For many Team USA athletes, the Olympic Games represent the culmination of their hard work and athletic achievement. The Olympics have been special since its ancient Greek origins in 776 BC. The Greeks idealized physical fitness and mental discipline, and they believed that excellence in those areas honored Zeus, the king of the gods. Winners of the Games were crowned with wreaths and hailed as heroes. While The Olympics may no longer honor Zeus, it continues to symbolize the highest level of excellence. It represents universality for building a better and peaceful world through excellence, respect and friendship.
With this level of prestige, emotions run high as athletes prepare to be in the best condition physically, technically, mentally and emotionally. They strive to “be the best” as symbolized by the medals awarded to honor the individual, the team and their country. The years of preparation come down to a few minutes of competition. How can an athlete not be overwhelmed by emotions?
Emotional pressure is not new to Team USA as they may experience a wide range of emotions from fear and anxiety to exhilaration and inspiration in any competition. During The Olympics emotions can easily be heightened by pressures of competing, and to win not only for themselves but for their country. Notably, this heightened experience begins while training to make the Team USA, and continues throughout the Games and post-Games. Emotions on either extreme can serve to help or impede one’s performance. The goal is to contain and use emotional energy and intelligence to one’s advantage. One must know their strengths and weaknesses in their physical, mental and emotional worlds. Mental and emotional resilience is as important as physical activity. Training and dedication to optimize emotional preparedness is similar to training of physical and technical abilities.
While there are several psychological characteristics seen in Team USA champions – confidence, high dispositional hope and optimism1 seem to be at the core for developing strategies for mental resilience, the ability to cope and control anxiety, the ability to block out distractions and the ability to set and achieve goals. These are traits that optimize physical ability.
During The Olympics, athletes focus on practicing proven strategies which they have developed through years of training. As spectators we tend to focus on the physical abilities – not on the mental and emotional aspects of training used to help athletes push themselves to exceed their physical goals. A true champion uses the synergy of mental, emotional and physical training and talent to be the best.
Emotional preparedness makes all members of Team USA, a gold-medalist!
Dr. Julia Kim is a Clinical Psychologist at Hospital for Special Surgery. Dr. Kim is the first Clinical Psychologist to formally work within the HSS family and her focus is to develop an Integrative Care Program, designed to incorporate psychological services to a multi-disciplinary care team. She works closely with physicians and surgeons to optimize the best possible medical outcome.
1Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett (2002). Psychological characteristics and their development in Olympic champions. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 172-204.