Olympians must focus on competing despite safety threats

(Scripps National Desk) - Concern is extremely high for the upcoming Sochi Olympics following a string of terroristic threats and fatal bombings.

So high, in fact, President Barack Obama has offered support from the U.S. to Russia by offering to supply naval and air military assistance.

But athletes face the responsibility of performing at a peak level for millions of viewers to see, despite potential danger.  Dr. Jim Afremow, a sports psychology consultant and author of "The Champion's Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, And Thrive," said Olympians are trained to stay on top of their mental game. He has worked with professional athletes including the Greek Olympic softball team, the Indian Olympic field hockey 2004 team, NFL players including Adrian Peterson and J.J. Watt, among MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players.

Afremow offers insight into techniques that trained Olympians use under stress -- techniques anyone may harness to achieve their mental best.

Question: Do you think the threat of violence is greater this year in Sochi than it has been for previous Olympics?
A: Security is always a concern with these events, Afremow said.
"Olympians need to keep a small eye on it and get the facts: Being forewarned is being forearmed."
If safety is a concern, athletes need to develop a plan, stick with it, and focus on what they need to do do to perform at their best.

Q: What are some ways an athlete can redirect focus on their performance, while also being cognizant of their safety and surroundings?
A: "The key is to have a process," Afremow said. "Figure out: What are the steps I need to be successful? Manage distractions."
Developing a  pre-performance routine is important, he said.
"Do the same thing, no matter where you are. Focus on execution and the results will take care of themselves."

Q: What else, besides safety, might be a distraction to Olympic athletes?
A: "There are many things that might be a distraction to athletes, " Afremow said.
Media, family members, relationships, everything that goes on at the Olympic village. In regard to the Olympic village, "It's a reward for hard work," he said.
"Some distractions can be positive, but try to think like a kid in a candy store: eat some candy, but not so much that you get a stomachache.
"It's important to not take it too seriously, because then an athlete may underperform as a result of overfocus. But you also don't want to get caught up in the fun."

Q: What else might Olympians be thinking about as they prepare for the Winter Games in Sochi?
A: For the Winter Games, weather plays a much bigger role in the outcome of an event, because there is more inclement weather, Afremow said. "Athletes need to be prepared for everything, but expect the best. Decide in advance to under react to everything negative or unexpected that happens- roll with the punches." Elite athletes have a tendency to forget this and be too uptight, Afremow said.

Q: Would these mindfulness tactics help a nonathlete stay on their work game amid distraction?
A: Peak performance is peak performance. Everyone can think like an Olympian, Afremow said. "It's important to visualize success."

Afremow offers these mental preparation tips for Olympians and plebeians alike:

— Remind yourself that all you need is a human performance. You don't need to be better than yourself: you just need to be yourself.

— Train it, then trust it.

— Put yourself in a confident posture to increase testosterone. Think Superman pose, feet apart, a smile on your face. It also sends a message to your opponents.

— Make practice the Olympics, and when you get to the Olympics, it's just like practice.

What this all boils down to is, don't get in your own way.

"Sports and life can be paradoxical, " Afremow said. "You should be obsessive/workaholic in preparation and practice, but then when you compete, let your body do what it is trained to do." He emphasized that this is often the opposite of how many people approach challenges.

"Perfection attitudes interfere," Afremow said. "You have everything to gain, nothing to lose. We either win, or we learn." 

The most successful athletes have actually failed the most,  he said.

"TV just shows us just the wins. Successful athletes are willing to learn by losing."

What people need to know, Afremow said, is "I've never worked with an elite athlete who's felt 100 percent prepared. If you know that, it helps to normalize performance anxiety. Even though opponents look calm, they are likely just as stressed out."

The key, Afremow said, "is to harness that feeling. It is your body preparing. Get your butterflies to fly in formation- channel the butterflies and get them flying in the right way."
Performance-enhancing thoughts are important, he said.

"Recognize anxiety for what it is — there's no shame, that's how humans are made," he said. "All it takes is all we've got."

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