It’s easy to get lost in the magic of the performances of Olympians. We have come to expect perfection for things difficult and even impossible for the mere mortal to perform — especially when an Olympic gold medal is up for grabs.
But as we’ve seen in these Winter Games — and at every Olympics — the athlete favoured to win doesn’t always make it to the top of the medal podium. Why is it that throughout a season an athlete can demonstrate domination in their respective sport, but fail to perform when it counts most at the Olympic Games?
The easiest answer is to assume that athlete has choked and is not a clutch performer. The elite athlete is a complex machine, further compounded by the infinite factors that influence their performances. As complex as that athlete is, so is the answer to the question about why top athletes come up short at the Olympics.
As an Olympian and a registered mental performance consultant, I’m aware of the many factors that can influence an athlete’s performance under the glare of the world spotlight.
Changes in normal routine
Elite athletes lean on routines as a foundation for consistently great performances. Routines involve specific actions the athlete uses to prepare for both practice and competition.
Consider, for example, an athlete’s warm-up, eating habits and bedtime. All of these may appear minor to the non-athlete, but they are instrumental in preparing the athlete for competition.
Disrupting this process can interfere with an athlete’s sense of confidence and readiness. Being away from their normal environment invokes changes in these routines. Now magnify the environment that comes with the Olympic Games — well, any hope of maintaining a routine has just become almost impossible.
U.S. alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin has developed a reputation as being one of the best racers. She is almost equally known for loving her sleep, taking strides to go to bed by 8:30 p.m. while at the Games. However, after winning her first gold medal, the medal ceremony kept her from going to bed until much later.
She took to the slopes the next day in her best event, the slalom, and failed to defend her gold medal, finishing fourth. She later explained that she was more upset with how she felt on her skis than her placing.
Shiffrin arrived at the Games favoured to win five medals, but due to the scheduling, she later pulled out of one of her races.
In addition to the excitement of the Olympic Games, researchers Christy Greenleaf, Daniel Gould and Kristen Dieffenbach have found that arriving to the Olympics, or a venue, too early, experiencing unexpected nervousness, being forced to change a performance plan as well as different time zones for competition are all factors that take an athlete out of their normal routine.
They also found team coaches acting differently than an athlete’s personal coach, who isn’t always able to come to the Games, can also play a role in distracting them from normal routines.
Ultimately, even though it is the Olympic Games, athletes want to keep things as close to normal as possible. As soon as athletes depart from their normal routine, they invite an opportunity for inferior performances.
Pressure and media distraction
For some athletes, the Olympic Games feel like a fishbowl. They are catapulted from minimal attention to intense media focus, which can make the athletes feel like they’re being scrutinized and judged.
This new attention can shift their focus on the need to win and away from what will allow them to be successful — the process.
The advent of social media makes the ability to manage media distraction even more challenging. Twitter gives fans direct access to the athletes. Fans can even interact with athletes between rounds of competition. Whether they are cheering them or jeering them, it can be distracting and disruptive for an athlete preparing to compete.
You can never plan for an injury. However, when an injury happens, it can be a daunting battle. Often, a greater component of battling injury is controlling those around you.
Self-efficacy, the belief that an athlete has the ability to meet a challenge head on, is influenced by four factors. One of those factors is called verbal persuasion — what the athlete or others say about the athlete.
In professional sports, teams are required to declare injuries that athletes may be managing. However, this rule doesn’t apply in amateur sports. Athletes can be battling an injury and choose not to discuss it for fear that it may provide an edge to their competitor, or cause doubt in those that they look to for support.
I can relate all too well. Three days before competing in the high jump at the Beijing Olympic Games, I tore all the ligaments in my ankle while warming up in practice.
Suddenly all my performance goals seemed impossible, but I was still hopeful and determined to compete to the best of my abilities. I was not ready to concede defeat. To keep up an environment of support and optimism, no one knew of my injury except for the medical staff and my teammates.
So when watching your favourite athletes compete, it’s important to know they may be battling something physically or mentally that they haven’t disclosed. What might appear as an unexplained poor performance may in fact be the best performance they could summon on that day given whatever injury they were battling.
Expect the unexpected
The Olympic Games is arguably the greatest test for any athlete. The ability to perform when it counts most, with the weight of a nation on your shoulders, is no small feat.
Athletes can equip themselves for performing in the fishbowl with mental-skills preparation and by establishing a support system. Mental-skills preparation can help athletes block out distractions, maintain their routine, control their nerves and elevate their confidence.
A solid support system can further assist by keeping routines as normal as possible and encouraging confidence by providing positive feedback.
Finally, preparing for the unexpected can serve as a life preserver when you are swimming in the ocean of the Olympic Games. When working with super elite athletes, I encourage athletes to do so.
Through this process, athletes identify various scenarios that could occur and establish a game plan for how they should respond in those instances. If you can expect the unexpected, the unexpected ceases to exist. Through this multi-faceted process, I have found athletes not only feel prepared but also have an elevated level of confidence.
Ultimately, just because an athlete does not perform as well as expected does not mean they’ve choked. Athletes are like an iceberg — what we see may only be 10 per cent of what’s really going on.