On the World’s Stage: Getting in the Heads of the Athletes in the Summer Games

Aug 15, 2016

“Give me one word that describes how the Summer Games make you feel.”

Summer Games

I posed that question to the team here at Curiosity Advertising and the results were strikingly optimistic. The word that stood out the most? Inspired.

But what I’m really curious about is how the athletes feel. What is it like to be on the world’s stage, competing with the best athletes in the world? I decided to put on my Curiosity Insights cap and figure out what it is that drives these champions.

Maja Smrdu at the Institute for Clinical Psychology in Izola, Slovenia, conducted a phenomenological qualitative study analyzing the first-person experience of elite athletes. Smrdu focused on the mental processes of optimal sport performance—what do athletes think about when they encounter a difficult situation before reaching optimal performance and success?

After interviewing 14 elite athletes, Smrdu came to the conclusion that there are four distinct experiences during optimal performance: overall experience, social experience, mental experience and body experience.

One athlete explains his physical and mental experience during a difficult situation: “Something is very wrong. I am insecure, lost in the situation and I feel fear…like vibration through my body, a stomach pain like someone had hit me and I have a lump in my throat…”

Another athlete describes his social experience as something beyond himself:

“In a way it is personal but also I am just there, the whole situation, the action is more for the club, for something beyond me. I don’t think about myself at that point but also not about others or the club … in a way the aim is this connection between us all at that specific point, that also speaks through the action, the score.”

Below you’ll see a more detailed chart of Smrdu’s theory. The four types of experiences are listed in the right column and the different situations are listed along the top.


So, what mentally allows for optimal performance during these trying times? Smrdu identifies two modalities that must overpower anxiety and stress. The first is trust—trust in the abilities of oneself and in one’s teammates. Michael Phelps, arguably the world’s best athlete, understands the importance of trust. “I want to be able to look back and say, ‘I’ve done everything I can, and I was successful.’ I don’t want to look back and say I should have done this or that,” Phelps says. Before world-class events like the Summer Games, athletes are at their peak of training—they are prepared. If anxiety gets in the way of confidence and trust, they’ve already lost the mental game.

The second modality is reaction—to changes in the situation or experience. Phelps also exemplifies this quality: “Things won’t go perfect. It’s all about how you adapt from those things and learn from mistakes,” he explains, after the 2004 Games. It’s safe to say that Michael Phelps, the most decorated Games athlete in history, has mastered this process of optimal performance.

Athletes aren’t just playing a physical game; their minds have to work just as much as their muscles. Let this be another source of inspiration. Next time you sit down in your living room and turn on the Games, observe the mental battles of every athlete—the pregame routines, the struggles, the victories. The world’s best athletes’ accomplishments extend far beyond the accolades, trophies and fame. What’s more inspirational than that?

—Kate Caldwell, Curiosity Intern

Smrdu, Maja. “First-Person Experience Of Optimal Sport Competition Performance Of Elite Team Athletes.” Kinesiology 47.2 (2015): 169—178. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.