Going for Gold: How Athletes Cope With the Pressure to Perform

4 min read

Last Modified 28 May 2021 First Added 16 April 2021

Olympic athletes have the eyes of the world upon them, and that weight of expectation can be a heavy load to carry. We spoke to Max and Greg to find out how athletes learn to live with the pressure of competing and convert it into gold. Max gives us his gold-medal winning perspective on how he and his team apply the principles during gymnastics training.

Setting targets

Turning Olympic bronze to gold is no mean feat for any athlete, but that is exactly what gymnast Max Whitlock did in Rio (2016), where he put in two gold medal‐winning performances. “I set myself really high targets,” he says. “My first was to improve as an all-round gymnast and my second was to get myself into a position where I had the potential to win gold.” So how did he do it?

“When it does come together, like it did for Max in Rio, that’s really something quite special,” says Greg Retter, who has observed his fair share of pressure as the Head of Performance at the BOA. He explains that one of the key things that athletes can do is to break their goal down into a series of achievable stepping stones:

“Rather than being overwhelmed by the whole ambition, it’s important to break the goal down into smaller more manageable chunks. Individual performance targets are set by a group of people with a clear understanding and focus on the final moment in that stadium when it all comes together.”

For example, Max refuses to snooze when he’s getting ready to compete: “When I’m in a competition phase I’m straight out of bed as it’s the best way to break out of that habit.” If your end goal is a better night’s sleep, you might want to break it down into smaller chunks and try setting an earlier bedtime and sticking to it for a week or finding 5 minutes each morning to do some stretching exercises.

Coping with performance pressure

As a youngster at the London Olympic Games, Max says he wasn’t under too much pressure, but once he’d won a bronze, going to Rio was a different story.

We were expected to bring back results, but it’s difficult as an athlete because we’re only human and it’s hard to perform perfectly every single time.

Max’s approach is to forget about past successes and treat every competition as his first. This helps him to focus on giving his all each time.

Tournament psychology is used to help athletes cope with the pressure. As Greg explains, this can include using imagery to help control and calm their thought processes.

So, we might make a mind map of their routines and ensure the physical environment of the event is as familiar as possible. It’s hard to appreciate the critical pressure faced by athletes walking out into a stadium of 60,000 people. But some thrive on it and to varying degrees athletes can channel that emotion into their performance. We saw the results of that in London, where our athletes fed off the energy of the home crowd to bolster their performance.

We all need people to cheer us on, even if we’re not performing to a packed stadium.

Dealing with setbacks

Sometimes things don’t go to plan and Greg recognises the importance of not being too hard on yourself if you fail to reach your targets.

The main thing is to be rigorous in understanding where things went wrong and critiquing the performance in a positive way. Harnessing the support and guidance of the team really helps athletes to learn from any setbacks. This is vital for future improvement and moving forwards. So, I would say that the main thing is not being overcritical and giving yourself enough recovery time so you can return to training and goalsetting refreshed and rejuvenated.

When the pressure’s on it can be hard to keep a sense of perspective but it’s important to stay positive and keep working towards your goal, step by step. Setbacks will happen, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about them. Instead, look at what went wrong and use what you’ve learned to improve the next step. As Max has proved, it’s achieving smaller targets along the way that will ultimately lead you to glory.

For more information on Max and his sleeping habits, check out this Night in the Life of Max Whitlock post.