Why Silver Medals Can Hurt Olympians
By: Anca Ramsden
Our Australian Olympic athletes have collected twenty medals thus far, one gold, twelve silver and seven bronze. For a small nation this is an excellent achievement and we are proud of our high achievers.
Although winning a silver or bronze medal is better than going home without a medal, the victory has a bittersweet side to it, because getting so close to gold and then being beaten, often by just a fraction of a second, is a painful disappointment. Many tears have been shed and have been followed no doubt by much soul searching.
A case in point is James Magnussen’s loss of the gold medal for the 100metres freestyle to American swimmer Adrian by one hundredth of a second. Magnussen’s time was 47.53 seconds, Adrian touched at 47.52 seconds. Struggling with disappointment Magnussen said afterwards, ‘This hurts.’
Some Australian sport commentators have been of the view that our athletes could have performed better had they been more disciplined in their practice and more realistic in their expectation of themselves. Magnussen was very confident of winning gold and after his loss had to acquiesce to being ‘a mere mortal.’ He took some criticism for his pre-games bravado, but whether this attitude could have harmed his performance is uncertain. I doubt it. If examined indepth it was possibly a defence to cope with the stress of intense competition.
The reality is with the most thorough preparation and best outlook even the most talented Olympic athletes cannot control all influences at the time of competition.
One of the biggest problems athletes face, is that no matter how fit and prepared they may be for an event, they can never be 100 percent certain that they will be performing at their best during an event. James Magnussen has previously swum the 100 metre freestyle in 47.10 seconds. “It all [the race] seems like a blur. So much is going on in your mind going into it [the race]. I don’t know if you can notice my eyes are pretty bloodshot, I haven’t had a great deal of sleep but you know I did my best and it wasn’t as quick as trials [47.10s] but it’s a different ball game here.’
One of the reasons for erratic performance is that the stress of the pressure to perform during an event harms performance. Magnussen described the swim itself as being a blur, indicating performance stress was active and potentially affecting his speed. The best way to insure oneself against the negative effects of stress on athletic performance is to raise baseline stress tolerance.
It is my experience that it is possible to raise baseline stress tolerance with a body/ mind stress control technique such as Affect Regulation Therapy and improve the way an athlete can control stress just prior and during an event. The fact that stress will harm performance is unavoidable and one of biggest threats to ultimate success remains pressure to perform on the field.
When it comes to stress management most athletes prepare themselves to perform under pressure by rehearsing for every aspect of the event and having strategies in place to cope during the event. Although this approach does have benefits for performance stress it is unfortunately of limited benefit, because it cannot redress the pervasive negative effects of our total life history of stress, the factor that lowers our baseline stress tolerance.
There are two specific problems with stress that affect competing athletes. Stress can have either an activating or an immobilising effect on us. The problem when we get even slightly stressed is that either of these states can kick in. And both states can often act on body and mind simultaneously. If stress were only a mobilising force it would always be positive, but unfortunately it can very rapidly and uncontrollably switch to an immobilising force. This directly impacts on speed and can make the difference between gaining or losing the one hundredth of a second.
The second problem athletes face with stress, is that fully controlling stress with our conscious mind is impossible, because our stress reactions start as physical reflexes and this biological fact makes stress a very slippery fish to catch. By activating the stress control centres (the hippocampus) of the brain to inhibit the reflex stress centres (the amygdala) a body/mind stress control technique can give natural control over stress emotions. My experience with sports people shows they can then maintain better mental and emotional control while they compete.
My research on the psychology of stress over the past twenty years has made me appreciate the nefarious effects of life stress on mental, emotional and physical performance. My view now is that better baseline stress tolerance is the key to Olympian athletes’ maintaining their maximum mental and physical fitness when it matters most.