ôô

Mental Skills of Olympic Athletes You Can Use to Get Fit

Olympic athletes aren't just physically fit. They also use mental fitness techniques to succeed. Get-Fit Guy explains how we can use these techniques in our personal fitness.

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
6-minute read
Episode #545
The Quick And Dirty

Even if you can't do what Olympic athletes do physically, you can apply these two Olympian-tested training techniques to enhance your training mentally.

  1. Set the right goals
  2. Visualize your version of success

Welcome back to Get-Fit Guy. I’m your host, Dr. Jonathan Su. Every week, I’ll share science-backed tips to help you get fit, stay fit, and optimize performance.

Watching the athletes at the Olympic Games these past weeks has been amazing. Not only are they at the top of the world in their athletic abilities, but their mental toughness is equal if not greater than their physical perfomance.

Have you ever wondered how Olympic athletes are able to stay focused and motivated through the relentless grind of Olympic training? How can they confidently execute the most difficult skills under the intense pressure of competition over and over again?

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

It’s no secret that performance at this level is as much mental as physical. So it’s no surprise that Olympic athletes use mental skills training to keep their body and mind performing at optimal levels.

What are mental skills, you ask? Mental skills are tools and techniques that enable an athlete to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions to help maximize their potential and achieve success. But you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to make use of mental skills. These tools can be used by anyone.

Mental skills are tools and techniques that enable an athlete to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and actions to help maximize their potential and achieve success. These tools can be used by anyone!

In this episode, I’ll give you the quick and dirty on two science-backed mental skills techniques of Olympic athletes that will help you stay motivated and focused to reach your fitness goals.

Goal Setting

One of the most important mental skills of Olympic athletes is goal setting. It seems like a no-brainer, but when done right, it is an extremely powerful way to direct your attention and energy towards what you’re trying to achieve. Goal setting is an important tool for elite athletes to remain focused and motivated through the grind of daily training.

There are three types of goals: process, performance, and outcome goals. We’ll explore each one in detail starting with outcome goals.

Outcome goals are your desired end result. They are important because they help you focus on the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve. For example, an outcome goal could be running a 5K in 30 minutes or less in 10 weeks. 

Outcome goals are your desired end result. They are important because they help you focus on the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve.

Notice how the goal is specific (running a 5K), measurable (in 30 minutes or less), and time-bound (in 10 weeks). The goal is also challenging yet achievable, which is key because it helps ground your goals in reality while stretching your limits at the same time.

One of the downsides of outcome goals is that they are extremely vulnerable to being unfulfilled because of any number of circumstances beyond your control. For example, you have no control over how good your competition will be.

Additionally, outcome goals don’t give you anything specific to direct your attention and energy towards which would help you achieve the outcome that you want. Simply setting a goal of running a 5K in 30 minutes or less doesn’t tell you the exact steps you need to take to achieve this goal.

It’s like wanting to bake a cake but not knowing what ingredients and how much of each ingredient you need. So what do we do?

Luckily, that’s where performance goals come in. Performance goals are based on personal performance targets that you have more control over and that lead to your outcome goal.

Performance goals are based on personal performance targets that you have more control over and that lead to your outcome goal.

For example, if your outcome goal is to run a 5K in 30 minutes or less in 10 weeks, your performance goal might be to run for 10 minutes three times a week at a 1.6 km/h pace, adding two minutes to the run time every week. 

Using our cake analogy, you can see that performance goals help you define exactly what ingredients and how much of each ingredient you need to achieve your desired end result. And just like baking a cake requires more than one ingredient, you’ll need a few performance goals to direct your attention and energy towards what you’re trying to achieve.

But as useful as outcome goals and performance goals are, you’ll need a third type of goal, process goals, to make goal setting truly powerful. Process goals focus on improving quality, form, or other aspects necessary for  improving the execution of a skill. They define exactly what you will do to reach the desired performance.

Process goals focus on improving quality, form, or other aspects necessary for  improving the execution of a skill.

Continuing with our 5K scenario, your process goal might be to focus on proper body mechanics and efficient breathing on every run. 

You might be getting tired of thinking about cake by now, so I’ll only use this analogy one last time. If performance goals are the ingredients for your cake, process goals are the instructions for how to put the ingredients together. You can see that process goals feed into performance goals, which feed into outcome goals with each higher level goal being less within our control. So while outcome goals are important, your day-to-day focus should be on your process and performance goals.

With goal setting you have a destination and directions on how to get there. This is an essential element of  Olympic athlete training that will also help you reach your fitness goals.

Imagery

Another important mental skill of Olympic athletes is imagery. Imagery, or visualization, is the process of creating vivid mental images of yourself performing in training or competition.

Studies show that imagery is effective for increasing performance in athletes, pilots, and surgeons. It has even been shown to be effective for improving specific aspects of performance such as strength, range of motion, and speed.

How is it possible that simply visualizing yourself performing physical activity improves performance? One discovery that researchers have made is that mere visualization of movement of muscles creates electrical activity in the muscles even though there’s no actual movement. Additionally, the pattern of activity in the brain and the muscles during imagery resembles the patterns seen during actual movement.

So in a way, with imagery, you’re getting the benefits of practice without actually having to physically do it. It’s no wonder imagery is one of the most widely used mental skills of Olympic athletes. Gold medal diver Tom Daley mentioned visualization as one of the main elements of his preparation for the Olympic Games.

Now don’t think that imagery alone is all one needs to improve performance. But studies show that, when combined with actual practice, imagery improves performance more than actual practice alone or imagery alone.

Studies show that, when combined with actual practice, imagery improves performance more than actual practice alone or imagery alone.

Imagery can sound more complicated than it actually is, so if it’s not something you’ve done before, don’t worry, it’s simple and you’ll get better the more you do it.

Here’s what you need to do to get started with imagery. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won't be disturbed and visualize yourself performing the goals (process, performance, and outcome goals) you’ve set for yourself in vivid detail. Make sure to duplicate as closely as possible the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in real life.

Also make sure to keep a positive focus during imagery, which means to experience yourself performing successfully. If you happen to experience yourself struggling to perform a certain skill, replay the skill in your mind’s eye until you get it right.

Imagery sessions are ideally done three to four times per week with each session lasting about 10 minutes. Many elite athletes will do imagery immediately before training or competition to get their minds into the most optimal space. 

5-Day Mental Skills Challenge

The combination of goal setting and imagery is a powerful one-two punch used by Olympic athletes like Tom Daley to stay focused and motivated to achieve their goals. Now that you’re armed with these same mental skills, I encourage you to apply them to your fitness goals.

To help you get started, I invite you to join me on a 5-day mental skills challenge. So set your goals, write them down on paper, and put the paper where you can see it daily (the kitchen tends to be the best place). Once you’ve set your goals, use imagery to make your goals come alive for 10 minutes on three separate days. As always, let me know how you feel after you give it a try.

Sources +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is a former U.S. Army officer responsible for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance optimization for soldiers in the field. He is also the author of the bestseller Six-Minute Fitness at 60+.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.