Every single Olympic athlete is incredibly talented. Everyone knows that. It's due in large part to the endless hours of training they've put towards their sport, allowing them to be in peak physical condition for the biggest moment of their careers.
But if every Olympic athlete is in the best possible shape, what gives one an edge over another? At this elite level most hover around a similar speed, technique, or strength, so what's the differentiator?
The key seems to be emotional conditioning. Any nerves, doubts, or fears can often be eliminated with mental preparation, allowing the athlete to focus on their performance. Being able to handle any sort of unforeseen situation calmly is incredibly important and makes the race entirely their own-unable to be altered or ruined by some outside force.
"Emotional conditioning is crucial because once you get to any level in sport--whether high school, Division I collegiate, [or] the Olympics -- everyone is pretty equal physically. It's those who can handle noise, stress, pressure, and distraction who are the ones that win," says Jenny Susser, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
It's not surprising then that swimmer Michael Phelps uses emotional conditioning in his training. Holding the record for most gold medals won over a career, Phelps knows a thing or two about how to come out on top. And for him, it's all about visualizing the race.
After beginning his swimming career as a tense and moody seven-year-old, Phelps' coach taught him to imagine himself swimming a perfect race. Phelps saw himself make smooth strokes, touch the edges of the pool, and rip off his goggles at the finish to check his winning time. Phelps pictured all of this with his eyes closed. He calls it watching "his videotape."
Phelps also has an extensive pre-race ritual. He eats the same breakfast (eggs, oatmeal, and four energy shakes), works through the same stretching routine, completes the same 45 minute warm-up, and listens to hip hop while he waits for his race to start.
It was this consistent emotional preparedness that allowed Phelps to set a world record for the 200 meter fly in the 2008 Beijing games despite having water-filled goggles. Without having performed his pre-race ritual perfectly and having lived the race perfectly in his head countless times before, Phelps may have succumbed to panic and lost his focus. Instead, he swam the race he had always pictured.
When asked what it felt like to swim blind he simply said, "It felt like I imagined it would."
Other Olympians, like figure skater Randy Gardner and basketball player Michael Jordan, practice mental conditioning as well. But it's not just Olympians that can benefit from this type of emotional conditioning. For any athlete, fitness buff, or regular gym-goer, having your head in the game plays a big role in success. If you can't truly see yourself crossing the finish line of that 10k race, you probably won't. If you start to doubt that you can set a personal record for weighted squats, you'll likely to lose form and falter.
So as you're watching the London games, pay attention to what the athletes are doing before they compete. Notice them with headphones on and eyes closed, maybe doing a routine set of stretches or systematically putting on their uniform. Though seemingly insignificant, all of this "before" is equally as crucial to their performance as what they do when the buzzer sounds.
Clare Brady is a Healthy Living Blogger currently living in Dallas, Texas but originally from St. Louis, Missouri. On her blog, Fitting It All In, Clare shares her experiences with living a healthy lifestyle while balancing a busy schedule. Currently she is working full-time as advertising account executive, seeing clients as a Certified Holistic Health Coach, exercising often, cooking as much as possible, and making sure to spend time with friends. You can find Clare on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.