There are more than 11,000 athletes competing at the Olympics in Rio. Only a handful get the recognition of Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, only a few dozen take home a medal, and the majority have almost no real shot at standing on the Olympic podium. All of these athletes are constantly assessed in comparison to others who are, by the metrics of their profession, better than them at what they do—and yet they are all able to stay motivated, committed to a life of sacrifice. How do they do it?
“One of the biggest predictors of success in athletics, and life in general, is confidence—the expectation that you will succeed,” says Jonathan Fader, a sport psychologist who works with elite athletes including members of the New York Mets, and is the author of Life as Sport.
Your level of confidence reflects the sum of the thoughts you have about yourself, and successful people don’t let jealousy or competitiveness affect that. Fader puts it this way: for the best athletes, the first thought when seeing someone better then them in their field is, “how can I learn from that?” For those who struggle, it’s “I don’t have that.”
At Rio this year, South African swimmer Chad le Clos appeared to embody the latter, losing focus on his own race to check out Michael Phelps in the lane next to his.
Comparing yourself to other people’s success affects your performance and holds you back—whether or not you are an elite athlete.
“Comparing yourself is only good if it helps you motivate,” Fader says. While being competitive is fundamental for an athlete, the key is to focus that competitiveness inward—to define success as something achieved independently from outside sanctions. The goal should be to be your best self, rather than be better than someone else.
“People who are successful see a difficult situation as a challenge, not a threat,” says Fader. For some, seeing others excel at what they do will trigger an instinctive inferiority response. That is not the case for athletes, and very successful people, who instead use others’ success as a push to do better themselves.
That response won’t come natural to everyone, but it can be learned. One way, says Fader, is to focus on the task at hand, and ignore the big picture for a minute. Looking at someone else’s grand achievement and trying to come up with a comparable one can be paralyzing. But a great accomplishment is typically the end result of many smaller excellently executed tasks, each of which can be approached as its own challenge, and success.
One thing athletes do that other people typically don’t do enough in their life, Fader says, is to gear all their efforts towards a single performance. They envision it, goal-set, and strategize far in advance, so that when the performance moment comes, they don’t actually have to think about it at all—they just do it.
This is valid for all people whose professions are performance-based, but it’s an attitude that can be extended even for people whose career isn’t a series of events. In short, don’t wait for inspiration, just start doing whatever it is you do. “Action is first, motivation second,’ says Fader. Focus on your work, strive to get better at it, and motivation will come—much like when you don’t feel like going to a party, but then go anyway, and then don’t want to leave.
Another thing: remember to enjoy yourself. “People who do Olympic sports really, really love them: if you talk to athletes, they are obsessed,” says Dvora Meyers, author of The End of the Perfect Ten, a book that looked at the evolution of professional gymnasts. Indeed, obsessing over what you (and not someone else) can do better, and remembering why you like doing it can only help. “People forget to enjoy their experiences,” Fader says, “but one way to be very resilient is to look at enjoyment as a practicable skill.”
This means reminding yourself to enjoy what you are doing—and that you do it because you enjoy it. It’s why former Olympic athlete and long-distance running coach Jeff Galloway directly links the lack of “joy runs” (p.51) to the likelihood of giving up training: no matter how solidly you keep your eyes on the finish line, reminding yourself that you like what you’re doing is going to make you push harder. Reminding himself to “at least have fun” while he was at the 2012 London Olympics was what helped Michael Phelps get over a sluggish start and attain gold.
Not everyone has the luxury of loving what they do. For many reasons, you may be in a job—or even on whole career path—you hate. If that’s the case, it’s still worth acting as if you liked it: avoid complaining (to yourself or others), don’t wast time pointing out what’s wrong, and abstain from destructive criticism. If you do, you might end up at least hating it a little less. “Act the way you’d like to feel,” says Fader, “and the feeling will follow.” It’s a “fake it till you make it” kind of approach, except “if you’re doing it, you are making it,” he says.
Anyone—even the world’s top athletes—can become disheartened by perceptions of failure and not measuring up. Athletes, Fader says, commonly adopt three types of “self-talk” to keep from becoming overwhelmed.
One is “objective optimism”: looking for negative statements about oneself that aren’t based on evidence, and replacing them with realistic positive statements. Fader says he uses that a lot when working with firemen, for instance: “they can’t say everything is going to be alright, because it won’t,” but they can still hold positive thoughts about their performance. In other words, don’t replace “She’s better than me” with ”I’m the best,” but, with something quantifiable, like “This presentation I made really looks great.”
Then there is a “centering self-talk” which consists of using sentences like “just this pitch,” or “just this routine.” The idea is to forget about long-term success for a minute and focus on each individual performance. The big picture accomplishment will come later. Meanwhile, you’ll cut out all the distracting thoughts. US gymnast Laurie Hernandez provides an excellent example: right before she performed one of the routines that got her team a gold medal in Rio, she literally uttered to herself, “I got this.”
Finally, there is a “motivating self-talk.” Some athletes, Fader says, have this down to an art, with short sentences they repeat to themselves in practice, during a performance, and sometimes after. It’s a reminder of the real reason they do what they do. That could be about making a family (or a country) proud, being an inspiration to younger generations, or something else completely—but real motivation is always much deeper than defeating one person or winning one event.
Indeed, studies have found that an activity done purely for a tangible reward is perceived as less enjoyable. This is not to say winning doesn’t offer some emotional payoff, but what matters more is how you frame the competition for yourself: when an Olympic gold medal is attainable, then that becomes the goal. When it’s not, something else may be—for the Philippine’s diving team, or the Jamaican bobsleigh team, being there is just as big as a victory might be for a favorite.
Think of it this way: just as you may be jealous of someone you see as more successful, there’s likely someone behind you who sees you as the goalpost of accomplishment.
That is to say, don’t discount yourself. ”The best athletes have a real hunger to beat themselves,” says Fader.