Think like an athlete: Lessons from Olympians and Paralympians

Lucy E Cousins
September 8, 2016

As the 2016 Rio Games officially wrap, it’s hard not to be motivated by the tireless men and women (Olympians and Paralympians alike) that compete for their country. If only we could bottle a little (or a lot) or their motivation, right?

Well, you can. Here are some of the ways elite athletes channel their success, and how you can incorporate them into your life.

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Trait: Dream big

We can pretty much guarantee that no Olympian or Paralympian ever said their goal was to ‘just finish the race’. World-class athletes dream big and aim high. And this is one of the reasons they achieve their best, according to a study from the New England Journal of Medicine. The research, which was based on weight loss, found that if participants didn’t aim high enough with their goals, they had less success in reaching them.

How you can channel it:

Well, the idea of dreaming big could apply to many aspects of our daily lives. The key is to make sure, no matter what aspect you choose, you aim for the best possible outcome. That means, for example, your goal becomes less about that next promotion, and more about being CEO, or starting your own business. Dream big, people. It’ll help you get closer and closer to success.

 

Trait: Visualise success

If there’s one person who knows about reaching your goals, it’s Martina Navratilova. When she was a child, she saw Rod Laver play tennis, and realised that it was possible to make a living in the sport she loved. She set her sights on being as successful as him and spent the next ten years visualising it. “Once you start believing in yourself, anything is possible…” She says in her book Shape Your Self: My 6-Step Diet and Fitness Plan to Achieve the Best Shape of Your Life.

“What I'm talking about, really, is visualisation, a powerful tool that's used by athletes, performers, businesspeople, and others to achieve success. You imagine yourself [achieving a goal], and your brain then knows exactly what you want and finds a way to make it happen. For me, if I had already won a match in my mind, I had a better chance of winning it for real.”

How you can channel it:

This one is easy. Visualisation can be done at any time, with any subject. You can visualise what partner you’d like to have, what job you’d like to get, what holiday you’d like to save up for. Try creating a private Instagram account so you can curate an online mood board, or keep a picture of the Ferrari you want in your wallet – any sort of reminder that you can look at regularly.

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Trait: Incredible self-control

One of the key advantages that sets sports starts apart from 'normal people' is their ability to engage in long term self-control or ‘delayed gratification’. Clinical psychologist Gemma Cribb explains this as “a skill where you can forgo something that is fun or pleasurable at this time in order to focus on gaining something you want at a later time.”

Essentially, according to Cribb, Olympians and Paralympians must develop this trait as their success is dependent on committing to dietary and training plans that require them to forgo other activities and experiences that might be more fun.

How to channel it:

This is a hard ask, we know. It is very tempting, especially in the colder months, to eat that last biscuit or skip your evening run, but if you focus on the bigger picture each and every time you make one of those decisions, you’ll find that more often than not you can push yourself a little more. It might not work every time but the extra effort will be apparent in the long run.

 

Trait: Put in the hard work

On the subject of extra effort, athletes don’t take for granted the amount of energy that is involved in being one of the world’s best. Most train six days a week, some twice a day and they rarely have a cheat day! A study from the University of Colorado found that it took around 10,000 hours for an athlete to reach peak performance. Yep, 10,000 hours. That puts those muscles into perspective – they didn’t just wake up with a six-pack!

How to channel it:

Quite simply, the amount of effort you put in, can dictate the results in a big way. Whatever your goal, be realistic about how much effort will be required to make it work. And when you feel like giving up, think about how much you want to reach your goal. You’ll get there with some long, hard yakka. Trust us!

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