If you can’t understand how to do a physical task when someone gives you verbal instructions, stop the proceedings and go slowly until you understand. If you need to prepare for a Zoom meeting by writing copious notes—unlike your boss who can just wing it—do it your way by writing down as much as you need.
Use “imaging.” This technique, also called “visualization,” consists of mentally rehearsing a task that you need to do. Athletes practice this all the time to condition their nervous and muscular systems to execute the movements required for their sport. But we all can leverage the power of imaging by picturing the success of a meeting, activity or social encounter.
Take on the biggest challenge. One Olympic basketball player, faced with the choice of playing for a French or a Spanish team—she spoke neither language—chose Spain because she thought learning Spanish would be more challenging to her. Just as you should strive for perfection, you should stretch yourself to do what may seem particularly difficult and see that you can rise to the challenge.
Say a loud “no” sometimes. Sometimes loudly announcing that you won’t do something gives you the mental space to do it after all. Example: USA Gold Medalist freestyle wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock was first in track and field and disdained wrestling, thinking that the close encounters were too “dirty”—but then found that wrestling was a good outlet for her strength and aggression.
Don’t hesitate to seek mental health care. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has leveraged his celebrity to encourage people to get help as soon as they think they need it. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka also have not shied away from seeking help for their struggles. Take a cue from these champions, who soberly assessed their situations and decided to get the assistance they needed.
Remember the three Ss—no stigma, no shame, no silence. Dismissing stigma, shame and silence can take you away from what prevents you from feeling good about yourself, connecting with others and seeking help. Pretending everything is okay is counterproductive. No one should be judged for having mental health struggles. Remember, the three Ss apply both inwardly (a forgiving and accepting attitude toward oneself) and outwardly (toward others). Being open and feeling “normal” about emotions builds a world where mental health topics are not out of bounds.
It’s okay to not be okay. This does not conflict with my earlier advice to be an unabashed perfectionist. Striving for perfection means doing whatever is necessary to achieve the most possible. It doesn’t mean believing that you are infallible. It is important to accept your limitations and weaknesses. No one has an uninterrupted trajectory starting from the birth of a dream to Olympic Gold—there will be injuries…loss of heart…self-doubt and even anxiety and depression. The only way to get to your gold is to be strong enough to recognize, “I’m not okay right now,” and get the help you need to move forward with achieving your dream.