Although most of us like to celebrate victory in sports, we cannot all be winners. Someone has to lose, whether that means missing first place by a hair or placing dead last. No one knows that better than the athletes who compete in the Olympics.
Not only do they have to be physically ready to compete, these Olympians also have to be mentally ready to accept the outcome. They have to prepare to face losses, and, in the end, still emerge victorious. How can you do the same?
Although athletes may be born with physical talent, attitude is something they attain through training. "Attitude isn't something you're born with," says Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee. "Attitude is a decision."
Haberl says there are two components to a winning attitude: a desire to win, which is externally driven, and a desire to perform your best, an internally driven wish. Olympians obviously have a desire to win a medal, but when the competition starts, the truly good Olympians switch their focus.
Rather than worrying about winning, they worry about performing their best. After all, they cannot control the outcome of the race or how well their competitors race, but they can strive to reach performance-related goals within their control. "After the race, they'll assess their performance not just on the outcome but on how well they competed," Haberl says.
Haberl offers the example of gold medalist speed skater Bonnie Blair who raced not against her competition but against the clock. If she beat the clock, she believed she had a better chance to beat the competition. "When you become your own yardstick," Haberl says, "you experience success, no matter if you win or lose."
That is the attitude Joanna Zeiger, a triathlete from Maryland, took to the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. She does not put any pressure on herself to win, only to do her best and have fun while doing it.
"If the race isn't fun and if I don't feel good about it, then the outcome doesn't matter because I haven't enjoyed the experience," says Zeiger. "When I race, I want to enjoy the experience, and when that happens, I'll have a better shot at doing my best."
No matter what your level of competition, it is not easy to adopt a winning attitude. Perhaps one of the biggest stumbling blocks is focusing on the outcome rather than the activity. "You need to focus on getting better, not being the best," says Ken Baum, a sports performance consultant and author of The Mental Edge. When you lock into the score or the time, then the whole experience becomes miserable.
Another obstacle is an obsession with comparing yourself to others. Maybe you get upset because you are not as good as someone else, when in fact, that someone else has different genetics, background, experience, and training. Instead, Haberl says, you need to adopt internal ways to measure your performance, rather than just comparing yourself against other people.
You do not have to be an Olympian to boast a winning attitude, but you do have to be willing to work hard to get it. Here is how:
American Council on Exercise
The President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition
Public Health Agency of Canada
Baum K. The Mental Edge. Perigee; 1999.
Last reviewed January 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
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