I watched Saturday night as Michael Phelps failed to medal in the 400-meter individual medley. This was the first time he had failed to medal since he was 15 years old.
In the interview following the race, Phelps had a hard time being able to put his thoughts or words together. He was admittedly frustrated and put into an unfamiliar situation: no medal.
Since then, of course, he’s returned to familiar territory, capturing his 19th and 20th Olympic medals, gold to boot. He has one more race Friday, the 100-meter butterfly.
So Phelps is unaccustomed to losing, but this type of situation happens to athletes all the time. It’s just not broadcast on the evening news or all over the Internet.
Just today, I had a parent come to me frustrated because their 16-year-old son had a bad basketball tournament. Not just one bad game, but a bad five-game tournament. This was uncharted territory for this athlete and it left the athlete and the parents wondering what to do next.
From a sport psychology perspective, the one thing I can tell you about performance is that it is unpredictable. Even the most consistent athlete can miss the mark from time to time.
If we look at the Olympics, a perfect example is Kohei Uchimura, the top men’s gymnast on the Japanese Olympic team. He is known for his consistent and high-flying performances, yet he missed the high bar after a release and fell during the team qualifying round. It just happens!
One of the first things I teach athletes who are experiencing a disruption in their performance is to focus on what is going right. Using the example of my 16-year-old basketball player, I told him to think about his game and what he was doing well. If athletes can turn their attention to the stronger aspects of their performance, they are less likely to fall into despair and frustration.
This can also include drawing your attention to your team. Oftentimes, athletes who get into a slump pout on the end of the bench instead of supporting and cheering on their teammates. No matter how bad your performance is you can always be a good teammate.
Next is to recognize if the mistakes you are making are mental or technical. This can be a challenge, especially for young athletes who may not be as automatic in their movements. They might be making a lot of technical or mechanical mistakes, but they turn those mistakes into mental ones by getting down and losing focus on the task at hand. Keep your mistakes mental or technical and fix what needs to be fixed—it’s that simple.
Finally, like in the case of Michael Phelps, draw your attention to the next event. There is nothing Michael can do about the 400 IM at this point, but he can redirect his focus on his other events and making them the best they can be. Any athlete can do this, but it’s much easier said than done. Redirecting your focus is a learned and practiced skill. Knowing how to use goal setting and mental imagery techniques are useful components to redirection.
Whether you’re an athlete competing at the Summer Olympics or at the Boys and Girls Club, just remember that your performance can vary but your attitude, knowledge and direction are always under your control.