February 19, 2010

What it Takes to Be an Olympic Athlete

Questions for Sport Psychologist Shane Murphy

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shane-murphyShane Murphy, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Western Connecticut State University. He is the founder of Gold Medal Psychological Consultants, which teaches business and sport organizations the competitive skills that lead to success. Dr. Murphy was head of the U. S. Olympic Committee’s Sport Psychology Department from 1987 to 1994 and associate director of the USOC Sport Science Division from 1992 to 1994. He was sport psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Teams at the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul and the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, a consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee on mental preparation for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, and sport psychologist for the USA snowboard program leading up to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. He has contributed to numerous books and scientific journals on sport psychology and human performance and is the author or co-author of five books, including “The Cheers and the Tears: Positive Alternative to the Dark Side of Youth Sports Today” (1999) and “The Sport Psych Handbook: A Complete Guide to Today’s Best Mental Training Techniques” (2005).

APA. Because the Olympics only come once every four years, how do athletes prepare themselves mentally for a one-shot deal? What are the levels of pressure and anxiety they feel during training?

Dr. Murphy. It’s true that the fact of the Olympics coming only every four years places special pressures on all Olympic athletes, but these athletes are used to dealing with pressure. The World Cup circuit, the X Games – elite athletes constantly have to confront the demons of anxiety, fear of failure, and worry about injury. For the modern athlete, consistent mental training is as much a key to success as is great physical preparation. Throughout practice and training, part of their preparation is how to deal with big-event nerves. That’s why most Olympic sports have sport psychologists working with their coaches and athletes to help prepare for peak performance.

But it’s fair to say that the Olympics places special pressure on most athletes. Of all sporting events, the Olympics come with the greatest pressure – nothing else matches it for gut-wrenching anxiety, not the Super Bowl, not the World Series, not Wimbledon or the Masters. It’s a combination of the once-every-four years pressure but also the intense nationalism of the Olympics. For athletes in many sports, it is only at the Olympics that they face the media blitz of worldwide attention. They toil in obscurity otherwise. Some athletes revel in the attention and perform their best under the pressure. Others come up far short of expectations when placed under this intense spotlight. That’s why you often see athletes perform much better at their second Olympics, once they have had a chance to experience the pressure and learn how to handle it.

APA. What does it take psychologically to be an elite athlete? Is it all about training and natural gifts or is personality key?

Dr. Murphy. That’s a great question, and if we knew the real answer, we’d be able to develop more Olympic champions. Definitely, talent is key. You need to have physical abilities to excel in a sport and speed, strength, endurance and coordination are vital. But determination is also a huge component of success. You have to love what you do in order to put in the roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice that Anders Ericsson’s famous research indicates is needed to become an expert. But I think many different types of personalities can become successful Olympians. Certainly we see a wide variety of personality types on the USA Olympic team.

APA. People are mesmerized by the aerial tricks of the snowboarders and skiers and wonder how and why they do what they do. Does danger make these athletes more resilient to the rest of life’s challenges because they risk so much when competing? Or are they more vulnerable to life’s ups and downs because they get injured more?

Dr. Murphy. One of my clients who was preparing to climb Mount Everest without oxygen summed it up best. He said, “I make all these careful preparations because despite the dangers, I want to take the risk out of it.” Most elite athletes I work with don’t think of what they do as especially dangerous, because they work so hard at becoming excellent at it. Of course they know the risks, and every now and then they are dramatically reminded of the dangers, as with Nodar Kumaritashvili [the Georgian luger who was killed in Vancouver] and Kevin Pearce [the U.S. snowboarder who suffered a brain injury], but their focus is on doing what they have trained themselves to do. It’s only when they make mistakes that the risks appear. Allowing big-event nerves and the pressure of the Olympics to hurt that laser-like focus they have can have disastrous consequences. So they work very hard on understanding how anxiety and nerves develop and what they can do about them, using the energy of the Olympics pressure in a positive way to help them. They learn how to replace negative thinking, doubts and worry with complete attention to the task at hand.

I think that’s a very interesting question as to whether they are more resilient to the rest of life’s challenges because they risk so much when competing. I’m not sure we know the answer. I think if they remember what they learned about themselves in Olympic competition, it’s possible to apply it to the rest of life. But it takes effort and practice to transfer the lessons gained from sport to the rest of your life; it doesn’t happen accidentally.

APA. You take the position that sports psychologists should be concerned with the total well-being of athletes. This is especially true for elite athletes who under enormous press and public scrutiny. How do they do it? Do you see differences between male and female athletes?

Dr. Murphy. As we’ve unfortunately seen so often, it doesn’t help to have a very successful sports or Olympic career if the young person ends up with terrible problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, steroid abuse or relationship failures that destroy their happiness and future. So of course the total well-being of the athlete is my primary focus, as it is with all sport psychologists. Staying well-balanced under the intense pressure and scrutiny of the Olympics is a big challenge, but it is usually achieved with the help of a large support network, including family, friends and sport personnel such as coaches and administrators. There’s a huge support network behind every individual success story at these Olympics.

The good news is that most elite athletes have very happy and productive lives after sport. They do it by taking the skills they have learned in sport – being self-motivated, accepting and learning from criticism, setting effective goals, being a team player and so on – and applying them to the rest of their lives. Those skills are incredibly helpful at work, in family relationships, for life in general. We developed a program at the USOC, the Career Assistance Program for Athletes, that helped athletes make successful transitions between high-level sport and life after sport. We learned that most athletes do need something to replace that incredibly high-energy, demanding aspect of their lives that sport provided, but we found that they can forge new goals in other areas, such as work, volunteer and charity activities, and relationships with friends and family. It’s a lifestyle change that they must navigate. I think often women use their excellent social skills to help navigate that change, while men often rely on individual effort and hard work to make the transition, but there are more similarities than differences for men and women.

APA. What does it take to do your very best when the pressure is on? You talk about being in “the zone.” Is that how athletes master the psychological skills that allow them to deliver their best in competition?

Dr. Murphy. Yes, athletes need to be in that “zone” whenever they are performing. It’s interesting that our research has shown that anyone in a very stressful or demanding occupation or role has to learn those same skills to stay in the zone – successful surgeons, great musicians, ballet dancers, emergency responders such as firemen – it’s a combination of years of practice to develop the skills to perform at a high level, plus the laser-like focus on the job at hand. What’s fascinating is that we find that athletes often don’t need to be perfect to succeed. Being in the “zone” isn’t about perfection as much as it is about staying in the moment, not worrying about failure, and not worrying about what the result might be. I find every athlete to be unique in their approach to that “zone,” but they use some combination of psychological skills such as visualization, goal-setting, concentration, relaxation or mindfulness, psyching up, positive self-talk and developing a consistent routine in order to get there. Once they’re ready, they focus and let it happen. Their bodies are prepared to succeed – usually it’s the mind that can get in the way – if you let it.

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