What differentiates an athlete like Usain Bolt and Cameron van der Burgh from the rest of the field?
A fine line
According to renowned sports psychologist Professor Pieter Kruger of the Potchefstroom Campus of the North-West University, who forms part of a panel of psychologists that aid the South African Olympic team in a supporting capacity, it all boils down to a balancing act akin to a tightrope walker.
“There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and the best athletes walk this line. Usain Bolt is a perfect example of someone who does this to perfection. Confidence is also a function of memory. The brain thinks: I’ve been here before and I can do it again.
"An athlete would definitely need a good level of psychological skills and self-regulation to be able to deal with the pressure that a big stage such as the Olympic Games will bring.” Kruger explains.
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Kruger, who has worked with the Springbok national rugby team, and played an instrumental role in the performance turnaround of the Lions Super Rugby team as their sport psychologist in 2014 and 2015, is no stranger to working with international teams and the unique challenges posed by the Olympic Games.
“I have first-hand experience of the pressure of Olympic Games having been part of the support team of the 2012 British rowing team and the UK Athletics track & field team. As the Games approach, the pressure starts to mount. You have one shot every four years.
"Take sprinting: You have less than ten seconds to show off four years of work. You think about the stage and the outcomes. On that level it is hard to even describe the pressure these athletes feel. Most of the athletes haven’t been there before and that plays a huge role.”
A clear process focus
There are, however, ways to overcome these pressures.
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“The best athletes are process-focused. They don’t focus on the possible outcomes, but instead only focus on the things they have control over. They forget about the crowds, the weather and even the mosquitoes. There is nothing but the next step and the next step and the next. They focus exclusively on the factors that they can manage and nothing more. Winning then becomes the consequence of a clear process focus” says Kruger.
If not, Kruger warns that the wrong mindset can have notable physical implications.
“During high-pressure situations when the limbic system in the brain is activated, it triggers the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) that has a direct, negative impact on motor skills. It also has a direct impact on athlete’s cognitive processes. So the inability to control their stress levels, can have a profound impact on athletes ability to apply their skills under pressure. The key, again, is not to overthink the possible outcomes.
"The ‘what ifs’ must be relegated to furthest recesses of their minds. The best athletes are there to enjoy the Games as it is bigger than any other event they are most likely to ever experience. Athletes should have clear performance goals, but should then take it back the aspects which they can directly control. Once they start worrying about aspects outside their control, this is where the pressure starts to mount."
Advantages of being the 'underdog'
According to Kruger, sometimes the lesser known athletes can utilise the opportunity to create a few surprises.
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“It is definitely sometimes beneficial being the underdog. The pressure is on Bolt and his colleagues, on the big names such David Rudisha and Michael Phelps, as they have a lot of media attention and a lot of demands on their time. All eyes are on them. The underdogs can go into the Games with a sense of calm as they can focus on their routine without additional media scrutiny. Some athletes have been performing well all season and have the potential to come up with a surprise performance, despite not being as well known.
"In addition, distractions in Rio abound.
“The foreign component does have a significant impact on some of the athletes. There is the cultural strangeness and coupled with that are athletes’ curiosity to explore their surroundings. There are new and different foods to eat and it is easy for one’s routine to be disrupted. Most of the athletes have enough sense not to fall into the numerous pitfalls. The true professionals view events like these as a business trip and not a paid holiday.”
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