Michael Johnson is a four-time Olympic gold medallist and currently holds the world and Olympic records in the 400 m. The American legend is writing exclusively for HT.
The pressure before an Olympic athlete gets to the start-line is enormous and it is
how the athlete handles these moments that will determine how he or she performs.
At this moment, some athletes will feel anxious, some will experience excitement and some fear. All these feelings arise from the fact that a big question looms and the answer is about to be revealed.
"What will be my result at the end of this race?"
The question is at the root of the nerves and pressure that an athlete feels before a race. They are managed best when an athlete can answer 10 questions correctly.
Have I trained to be at my best?
If the answer is no, it's too late. And you can't fool yourself at this point. If you haven't trained as well as you could over the last several months, it will show up at this moment. I was always aware of this and it drove me every day to give everything I could in training and to use every session as an opportunity to improve, minimise the nerves and maximise the possibility of victory.
Am I healthy and fit?
Obviously it's necessary to be physically fit and ready to go but this is extremely important for an athlete's psyche as well.
It takes incredible mental focus to perform at this level. The last thing you can afford to have on your mind is a question about whether or not your body will hold up.
Does my competition matter?
You can't control what others do or what their result will be so they don't matter. At that moment, just before the start of the race, all of my competitors were right there in plain view. I knew their names, their times and how they had performed to that point. But none of it mattered so they weren't even people to me. They were just obstacles, just like hurdles. I control how well I clear them.
What is in my control now?
To have your best performance you must focus on the things you can control. I always knew I control how well I execute my race.
My competitors have no influence at all on how well I execute, so I spent the last 10-15 minutes before the race visualising myself running the race over and over again, executing it perfectly.
What is not in my control now?
Anything that may be a distraction that affects everyone in the race. Weather, track conditions, delays in the schedule, false starts by anyone other than you. All of those things are not in your control and they affect the entire field the same. If it's raining, it's raining in everyone's lane. You can't control it so don't think about it and get on with the race.
What really matters now?
The only thing that matters, is the race you are about to run. The focus required to compete at this level and under this pressure requires an athlete to be totally in the moment with his thoughts compartmentalised so that he is thinking of nothing but the race. Nothing else matters now.
Is losing the end of the world?
No, but answering this question is tricky and requires balance. It is not the end of the world but that doesn't mean it isn't important and doesn't diminish how badly you want it. I always reminded myself that if I lose, I will be extremely disappointed and it will be difficult. But I've dealt with disappointment and difficult times before so I will deal with that when and if it happens.
How badly do I want this?
Most athletes have dreamt about this for many years, and they never dream about having a bad performance. You've probably spent more time, energy and focus on this opportunity than anything else in life. You want it more than you've ever wanted anything.
Will I get this opportunity?
You may never get the opportunity to compete in an Olympics again. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so you must give it everything you have and treat it as if you never will have this opportunity again.
Because the odds are you won't.
Can I produce my best performance?
Unless you're not physically healthy, the answer to this must be yes. You have to believe that you have the talent, you've worked as hard as you can, you have prepared as well as you can and you can execute your race strategy to perfection. You must believe in yourself.
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