Mind Games that Make You Faster

Positive perfectionism, and other mental tricks of Olympians

Kristen Dieffenbach researches the mindsets of Olympic athletes as an assistant professor of coaching at West Virginia University. We caught up with her to find out what separates these elite athletes from amateur age-groupers. Physicality is part of the equation, she says, but at the upper echelons, mental strategies make all the difference.

You did a huge research project looking at the mental traits of Olympians. Were you surprised by what you found?
Olympians are genetically gifted for sure, but by the time you get to the elite level, it’s really just a whisper hair that separates the first through the 20th. What was really remarkable is that the top performances had to do with mental factors that we can change over time.

Traits like confidence, mental toughness, coachability, the ability to focus and control anxiety, and optimism make sense. But what’s positive perfectionism?
Some people in the psychological literature don’t like the term “positive perfectionism” because perfectionism can have a negative connotation. Perfection is a moment in time and not a way to live; it’s very unattainable. But what we labeled as positive perfectionism is striving for perfection. These athletes weren’t concerned with whether they were perfect. It was more about, “can I be the best I can be at this moment with these tools I have?” They were willing to face the challenges and acknowledge the controllables and uncontrollables in a very healthy way. Many people who are driven have perfectionistic tendencies that become an Achilles’ heel. But we’re finding that you can teach people how to shape that drive. Another thing that was fascinating to me is that the top athletes were students of the sport.

Students of the sport? What does that look like? 
They were constantly looking for ways to improve. It was never, “I’m great and I’m satisfied with that.” It was, “I’m good at this, now what am I going to do to get better.” They were very open-minded and weren’t stuck in the way things were done before. They were driven to put out the most amazing performance they could and push their bodies where they had never gone before. When we talked to them, it came out that winning gold medals was awesome, but that wasn’t the first thing they talked about. It was much more about how they performed.

So for Olympians and others who enjoy the process and race well, it sounds like the mindset is more, “can I push the barrier?” than, “I have to hit these splits.”
Nicely put. And if the barrier doesn’t get pushed, it’s not that you failed. It’s that the plan didn’t get you there. Olympians are really good at backing up and saying that maybe the approach they were trying didn’t work.

Training is all a grand experiment of one. I liken developing a [winning mindset] to being a chef. There are dozens of ways to make shrimp and make it taste good. Maybe you make it and decide it needs a little more salt or lemon next time. It will never come out exactly the same way every time because the ingredients are a little different. But the more you do it, the better you get a feel for it and can make it taste amazing even if you get a very different kind of shrimp that day.

How much of this translates into the amateur ranks? Can they develop these traits?
People who do well and continue to enjoy themselves throughout the age groups are people who are modeling the same types of behaviors. People who focus on winning and comparing themselves to others tend to be racing against the clock and are going to get older and see things falling apart. People who really embrace that this is a glorious challenge and want to see where they can push their bodies tend to get more enjoyment and satisfaction out of it, and that helps breed longevity and reduce burnout. If they can adopt more of the Olympic talent mindsets, they’ll be more engaged and less likely to have training become a chore or a frustration.

What if it already has become a chore?
The first thing is to be in touch with why you’re doing this in the first place. When you talk to elites, they remember the first time they hit the water or stepped on the ice. There’s that little kid joy in the moment and in the game. When you’re feeling like workouts are work, it may mean that you need to do some sessions that don’t have a purpose. You may need to go for a hike and watch the dogs frolic because it’s an amazing day. It would be great if the average athlete could pull back and see training as the fun part and racing as icing on the cake rather than training being drudgery and racing as the fun part.

But training isn’t always fun. Is there something Olympians tell themselves to not feel so bad when their bodies are screaming at them to stop?
Keep in mind that the little voice that tells you to stop is part of the reason we’ve survived. It tells you that you’re pushing yourself beyond the limits of what’s safe. In truth, we can go beyond that line—after all, you’re going to feel thirsty and hungry long before you’re dehydrated or starved.

Elite performers spend a lot of time redrawing where that line is. The average person’s is falsely low, and training is about intentionally moving it. It’s going to take time to redraw the line—you have to be willing to change patterns that have been there for a long time. You have to practice sitting on the edge and get the experience so you know that you’ve hurt this badly in training before and it has passed. You’re always going to have a week where you overreached and didn’t rest properly, and it sucks. There’s going to be a point in the race where you’re suffering, too, but you suck it up and deal because you know the rainbow is on the other side.