With the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics well underway, millions of spectators are marveling at the physical skill and talent of the athletes competing in the Games.
But behind these athletes' physical feats is an arguably even more impressive mental prowess cultivated through years of training the mind to tune out distractions, reduce stress and anxiety and build the focus and stamina they need to achieve optimal performance. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that great athletes succeed because they know how to stay at the top of their game mentally.
Former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlon runner Bruce Jenner once said, "You have to train your mind like you train your body." He's echoing an athletic maxim that's practically a cliché: sports are 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.
"The physical aspect of the sport can only take you so far," said Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast Shannon Miller during an interview with the Dana Foundation. "The mental aspect has to kick in, especially when you’re talking about the best of the best. In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard. Everyone does the work. What separates the gold medalists from the silver medalists is simply the mental game.”
But you don't have to be vying for a gold medal to benefit from training your brain. Here are five mind hacks from Olympic athletes that can help boost performance in any part of your life.
Visualize the outcome you want.
Many athletes have used the technique of "mental imagery," or visualization, to up their game and perform at their peak. Research on the brain patterns of weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted heavy weights were activated similarly when they simply imagined lifting, Psychology Today reported, and some studies have suggested that mental practice can be almost as effective as physical training. One study, published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology in 1996, found that imagining weight lifting caused actual changes in muscle activity.
"Mental imagery impacts many cognitive processes in the brain: motor control, attention, perception, planning, and memory," researcher Angie LeVan wrote in Psychology Today. "So the brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualization. It’s been found that mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success, and increase states of flow."
But visualizing is more than just thinking about an upcoming event. When athletes use visualization, they truly feel the event taking place in their mind's eye.
"During visualization, she incorporates all of her senses into the experience," sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter wrote in a blog on The Huffington Post about a speed skater she works with. "She feels her forefoot pushing off the track, she hears her skating splits, and she sees herself surging ahead of the competition. She experiences all of the elements of her race in explicit detail before executing her performance."
Snowboarder Jamie Anderson won gold in slopestyles at Sochi this weekend, the third medal to be won by an American so far at the Games. Her secret to success? Knowing how to stay chilled out, even in the middle of the biggest competition of her life.
"Last night, I was so nervous," Anderson told the Washington Post. "I couldn’t even eat. I was trying to calm down. Put on some meditation music, burn some sage. Got the candles going. Just trying to do a little bit of yoga... It was all about good vibration. Thankfully, I slept really good. I did some mantras. It worked out for me.”
The Washington Post noted that this tactic represents a major shift from Olympians of the past, who tended to rely on tough, Type A coaches and disciplinarian tactics.
From the Winter Olympics to the NBA, more and more professional athletes -- including Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball players Misty May-Trainor and Kerry Walsh -- have turned to the benefits of meditation to help their performances. The practice can help improve an athlete's mental game by reducing stress, increasing focus and attention span, and boosting emotional well-being.
Evict the obnoxious roommate in your head.
Do your thoughts tend to lift you up -- or are you constantly tearing yourself with down with an inner monologue of fear, self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness? Great athletes, through all the challenges they face, are able to exert a great deal of control over the way they talk to themselves, and they've managed to evict the "obnoxious roommate" living in their heads that tells them they can't do it.
Instructional and motivation self-talk in particular gives athletes a leg up on the competition, according to sports psychologist Antonis Hatzigeorgiadis. A meta-analysis of sports psychological studies by Hatzigeorgiadis and colleagues published in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that instructional self-talk ("Keep your leg straight," "Use your core strength here") helped athletes to improve specific techniques or skills, while motivational self-talk ("You know you can do this!") helped them to succeed in strength and endurance-based tasks.
“The mind guides action," Hatzigeorgiadis said in a press release. "If we succeed in regulating our thoughts, then this will help our behavior."
Set smarter goals.
All Olympic athletes have a clear goal in front of them, and they dream big -- after all, they were once young athletes who could only dream of competing against the best in their field. Speed skater Dan Jansen, who won Olympic gold in 1994, said, "The higher you set your goals, the more you're going to work."
Try this tip that Olympic swimmer and three-time medal winner Dr. Gary Hall Sr. shared with Jim Afremow, author of The Champion's Mind:
The two most important parts of setting goals are that you write them down and that you put them someplace where you can see them every day. I usually recommend the bathroom mirror or refrigerator door, two places I know you will always look. When I was 16 years old, training for my first Olympic games, my coach wrote all of my goal times down on the top of the kickboard I was using every day in practice. I couldn't escape them, but the result, after executing the plan, was that I made the Olympic team.
So find your personal kickboard -- whether it's a Post-it next to your computer monitor or a reminder alert on your iPhone -- and make sure that your goals stay at the forefront of your mind. And when it comes to crafting the goals themselves, the more specific and actionable they are, the better. According to Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, people often structure their goals incorrectly when creating New Year's resolutions.
"Very often they write out a list of goals, rather than writing a list of actions they're going to take and thinking hard about how to structure those behaviors so that they become habits," Duhigg told the Huffington Post.
Go with the 'flow.'
Getting into a flow mindset (often described as being "in the zone") can help athletes to consistently achieve optimal performance. Flow is defined as a mental state in which the individual transcends conscious thought and achieves a heightened state of effortless and unwavering concentration, calm and confidence. This flow state keeps pressures and distractions, both internal and external, from creeping into their minds and potentially harming their performance.
"Athletes who can achieve, maintain and regain [flow] are mentally tough," write Damon Burton and Thomas D. Raedeke in Sports Psychology for Coaches, noting that this state is critical for achieving personal excellence.
A flow state isn't just helpful for athletes -- surgeons performing challenging, state-of-the-art procedures report experiencing intense flow comparable to pro athletes. But flow states can also occur when we're writing, dancing, cooking or even reading a book. It helps us to become deeply involved with anything we're doing, and according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Finding Flow, argues that it's the secret to a joyful life.
"It is the full involvement of flow, rather than happiness, that makes for excellence in life," Csikszentmihalyi writes in Psychology Today. "We can be happy experiencing the passive pleasure of a rested body, warm sunshine, or the contentment of a serene relationship, but this kind of happiness is dependent on favorable external circumstances. The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness."