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Try honing these psychological skills to develop a gold medalist’s mind

Gymnast Larrissa Miller of Australia practises during a training session at the Athletes Park on July 31 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

David Ramos/Getty Images

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, all eyes will be on the athletes as they perform jaw-dropping feats of strength, speed and agility. But it's mental fitness that gives them grace under pressure – and the edge they need to compete against others like them who have trained a lifetime for this moment.

While most of us avoid high-jumping or throwing javelins, many are striving toward our own goals, whether it's a business launch or a PhD thesis defence. Chances are we have enough motivation and experience, but do we have the mental toughness to own the metaphorical podium in our lives?

To get the scoop on what sets gold medalists apart, The Globe and Mail tracked down five sports psychologists who have worked with Olympians in Canada, the United States and Britain. Here are the psychological skills anyone can learn to develop a winner's mindset.

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Mind the moment

The No. 1 skill that sports psychologists teach athletes is mindfulness – a state of active, open attention to the present. To avoid sounding like a yoga guru, some call it "awareness" or "being in the zone." But their techniques have a lot in common with meditation: focusing on breathing and observing thoughts and feelings without attachment or judgment.

"It's kind of like training the mental muscle," said Karen Cogan, senior sport psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee. Cogan works with athletes in acrobatic sports such as diving, gymnastics and synchronized swimming, and combat sports including fencing, tae kwon do, judo, wrestling and boxing. She has adapted the concepts of mindfulness pioneer Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn into a 10-minute audio file for athletes to listen to every day. After about three weeks, she said, "they're able to keep their focus a lot better." The next step is to practise taming the wandering mind in competitive situations.

A simpler technique that anyone can use in a high-pressure situation is to breathe in and exhale deeply from the diaphragm and stomach. When people get stressed, their breathing becomes shallow, "and that causes more muscle tension and more stress," she said. Even after a few deep breaths, "people find that takes the edge off."

Don't choke

We've all done it at least once – flubbed an important job interview, stumbled over a well-rehearsed speech. If we develop a history of cracking under pressure, the risk of doing so again becomes even higher. "Choking" can become a habit, said Cogan of the U.S. Olympic team. She encourages athletes with a track record of choking to think back to competitions when they did well and ask themselves, "What was the mindset?" The idea is to analyze what set them up for success and try to recreate those thought patterns in training sessions and competitions. She recommends practising the new approach in low-pressure situations. Someone who struggles with public speaking, for instance, could run through a speech in front of a group of friends.

The best way to break the habit of choking, she said, "is to form a new habit."

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Get psyched

Positive thinking teaches the mind to boost confidence instead of focusing on what could go wrong, said Wayne Halliwell, a specialist in sports psychology at the University of Montreal. Under his guidance, Olympic champions including Canadian freestyle skier Jennifer Heil have raced for gold with a list of positive thoughts folded in a pocket.

Positive self-talk "starts with the facts," Halliwell said. An athlete could write, "I know I'm healthy, I know I'm fit, I've got a great support team and I can stand tall." For a cardiac surgeon with the jitters – Halliwell has worked with several in the operating room – positive self-talk might include things such as "I have years of training" and "I've performed this surgery successfully many times before."

Halliwell helps clients come up with key words to repeat to themselves in moments of intense pressure. It could be an acronym that describes how they want to feel mentally, physically and emotionally. "We try to think of something sticky," he said, adding "often they come in threes." One of his clients, a hockey goalie, came up with ABC: "alert," "big" and "calm."

Halliwell encouraged a group of pharmaceutical sales reps to switch the thought "I've got to do this" to "I get to do this." With this simple word change, he said, "your work becomes an opportunity – you've reframed everything." He uses a similar approach with doctoral students who feel stressed out by the words "thesis defence." He reminds them that they chose the area of study, they did the literature review, they collected the data and wrote up the thesis, "so let's talk about sharing your passion and education with the examiners."

Manage mental energy

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All athletes get butterflies in their stomachs. The trick, sports psychologists say, is to get them to fly in formation. They encourage athletes to accept feelings of anxiety and learn to harness that nervous energy. In game sports such as tennis or soccer, it doesn't help to be too calm, said Penny Werthner, dean of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. "You need to be pretty highly activated because you have to be aggressive," she said, whereas in a sport such as diving, which emphasizes individual technique, "you have to dial it down a level."

Werthner, who competed in the 1976 Olympics in the women's 1,500 metres, uses a system called neurofeedback to teach Olympians to control their levels of mental alertness based on the demands of their sport. Electrodes attached to the athlete's head are connected to a device that monitors the brain's electrical activity. Alpha brainwaves are helpful for mental rehearsals of success, beta brainwaves create a more alert state that aids quick thinking, while theta waves are akin to light meditation. If an athlete is unable to manage their anxiety, emotions and brain-activity levels in high-pressure situations, Werthner said, "then it doesn't matter if they know what to focus on, because they can't actually do it."

Anyone can learn how to manage mental energy, said Peter Jensen, a sports psychology consultant in Ontario and author of Thriving in a 24-7 World. He recommends getting plenty of sleep and avoiding things that drain mental energy, including negative thinking, multitasking – we aren't as good at it as we think – "and what I call ceaseless striving, or trying to change things that aren't changeable."

It's not just about you

Whether you're an Olympic rower or a manager in charge of product development, success in a sporting event or business development race depends largely on the strength of your team. In Britain, part of the role of Olympics sports psychologists involves meeting with individual athletes, "but it certainly doesn't make up the majority of it," said Kate Hays, head of the 20-member sports psychology team at the English Institute of Sport. Psychologists work with all levels of coaches and trainers to ensure that the approach to training is consistent, training sessions are analyzed appropriately and competition goals are set in the right way, she said.

All members of the British Olympic Team – not just athletes, but also support staff – undergo personality testing based on Jungian psychology. By giving staff members greater insight into the other personalities in their midst, "we are in a better place to have open and honest communication that enables us to get to the crux of a problem and work on a strategy to move on," she said. "The skills are very transferable to corporate settings."

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Remember the long game

Getting pumped to compete in the Olympics is a cinch compared with the constant drive athletes need in the years leading up to them. Book authors, medical researchers and robotics engineers may relate to the tendency to lose motivation over time. "But that's where you're doing most of your work," noted Jensen, who is heading to Rio with the Canadian women's basketball team and athletes including Crispin Duenas, one of Canada's top-ranked archers.

One way to maintain momentum, Jensen said, is to ask oneself, "What would it take to improve or advance by half a per cent a week?" For a book author, that could mean writing a set number of words each week and monitoring progress every seven days.

In team situations, people can take turns finding ways to keep the others motivated, he said. The idea is to maintain a high-intensity environment, so "we're getting better, better, better." Another strategy is to "get back in touch with why you chose to do this in the first place."

Leading up to the Sochi Olympics, Jensen met with the Canadian women's hockey team to stoke their hunger for gold. He said the team came up with three reasons to win: They loved to play, they wanted to honour all the people who had supported them, and they saw the Olympics as an opportunity to show Canadians how to deal with pressure and face adversity. Each day, Jensen encouraged them to think about whether they had lived up to these values in their practice session.

They won gold in Sochi, but more importantly, they developed a winner's mindset. The ultimate goal is to become a great human being, Jensen said. "If you're nothing without the gold medal, then you'll be nothing with one."

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