The easiest part of the Olympics is the race itself, according to a sports psychologist
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- Kristin Keim is a sports psychologist who has trained Olympic athletes.
- She says the race is often the easiest part of the Olympics, because athletes can tune out distractions and just do what they love.
- Athletes who have a greater reason for competing - and who don't just focus on winning - may be more successful.
As athletes from all over the world converge on Pyeongchang this week for the Winter Olympics, the city will be abuzz with nervous energy. The only time the competitors may get a slight reprieve from their anxiety? During the race.
That's according to Kristin Keim, a sports psychologist who's trained Olympic athletes and who used to be a competitive cyclist.
"Once the gun goes off for an athlete to go in the race, it's like then they're just free," Keim told Business Insider.
"They're not having to deal with media; they're not having to deal with anything else. It's just them doing what they trained since they were kids to do. And they're in control; they're in the driver's seat."
That is to say, the race itself is the one time the athlete can be "in the zone," if you will, without getting distracted by fears or worries or criticism from themselves or others.
Importantly, getting in the zone means not focusing on the outcome of the race, which can potentially be distracting.
Having a reason for competing - other than winning - can be helpful
Writing in HuffPost, sports psychologist JoAnn Dahlkoetter quotes Olympic decathlon champion Dan O'Brien: "I remember one track meet in Europe when everything was going perfectly. I was about to do my final attempt on the high jump. As the audience started clapping, I thought, if I make this jump, I can win this thing. That was a big mistake. As soon as I focused on getting that medal, I just fell apart."
Dahlkoetter writes about adopting a "process focus," meaning you concentrate on the task at hand, zeroing in on your breath or your pace, for example (consider it a moving meditation).
Keim said having a "why" - or a reason for competing in the first place - can help athletes resist the temptation to think about winning or losing. Your "why" should transcend being crowned champion (in fact, Keim said she often assigns her clients to read the existential classic, "Man's Search for Meaning," by Viktor Frankl.)
When Keim was a competitive cyclist, it was about getting better - cycling just a little bit faster - every day. She said many of her clients, including Megan Guarnier, a cyclist who competed in the Summer Olympics 2016, have the same "why."
"The race is the easiest part," Keim reiterated, "if you just know your why and if you trust the process and if you see this as a journey. It's not just about the outcome of making the Olympic team or the Olympic gold medal - because that won't make you happy if you didn't enjoy the process."