How Olympians Stay Motivated

Mindfulness, self-talk, and an obscure chunk of the brain help elite athletes get through the training grind.
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Until the 1990s, Olympic figure skating included a segment called “compulsory figures,” in which athletes would slowly trace precise, intricate shapes into the ice, and judges would inspect the resulting swirls and loops to determine much of the skater’s overall score. These “figures” gave the sport its name, but they were gradually phased out because not even the most ardent skating fans would watch the tedious process on TV. Today's competitive figure skaters only do what their predecessors called the “free skating” portion—fast-paced programs set to music, packed with jumps and dance moves.

When American figure skater Dorothy Hamill won gold in the ladies’ single competition in 1976, compulsory figures were the first event. They played a decisive role in whether the skater would medal. Hamill adored skating, but training to execute the figures perfectly at the Olympiahalle in Innsbruck that year was, frankly, kind of miserable.

Compulsory figures, 1963 (German Federal Archive)

“I would spend four hours a day going in circles and trying to perfect the compulsory figures, and no one ever saw those but the judges,” Hamill told me. “They were so complicated and so hard to perfect. I changed coaches just to get someone to help me with my compulsory figures.”

At the time, Hamill was 19 years old and living in Colorado with her mother, who had moved with her daughter from their family’s home in Connecticut so that Hamill could focus on training to the exclusion of almost everything else. Each day, she awoke early and skated in the morning, then went to school, then skated after school, then had dinner (steak was big for athletes back then, when they could afford it), and then skated for another two hours.

Full days of training consisted of four hours of practicing compulsory figures, then two hours of free skating, then running through the short program and the long program, and then ... repeat.

“The same thing, day in and day out,” she said.

Many Olympic winter sports involve feats of incredible dynamism and gravity-defying stunts, making it seem as though the life of an elite winter athlete would be a nonstop adventure full of half-pipes and triple Axels. And to some extent, it is. But what audiences don’t see are the grueling practice sessions that involve hours of repetitive, muscle-straining movements. 

A 2009 Boston Globe article about a school for Olympic snowboarders described a typical day as, "up at dawn, stretch, watch video of the previous day, hit the slopes till lunch, go to class, do more conditioning, eat dinner, and then go to study hall for an hour and a half. At most, they get about an hour of “free time” a day, but it’s usually used for homework."

With schedules like that, some of the most successful athletes aren’t necessarily the strongest or fastest, but simply the ones who are best at staying motivated.

“A lot of times before you physically give out, you give out mentally,” said Thomas Hong, a high-school student and speed skater who placed 11th at the Olympic trials this year. “You know you're going to be sore for a while, you know how bad it's going to hurt you.”

Hamill said part of what spurred her on were the sacrifices that her parents and coaches had made. She wasn’t very interested in school, and most of the family’s money went to her training. It was skating or bust.

“I had a commitment to myself and all the people who were helping me skate,” she said. “It's like a marriage, you don't walk away from it. It was a huge investment in everyone's life—my mom and my brothers and sisters and coaches.”

And most of the time, she said, the training was enjoyable. But some of the time, “it really wasn't.”

We can’t all be Olympic athletes. (In fact some of us, including your humble narrator, should not be allowed anywhere near ice or blades.) But we all face times when we really don’t want to do something that we, nonetheless, really have to do. Drawing from interviews with top athletes and their coaches, along with psychological studies of athletes, here are seven ways Olympians stay motivated through the training slog.

1. Talk yourself through the stress

In 1993, researchers interviewed 17 national champion figure skaters and identified 158 unique coping strategies they used. The most common, used by 76 percent of the skaters, was “rational thinking and self-talk,” which the study authors describe as logically examining all of the potential stressors, determining what could be controlled, and talking oneself through the problem rationally. The skaters would say that they tried to “gather all the valid points, sort through everything … take what you think is a good comment, disregard what you think is not a good comment.” One tried to displace the weight of the competition by convincing herself it was just for fun. “Listen, if I want to skate, I have to skate, I have to do it for myself,” she told the researchers. “I’m not out here for anyone else or the USA. I’m out here to do it for myself.”

2. Love—or at least accept—the grind

Studies of college-age swimmers and professional rugby players have shown that, more so than physical exhaustion or even defeat, the biggest factor in predicting burnout was the athlete’s own devaluation of the sport—caring about it less or attributing negative qualities to it.

Successful athletes were repeatedly described as being intrinsically motivated and “loving” their practice, not just their competitions.

“The women that I’ve worked with that medal are the ones that really enjoy the process,” said Teri McKeever, the head swimming coach at UC Berkeley who has also trained Olympic swimmers. “They enjoy the working out as much as they enjoy the competition. They love that idea of pushing the limits and learning and being challenged emotionally and physically.”

Japan's Masako Hoizumi competes in 2010. 
(Jerry Lampen/Reuters)

3. Be optimistic

Yes, it’s a cliche. But in a 2002 study for which researchers interviewed 10 Olympic medalists and their coaches, all of the athletes and eight of the coaches described the athlete in question as “optimistic/positive.” By comparison, only two of the athletes described themselves as “intelligent” and only four called themselves “organized.” Zero athletes called themselves nice.

You don’t have to be an especially pleasant, smart, or even detail-oriented person, it seems, as long as you’re irrepressibly Pollyanna-ish about your own abilities. Other studies have shown that a sunny outlook also helps Olympic athletes bounce back from defeat. Meanwhile, negative moods tend to hurt performance.

In another study of 10 participants in either the Olympics or the Commonwealth games, “having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals,” was found to be the most common definition of “mental toughness” among the athletes. The participants also believed they possessed “unique qualities and abilities” that made them better than their rivals.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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