When Cathy Freeman won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 she did much more than run 400 metres faster than any other woman at an elite global sports meet. In crossing the finish line first, Freeman overcame the expectations of 20 million sports-mad Australians and became an icon of reconciliation.
While there’s no doubt talent and physical strength played a significant role in her success, mental toughness and resilience are what ultimately separated Freeman from her competitors. Here’s why mental trumps physical in the quest for gold medal glory in Rio.
The Olympic persona
What’s the difference between Olympians and athletes competing at state or national level? Drive, discipline and focus, says sports psychologist Shayne Hanks MAPS. Note the omission of hours of training or age at which the athlete began competing in the sport.
“There are a cluster of personality characteristics common among Olympic athletes,” he says. “They’re generally very driven and goal oriented. They will be prepared to make sacrifices like moving states, breaking up with a partner and changing jobs in order to achieve success.
“Olympic athletes are very disciplined and committed. Their motivation goes up and down like anyone else’s but they’ll continue to train and be disciplined even though they might not always feel like it.”
Mental over physical
Crucially, says Hanks, at the elite level talent is a given and mental strength is what sets apart athletes who qualify for the Olympics from athletes who don’t and, at an even higher level, medal winners from the rest of the competition.
“At the highest level the reality is that everyone has talent and in the field of elite and professional sport there’s an understanding that talent is only the beginning,” he says. “In tennis or golf on their day anyone in the top 50 might have the ability to beat anyone else in the top 50, but it becomes about being able to do that when it matters and doing it consistently.” Novak Djokovic, we’re looking at you.
At the Olympics, gold medals and podium positions are decided by tiny margins and success comes to athletes who handle the intense pressure and expectations.
“There’s a lot of very talented athletes out there who are in positions to win and it’s not about the talent,” says Hanks. “You look at swimming or athletics where the results are decided by a hundredth of a second or centimetres and it really becomes much less about generic components like training. It’s about how they handle the pressure.”
Hanks says athletes perform poorly when they’re worried about what could go wrong, what might happen if they lose and, for some, what might happen if they win. Successful athletes are able to mentally park these types of thoughts and let their body win the race, kick the goal or hit the winning shot.
“When athletes get distracted around what will happen if they perform badly, they don’t perform well,” says Hanks “It’s the people that are single-minded in their focus that do the best – the ones that can go on auto-pilot and turn their minds off. Athletes spend so much time training the physical skills, they just need to be able to turn their minds off so their mind doesn’t disrupt the physical side of things. That’s the ultimate goal – to let the body do the job.
“That’s why Olympic success is so difficult. There are only so many people who handle the pressure and their own expectations by putting them to the side and just focusing on the job at hand.”
The sheer size of the Olympics can spark trouble for athletes who like routine and to control every aspect of their training. “Athletes tend to be creatures of habit and routine so they’re used to training at a particular time with particular people and it tends to be quite insulated,” says Hanks. “When you’ve got a big multi-sport environment that goes for a number of weeks like the Olympics, routines tend to get thrown out the window as athletes compete and train at different times.
“The multi-sport aspect of the Olympics really ramps it up a level because suddenly you’re in an environment where there’s many, many times the number of competitors you’re used to. So instead of several hundred competitors it becomes in excess of 10,000 plus staff and coaches. Even in the cafeteria there’s a whole lot of things that are different – and you’ve got Usain Bolt potentially walking past.”
So how do athletes turn the mind off and allow the body to do the work? Hanks says sports psychologists and other staff work with athletes to boost their ability to adapt to change and help create as stable an environment as possible.
“Before athletes leave for the Olympics we anticipate what might happen, what might go wrong and what might distract them,” says Hanks. “There’s a lot of ‘what-if’ scenarios – what if there’s no Wi-Fi, what if your phone gets stolen, what if someone in your team gets mugged? We even ask them if they’d want to know if someone in their family is unwell.
“If athletes think about these things earlier on they have a plan in place and if those things happen they’re not panicking because they’ve already thought about it and resolved what they are going to do.”