Pass me the eye drops (from watching the Olympics!)

mental skills Aug 05, 2021

Anyone else glued to the Olympics?
As a kid, time stopped for the two weeks of the spectacle, and I watched whatever they showed on network TV, paying particular attention to the equestrian events (obvi!). I remember where I was when we heard “the team” won in ‘84, and I know that everyone has their memories.

Watching the games is where I first fell in love with mental preparedness. I watched athletes with eyes shut before their runs mentally going through each piece. The deep breath - always the deep breath - and then they began. “Steeling themselves,” announcers would say, or “steading themselves,” or “they are really in the zone.” Even then, it sounded like a mortal trying to find words to describe a god. I was hooked.

In the 70s and 80s, sports psychology was reserved only for those gods of Olympus - no one I knew had a coach for their minds. Thankfully in the decades that followed, support for athletes in all sports became not only available but accepted and even coveted. Even the best coaches were pretty good at the mental stuff, knowing how to get the most out of their charges.

When I rode horses, I knew that part of what separated me was my ability to focus and let everything else fall away; I just didn’t know what to call it. From the outside, it looked like concentration - at least that’s what I saw when I watched my heroes walk into the ring. Deep breath, begin.

People called it “toughness,” but as I went down the rabbit hole to learn more, I realized there was more to it than just being “tough.” I also thought (in my early days) that having excellent mental skills was “fixed” - that you either had them or you didn’t. I was wrong about that too.

There is no shortage of conversations about the mental fortitude it takes to perform on that specific stage in Tokyo. While talking about the pressure doesn’t actually reduce the pressure, it does make it “acceptable” to have the talk, which is a win for all of us who walk into an arena.

Closer to home

This past weekend I had the honor of watching some brilliant obedience. I entered a 3-day obedience/rally event where they just so happened to be holding a regional qualifying obedience event. Watching how people prepared, how they treated their dogs, how they dealt with disappointment - it was all a mental masterclass! Some turned inward, others did all the talking and fussing, and a handful smiled all the way through.

I witnessed rituals and routines left and right - competitors sticking to their plans - everything methodical and planned, removing as many variables as possible. I saw people supporting their dogs, even when a costly mistake was made. I watched people respect one another, giving over space to walk by or create a path to a ring.

These are not givens. They are practiced. Yes, the skills are practiced but so are the mental aspects, the relationships, and the connection. You can’t rush that level of preparedness, and you have to train for it.

Personally, I came away from the weekend with my own mental homework. I used the backs of my numbers to jot down notes about the runs and use them as a list of things to practice. For better or worse, it was clear that my dogs and I had the skills, but not necessarily the experience, or “miles,” to perform consistently. Trip still gets distracted, Moxie forgets how to sit, and I get frustrated. All mental skills for all of us which must be supported by relationship.

Back to the screen

As you continue to watch the Olympics, tune into the rituals and routines, the focus, and that breath they take right before they let it all go. YOU can do all of those things - ALL of them! Those are learned behaviors! You may not see their visualization or know what they ate for breakfast, but their mental training is every bit as tough as their physical/skills training.

Let these elite athletes motivate you to work a little harder this week on all the pieces and parts of your own game!

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