Although most of us like to celebrate victory in sports, we cannot all be winners. Someone has to lose, whether that means missing first place by a hair or placing dead last. No one knows that better than the athletes who compete in the Olympics.
Not only do they have to be physically ready to compete, these Olympians also have to be mentally ready to accept the outcome. They have to prepare to face losses, and in the end, still emerge victorious. How can you do the same?
Although athletes may be born with physical talent, attitude is something they attain through training. "Attitude isn't something you're born with," says Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee. "Attitude is a decision."
Haberl says there are two components to a winning attitude: a desire to win, which is externally driven, and a desire to perform your best, an internally driven wish. Olympians obviously have a desire to win a medal, but when the competition starts, the truly good Olympians switch their focus.
Rather than worrying about winning, they worry about performing their best. After all, they cannot control the outcome of the race or how well their competitors race, but they can strive to reach performance-related goals within their control. "After the race, they'll assess their performance not just on the outcome but on how well they competed," Haberl says.
Haberl offers the example of gold medalist speed skater Bonnie Blair who raced not against her competition but against the clock. If she beat the clock, she believed she had a better chance to beat the competition. "When you become your own yardstick," Haberl says, "you experience success, no matter if you win or lose."
That is the attitude Joanna Zeiger, a triathlete from Maryland, took to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She does not put any pressure on herself to win, only to do her best and have fun while doing it.
"If the race isn't fun and if I don't feel good about it, then the outcome doesn't matter because I haven't enjoyed the experience," says Zeiger. "When I race, I want to enjoy the experience, and when that happens, I'll have a better shot at doing my best."
No matter what your level of competition, it is not easy to adopt a winning attitude. Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks is focusing on the outcome rather than the activity. "You need to focus on getting better, not being the best," says Ken Baum, a sports performance consultant and author of
The Mental Edge. When you lock into the score or the time, then the whole experience becomes miserable.
Another obstacle is an obsession with comparing yourself to others. Maybe you get upset because you are not as good as someone else, when in fact, that someone else has different genetics, background, experience, and training. Instead, Haberl says, you need to adopt internal ways to measure your performance, rather than just comparing yourself against other people.
You do not have to be an Olympian to boast a winning attitude, but you do have to be willing to work hard to get it. Here is how:
- Set Performance-oriented Goals: Focus on goals that you can attain. Haberl suggests, for example, marking improvements in your performance from month to month. Strive for a little more each time. Then when you enter competition, focus on your performance rather than your finish.
- Plan for Your Race or Event: Find triggers or cues that help you stay focused on your performance during your competition. Then rehearse that plan in practice. Do what Olympic athletes do and visualize yourself going through the competition, focused on your triggers.
- Avoid Mixing Your Self-worth With Your Performance: This is a danger many Olympians encounter, and Haberl often works with them to separate self-worth from their performance. "Putting the two together places tremendous weight on their shoulders and makes it difficult to compete," he says.
- Relive Your Best Performance: Write down what you felt and thought. That is your blueprint for how you should capture that performance again, Haberl says. Refer back to it often so that you relive the experience rather than the outcome.
- Dump Your Ego: If not, you will not allow yourself to do things that make you look bad, and in the end, that avoidance will keep you from getting better. Tennis players, for example, who have a weak backhand might try to avoid hitting a backhand shot and run around the ball to hit a forehand because they do not want to look bad or lose. Do this and that backhand will never improve.
- Accept Temporary Letdowns as Normal: Nobody is perfect, and no game is ever played perfectly. Know that you will have errors and mistakes but let them slide, Baum says. Focus on the next event.
- Laugh Often: When the going gets tough, the tough laugh, right? Take the negative out of the situation and find something to laugh about.