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  • Writer's pictureDina

Train Your Brain...Like An Olympian

OK, quick question...who do you think would say terrible things about him or herself? A teenager who got a bad grade? Read this:

I never feel that I am good enough or do anything well enough. You know, you would think at some level it’s a, it’s a great success and that I would feel, you know, super happy and, and I do, I’m so happy on some level. But, It’s never good enough for me...And that’s just sort of a default lens that I have on a lot of my life.

I bet you would never guess it’s the CEO of Pinterest, Evan Sharp. But it is. He said those words as part of an interview with the Science of Greater Happiness podcast when he did the Self-Compassionate Letterexercise - you write a letter to yourself.

So I wrote that letter kind of thinking about my friend, but really writing it to myself. And I was just amazed at how differently I relate to friends than to myself. It’s so easy for me to give words of encouragement to a friend, and so hard for me to give words of encouragement to myself. And so that little trick of thinking about, oh, what would you say to a friend who’s going through what you’re going through? And then flipping that on its head and actually saying that to myself, it’s just a really powerful little tool I’ve learned. You know, I wrote this letter to myself, but I’ve even found myself doing it just in my head, you know, in 10 seconds when I’m feeling really, really something critical.

You might think that writing to yourself is a bit insane or perhaps not very productive - that it’s equal to just congratulating yourself, and would not, for example, make you want to work harder. But oh! What does the research say?

You know, research by Serena Chan and Julia Brian shows that one of the things that it does is, you know, when you write self-compassionate letters to yourself or practice, self-compassion, you start to feel a little sense of motivation, like, wow, I’ve got this good stuff that I can, you know, work harder at my foibles. Did you have a sense of that empowering sense of energy there?

What do his words have to do with training your brain or Olympians? You see, people have different ideas about what makes for a champion. Kill and drill! Tough it out! Etc. etc. But what do top performers like Olympians actually do? You might be surprised. They do a lot - A LOT - of self-care.

From Sports Psychology Today:

...athletes must learn to develop and maintain a very specific combination of psychological strategies and attributes to enable them to perform at their best and win in the Olympic competition.

So...what might those key strategies be? Glad you asked!

  • A positive personality: Olympic champions possess positive personality characteristics including openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, competitiveness, optimism, and proactivity.

  • Motivation: Gold medalists have multiple internal (i.e. passion for the sport) and external (i.e. proving their worth) motives for competing at the highest level. Champions consciously judge external pressures as important and so choose to perform in challenging sports environments.

  • Confidence: Gained from various sources including multifaceted preparation, experience, self-awareness, visualization, coaching, and teammates.

  • Focus: Champions are able to focus on themselves without distraction, and to concentrate on the process rather than the outcome of events.

  • Perceived social support: Olympic gold medalists believe high-quality social support is available to them, including from family, coaches, teammates, and support staff.

It’s worth calling out various words above - openness, internal motivation, self-awareness, teammates, process (over result) focus, and social support. These are all things that Olympians leverage to THRIVE and perform at the highest levels of physical feats! Do you see any parallels in your life?

Focus is worth calling out - it matters, especially matters most:

Being able to block out distractions (i.e. the crowd and the potential consequences of failing) helps athletes do this. This is a hard task at the Games when athletes are all too aware of the consequences of their performance. But this just makes this skill even more valuable.

Sports psychology is a field unto itself, but, we can borrow lessons even if we are not professional athletes:

A pioneer....noticed that cyclists typically performed better when in the presence of a competitor. Recognizing cues like that has helped psychologists find not just the best ways to enhance athletic performance, but also to understand the distinct pressures faced by elite athletes. Concerns such as not wanting to disappoint a coach or teammates and striving to meet the expectations of fans can be paired against personal issues, stress, and self-doubt.

What happens when you are around a rival? Do you work harder because you love your teammates, tablemates, classmates, etc.? What motivates YOU?

Top athletes also reflect on what worked, or didn’t:

To’ll need a game plan. For example, when dealing with results, take the time to learn from every poor performance rather than brooding or trying to forget it. After a peak performance, write down specifically what you were thinking, feeling, and doing immediately before, during, and after the event. The next time you need a boost in confidence or motivation, refer back to the list.

So being able to engage in deliberate practice helps, of course, a lot. Sometimes (well, always) it is not fun to practice something you are not good “at.” Part of that is how we approach it.

UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Center has some tips on approaching deliberate practice:

Because deliberate practice is hard, you can offer a few tips to help motivate your children to engage in it:

  • Rethink failure: Teach your children that failure is a normal part of learning by modeling comfort with mistakes. Share your experiences of failure with your children, so they learn that we all fail sometimes—and these failures teach us lessons that help us in the future.

  • Rethink frustration and confusion: Teach your children that frustration and confusion are a natural part of the practice. Encourage them to see these feelings as signs that they are in the “stretch zone,” the space that helps us develop new skills.

Enlighteens Education Perspective

We hope you have learned something from this post, about what top performers really do to motivate and prepare themselves to perform at the very highest levels. These lessons “translate” to the way students can improve their own performances to make the most of high school.

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