“We didn’t lose the game; we just ran out of time.” ~ Vince Lombardi
It is my honor to treat a number of professional, amateur and elite athletes. I want to share an observation from the recent Olympic events in London that can hopefully help your own performance.
In watching both the men’s and women’s gymnastics events, as well as in field and track, I noticed a pattern in the competition; the anxiety increased exponentially when the athlete waiting to perform watched the successful athlete before her, and/or read his/her score. If the previous performer excelled, the athlete grew more nervous. The ole “tough act to follow” syndrome kicked in. The stakes were raised, and the stress and the pressure to be “perfect” were enormous. If the previous performer did poorly, the athlete many times followed suit and made a similar error! Most notably, and sadly, this overcame the USA gymnast McKayla Maroney at the vault event. The Russian gymnast before her literally fell on her face, and immediately the commentators (and perhaps well-meaning coaches and teammates) stated that all McKayla had to do to win the Gold was basically “not fall on her dismount.” Guess what? She fell on her dismount. This cost Maroney, already the World Champion in this event, the Olympic Gold Medal for 2012.
Watching the Russian’s fall, Maroney took the non-verbal “hypnotic suggestion” that she, too, might fall on her landing. During competitions, unlike practice scenarios, athletes go into the fight-flight mode. This is equivalent to a hypnotic trance state. Whatever you see, hear, feel, perceive in your environment can “slip into” your unconscious mind as a negative suggestion. It is crucial at this time to focus on only that which serves you. Easier said than done, I know. But this talented young gymnast, unfortunately, focused unconsciously on exactly what she did not want to do. This thwarted her ability to focus on what would have allowed her to win the Gold instead of the Silver: a beautiful landing on the mat, doing her personal best, and her love of her sport.
The legendary Vaudeville artist, Al Jolson, was famous for staying backstage in his dressing room and running the water faucet full blast before he went onstage, to drown out the laughter and applause for the performer before him. Stagehands and the like were forbidden from speaking about any other performer to him before he went onstage. He avoided crossing paths with other performers, using a different side of the stage to enter so that he was completely in his own zone, as free as possible from any suggestions but his own for excellence in his performance and connecting with the audience.
Of course in many sports, it is impossible to avoid your opponent’s performance (football, basketball, boxing, fencing, most team and one-on-one sports). But for the solo sports (golf, skateboarding, ice skating, triathlons, gymnastics), avoiding any excess arousal can allow you to stay in your zone. We saw this modeled by Michael Phelps, who kept his headphones on until the very last second possible.
The lesson to learn from McKayla Maroney and other Olympiads is this: If it is at all possible in your sport, find a way to “run the water faucet” and avoid watching the performance of your competitors and seeing their scores. Ask your coaches and teammates to avoid apprising you of any other performances or anything but your goals.