Game On! {how to have the mental mindset of an Olympic athlete}

The entire world was watching. I know I was.

These young women represented the hopes and dreams of a country. A reminder that anything is possible.

After all the hype, all the anticipation, it was almost gone in an instant.

Disappointment set in as the strongest fell not once but twice. There was only one chance left. We were all on the edge of our seats.


Did her ankle really snap?

You could hear the nation take a collective gasp.

It was over.

Or was it?

With wide-eyes and amazement, we watched a young woman with grit and determination miraculously nail the vault and stick her landing… and then fall to the ground in agony.

I’ll never forget the sight of her coach carrying her to the podium and her teammates holding her up as they accepted the first Olympic Gold medal for the United States in Women’s Gymnastics.

They were magnificent!

{If you want to read the entire heart-pounding story, ESPN did a great job in this article.}

You may be wondering, just how exactly was Kerri Strug able to push through excruciating pain and the pressure of a nation on her shoulders during the most important performance of her life?

The answer is actually quite simple…

Mental training.

“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.”

— Shannon Miller (the most decorated gymnast in U.S. history and Strug’s “Magnificent Seven” teammate)

We can all benefit from this type of training. If you desire to be the very best version of yourself, to achieve amazing feats and compete against yourself (and perhaps others), follow these three Olympic training techniques to up your own game!

1. Meditation

Being able to accurately assess a situation in a split second is the hallmark of a great athlete. They can anticipate obstacles, yet they don’t get flustered when something doesn’t go as planned. They can see options where others don’t. They stay cool, calm and collected under the most intense pressure.

One of the most common methods used to achieve this heightened state of awareness is meditation. It conditions your mind to pause. Instead of making an impulsive decision which may lead to a mistake, you can breathe and respond. It’s as if time stands still and you can evaluate the situation fully before making your next move.

Thanks to neuroscientists at Harvard, it is now well-proven that meditation can literally change your brain structure and function. This isn’t just some new-age, hippy practice. If you want to increase your focus, better regulate your emotions and improve your response to stress, meditation is hands down the best mental training regime available.

Still not convinced? Tell it to Russell Wilson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball players Misty May-Trainor and Kerry Walsh. If they attribute it to the success of their mental game, it might be good enough for you too.

2. Visualization

Similar to the concept of meditation is the ability to visualize your performance, how you will respond to and overcome obstacles, and the thrill of sweet victory.

We are hard-wired to do two things: (1) avoid difficulties and (2) move towards what we’re focused on. Visualization can help overcome the first and leverage the second.

If we’re going to achieve amazing feats, we have to change our mindset to be looking for opportunities and solutions. Our natural tendency is to get the heck out of dodge when something bad is about to happen. To reprogram our minds, we have to simulate difficult situations so that our brain is more comfortable with responding. When we’re in a high-stakes situation, we don’t want to retreat or let our amygdala (the “fight or flight” trigger in our brain) highjack our emotions. We need to be able to stand in the face of “danger” and move through it.

Next, if we can stay focused on our desired outcome, our brain will naturally look for ways to make it happen.

“I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a very sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.”

— Jack Nicklaus

Visualizations are especially effective at helping you build strong mental muscles to perform under pressure. It’s not just about picturing yourself winning, it’s about playing out and working through different scenarios that might happen. This not only helps you be prepared when you’re faced with common obstacles, but your problem-solving muscles will be primed to handle any kind of adversity, even those situations you didn’t anticipate or prepare for.

When you know what’s ahead, you can be confident in your approach. When everything is on the line, you can breathe easy knowing that you’ve done this a thousand times in your mind and you’re as ready as you’ll ever be.

3. Affirmations

Olympic athletes believe in themselves and stay optimistic. If you’re constantly doubting your abilities, comparing yourself to others, and engaging in negative self-talk, you’ll never be a peak performer.

It may seem arrogant, but proclaiming your virtues can help wire your brain to believe that anything is possible. Perhaps the greatest example of an athlete using positive affirmations is Muhammad Ali.

“I am the greatest.”

— Muhammad Ali

When you’re aiming for really big goals, modesty and humility should not be your concern. You don’t have to go around proclaiming your greatness to the world (it can be obnoxious…), but you do need to proclaim it yourself.

Affirmations are simply positive statements about yourself and what you can achieve. They should be well-thought out and written down with reminders everywhere so that you say them out loud and silently to yourself as often as possible.

Cleaning up your thoughts and internal dialogue is a key component to mental toughness. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will. And, at the end of the day, all the cheers in the world won’t be able to secure you a victory – you have to want it for yourself and believe you deserve it.

With the gold medal on the line, Kerri Strugs was able to say to herself:

“This is it, Kerri. You’ve done this vault a thousand times, so just go out and do it. I know I can do it one more time, injured ankle or not.” 

If you’re ready to channel your inner Olympian and start achieving more in life, consider what mental training techniques you can begin using to gain more focus, clarity and calm in the face of pressure.

Leave a comment below and let me know which tools you’re most excited to try!


P.S. If you’re not familiar with women’s gymnastics (I’ve been slightly obsessed since I was about 3 years old…), the only other gold win was in 2012. Some of the Fierce Five will be making a comeback to hopefully repeat their success in Rio. The opening ceremony is this Friday, August 5 and the games continue until August 21. You can bet I’ll be watching every.single.minute 🙂

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  1. Rene on August 3, 2016 at 9:58 am

    Great article Heather!! You really know how to get the juices flowing. The Olympics are always so inspiring and you are just fueling the fire. Go girl!! I’m going to attempt to visualize with more detail 🙂

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