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Even Olympians Face Doubt

How self-doubt affects elite athletes.

Key points

  • Almost all Olympians struggle with feelings of self-doubt at some point.
  • Olympic athletes have to ask themselves what they need to do to be fully prepared, then do it.
  • Olympians use every experience as a lesson learned.
 Sam Balye/Unsplash
High achievers work to control what they can control.
Source: Sam Balye/Unsplash

The feeling of doubt or even imposter syndrome is nothing new to high achievers. It often happens when faced with a new situation. As I previously shared in Psychology Today, this might be a sign of success, not a trigger for anxiety. Three Olympians shared with me how they tame the feeling of doubt, especially in high stake situations.

Kris Thorsness
Olympic gold medalist, 1984
Women’s Rowing, Team USA
1984 Olympics in Los Angeles

When they step on the Olympic stage, with the world’s eyes on them, elite athletes may appear cool and composed when inside, the athlete’s emotions are a roiling tempest. At the core of this is doubt. Kris Thorsness, a member of the 1984 gold medal Olympic women’s rowing team, didn’t think she would make the team until it actually happened. Not having expectations was liberating and meant that she could enjoy every step of the unexpected journey. Thorsness said,

There was absolutely no pressure. Every morning and afternoon, I got to row with my heroes in boats that went really fast. My focus was solely on learning, improving, and working really hard. What fun!

While making the Olympic team and then winning a gold medal, I realized lifelong dreams for Thorsness. They brought an onset of new challenges. “Once you’ve achieved the pinnacle, there are lots of expectations–both from within and without–to stay there,” shared Thorsness. The weight of expectations can be extremely heavy.

Athletes were taught to not complain or talk about emotional struggles. At the same time, high profile athletes have to weather the sometimes horribly unfair criticism of pundits who often have no clue how hard it is to be an elite athlete.

There’s a tendency to think that you have to win every race, and your outlook can shift from focusing on yourself to focusing on what your competitors are doing. You can become focused on what’s in the rearview mirror and not on your road ahead,” warned Thorsness. The challenge is while you can control yourself, you cannot control your competitors.

Coupled with the uncertainties of injury, coaching attitudes, and other factors, it is not uncommon for elite athletes to feel a loss of control which can undermine confidence significantly.

I had to work hard to: (a) recognize this was happening to me, and (b) try to refocus on the things I could control and try to let everything else go. It was very hard, took constant attention, and I wasn’t always successful at it. When it worked, I was both happier and more successful.

Tal Erel
Baseball, Team Israel
2020 Olympics in Tokyo

Tal Erel played catcher for Israel’s Olympic baseball team. Since qualifying for the Olympics, Tal Erel has played with both his college and the national team for the last two years. His stress level and doubt toward himself have finally plateaued. There were no peaks and valleys. During a qualifying tournament, it was a baseball game that changed his entire perspective on and off the baseball diamond.

During the qualifying tournament, Israel played against Great Britain. Erel was starting catcher for that important game. The winning team plays in the quarter-finals in Europe, so there was a lot at stake. Great Britain was a great team and a top competitor. Erel was catching and knew he needed to bring his A-game. He didn’t want to lose this one for the team.

But when you are the catcher, you aren’t in the dugout with the rest of your team. You are alone at home plate with no one to talk to but the pitcher, and that communication is with hand signals. “When a catcher has doubts, you are alone in an ocean of doubt.” shared Erel.

Israel’s team was losing at the beginning of the game. Erel missed a fastball and wondered if he really earned his spot. He quickly needed to figure things out. There was a run scored, and he wondered if he deserved his spot on the team. He was a college player, while his teammates were professional players. He knew he couldn’t miss catching balls, but he did.

Something had to change and quickly. He then realized that “Every minute is exactly 60 seconds. It’s the same time if I do well or poorly. The game will end in three hours no matter how I play. So I might as well trust my training and do my best.” Shared Erel. He controlled his focus on his performance and not on anything he could not control, such as the pitcher or other players.

Today, for any stressful event, from job interviews to Olympic baseball games, he focuses on controlling what he can control. From the beginning, he is always thinking about the end of the game. He sees the finish line when he’s at the starting line. He uses that technique to tame his doubts, control his imposter syndrome and get him through every situation.

That day, on the game against Great Britain, everything changed for him. He changed his mindset. He controlled what he could control. That let him be calm on the biggest international stage, the Olympics.

Michiel Bartman
Olympic gold medalist
Men's Rowing, Team Netherlands
3 time Olympian (1996 in Atlanta, 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens) Gold medalist 1996, Silver medalist in 2000 and 2004

As an elite athlete, it is common to doubt yourself many times over. Michiel Bartman, a three-time Olympian and member of the 1996 gold-winning rowing team from the Netherlands, wanted to know how far he can go, what he can achieve. He always asked himself, “What do I need to do to be prepared to the max?”

He wasn’t the biggest or the strongest rower out there, so he had to find ways to shine in other categories such as technique, details, training, mental toughness, anything to find that extra edge. Bartman shared,

As a perfectionist by nature, I doubted if what I was doing was enough to win or be the best I could be. I was hard on myself, and at the beginning of my international career, that extended to my teammates. My coach taught me to be nicer to myself, but especially towards the guys that I rowed with.

Easier said than done, but Bartman worked at it relentlessly. “The moments of big doubts were more about we are doing enough, are we still on the same track?”

To overcome future doubts, the minute a race was over, Bartman and his teammates analyzed the race to see what they could do better next time. An important lesson Bartman learned was to deal with losses or bad races faster and not dwell too long on it. “That was my doubt and motivation.”

Everyone has doubts, even those on the most competitive stages. Like most high achievers, Olympians focus hard to control what they can control and use every experience as a lesson learned, which gets added to their knowledge toolbox.

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