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Personal power: Secrets of elite athletes

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These insights apply to life, and not just sports.

Manage your thoughts

Advice from Dr. Kjerstin Baldwin, a fomer nationally ranked cross country skier who earned a Ph.d. in psychology and worked with Olympic athletes at Canadian Sport Centres. She is now with TrueNoth Psychological Services in Halifax.

  • Ignite your passion: Visualize your dream goal, your ideal future. Your coach needs to get a sense of where the passion lies.
  • Motivation: Setting and accomplishing difficult goals encourages a strong sense of self; you feel satisfaction in strength and the ability to compete successfully.
  • Be self aware: learn to coach yourself and manage your own thinking. Focus more on your own best performance than on the competition.
  • Practice awareness training: every half hour ask yourself what are you thinking about – don’t just go through the motions of whatever activity you are in.
  • Focus: sometimes you need a narrow focus to manage distractions, like in front of your skis. Sometimes you need a broader focus, like to be aware of your teammates. You need to recognize when you are losing focus, and be able to re-direct it.
  • Working hard and challenging your own limits is a mental skill: the process itself is satisfying; you learn you have accomplished this much, and now can go for more.
  • Chunk it down: when you set big goals like getting an Olympic medal, you need a process of how to get there; set smaller goals and learn to feel good that you are moving in the right direction.
  • Learn to relax or energize as needed: You need just the right amount of energy to perform.
  • Use “thought stopping” when negative thoughts creep in: Many of our thoughts are automatic and always make us feel a certain way. If your thoughts are negative, reframe them and challenge your own thinking. A skier may need to change “I hope I don’t fall” to “I am good at downhill.”
  • Have perspective: after a bad event, think, I’m a tough person, I can move on.
  • Be early for practice: then you can focus.
  • Emotion: Sports psychologist Terry Orlick says you need to “feel your goals.” He is introducing this concept into elementary schools.
  • Setbacks: After an injury or similar setback, learn to reset goals. Persevere and stay mentally sharp. Manage your feelings.
  • Before an event, visualize the pressure and the distractions; otherwise it is hard to deal with in the moment.
  • Visualize: the way the body responds is linked to how the mind thinks and feels; if a skier tenses up, he will fall.
  • Journaling: keeping a diary helps to create awareness.
  • To have powerful and effective training sessions: be on time, manage your energy, and have your equipment in good shape; great training sessions translate into great results in competition.
  • Cycles: Know that you can’t be at top form all the time or you will burn out.
  • Manage your expectations before a big event: When performing at major events like the World Cup or the Olympics and the huge increase in attention that comes with that, you need to be able to relax and breathe amid the increased anxiety.
  • Learn from setbacks: I am still OK as a person, if I make mistakes.


  • Set goals. Be aware. Focus.
  • To ignite your passion, imagine your ideal future.
  • Then backtrack and set short-term goals.
  • Monitor your thoughts; learn to stop the negative ones.
  • Enjoy the process, including practice and training.
  • To deal with setbacks, key in to your personal motivation.
  • Manage your energy: relax or energize as needed.
  • Pace yourself: you can’t be 100% all the time.
  • Visualize in advance of the big event.

Use these skills in transition to other careers. Use goal setting, go back to school, use your ability to speak in public, apply your skills to career or a charity. In sports you learn to manage your time with all the demands on it. This is something the top performers in business are good at.

Practice is the key

Ken Bagnell is the president of Canadian Sport Centre Atlantic, which supports 140 Olympic and para-Olympic athletes. He studied sport psychology at Dalhousie and Michigan State. His advice:

  • Understand what you need to be the best you can be. You need clarity aboutyour goals and why you compete.
  • You need an objective, a reason to be in the gym: know it, feel it–the ultimate reason is the way you feel.
  • You need a positive outlook every day, not just a focus on outcomes.
  • A dream goal such as to make a national team or get to the Olympics is an external motivator. You need internal motivators too.
  • Temper your enthusiasm with realism; a coach will help.
  • Manage your expectations, be realistic. Even in gentlemen’s hockey, expectations can be out of line with reality–with weekend golfers too. At a fitness club, set realistic goals that you are more likely to achieve; a PFC helps.
  • Not many understand the day-to-day commitment needed to get to the Olympic level; you can’t afford to have bad days at practice.
  • Learn how to keep motivated to pursue a goal that is only remotely possible, and which depends on the performance of others on that day too.
  • Competition anxiety can hurt your performance; take comfort in that you have performed at a high level in practice.
  • Seek balance: People have a picture of Sydney Crosby practicing in his backyard. Now kids are playing hockey 12 months a year, but they need to try different activities or they will burn out on hockey at a young age.
  • Create an environment with novelty: shake things up to stay interested.
  • Amid the stress and anxiety of an event, learn to read the important the cues.
  • Don’t let what just happened distract you. In golf, after a bad shot, let it go.
  • Let go of baggage: the expectations of others and the culture.
  • Know yourself and be grounded in your own goals. Invest in that, not in pleasing others.
  • The thrill of competing is wonderful, but most of the work is done before you get to the starting line
  • Be self reliant: make decisions on your own.
  • Learn by making mistakes: in so many environments we are not allowed to make a mistake; don’t punish kids for making a mistake.
  • In business there is a “rah rah” motivational industry, but employees need their own motivation, such as flex time to be with their families.

More Inspiration: Check out the power of focus in this great article!

Author: Alex Hurst is a freelance writer for Optimyz Magazine.


  • Alex Hurst is a writer for HUM@Nmedia covering Optimyz and Silver magazines in print and digital editions and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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