Improve Your Mental Game: 5 Lessons of Mental Toughness from the Rio Olympics

Mental toughness and Rio, what you can learn from Olympic athletes to get that mental edge.

Author: Amanda Myhrberg, Founder, A Game Sport Psychology Consulting.

The Olympic Games are a chance for us to marvel at athletes who are the embodiment of the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The Games also give us real examples of mental toughness and resiliency. Mental toughness is the ability to maintain confidence, focus, and motivation. Whereas resiliency is the ability to recover quickly from a difficult situation. Honestly, all Olympians have displayed both, mental toughness and resiliency, at one point or another in their athletic careers. The 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro did not disappoint giving us amazing displays of mental toughness. We can all learn from these examples and try to incorporate these examples into our everyday lives.

There are five lessons from female athletes that we can use to improve our own mental toughness and resiliency:

1.  Age is only a number.
Age 40 Erika Olivera, Marathon Runner, 5 Time Olympian, Finished the marathon 2:50:29

Oksana Chusovitina
August 14, 2016 – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil – Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan at the Rio Olympic Arena. (Photo by DPA/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

Age 41 Oksana Chusovitina, Gymnastics, 7 Time Olympian, 2016 Olympic Vault Finalist

Age 43 Kristin Armstrong, Cycling, 3 Time Olympic Gold Medalist, 2016 Gold Medalist Time Trial
Age 45 Satu Mäkelä-Nummela, Shooting, 2008 Gold Medalist Trap Shooting, 10th in Rio Olympics
Age 49 Beezie Madden, Equestrian, 4 Time Olympian, Silver Medalist in Team Jumping
Age 61 Mary Hanna, Equestrian, 5 Time Olympian, Oldest Competitor in the Rio Olympics

How often do we use our age as an excuse? Some people will say you are too young, others will say you are too old. The Wall Street Journal stated that the average age of Olympians in Rio is 27 years old. Olympians come in all shapes, sizes, and ages. These older Olympians have used their age as an asset and showed the world that with age comes experience. Kristin Armstrong (43) stated, after winning her 3rd consecutive gold medal in the cycling time trials in Rio, “We’ve been told we should be finished at a certain age, but there are a lot of athletes out there who are showing that’s not true.”  Aly Raisman though only 22 is seen by her teammates a “grandma,” but Oksana Chusovitina (41) has been competing in the Olympic games since before Aly was born. These athletes stand the test of time by not letting age be an excuse to hold them down. A lesson we can take is to figure out what limitations we are putting on ourselves. Contemplate the excuses you are using to hold yourself back (i.e. age, weight, height) and decide how that perceived limitation can be turned into a strength.

2. Set your own goals.

American swimmer, Katie Ledecky came into these games with people wondering not if she was going to win but how much was she going to win by. Simone Biles before her first Olympics was already being called the greatest gymnast of all time. There are a lot of expectations and pressures surrounding Olympic athletes. There are times athletes fall prey upon the expectations of others. It can feel as if they have a ton of bricks weighing them down. The exceptional athletes learn how to set their own goals instead of a goal placed upon them by someone else. Katie Ledecky spoke about her own goals saying, “I’m always pushing myself and seeing what I can do. That has always been the biggest goal. Dominance is never something I think about: that would be basing my goals on other people, and I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do.” Remember we have the power to set our own goals no matter how big, and be stay confident and committed to those goals.

3. Disappointments are inevitable but discouragement is a choice.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” -Pierre de Coubertin (founder of the modern Olympic Games)

Pierre de Coubertin’s quote reminds us that it is not the results that matter but how hard you fought. In sport and in life disappointments are inevitable but discouragement is a choice. Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross are the living embodiment of this idea. You could say they were very focused on getting a  gold medal. It is all they have talked about since the last Olympics in London. Losing in the semifinal beach volleyball match was disheartening. This was Kerri’s first loss on the Olympic stage and April’s second. They came back less than 24 hours later and defeated the Brazilian team of Larissa and Talita in an epic three set battle. In no part due to the fact they regrouped and decided they still had a job to do. After winning the Bronze medal Kerri said, “We had to fight with everything we had. It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as an athlete to overcome that devastation.” Disappointments are a challenge for everyone. It is when we realize that we have the power to control how we react to those disappointments is how we heal and perform our best.

4. Have the confidence of a trailblazer.

Simone Manuel
August 10, 2016 – Rio De Janeiro, Brazil – Simone Manuel of the USA reacts at the Women’s 100m Freestyle Heats of the Swimming events during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 10 August 2016. (Photo by DPA/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

It is scary being the first do to something. The reason why it is scary is because there are a lot of unknowns and no path to follow. Blazing your own path takes courage, confidence, and a lot of resiliency. There were several notable trailblazers at the Rio Olympics. Simone Manuel became the first African-American swimmer to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics. She simply asked her mother at age 11, “Why aren’t there more swimmers that look like me?” Simone later said that her medal was not just for her but hopefully for those that she has inspired coming after her. Monica Puig won the first gold medal ever for Puerto Rico while competing in tennis. Puig is not only the first gold medalist from Puerto Rico. She is the first woman representing Puerto Rico to win any medal at the Olympic Games. Previously she had never beaten a top-10 ranked player. On her way to the gold medal she defeated two; Garbine Muguruza (French Open Champion) and Angelique Kerber (reigning Australian Open Champion and Wimbledon Finalist). “I never thought I’d manage to win this so early in my career,” she said. “I knew that I might have another chance four years from now, but I wanted it so much. I fought with my heart and soul out there. And I got it.’’ Trailblazers have the confidence to fight for what they want. They learn that the only things they are in control of are their attitudes, their concentration, and their effort. If they take care of the things in their direct control, they can continue blazing trails for others to follow.

5. Sports are about more than who wins.

Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino
Abbey D’Agostino of the United States (right) is assisted by Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand after a collision during the women’s 5,000 meters on Tuesday at the Rio Olympics.

Yes, winning is really nice. Sports though are about more than who wins. Participating in sport gives us valuable life lessons. Sports teach us how to win and lose with grace. Sports teach us that being competitive is not a bad thing. Sports teach us that it takes hard work to achieve our goals. The International Olympic Committee awards the Pierre de Coubertin medal to athletes that demonstrate the spirit of sportsmanship during the Olympic Games or in service to the Olympic movement. It is a medal that has only been handed out 17 times in the modern Olympic era. This prestigious medal is more valuable than gold and it is not awarded to just anyone. During the women’s 5000-meter semifinal race, New Zealander Nikki Hamblin and American Abbey D’Agostino collided and fell to the ground. Abbey waited and helped Nikki up. While trying to finish their race, Abbey’s knee began to collapse under her. It was later revealed she tore her MCL and ACL. She told Nikki to go on and finish the race, but Nikki stayed with her and helped her cross the finish line. These two women, who had never met, exemplify the Olympic spirit. Sport is about building friendships and mutual respect. For their bravery and sportsmanship, the IOC awarded them the Pierre de Coubertin medal. Mental toughness and resiliency in sport is not about winning, but more about helping those around you.

The Rio Olympic Games have officially closed, but the lessons from the past 17 days will stay with us forever. Remember age is only a number, set your own goals, disappointments are inevitable discouragement is a choice, have the confidence of a trailblazer, and sports is about more than who wins.

Amanda Myhrberg is the founder of A Game Sport Psychology Consulting in Sarasota, FL. Amanda loves teaching athletes that mental toughness is not just an idea but a set of skills you can train like anything else in sports. She has earned her Master of Science Degree from Florida State University in the field of sport psychology. She is also a Certified Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP #517).

Amanda Myhrberg, MS, CC-AASP
Founder, A Game Sport Psychology Consulting
Instagram & Twitter: @agamesportpsych

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Amanda Myhrberg