It fascinates me who wins and who loses? Who chokes and who doesn’t? As a young competitive tennis player, I struggled with performance anxiety. I choked many times and I went for broke in big finals. I enjoyed myself but I was also incredibly anxious.

What athlete wins the prize of being able to balance bringing his/her top game while being able to stay relaxed and enjoy the moment? Here is my post-Olympic review of the athletes that I enjoyed watching and how they applied their mindset to sustain top performances.

shaun white

(Photo: Guy Rhodes, USA TODAY Sports)

Shaun White came into his third Olympics aiming to win a third Gold medal in snowboarding half-pipe. He has been so fun to watch due to the massive air he gets while doing the half-pipe. As a child prodigy, he was known to world as the flying tomato. Now 27, and a successful businessman, he seemed to believe that he had to win the half pipe so much so that he dropped out of another event. During the half-pipe, the conditions were warm and not conducive to boarders who go for huge jumps; yet he attempted to go for too much and lost. Before the Olympics, he was known to throw out any medals less than first place, whereas, now, he was answering questions on TV that he did his best yet came up short. He could have won by going for less but that is not his style. It seemed that the pressure got to him, making him appear humble.

Ted Ligety won the Gold in the Giant slalom, making him the 1st American to win. He came into this Olympics after not winning anything in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics because he said he was trying to be too smart and aiming for the perfect run. He is not a skiing prodigy like Shaun White and being almost 30, which is ancient in the skiing world, Ted’s story is one of hard work and determination. According to a NYTimes article, he approached this Olympics with optimistic nonchalance meaning he wanted to win but he wasn’t obsessed with it. Ted appeared to find his stride after decades of trying.

Then my favorite new athlete of the games – Mikaela Shiffen, an 18 year old ski prodigy and the USA Gold medal winner in the Giant Slalom. Her parents brought her up to enjoy the process of learning versus winning competitions. She visualizes a successful and yet imperfect run and falling down and recovering before each run. The idea that she visualizes having an imperfect run and still wins while enjoying racing is inspirational and admirable to me.

In ice skating, which is the sport that I see as poetic athleticism, what was fascinating this year was that the gold medal winners of both the men’s and women’s individual ice-skating championships made errors. They went for substantial jumps but made some small mistakes such as not landing perfectly and even tumbling on to the ice. The WSJ had an article comparing the scores of Julia Lipnitskaia (gold medalist) and Yunan Kim (silver medalist). It appeared that Julia had a technically more demanding program. While she was a long shot to win, she seemed to take smart risks and really went for broke. In contrast, Yunan took a more artistic approach and it seemed that the judges value high technical scores more than artistry. In an interview, Yunan Kim was obviously disappointed for not winning the gold as she had in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She said that during her first Olympics, she DID anything to win. She briefly retired after winning and returned to skating although plagued with injuries. She suggested she lost this time because she didn’t have the same motivation she did four years ago.

These Olympic athletes are all demonstrating strategies for how to perform at their best while continuing to expand their comfort zone without succumbing to the pressure. It appears easier to be relaxed and win when you are just starting, like Mikaeka or when Shaun White was 17; but, once an athlete becomes successful like Ted or Yunan, they have to struggle with motivation and expectations.

Ted LigetyWho is my winner for developing a new strategy for going for the gold? The gold medal goes to:  Ted Ligety – for being a role model in regards to learning from past mistakes and not letting pressure derail his performance. I love the concept of optimistic nonchalance!

What do you think? What Olympic athletes motivated you and why? I’m curious to hear your comments!


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