How to Develop the “Mental Game” of Olympic Athletes – Part 3


Turning the Music Up or Down, to Get “in the Zone”

Most athletes perform their best, when their body’s arousal level is “just right” or “in the zone”, which means not too high and not too low. When arousal is too high, athletes can suffer from increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and increased sweating and muscle tension, all of which can make athletic performance very difficult. Similarly, when it is too low, athletes can lack energy and explosiveness, motivation, and reflect a general state of lethargy, which also makes performing at one’s peak extremely unlikely. As such, athletes often take great measures to regulate their bodies and make sure that they are “in the zone” when competition begins.


Similarly to attentional control, arousal regulation begins with awareness. Athletes need to become knowledgeable about how their bodies “feel” when they perform at their best and at their worst. By identifying the feelings associated with success, athletes can take active steps to ensure that they replicate these same feelings prior to their next competition. There are several ways that athletes can get in their zone, such as by focusing on their breathing (diaphragmatic breathing tends to work the best), using imagery (either energizing or relaxing images), or by using specific verbal cues (saying “relax” or “explode”). However, probably the most visible way that Olympic athletes regulate their arousal is through the use of music. In Rio, you will be hard pressed to find athletes, whether they are swimmers, basketball players, or track and field athletes, not listening to music prior to competition (check this out to see some specific music that US Olympic athletes use). Some athletes even listen to music during their competition (although this is typically used for motivation and inspiration, not arousal regulation)!

The great thing about music is that it can both increase and decrease arousal, depending on which type of music you listen to (i.e., stimulating or calming). Research has found that listening to music can increase bodily activation, promote a more positive mood, increase motivation, and help athletes achieve a state of flow (being fully immersed in the task, energized, loss of time, and fully engaged), which often translates to a peak performance (i.e., significantly better than average). Music can also help athletes relax their breathing pace and decrease overall arousal levels. If you have been watching the Rio games thus far, you will no doubt seen Olympians from various sports walking around with their headphones on, “getting in their zone”, and mentally preparing for their events.


An important aspect of regulating your arousal is the understanding that everyone has a different “zone” that he or she needs to be in to optimize performance. So, it is not enough to just listen to music; you need to become aware of where you need to be, in terms of arousal, to be at your best. It doesn’t necessarily matter what Team USA swimmer Ryan Lochte or track and field sprinter Allyson Felix is listening to on their headphones. For you to maximize your opportunity for success, you need to select the right music to help you get into your zone or stay within it.

Prepare for Everything! Learning from Michael Phelps and a Broken Swim Cap  

Of all of the psychological skills that Olympic athletes possess, perhaps the most important one is being mentally prepared. Now, this may not exactly seem like a “skill” to you, but trust me and the Olympians at the Rio games – nearly all of them will place an emphasis on being mentally prepared! Take it from the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time (26 medals and counting?), Team USA swimmer Michael Phelps.

Phelps is notorious for his mental preparation; and it has been displayed and discussed nearly every second during the coverage of the swimming events in Rio. Now, all athletes prepare, but not all athletes prepare for every possible thing that could not only go right, but also go wrong! Prior to the 2012 London games, Phelps’ coach spoke about the lengths to which he prepares mentally before his events:

He will see exactly the perfect race. And he will see it like he’s sitting in the stands, and he’ll see it like he’s in the water. And then he will go through scenarios: What if things don’t go well? …So he has this database, so that when he swims the race he’s already programmed his nervous system to do one of those…And he’ll just pick the one that happens to come up.

Phelps was even more specific than his coach, when he stated “If my suit ripped or if my goggles broke, you know, what would I do?”. Luckily he didn’t have to worry about anything breaking or going wrong during the London games, as he finished with four gold medals and two silver medals! Rio, however, threw Phelps an unexpected curveball during the final of the 4X200 meter freestyle relay event. Just prior to Phelps’ turn in the event, his swim cap broke! Did he panic? Well, not really. He was visibly upset, as any athlete would be, however he remembered his preparation. As he himself noted back in 2012, he specifically prepares for situations just like this! So, what did he do? He quickly called out to his teammate Conor Dwyer, and put his cap on. He then proceeded to swim his leg of the relay, and helped Team USA win gold in the event!


Being mentally prepared is a vital aspect of performance and it is what Olympic athletes do! They think of all the different types of scenarios that could unfold during competition, both good and bad, and play them out – over and over and over again. For them, being prepared is the result of a systematic process, which includes the use of previously mentioned skills such as imagery, self-talk, and increased awareness among others. Olympic athletes understand that being physically superior to your competition is a major factor when it comes to being successful. However, they also realize that it is not the only factor! Being mentally prepared, and having specific plans of action to combat the unexpected, can often be just as, if not more impactful on one’s ultimate degree of success.

Mental preparation not only helps Olympic athletes achieve success; it can also help you achieve success as well. Think about what you want to accomplish, and then use mental imagery to “see” yourself actually do it! Provide yourself with the confidence and motivational boost that comes from engaging in self-talk. Identify things that could distract you and compromise your attentional focus, and develop strategies to combat them. Prepare yourself for not only what you expect to happen, but also what may unexpectedly happen. Doing so, will put you in a better position to be successful and achieve your dreams!


I have no doubt, the original Greek Olympians and the gods they honored would be proud of not only the physical abilities of today’s athletes, but also their mental capabilities. So, as the Rio Olympic Games present the best athletes the world has to offer, sit back and be amazed. Watch as they push themselves and their physical abilities to the limit, and marvel at the lengths to which they have dedicated themselves to building their “mental game” for success. But, don’t forget to also relish in the opportunity that you now possess to begin developing your own mental skills. Very few of us are blessed with the physical ability and mental fortitude to compete for Olympic gold. Yet all of us possess the ability to use our minds and our psychological skills to put us in the best possible situation to achieve success in life!

Want to read more about the mental game of athletes? Read part 1 and part 2 here.


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