Our family has been glued to the London Olympic Games every night since the opening ceremony. We've concluded that they're as much about winning medals and giving the performance of a lifetime, as they are about the ability to stay calm under pressure.
There are more than a few Olympic athletes this year who have captured the hearts of audiences with a special sparkle.
One of the youngest swimmers on the U.S. Olympic team is 17-year old, 6-foot-1 Missy Franklin, who’s been called “Olympics’ All-American Sweetheart.” Her incredible strength and stamina in the pool, her constant smile and energy, her love of the sport all add up to a winning combination both in and out of the water.
Franklin’s positive attitude seems to cancel any pre-performance jitters. And what a bright spot her joy is for her training-ground of Aurora, Colorado after the recent tragedy the city endured. She’s going home with four golds and a bronze, with a world record in the 200m back. “I can’t think of a better way to end. I am the happiest girl alive,” she told the press.
Beyond the powerhouse bodies and physical training, dealing with the stress of the competition really comes down to the athlete’s mental state. And given the fact that stress is increasingly linked to disease – and the reason behind most doctor visits – it’s worth paying attention to effective ways to handle pressure.
My husband and I shared a proud moment with our teenage daughter recently (granted, it was much more modest!) when she performed a ballet routine in front of an international judge and an audience of parents and peers. She came away with her own gold medal around her neck, an indication of all the sweat, tears, and hours of practice and training. When I asked her how she handled the pressure of performing in front of a judge, she said she never even thought about the people in front of her. She was caught up in the pure joy of her art form.
How athletes handle the pressure and focus their thoughts is paramount in those moments leading up to competition, even more than all of the hours they spend making sure their bodies will cooperate. Audiences witness it every time a swimmer steps up to the starting block or a gymnast is hoisted onto the uneven bars–and yes, when a ballerina takes her position on stage.
The mental training athletes endure is more often than not the game-changer in competition. Michael Phelps’ longtime coach specifically trained him to deal with adversity. Once he handed him broken goggles right before a race, and Michael was forced to swim with his eyes filled with water. How could he have known that his goggles would again fail to work at the Beijing Olympics? Undeterred, Phelps’ mental focus won him the gold. He leaves his Olympic career with 18 golds and a record 22 total medals.
My kids are all involved in sports –track, dance, soccer. We talk a lot about the importance of approaching every activity by first examining our mental state. In our home, that means starting with prayer and focusing on the spiritual qualities they want to express when faced with a challenge. They’ve given a lot of thought to flexibility, energy, stamina, grace, poise, joy, freedom, creativity – all of which come not from one’s body, but begin with thought. We talk about how our thoughts are informed by Spirit, the source of all things good and beautiful, and that everyone is “plugged in” to this infinite resource. This takes the pressure off and has helped them to relax in competitions.
Most of us will never have an Olympic medal to show for our efforts, but “going for the gold” in life is something we can do. I think the Psalmist knew what he was talking about when he wrote what could be seen as a pretty good health plan:
The life-maps of God are right,
showing the way to joy.
The directions of God are plain
and easy on the eyes.
God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,
with a lifetime guarantee.
Ingrid lives in Framingham, where she and her husband manage three busy kids, a Lab who's sniffed every trail at Callahan and a ragdoll cat. She blogs on spirituality and health and is also a Christian Science practitioner. You can see more on her website "Breaking Bread" at masshealthblog.com.