One shot. That's what many of these Olympic athletes will get. The stress is nearly unimaginable. How do they deal?
I recently caught up with Jamie Nieto, one of the Team USA Olympic high jumpers. Nieto, who is 35 and likely competing in his last Olympics (extra stress), told me that he and one of his former mental trainers, sports psychiatrist Dr. Michael Lardon, have worked on framing stress positively. "We'd think about all the hardships humans have endured, like being out in the wild and surviving," Nieto told me. "And that would make you think, 'If they can do that, I can do this.'"
Elite athletes are going to feel nerves. But it's how those nerves are framed that will likely affect whether the stress harms their performance. I examine the science of this in detail in my upcoming book, The Fear Project, and it's complex. But it's also common sense. Think about giving a speech. If, at the first heart flutter, you think, "I'm going to flop," you probably will. But if you feel a faster heart rate and think, "This is exciting. I'm prepared. I'm going to have fun," the same physiologic response can actually make your speech dynamic, exciting.
Scientifically, there is more to it than this, but basically, stress is just arousal: a little extra adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol in the body, bumping up heart rate, tensing muscles, which, like caffeine, in proper doses, can help athletic performance. The trouble comes, as Dr. Lardon told me recently, when stress triggers over-trying and overthinking.
When Nieto completes a high jump, he has done it so many times, the action is already ingrained in his muscle memory or stored in the autopilot part of his brain called the striatum. (I wrote about this in more detail in a recent ESPN Magazine piece.) If his nerves are framed negatively, it might trigger worry, causing the brain's conscious (and slow) smarty-pants parts to try to butt in -- fix the jump, try to win. Nieto doesn't need any help from his inner rocket scientist to fix his jump. It's gorgeous already, or he wouldn't be where he is. Interference from, say, his prefrontal cortex, near the forehead, is only going to end up in an awkward change in his form that results in a choke. Nieto needs to just do it.
"I'm physically strong enough to jump that high," Nieto has said of the world-record height, "but am I mentally strong enough?" That may depend on how he decides to frame today's pressure.
For more on how athletes can regulate stress and fear, read Dr. Lardon's superb book, Finding Your Zone. It makes an incredibly complex topic simple.
University of Chicago Psychologist Sian Beilock, author of the new book Choke, also helped me understand this science a great deal. Her book is one of the best for understanding the complexities of stress and performance. Highly recommended.
Check out an interview with Nieto here. Go, Jamie, go! Hope you take home gold, but just have fun.
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