By Elaine Schmidt
This is the first in a series of blog posts about Olympic Athletes and positive thinking. Stay tuned for more stories in anticipation of the 2021 Olympic games!
Growing up, no one in my family was a diehard sports fan. Of course it goes without saying that we’d go wild when the Royals or the Chiefs went to the Super Bowl or the World Series, but we weren’t the ones to watch every game, feeling the ecstasy of a hard fought win and the heartbreak of a loss. In particular, my dad actively sought to be even keel at all times. Seeing him turn off the TV after his favorite team sustained a hard loss, I’d ask why he wasn’t more upset, and was always met with the same sentiment: “Don’t let anything ruin your day; especially not a game.”
Though both my parents played sports their whole lives and had a deep love for athletics, neither of them had the kind of Fever Pitch fanaticism that I came to know in college, when my roommate from New Jersey almost requested a new roommate because I’d never heard of Derek Jeter. “I love playing sports,” I’d say for the thousandth time, “I just don’t follow them!” Luckily, she and I worked things out, and over the years I’ve felt only slightly at a disadvantage in chatting up sports-loving coworkers over the watercooler.
But despite my general ambivalence to sports on the day to day, I indulge in the sports obsession once every four years: during the Summer Olympics.
For weeks, I’ve been watching replays of the Olympic Trials on Instagram. Hours go by each night as I binge on videos of the most talented athletes around the world competing for their spot in Tokyo 2021.
Unsurprisingly, I’ve become especially obsessed with the mental and physical resilience of athletes, especially Olympic ones. I’m astounded by their ability to endure grueling training schedules, perform under intense pressure, and overcome difficult setbacks. Over the years, I’ve had a varied relationship with discipline, and recently, in preparation for a 7 month teaching engagement in France, I’ve been trying to practice French daily. Feeling discouraged by setbacks, I turned to YouTube videos about Olympic athletes for inspiration.
During my positivity binges, a recent piece on US Olympic swimmer Olivia Smoliga caught my attention.
According to the Olympic Channel, Smoliga was a favorite to win the 100m backstroke final in the Rio Olympics when, “her nerves got the better of her...and she could only manage a sixth-place finish in the final, as teammate Kathleen Baker sealed silver.” Following the trials, Smoliga was extremely hard on herself and focused on what was going wrong instead of what was going right.
Like many people, Smoliga’s life slowed down due to Covid, which granted her an opportunity to take a step back and recalibrate through a practice of meditation and self affirmation.
Smoliga reports that a daily practice of self-affirmation has given her “a new sense of inner control” which helps her to calm her thoughts and allows her “to control them through positive affirmations.” She says her daily practice of positivity has helped make the habit of reframing failures “innate” and helped her see the positive side of losing.
“We’re so hard on ourselves when we don’t reach our goals,” Smoliga says. But meditation has allowed her to take a step back and focus on how she can move forward by asking, “what lesson can I draw from this?”
Her practice of positivity has paid off, helping her place 3rd in the 100-meter freestyle final, securing her second consecutive Olympic berth for the 2021 Summer Olympics!
Reading about Smoliga’s practice of affirmation reminded me of something I should have already known: practicing positivity is most effective when it’s a daily habit. Sometimes, I get up and feel in such a rush, that I mindlessly throw on my clothes, grab my lunch, and run out the door. The days when I slow down and schedule even a few minutes to meditate on my intentions, practice self affirmation, and reflect on what I’m grateful for, I am a much better version of myself. And when I’m in a habit of it, the benefits can feel exponential!
In the quest for gold, Smoliga says she often loses touch with why she started swimming in the first place and relies on meditation and affirmation to reorient her intentions. I’ve found the same to be true when learning French. I got into a rut this Spring when I saw learning French as a chore; something I was bad at instead of an area in which I had the potential to improve. My new intention is to reframe everything as an opportunity to get better and to focus on my little wins.
Smoliga says her practice has led her to enter states of flow and centeredness that make her feel she’s “in a trance and nothing else really exists” such that she’s able to push herself harder than before.
When I practice self affirmation, I’m more able to focus on the words and phrases I do remember instead of those I can’t recall. I’m more likely to bring up an imperfect French phrase in conversation with family and friends rather than correct myself. The more I see opportunities instead of setbacks, the more my learning compounds, and I feel more confident to face total immersion. I’m not gearing up to compete at the Olympics, but I’m gearing up for a new challenge that’s going to require a positive attitude and a willingness to accept setbacks as they are and grow a little everyday.
What setbacks are you looking to reframe? Comment below with the self affirmations you use or intend to use in your practice!