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What Olympians Can Teach the Rest of Us About Performing Under Pressure, According to a Sports Scientist 

Whatever you think about the many scandals and controversies swirling around this year’s Olympics, one fact remains indisputable: the athletes are awesome. The weather is broiling where I live so I’ve been spending hours hiding in the AC watching their incredible feats of physical performance, from jaw-dropping gymnastics tricks to hours-long uphill cycling races in heat would keep me confined to the couch. 

These people are superhuman, I think again and again. But while there is a zero percent chance I could ever approach their athletic abilities, according to one sports scientist there is still one important lesson us mere mortals can take from watching the games. Olympians can teach even us normies the secret of not cracking under intense pressure

Medals are won and lost on focus. 

When you watch athletes twisting in the air or flying over hurdles, it’s natural to wonder what is going through their heads. On the Conversation recently, University of Nevada, Las Vegas sports scientist Gabriele Wulf addresses just that question, and it turns out the answer is unexpected. 

You might assume that when a gymnast starts a flip or a swimmer kicks off into the pool, their entire focus would be on their body. Am I in the proper position? Is my hand or foot or hip moving the right way? But according to Wulf, questions like those are actually a recipe for disaster. While newcomers to a sport need to concentrate on their physical movements, when elite athletes do the same thing, their performance takes a serious hit. 

“Based on the findings of numerous studies, it’s clear athletes should never concentrate on their own movements – what movement scientists call an internal focus of attention,” she insists. “Instead, for optimal performance, the focus should be on the movement goal. This is called an external focus of attention.”

“It can mean concentrating on a target to be hit, such as the corner of a goal, a golf hole, a bull’s-eye or a catcher’s mitt. It can also be the intended motion or trajectory of an implement such as a javelin, discus or barbell; the desired spin of a ball,” she explains. “What it is not is the hand releasing the object or pulling the water back, the muscles producing the force, or the speed of leg movements.”

The difference between focusing on the intended results versus your body’s mechanics isn’t small. Research shows boxers punch five percent harder, runners use 9.5 percent less oxygen, and swimmers swim 1.4 percent faster when their focus is outside themselves. That can easily be the difference between standing on the podium or not. 

Focus on what not how. 

All of which is fascinating if you’re an ambitious athlete of any kind, but what does this have to do with the rest of us who are content with a gentle jog around the park? Quite a lot, according to both Wulf and other experts. Focus is key not just for elite athletic performance but for elite performance of any kind. Keeping your focus outside yourself can help prevent choking whether you’re going for gold or giving a high-stakes professional presentation. 

Just as sports psychologists remind trained athletes to focus on their intention not their bodies, those who coach speakers for the presentation Olympics (aka TED) stress that focusing on the message you want to deliver and being of service to the audience will calm your nerves far more than stressing about your tone of voice or  what to do with your hands

No matter what area of performance you’re operating in, Wulf asserts, “your body can more masterfully execute the actions you desire if you’re able to move your conscious focus from what your body is doing and instead think about what you want to accomplish.” So the next time you need to keep your nerves in check, remember to focus on the what not the how to increase your chances of delivering a winning performance. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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