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The Case For Athletic Optimism [Or: How Julia Mancuso Used Her Underdog Status to Win Her 4th Olympic Medal]

Posted Feb 12 2014 2:17am


For the record, the next time I win anything I’m totally crowning myself with a tiara!! How fun is that on the medal podium? Way better than that stupid bite-the-medal pose everyone else does…

Four Olympic medals make some pretty sweet 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.

On Monday 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 both 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.

And not only were the experts worried but Macuso herself later admitted she wasn’t even sure she would finish the race, much less medal.

“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 I was surprised to hear that some athletes can actually use this underdog status to their advantage. When I interviewed him for a Shape piece on Mancuso,   Vernon Williams, MD,  the director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology, told me that “Some people can use that feeling of being counted out to push themselves harder and even outperform their normal standard.” He adds that some athletes even seek out that feeling, using it as a twisted kind of motivational tool. You count me out? I’ll show you!

This was so surprising to me because it never would have occurred to me in a million years to have that reaction. I have more of the ehhh they’re probably right, why am I doing this? reaction. Unfortunately. Listening to interview after interview with Mancuso, I was increasingly impressed with her optimism. Despite not feeling ready, she had enough faith in herself to just go out there and get it. Plus, she was having so much fun the whole time! I hate to say it but I know if I ever made it to the Olympics, I’d likely be a nervous wreck – and therein lies the key. Nerves.

When I asked Williams if Mancuso’s optimism was inborn or a cultivated trait to help her win stuff he told me – of course – some of both, most likely. But his theory is that she’s had a lot of practice learning to manage her anxiety and the surge of adrenaline that comes with it. “It’s about learning to balance the good and bad aspects of stress,” he pointed out. I think I often forget that stress is a good thing – it’s a natural bodily response to excitement. It’s our response to the stress and whether or not we let it control us that can be, well, less than helpful. As Williams talked about how athletes cultivate their “state of flow”, which he describes as an almost out of body experience where they are operating on a higher plane of consciousness (high praise for a neurologist!), I started to think that while I’ve never been an Olympian, I have had moments like that myself.

We’ve all had them, in fact. They read like the Best Of ESPN sports reel in our memories. They fill us with pride and awe and emotion and strength and confidence. I’m talking about the good days. Not just the good days but the days when you are really on. Somehow you woke up with boundless energy, the sun is shining and everything in your body works as it should. You don’t just run, you are liquid lightening separating the clouds. You don’t just lift the iron, you toss it like a baby and catch it with a laugh. It’s a perfect ice skating routine with no bobbles. It’s catching 24 feet of air off the top of the halfpipe like Shawn White did today in the snowboarding competition. (Seriously did you SEE THAT? My heart kind of stopped watching him and then I cheered. Out loud. In my living room. I can’t find a link to the video. Stupid NBC.) It’s hitting that last double arrow on Dance Dance Revolution with both arms stuck out in the air, sweat streaming down your face and knowing you hit every count on the hardest level. Sometimes, on those days, a little voice may creep in warning you to rein it in. Hold back a bit. You don’t want to get hurt. But you go for it anyhow. Because deep down you know you own it.

More often are the other days. Not the truly horrible ones – although you know  I love to talk about those  – but the mediocre ones. The ones where you realize that every day for the past month something on you has hurt (usually something strange and nagging, like your xyphoid process, that makes you – okay me – automatically and hypchondriacally think cancer). The ones where the treadmill is a chore, the weights seems heavier than the last time and strangely you are crazy sore despite cheating your way through half your workout. Occasionally, right before I’d step onto the balance beam or while I toed the line for the vault my heart would drop out and my legs would go weak. I was overcome by my nerves. I just knew I wasn’t going to stick anything that workout. I’d be lucky just not to get injured. The blah days. (Note to the wise: if you feel like this every day, it might be your first clue that  you are overtrained  and need a break.)

Whether we are an Olympic athlete coming in fourth (like Shawn White did… yes, even after that magnificent qualifying run!) or the mom with the jogger stroller huffing around the lake while arcing goldfish crackers over the rain fly to a whiny toddler, everyone has the blah days. But it’s the memory of the really great days that keeps us going. I honestly believe that how well you can keep those beautiful flying memories alive is your exercise barometer. Everyone fails. But athletes, like Mancuso, learn to see their failures as just another tool to help them succeed. The lesson is in the falling. People who don’t struggle, don’t learn.

By all accounts Mancuso shouldn’t have been able to do what she did yet she was able to push through her fears and medal. I learned a lot from thinking about Mancuso’s story – and none of it had to do with how to improve my downhill (okay maybe it did a little!) but rather how to stay optimistic even when everything and everyone is working against you. Whether or not you’re on a ski hill, a hill run or running your household, training for optimism is important:

1. Enjoy it. Alex Hoedelmoser, the 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.” Remember you’re where you are for a reason, Williams told me. Whatever you are doing, do it with your heart and be in the moment. No matter what happens at the end, you’ve earned the right to be there so make sure you don’t let the worry overtake your enjoyment of the event.

2. Find a method to calm yourself down. “A little anxiety and adrenaline is good for your performance,” Williams says. But he adds that too much can cause your body to shut down which is why pro athletes pick a way to calm themselves down in the moment and then practice it until it becomes second nature. Williams suggests trying visualization, meditation and diaphragmatic breathing. Ah, meditation, my old nemesis! But he makes a good point. Everyone has anxiety. Not everyone has a good way to control it. And he reassured me that it’s a learned technique that gets easier and easier with practice.

3. Be positive with yourself. While it doesn’t go over so well on the subway, talking to yourself is a great way to keep your spirits up and your mind focused. “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” when everything is going right and using positive self-talk can help block out outside distractions or negative Nellies from messing up your groove. Plus, we’re so often our own worst critics. There’s no need for that. The world is plenty good at pointing out our failings, we don’t need to beat them to the punch!

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 you’ve trained for this moment,” he adds.

5. Keep your eye on the prize. “Focus on success and not what you’re lacking,” Williams says. Where our brains lead, our bodies follow so endlessly worrying about something can make your fears happen. 

What does it feel like to you when you’re in the zone or a state of flow? What’s your trick for staying optimistic? What do you do when you feel like you’re the underdog- does it make you a scrappy fighter or does it make you mess up more?


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