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How We Can Cultivate The Mental Strength Of Athletes

When the bar was raised to 2.39 meters, a mark that would have tied the Olympic record, neither man could clear it. The high jump was stuck at a stalemate.

After their misses, an Olympic official came over to Barshim and Tamberi, saying that they could go to a jump-off to determine who took home the gold medal.

"Can we have two golds?" Barshim asked.
"It's possible," the official replied.

By the time the words were halfway out of the official's mouth, Barshim and Tamberi had already looked at each other, given a nod, and leaped into each other's arms.

They had both won gold at Tokyo 2020.

While the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have come to an end, the image of the double gold embrace kept appearing in my mind.

Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy celebrate after winning gold in the men’s high jump final at Olympics Tokyo 2020. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

What makes an Athlete?

Athletes are often seen as the epitome of human performance with their incredible physical and mental strength. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games wrapped up yesterday evening, it is hard not to be impressed by the achievements of athletes from all over the world.

For many of us, the thought of possessing such athletic capabilities is but a dream. But research suggests there are indeed some skills we can learn from the experts, as long as we’re willing to put in the work ourselves.

I am not talking about the immense physical talent, but the incredible amount of mental control. For decades, sport psychologists have been trying to identify the key psychological ingredients that make the world’s greatest athletes great. Elite athletes display:

  1. High levels of passion and commitment towards their sport.

  2. Resilience and Persistence help them bounce back from defeat repeatedly - also known as Grit.

Athletes must effectively regulate their emotions and attention to ensure best performance. Not keeping their emotions in check may compromise their performance under pressure — a phenomenon often referred to as “choking” (read more here).

Elite athletes often deal with multiple stressors relating to their sports performance, occupation and personal lives. Their passion (and sometimes career) requires them to develop resilience and approach stressors as challenges to be overcome.

Life experiences and environmental factors are also as important as genetics in shaping an athlete. Characteristics such as self-efficacy (believing in your ability to succeed) develop through experience and continued support from others.

Externally, an athlete’s performance can also be impacted by a variety of environmental cues including their peers, opponents, training environment and their coach. Studies show enabling a supportive and safe environment promotes free will, emotional expression and open feedback enhances athletes’ mental well-being. This type of environment fosters a “autonomous motivation”, which is the motivation to call for an action. Research has shown behaviours that are autonomously motivated are more likely to be sustained long-term.

Adopting A Growth Mindset

Whether or not you’re training as an athlete, adopting some of the mental skills used can help you maintain focus and motivation in your own life.

Whether you want to exercise more, reduce your alcohol intake, or maybe be more productive at home or work, the following techniques can help you adopt a growth mindset - believe that talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others). Read more here about growth mindset from a Harvard Business Review article.


Elite athletes often set short-term and long-term goals. For beginners, setting “SMART” goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound) can help you achieve those small wins to keep you motivated as you progress towards a greater goal.

When setting goals for yourself, try to make them meaningful by linking them to values you care about. For instance, you might wish to prioritise your health, or career achievement. Doing so can help boost your motivation to achieve your goals.

Forward Planning

Obtaining a goal can often take considerable time and effort, as we see with athletes preparing for the Olympics.

Planning is an important mental skill that can help you regulate your behaviour as you move toward your goals.

Consider creating detailed action plans which outline when, where and how you will progress toward your goal. Creating coping plans will also help prepare you for potential challenges that may impede goal attainment.

Positive Self-talk

Many athletes engage in reflective practices such as self-talk to help them focus or concentrate on the task at hand. Identifying positive key words or phrases such as “I can do it” and “I’m almost there” can help redirect your attention and increase motivation to persevere through challenging situations.

Here's how four time Olympic track Gold Medalist Sanya Richards-Ross cope by

Being present at the moment...
... Fight negativity with Positivity

Positive self-talk can also help enhance your self-efficacy that can lead to positive outcomes.

Mental Visualisation

Visualization is also known as mental imagery and rehearsal. Visualization is used primarily as a training tool that increases the power of concentration, and serves to reduce the pressures of competition on the athlete while building confidence.

Before running towards the track or executing a serve in tennis, athletes often use mental imagery to visualise their performance and end results. Visualising the steps needed to perform an action or reach your goal can boost motivation and anticipated pleasure (or pain, whichever works best) from the planned task.

So the next time you sit back to watch the world’s best compete for glory, think about how you too can adopt the mindset of an athlete, and feel motivated to excel in your own way in everything you do.

"The hard days are the best because that's where champions are made"
- Gabby Douglas, 2012 Olympic all-around gymnastics champion

PS: For those who wish to relive the INCREDIBLE moment as Barshim and Tamberi agree to share gold, here it is, 0:47 sec into the video:


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