Olympians face a unique challenge other top athletes do not: Their sports’ top competition is held only every four years. Having skied in the 2002 Salt Lake and 2006 Torino Winter Olympics, I know how fleeting these opportunities are.
Becoming an Olympian is no accident. It takes a lifetime of dedication to reach this milestone, and scant do. Talent, intensive training and positive attitudes are givens, but what else do these athletes share? No matter the sport, Olympic athletes value and nurture several common habits, and in my experience, these nine in particular.
1. They are scholars of their sport.
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Olympic athletes know their sport backwards and forwards. We study the rules, athletes, coaches, venues and history. We devotedly follow trends, developments and innovations in our respective sport, including techniques, training, equipment and apparel.
Building on research, Olympians work closely with coaches and trainers to identify weaknesses and endeavor to change them into strengths.
2. Eat intentionally.
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3. Sleep well and often.
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4. Set goals.
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Every Olympian wants to win gold medals. While admirable, most successful Olympians also have more specific goals in mind, and develop plans for reaching them.
An athlete’s goal may be to set a PR, or “personal record.” Another’s may be to produce a specific score in a judged event. Most athletes formulate a series of goals, like qualifying for a semifinal, and then a final and then medaling, for instance.
Goals enable athletes to focus and achieve. Barring ties, only one athlete or team wins a gold medal in each Olympic event. By making and reaching goals, we can gauge other accomplishments along the way, whether or not we stand atop the podium at the end.
5. Befriend the competition.
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6. Compete in tune-up meets and events.
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To stay motivated, Olympians vie in other competitions between Olympic Games. Like many, I participated in my sport’s world cups and other preeminent international events.
These events provide athletes the best rehearsal for the Olympics. Mimicking the first-rate competition and pressure, they help keep skills fresh and measure one’s training progress between Games.
7. Visualize and keep a strong, confident mind.
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One of the most important assets an Olympian can possess is a strong, healthy mind. A healthy mind is vital to a healthy body.
To that end, determination and confidence drive success. Both qualities keep an athlete focused, motivated and deterred from distractions.
In particular, Olympic athletes often visualize before competition. When visualizing, the athlete imagines himself in his race, game or event. He sees himself performing his event well, from start to finish, repeatedly. If an Olympian can picture himself winning, he is better positioned to win.
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You’d never pull up to the starting line of the Daytona 500 with an empty tank. Likewise, athletes don’t begin their Olympic Games immediately following their toughest training days.
After a period of intense training, athletes decrease training in the days and weeks leading up to the Olympics. This gradual reduction in training intensity is called tapering. Varying by sport, individual and event, tapers allow the body to recover, but not lose the gains made by training. This way, the athlete is ready to compete at peak power, speed and health at the Olympics.
9. Do what works for them.
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While Olympians share many commonalities, we’re also very different. What works for one athlete doesn’t necessarily for the next.
Olympians don’t neglect the habits that got them to the Games. We embrace our own pre-competition rituals and routines. Each athlete does what makes him comfortable, gets him in the zone, allows him reach his goals and ideally, return home with Olympic hardware.
The Olympic stage is brief, but practicing good habits best prepare the athlete for these moments.