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It’s not just physical: The psychology behind an Olympic athlete

07-25-16 Category: Emotional awareness, Psychiatry

It’s not just physical: The psychology behind an Olympic athlete

Michael Phelps, Amy Van Dyken, Carl Osburn and Serena Williams may not all be ordinary household names but all share one thing in common — they are all U.S. Olympic gold medal winners, one of the toughest achievements and most notable titles in the world. Qualifying for the Olympics is one of the greatest rewards of all time and takes years of dedication, sacrifice, patience and emotional, physical and mental training — not to mention participating in the Olympic Games and winning a medal. It is not only crucial to be the strongest and fastest in the specific category but an elite Olympian must also learn to be mentally and emotionally focused throughout every practice and every competition.

The fight-or-flight response

Nearly 4 billion people around the globe tune in to watch at least one Olympic event and billions of dollars are spent preparing for this huge world event. The mental and emotional stress on the athletes and coaches alike is extraordinary and is often overlooked by the general public. These world-renowned athletes train for years to perform for one moment of live action on a world stage. An individual’s life’s work comes down to a moment — a moment when the entire world is watching, and when millions of dollars in advertising, sponsorships, endorsements and national pride are on the line. It is the perfect example of the fight-or-flight response — a hormonal and neurotransmitter balance that works to prepare the body for a very intense and stressful event.

This fight or flight response is controlled by the hypothalamus and the anterior pituitary in the brain which release hormones to elicit the adrenal gland to flood the body and brain with norepinephrine, the body’s natural stress hormone and energy booster. This neurotransmitter allows every vital organ in the body to function stronger during this moment of stress. So how does one train Olympic athletes to mentally prepare for the most stressful moment of their lives? Team and individual psychologists and psychiatrists work diligently with the athletes and coaching staff to prepare for most crucial moment, the Olympic competition.

Preparing for anything

Athletes and coaches alike actively participate in group workshops, individual psychological counseling and mental coaching to be prepared for the worst and conquer the best. These athletes prepare for every type of circumstance, whether good or bad. The Olympic athletes who are most successful have developed the psychological foundation for their performances well in advance of the actual Olympic event.

“Anything from that to something like: What if one of your family members dies while you’re over there at the games? Do you want to know before you compete, after you compete? We would talk through those kinds of things just in case something like that would happen. Chances are the exact situation we talk about isn’t necessarily going to happen, but the fact that we did this sort of preparation, and the athletes thought through options for coping with stressful situations could help them deal with whatever they [do] face,” according to The Psych Report.

Imagery and neuronal firing in the brain

Imagery is one of the most well-known mental preparation techniques used by Olympic athletes. Olympic athletes use their hands, eyes or their specific instrument used in their sport such as the steering reigns of a bobsled to go through the exact Olympic routine from start to finish. They visualize this routine with every one of their five senses — from smelling the fresh snow powder, to visualizing every single turn on the track to imagining the tactile feel of a perfect landing on the balance beam. It is imperative that they mentally complete their routine without any error. If they do make a mistake during this imagery, they must rewind and start over. Imagery is not just a mental focusing strategy but it actually generates neuronal firing in the brain, which communicated directly with the skeletal muscles to generate patterns and impulses that mimic the actual sport. It is as if the athlete is actually running or skiing.

“Alpine skiers, including Lindsey Vonn of the United States, will use their hands to simulate the path of their skis. Other skiers thrust both hands forward, often while gripping poles shortly before the start, and see themselves skiing the course through their own eyes,” according to The New York Times.

A mental as well as physical competition

Preparing athletes to compete in the Olympics does not just require physical training but takes years of emotional and mental dedication as well. Competing at such an advanced level is just as much a mental competition as it is a physical competition.

Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health care provider with locations across the United States that treat people with mental health, substance use and co-occurring disorders. In addition to comprehensive treatment programs, Sovereign provides continuing care and hosts events and webinars for those seeking continuing education (CE) credits. For more information on the services we offer, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a medical writer at Sovereign Health, who enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at

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