Four Olympic medals make some pretty nice bling, but for skier Julia Mancuso, her latest addition also makes her the most decorated American female skier in Olympic history and the only one to medal in three straight Olympics.
Today Mancuso wowed crowds and gave the U.S. its first Alpine skiing medal in Sochi by winning the bronze medal in the women's super combined. This event has a downhill portion, which Mancuso excels at, along with a slalom portion, which she hasn't had as much experience in. So while she's known for shining at high-stakes events—her other medals are a gold from the 2006 Olympics and two silver from 2010's Games—many experts counted her out from the beginning, citing her lack of experience in the event and the fact she took a break from the competition circuit in the last half of 2013.
Macuso later admitted she had some nerves at the start line.
"I haven't raced a full length of slalom since last year so that was definitely on my mind when I kicked out of the starting gate," she explained in her finish-line interview. "Super combined wasn't one of the events I was thinking gold [was possible]. A medal was kind of a long shot too.”
Yet some athletes can use this underdog status to their advantage, says Vernon Williams, M.D., director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology. "Some people take that feeling of being counted out and push themselves harder and even outperform their normal standard." [Tweet this fact!] Certain athletes even seek out that feeling, using it as a motivational tool, he adds.
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You may never compete in the Winter Games, but you can use the same techniques Mancuso calls upon to keep cool under pressure, Williams says.
1. Enjoy it. Alex Hoedelmoser, head coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team, said, "Julia sucks up the spirit of the Games and uses it as motivation, and gets really, really excited about it. She loves to compete.” Tennis court, stage, or conference room, remember you're where you are for a reason, Williams says. You've earned the right to be there, so make sure you don't let the worry overtake your enjoyment of the event.
2. Calm down. "A little anxiety and adrenaline is good for your performance," Williams says. But too much can cause your body to shut down, which is why pro athletes all have their own ways of finding serenity in the moment. Williams suggests trying visualization, meditation, and diaphragmatic breathing, and practicing until your technique becomes second nature.
3. Have a mantra. While it doesn't go over so well on the subway, talking to yourself is a great way to keep your head in the competition. “I was just thinking, ‘Stay calm, and ski with my heart,’” Mancuso said, “and I skied my heart out!” Williams adds that many professional athletes say they feel "in the zone" or in a "state of flow" when everything is going right, and using a mantra can help keep outside distractions from messing up your groove.
4. Have confidence in yourself. "Be the athlete you are," Williams says, adding that a key factor for Mancuso was realizing that even if she hadn't skied slalom in a while, she is still a world-class skier. "Doubt can be overcome by reminding yourself that you are strong, balanced, and trained for this moment," he says.
5. Keep your eye on the prize. "Focus on success and not what you're lacking," Williams recommends. Where our brains lead, our bodies follow, so endlessly worrying about something can make your fears happen. [Tweet this tip!]