Olympic gold medalist shows us how to reset our goals in threatening situations
Like so many Americans, I spent the evening of August 18, 2004, glued to the television during the gymnastics portion of the Olympic Games. The men are competing in the all-around, and I’m passionately rooting for this kid from Wisconsin named Paul Hamm. After three of six rotations, he is in first place, and he’s now mid-sprint, running at full speed toward the vault. One of the commentators remarks that Paul has never missed a vault landing in competition. After executing two and a half twists in a split second, he not only misses the landing—he falls into the judges’ table.
I’m so devastated that I turn off the TV. I don’t wait around for the replays of his tumble into the table. I don’t wait to hear the commentators’ analyses of his imperfect landing. I don’t even stick around for the scoring: the 9.137 that plummeted him from first place to twelfth. I load the dishwasher. I get the mail. I do anything I can to distract myself.
Maybe 20 minutes later, I drum up the willingness to turn on the TV, and at that precise moment, Paul Hamm sticks his landing after the high bar, and with that he wins the gold medal in the all-around.
I am shocked and amazed and somewhat disappointed that I missed the whole thing. What could have occurred in 20 minutes? How could he physically and mentally recover from such a devastating blow—a blow so disturbing to me that my only response was to walk away from the television? David Letterman posed the same question when Paul appeared on the Late Show after returning home.
“How do you put something like that out of your mind?” Dave asked.
“It was tough,” Paul said modestly. “At that point in time I was kind of upset. I thought I had cost myself any chance at a medal. And I just said to myself, ‘I’m gonna go after the bronze.’ ”
Paul’s response proves that he’s a masterful athlete. He had been training for this specific competition for a decade; he was on the road to a gold medal. And after his fall, he chose to lower his expectations to what he believed was a more realistic goal. Had he maintained his original mindset, he might have been too distraught to perform.
“I had one of the best parallel bar performances in my life right after that, and I saw myself in fourth place,” Hamm recalled, “and I was like, ‘Well, I’m in fourth place now, why don’t I go after the gold?’ And I came up with the best high bar performance of my life.”
Paul nailed the landing on both events, scoring 9.837 on both the parallel bars and the high bar, surpassing the silver medalist by twelve-thousandths of a point. “What a star he’s been since that fall on vault,” the announcer said as Paul Hamm became the first American man to achieve gold in the all-around gymnastics competition. I can still see his coach hugging him jubilantly on the sidelines of the gym floor, looking him square in the eyes and saying, almost to himself, “Never give up!”
Paul is a master of mental control. We can learn from the astonishing mental recovery he made that night in Athens in the heat of competition, and we can apply these lessons whenever we step into a threatening situation:
Bring your attention to the task in front of you.
Let go of your perfectionistic expectations.
As you approach the task, give yourself motivational messages, like, “Yes, I can do this.”
Once you step into your task, concentrate on whatever skills you want to apply to the immediate circumstance.
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Focus on the present moment.
You can’t expect to walk into a threatening situation with the stance, “I’m going to make this sweating issue go away for good.” No amount of therapeutic coaching or meditation or technique can support you when you set such high expectations. So lower your expectations. How about: “I’m going to get through a meeting at work with sweaty armpits.” You have a chance to accomplish that goal.
In the same way, no matter how hard you wish for it, you can’t magically get rid of your fear of a shaky signature. If you’re waiting for your fear to go away before you practice signing your name in public, you’re going to be waiting a long time. But you can decide to tolerate your signature as contorted and illegible if that’s how it turns out. “I’m going to sign this check and let it be as messy as possible.”
Now that’s a realistic goal.
Text adapted from Stopping the Noise in Your Head: The New Way to Overcome Anxiety and Worry, HCI Books, 2016.