One of the enduring images of the Beijing Olympics was the redemption of US snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis. While on the homestretch of the inaugural snowboard cross race at the 2006 Olympics Jacobellis infamously began to celebrate only to fall and squander the gold. In the intervening years Jacobellis seemed snakebit, returning to the Olympics again and again but failing to win. That all changed in this year’s Games, as she finally took home that elusive gold medal.
Yet redemption was not Jacobellis’ goal In Beijing. “That was not in my mind. I wanted to just come here and compete,” said Jacobellis. “[Winning] would have been a nice, sweet thing, but I think if I had tried to spend time on the thought of redemption, then it’s taking away focus on the task at hand, and that’s not why I race.”
Jacobellis’ words happen to echo the Olympics creed, which states, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.” The quote is by Baron de Coubertin, who is known as the father of the modern Olympics for helping to revive the competition and founding the International Olympics Committee.
The creed doesn’t quite speak to the intensity of the machine that churns out highly specified modern athletes engaging in the pressure cooker of the medal pursuit. As Derek Covington, the former Director of Performance for the Canadian Olympic Team and founder of First Water Performance, which trains athletes in mindfulness to help enhance performance, notes, de Coubertin’s words “feel a bit soft. We are not there to simply take part, but to win.”
But de Coubertin’s emphasis on embracing the struggle actually might be a key to making it to the podium. After all, there are no free rides to the Olympics, and hopeful athletes have to engage in a whole lot of struggle to even have a shot at taking part. It turns out how they relate to this struggle can be a key determining factor.
The ability to stay present to the process of training is not something that comes naturally to athletes when the stakes are so high. Researchers Alena Kröhler and Stefan Berti distinguish between action-oriented and state-oriented individuals: “Action-oriented individuals distinguish themselves through solving problems intuitively in adverse conditions (e.g., bad weather, broken equipment, and poor field or arena conditions), rapid acting without excessively thinking about the source or the person responsible, and developing different possibilities to act in demanding situations.” State-oriented individuals, on the other hand, are focused more on their own emotions and thoughts, and have difficulty refocusing on the task at hand.
Unsurprisingly, research has shown that in the context of competitive sports, state-oriented individuals are often at a disadvantage, taking longer to make decisions. “State-oriented athletes think a lot about their goals but fail to take immediate action,” wrote Kröhler and Berti.
Helping athletes become action-oriented is what coaches like Derek Covington do, and mindfulness is a key part of that training. “When I think of state-oriented, I think of a fixed mindset,” said Covington. “When I think of action-oriented, I think of a growth or challenge mindset.” The difference, explained Covington, is using that ultimate goal as a motivating force, but then being able to “unhook ourselves from the outcome and accept who we are in this moment.”
Despite the conception of Olympians as physical specimens, this shift requires more mental training than physical. “Our mindfulness practice can bring awareness to how we feel about our goals and the thoughts and stories that surround them,” said Covington. “Mindfulness is not going to win you the race. Your talent, wisdom, and execution will be either good enough, or not. But what mindfulness can help you with is believing in your talent and wisdom, so that you can execute your best performance, however the outcome may turn out.”
Campbell Thompson, a sports psychologist at High Performance Sport New Zealand—a national organization that works with the country’s highest-level athletes—uses mindfulness to help athletes tap into values-based motivations. This can create a useful uncoupling of the typical training-outcomes relationship, in which all action is in service of the desired goal, and failure to achieve that goal results in an athlete feeling like a failure. Reflecting on one’s journey and developing goals that are about the courage, resilience, and self-compassion one brings to the process can lead to what Thompson called “a more enlivening path within high-performance sport.” A path that can lead to gold but in which fulfillment doesn’t hinge upon it.
Thompson mentioned an athlete he’d worked with who qualified for an important event after a couple of setbacks. Leading up to the event the athlete meditated daily and embraced the process, but on the day of the final she found herself overwhelmed by the immense crowd and the TV cameras. She couldn’t focus on her breathing or get centered, and her inability to manage her stress only led to more stress. With nowhere to turn she realized that all she could do was accept the conditions.
“It’s a moment of creative helplessness, as we call it,” said Thompson. “What am I going to do about it? Well, I may as well just focus as best I can and it might all go wrong, but even if it does, I’m going to be okay.”
The athlete’s ability to let go—even of the desire to feel mindful and in control—paradoxically allowed her to perform at her best and win the event. It is an ability she might not have been able to tap into had she allowed the immensity of the goal to overtake the flexibility of the moment.
“Mindfulness doesn’t always do what we want it to do,” explained Thompson. “It’s not a calming technique. But when we do it over and over again, it gives us that insight we need in those white hot moments. It helps us get in the zone. But it’s going to help us do what we need to do when we’re way out of the zone as well.”
When Baron de Coubertin proposed a revival of the Olympics in 1894, he probably didn’t envision performance coaches teaching athletes how to establish values-based motivations through mindful reflection, but then again he also probably didn’t envision the triple cork 1440. Yet one has to imagine he’d be pleased with both developments; the way athletes are constantly pushing the envelope, and the way they are learning to embrace the struggles and joys of that push without worrying too much about the triumph.
“I’m encouraging athletes to connect to values,” explained Thompson. “To have a high level of acceptance toward the discomfort that can come as you devote yourself to being the best in the world at a physical discipline, and also a degree of self-compassion, so that you can accept your imperfections, and forge connections with other people that make it feel worthwhile, and make you feel like you’re doing it with and perhaps for other people as well.”
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