Professional athletes possess an almost super-human ability to focus under pressure…maintain discipline…master their fears…and bounce back from setbacks. But even the pros want to know the secrets of American diver Laura Wilkinson. She pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks in Olympic Games history.
In the 2000 Olympic Games, Wilkinson competed with a broken foot and fell to eighth place…before rallying to capture the gold medal in the 10-meter platform-diving. Wilkinson competed in two more Olympics before she retired to start her family. Then, after nine years in retirement, she launched a comeback but discovered that she had a neck injury from years of hitting the water at high speeds. She had cervical fusion surgery and spent a year recovering, only to come back again to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, eventually making it all the way to the finals of the US trials. Since the 1960s, Wilkinson is the only American woman to win Olympic gold in individual diving.
Bottom Line Personal spoke to Laura Wilkinson about the psychological tools and strategies that helped her become an elite champion and how you can use these to go beyond what you think is possible in your own life…
Standing on a diving platform is like looking over the edge of a three-story building! Most people try to push down their fears or run away from them, which actually makes them even more overwhelming. Instead, I try to run straight at my fears. That sounds counterintuitive, but when you confront your fears head on, they lose their power over you. My strategies for dealing with fear…
Make a written list of your fears. This helps me sort out the worries and uncertainties I am feeling and gives me a sense of control. When I address the fears on my list and play out a worst-case scenario for each, I recognize which ones are really bothering me and which are minor. Example: In 2018, I decided to make a career comeback even though I had just recovered from an operation to fuse severely degenerative discs and insert a titanium plate in my neck. The idea of starting over after being the best in the world was nerve-racking. Here’s the list I made then and how I processed it…
I’m too old and not talented enough anymore. Not a big issue. Failing wouldn’t affect my worth or value as a person, but the regrets of not trying a comeback would be painful.
I’ll embarrass myself in front of my fans and supporters. Again, not an issue. My family would still love me. My coach would still care and believe in me.
I’m going to reinjure myself and compromise my future. This turned out to be the source of a lot of my fears and what I really needed to deal with. During my comeback, I created a training program that was careful and prioritized my health.
Direct your inner voice. Fears are feelings you don’t have much control over. What you do control is how you think…and changing your thoughts can change how you feel.
First, I literally stepped back in my mind and watched my fearful thoughts float by. Instead of being in them, I observed them at a distance and was curious about them. I treated them like something powerful just sweeping past me and then moved on.
Second, I used positive affirmations. Negative thoughts could compromise my performance. Repeating affirmations allowed me to refocus my mind and replace fearful thoughts. Two of my favorite affirmations…
You don’t have to have the lead if you have the heart to come from behind.
If you’re not failing, you’re not going to succeed.
Also: I listened to songs right before each of my dives such as “Free Falling” by rock musician Tom Petty. His lyrics—“I’m going to free fall out into nothing/I’m going to leave this world for a while”—helped me get into a positive zone and encapsulated how I felt when I was in the middle of a dive, spinning through the air.
Overcoming Setbacks and Discouragement
Injuries are a way of life in high-platform diving, where you routinely hit the water at 35 miles per hour. So is losing. I am remembered as an Olympic champion—but I competed in two other Olympics without winning a single medal. It’s easy to get discouraged and want to give up when you hit roadblocks. My strategies for bouncing back from setbacks …
Connect your goal to a deeper purpose. You can’t push through pain and disappointment with just sheer willpower. You need something more powerful and emotional that lets you tap into reserves of resilience. Example: Whenever I felt frustrated or defeated, my coach would mouth the words, “Do it for Hilary.” Hilary Grivich was my friend and a diving teammate who was killed in a car accident on May 4, 1997. She was just 19 years old and never had the chance to compete in the Olympics. “Do it for Hilary” reminded me that this wasn’t just my dream—this was about so many more people who had a dream but never had the opportunity I got.
Focus on what you can control. When something bad happens that’s not controllable, griping and obsessing over it provides no tangible benefits. Instead, pour your energy and creativity into getting around the roadblock. Example: About six months before my first Olympics in Sydney, Australia, I fractured three metatarsal bones in my right foot and that required extensive surgery. Instead of giving up on the dream I’d had since I was a child, I postponed the surgery, had a cast put on the foot and hoped it would heal well enough to allow me to compete. Because I couldn’t actually practice diving for months, my coach and I decided to spend the time working on my mental game. For hours every day, I would hop up the dive ladder on my left foot, shimmy to the end of the platform and go through the motions of the dive. It provided me with a psychological toughness that I’d been lacking. The truth is, if I hadn’t been injured, I would have never won the gold medal.
Focusing Under Pressure
In Olympic diving competitions, winning often doesn’t depend on athletic ability. At that level, everyone is super-talented. It’s about who has the greatest ability to put aside distractions and expectations, maintain their composure and execute flawlessly when it counts. My strategy for focusing when it matters most…
Use visualization. Rehearsing perfect dives in my mind during practices and throughout competitions may be the single greatest element to my success. This visualization directs my subconscious to believe that the outcome I’m seeing is actually happening, filling me with confidence. It also keeps me so occupied that I tune out all the internal and external distractions that could cause me to lose focus. Important: For me, visualization wasn’t just about sitting on the pool deck and watching myself up on the tower. It was using my mind’s eye like a sophisticated camera. I zoomed in on my dive. I examined it in slow motion, sometimes frame by frame. I rewound and looked at it from different angles.
Maintaining Motivation and Discipline
During my professional diving career, I trained six or more hours a day six days a week for competitions that were months, even years, away. It was a struggle to push myself on days when I just didn’t feel like it. My motivational strategies…
Post your goals so they become constant visual reminders. Seeing them all the time makes them feel real and forces you to be specific about exactly what you want to accomplish and how you intend to get there. Since high school, I’ve written out sticky notes for every meet that was coming in the season…how I wanted to perform in each event…and my daily training routines. I stuck the notes on my refrigerator, my bathroom mirror, my gym bag, the dashboard of my car, etc.
Share your journey. It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re pursuing goals, especially long-term ones. When I decided to try and return for my fourth Olympics in my 40s, I sat down with my three daughters and my son, all under age nine. I explained what I was hoping to do, the sacrifices it would take and why it was so important to me. Sharing my goals with them became a powerful motivator, making me accountable to the people I cared about. Also, they became emotionally invested…and their energy and interest drove me forward. At the finals of the Olympic qualifying trials in Indianapolis last year, I ended up placing 10th and not going with the team to Tokyo—but my kids saw everyone in the building give me a standing ovation.