Wear these shoes for a moment: you show up to work every day, not to earn a wage or salary, but to simply improve your skills. In most instances, your meals and work supplies are paid for, and maybe, if you’re good enough, you snatch an endorsement deal here and there–but keep in mind, there’s many of you, in some cases hundreds of you, around the world, competing for one top salary. That big check and your moment of fame only come once every four years, and the odds of earning nothing far outweigh that of victory.
This is the daily reality for many Olympic athletes–a Hunger Games of sorts if you will. Every morning they step onto a soccer field, glide out onto an ice surface, walk into the weight room, whatever it may be, for no reward at the end of the day. Sure, there may be personal successes and small victories, but they only get one shot every four years to earn their (literal and figurative) pay on the world stage.
Coming up short of a medal at the Olympics can be one of the most emotional experiences of an athlete’s career. Defeat not only carries the burden of devastation and self-doubt but the possibility of losing the support and resources needed to compete.
However, over the past few decades, the field of sports psychology has completely changed the landscape of Olympic competition. Now, nearly every Olympic athlete puts as much emphasis on their mental preparation as their physical training. Not only are they coached to visualize success and to engage in positive self-talk, but they also prepare for the possibility of a negative outcome.
Professor Amber Mosewich at the University of Alberta is one of many sports psychologists constantly studying the minds of elite athletes. She and her team investigate stress, coping, and emotion in sport in order to understand why athletes think, feel, and behave in certain ways. In 2013, Mosewich and her colleagues conducted a study with female athletes, attempting to gauge their level of self-compassion–in other words, how kind are athletes to themselves?
The women involved in this analysis were introduced to the concept of self-compassion and then subsequently asked to complete a series of writing exercises revolving around the subject. Following the study, the athletes reported a heightened sense of self-compassion and less concern and lingering over mistakes and negative self-talk.
Self-compassion is an emotional safety net for elite athletes. Self-esteem and confidence in one’s skills are crucial to performance, but the ability to control the flow of both positive and negative emotions circling one’s mind as they peer down the ski slope they have been grappling with for 1,460 consecutive days, with one single opportunity to manifest their dream–that’s a skill, one that requires a great deal of practice.
“You need to be ready to not be successful,” Canadian Sports Psychologist Fabien Abejean told The Globe And Mail. “It’s a little bit disturbing for them – they say, ‘We are not supposed think about failing. We just want to focus on the positive.'” But, “if you know you can deal with failure or difficulties during the race, you will be more confident and trust yourself. You will have the tools.”
While it seems glorious to capture even a fourth-place finish as we glare at these superhumans on our television screens, they still leave the Olympic village empty-handed, often overwhelmed by feelings of failure. No matter what the odds are saying, Olympians expect to win, which is why the field of sports psychology and the emotional tools it offers are vital to an athlete’s ability to keep moving forward.