- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
If you’ve been watching the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this month, then you’ve recognized that these incredible athletes exhibit another seemingly superhuman talent outside of their chosen sport: the ability to perform under pressure. For many of them, that means managing some level of anxiety—ranging from your average pre-race jitters to almost-debilitating levels that could derail their game.
They do it with the help of sports psychologists, also often called "mental skills coaches," who help competitors mentally prepare to crush it in competition.
Olympic athletes are dealing with anxiety in extreme circumstances. But the strategies they use aren’t particularly unique to athletics.
Most Olympians are working through what we call performance anxiety, specifically related to their sport, as opposed to a clinical diagnosis like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), Michael Gervais, Ph.D, a high-performance psychologist who worked with the women's beach and indoor volleyball teams at the Summer Olympics in 2012 and 2016, tells SELF.
Since anxiety in any form is characterized by excessive worrying about and fearing the future, the goals and methods psychologists use can be similar, whether you’re facing Olympic-level nerves, mild social anxiety, or GAD. “A lot of the principles are the same,” Carlin Anderson, Ph.D, the sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Curling Team, tells SELF over email from Pyeongchang.
“In essence, it is life skills,” Loberg explains. “People look at [Olympians] as if they’re special people, and they’re not. They’re people with special talents. And they’re still human, and the same struggles pop up, [whether] you’re going for an Olympic medal or whatever it is.” She adds, “Someone walking into a job interview is going to use the same skills they’re using standing in the gate getting ready to race.”
With this in mind, we spoke to a few sports psychologists who have worked with Team USA Olympians to learn about some of the anxiety management strategies that us non-Olympians could also benefit from.
1. Just go ahead and expect to be nervous before a big event or presentation.
The idea of completely banishing your nerves or anxiety might sound optimal, but in practice, it’s completely unrealistic. “You can think about it like a little sibling who’s going to keep coming back and bugging you,” Loberg says. “You can try to block it out, you can try to ignore it, but it’s coming back.”
Everyone experiences some level of anxiety, which isn’t necessarily harmful unless it interferes with your daily life. And for athletes, the rush of adrenaline triggered by a certain level of anxiety can actually be beneficial on a physiological level. So sports psychologists instead teach their athletes to come to terms with their anxiety.
“[R]ather than trying to get rid of the nerves, it’s more helpful to prepare for them and figure out how to perform with the nerves,” Anderson says. If you have a fear of public speaking, for example, it’s more helpful to accept that you’re probably always going to feel some level of nervousness before an event, and that it doesn’t have to stop you from doing what you need to do.
2. Realize that even if the final outcome is out of your hands, there are some things you can control in the moment.
“The biggest thing when someone’s getting anxious is identifying what it is that’s making them anxious,” Loberg says, “and then, maybe more importantly, whether it’s something they have control over.”
Anxiety tends to crop up in stressful situations with uncertain outcomes. The already-present stress of the situation gets exacerbated by the fact that you just don't know how it's going to turn out, so you might find yourself running through every single terrifying possibility—whether or not you can do anything about it. But, unfortunately, those outcomes aren't usually things you have the final say on, like the resolution of a tough conversation you're dreading having with your partner.
For elite athletes, that often means tunnel-vision focus on the judges’ scores and the medals. “You have to be competitive and want to win to compete at this level,” Loberg says, “but if your focus is on the outcome or medal, that’s not something you really have control over. You only have control over yourself.”
Loberg tells her athletes to ask themselves, “Is this something that I have control over? And if not, what is it that I do have control over, and how do I place my focus on that?” So, when your anxious thoughts are snowballing, try to acknowledge that some of your fear is coming from the uncertainty in the situation, and spend your energy working on the things you can control, like maybe texting a friend for some support first.
3. Imagine the worst case scenario—and how you’d deal with it.
You’ve heard people say before that you should visualize an ideal outcome—say, making the perfect layup—over and over again to create a mindset of success. “That is one way,” Loberg says, “but then we can also visualize a whole bunch of other scenarios where challenges are thrown at you.”
She tells Shiffrin, “Visualize going through the media and answering all the different questions. Visualize a tough weather day out there, throwing yourself at every single turn. So when you come to [a challenge], you can say, I’ve done that. I’ve done it a million times, in sun, in rain, in snow, in wind. You’ve already been there.”
The goal is to practice how you’ll respond to tough situations to prove to yourself that you can survive the worst. If you’re anxiously worried about giving a presentation that goes horribly wrong, try imagining your boss flipping out, your PowerPoint malfunctioning, or your coworkers laughing. How would you handle those situations? Or—if your mind is going to even more catastrophic places—imagine everything going so poorly that you lose your job. Then what? How would you get back on your feet?
Walking yourself down all of these hypothetical, “And then what…?” paths can often help you feel like you have a bit more control over the situation. And, if something does go wrong—likely something smaller, like forgetting a slide—it won’t be totally new terrain and you’ll know you can get through it, even if it’s unpleasant.
4. Practice deep breathing exercises before you actually need them.
Breathing exercises are a handy way to slow down the racing thoughts and sped-up pulse induced by anxiety and excess adrenaline in the moment. “People can use breathing strategies to be able to [relax] their nervous system, wherever they are, and that’s a way to help them find a more calm state,” Gervais says.
The key word here is “practice.” Sure, “Just breathe” is a great slogan, but it’s not very useful. “You see people get super anxious and say, ‘Oh I’m going to do breathing.’ But if they’ve never practiced it before, then it’s difficult to call on that right away,” Loberg explains. “So it’s a skill that you have to develop, being able to control your breathing.” By practicing a breathing technique consistently, you’re developing and strengthening a physiological response that you can reach for when you need it—say, before walking into an anxiety-inducing social situation, like a massive party.
If you’re not sure where to start, Colleen Hacker, Ph.D., a five-time Olympic Games coach who currently serves as the mental skills coach for the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team, told SELF previously that she's a fan of what she calls "four-square" breathing. For this, you'll place one hand on your belly to encourage deep breathing, inhale to a count of four, then exhale for a count of four while imagining that you're drawing the first of four lines of a square. After pausing for two counts, you'll repeat that breathing sequence another three times to complete your square.
5. Keep track of your thoughts—positive, negative, whatever—with journaling.
Sometimes, old-school works. The tried-and-true method of journaling—jotting down whatever thoughts and feelings are bouncing around your head—can be surprisingly effective. “Sometimes in the moment, you just need to get it out,” Loberg says. “It can be the negative thoughts, the positive thoughts, whatever it’s going to be. It’s just writing it down, and expressing your true feelings, and being able to get that out on paper.”
This tip can also come in handy for working on an anxiety-management plan in your next therapy session. “Sometimes you’ll have those thoughts, but then by the time you talk to someone, you’re like ‘I don’t know, I was struggling the other day, but I’m okay now,’” Loberg explains. Recording your state in the moment helps you pinpoint the specific events or thoughts that triggered that anxiety as well as any cyclical thought patterns you may tend to follow.
If you’re not one for carrying around a pen and pad, then take a cue from Shiffrin and use your phone’s notes app. Sometimes she will text the notes to Loberg, sometimes not. “[It’s about] having a place where you feel safe and comfortable to talk about those concerns, just with yourself,” Loberg says. “You don’t have to always share them with someone.”
6. Practice mindfulness without necessarily meditating.
This one’s a biggie. Mindfulness can be a wonderful tool for helping us tackle anxiety in its many forms. Because, as Gervais explains it, “If anxiety is an excessive worry about what could go wrong, the way to inoculate that thought pattern is to train and condition our minds to be disciplined enough to focus on what is happening in the present moment.”
That could mean checking in with each of your senses, scanning your entire body to check in with aches and pains, or simply taking a second to identify the emotions you’re feeling at that moment.
The practice of mindfulness isn’t a quick trick, though, Gervais emphasizes. It’s another skill you have to cultivate for it to be effective when you need it. “You can [start out] in a low stakes environment, sitting on a meditation cushion, all the way up to training mindfulness and meditation in a high-stakes environment,” says Gervais.
But mindfulness doesn’t necessarily have to mean the traditional idea of meditation. You can do it while walking in nature, on your morning commute, or “you can even do it on the chairlift,” Loberg says. She has many athletes that rely on apps (e.g. Headspace or Calm) to keep up their practice.
There are no fast, easy fixes for anxiety even for elite athletes with the best professional help in the world. And if you’re dealing with clinical anxiety, it takes a proper treatment plan (which might include therapy, medication, or both) . But with the right resources and dedicated practice,you can build up the skills to deal with your anxiety like a champion—or an Olympian.