How to Develop the “Mental Game” of Olympic Athletes – Part 2


What we Can Learn About Confidence from Laurie Hernandez’  “Wink” & an “I Got This” 

Being Confident

Being confident is essential for athletes to achieve success. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Olympic athletes are extremely confident. However, many often wonder how this confidence was initially developed and how elite athletes maintain such a high level of it. There are two primary ways in which athletes can foster confidence; by thinking of past performances of success and by engaging in “self-talk”.


All athletes, from novices to Olympians, have taken advantage of the bump that remembering a successful performance (e.g., winning, a great comeback, etc.) can bring. Just thinking of these performances can rekindle positive emotions and optimistic belief in one’s ability to be successful. As such, it is a strategy often used by Olympians. Take for example, an Olympic rugby player who once noted:  “The confidence boost for us was the fact that Australia hadn’t beaten us in four years. We knew that we could play Australia week in week out and we could beat them” (Hays, Maynard, Thomas, & Bawden, 2007, p.443). This athlete used past instances of success, to boost his confidence and provide himself and his team with a mental advantage over their opponent.


The use of self-talk or the “little voice inside our head” also helps athletes maintain and increase their level of confidence, among other psychological variables (it also helps with motivation and skill acquisition). In fact, research has suggested that athletes who use self-talk are more likely to perform better and increase their chances of qualifying for the Olympics. So, what is self-talk? Well, it is really anything that you say to yourself (internally or externally), and can be worded either positively or negatively. In regards to boosting confidence, athletes’ self-talk is typically reflective of phrases or statements that encourage or motivate them.

Take for example Laurie Hernandez, a 16 year old gymnast on Team USA. Just prior to her routine on the balance beam during the team competition, the cameras clearly picked up on Hernandez as she whispered to herself “I got this”. This type of self-talk is a common among athletes; not only can it remind them of the confidence they have in their abilities, but it can also help put them at ease, so that they can excel “in the moment”. For Hernandez, it helped propel her to a score of 15.366/16.0 on the balance beam, a score good enough for second place in the event (her teammate Simone Biles won with 15.633/16.0). Hernandez’ confidence was on display again at the end of the team competition. With the gold medal all put guaranteed to Team USA, she gave a not too subtle wink to the judges as she began her floor exercise routine. Her previous success on the balance beam, as well as the vault (where she scored a 15.1/16.0), in addition to her self-talk, undoubtedly boosted her confidence and thrusted her, and Team USA, to Olympic gold.


So, if you are looking to develop, maintain, or increase confidence within sport, or life in general, think back to what Laurie Hernandez displayed for all to see at the Rio games. Being able to remember the times when you were previously successful and providing yourself with motivating, encouraging self-statements can not only increase your confidence, but also your performance. Although I wouldn’t necessarily encourage the “winking”, a confidence-boosting “ I got this” is a great place to start. It won’t guarantee you success, but it will increase your chances of performing at a high level.

How Kayla Harrison “Imagined” Herself Wining Olympic Gold in Rio – Then Went Out & Did It – Twice!

Mental Practice

Practicing is obviously a vital aspect of athletic success. However, many are unaware that practice can take place both physically and mentally. One way in which athletes can engage in mental practice is through the use of imagery, where they can recreate past successful performances, as well as create entirely new scenarios in which they can “see” themselves being successful. Now, you may be skeptical regarding the efficacy of just thinking or pretending to see yourself doing something. However, there is ample empirical support that suggests that when our minds create images of ourselves engaging in physical activity, neural impulses are actually sent out by the brain to the muscles involved in the physical execution of the task. Thus, our muscles are activated by merely the thought of doing something! This is why imagery is often referred to as mental practice.

There are many advantages of using imagery for athletes. It can help build one’s confidence, by seeing him or herself “win” or execute a task successfully. Imagery can also help facilitate the learning of new skills, by rehearsing the movements mentally. Athletes also use imagery from time to time to regulate their level of arousal, by imagining a calming or relaxing situation. Regardless of the type of imagery used, the reoccurring theme is that Olympic athletes regularly use imagery to help them achieve what they want out of training, improve their skills while training, and envision themselves being successful in competition.


Kayla Harrison of the USA judo team won Olympic gold at the 2012 London games. However, she didn’t take anything for granted while getting ready for the Rio games. In preparation for defending her Olympic title, Harrison took advantage of mental imagery and actually “imagined” herself taking home gold again. Recently she noted that “Every night I visualize myself winning the Olympics”. And, it wasn’t just winning and holding the gold medal that she visualized; like most athletes who are experienced with imagery, Harrison imagined every aspect of her performance – from waking up the day of the match, to putting the medal around her neck. In fact, she mentioned that she dedicated time each and every night to imagining her Olympic experience:

Waking up, weighing in, packing my bag, getting on the bus, listening to certain music…I picture myself bombing the girl in the final and standing on top of the podium and watching the flag go up and feeling the gold medal go around my neck and hugging my coach…I visualize all of that every night.

Taking advantage of imagery and engaging in mental practice is easy to do, but difficult to perfect. As Harrison mentioned, she engaged in her imagery every night! However, the benefit is hard to deny. Imagery prepares you for success; so much so, that when it actually occurs, it often feels like you’ve already experienced it. For example, after winning in London, Harrison stated that because she had seen herself win, literally thousands of times already in her mind, that when she actually did receive her medal it felt like déjà vu! Her imagery has continued to prepare her for success, as she successfully defended her Olympic title with not one, but two gold medals in Rio!


As evident with Kayla Harrison, the consistent use of mental imagery can help increase your chances of success. However, when using imagery, it is important to start slowly (5 minutes a day) and gradually work up to the point that you can imagine executing your entire task. Also, make sure to not only “see” yourself in your image, but also think of the sounds and smells involved, as well as how your body typically feels while doing it. By making your image as realistic as possible, and “seeing” yourself be successful, you will increase your likelihood of actually achieving that success!

The final part of the series “How to Develop the Mental Game of Olympic Athletes” will continue by discussing how music helps Olympians to get “in the zone” to perform at their best, and how being prepared can help Olympians for not only the expected, but the unexpected as well.

Missed part 1 of this series? Don’t worry! You can read it here.


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