Why do Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, and other returning Olympians have an edge on competition? After you have experienced something for the first time – especially something unique, stressful, exciting, emotional, etc. – it creates a familiarity in your senses and expectations that can significantly enhance your ability to thrive and overcome challenges in similar situations thereafter. When an Olympic athlete first arrives at the Olympics and faces the psychological pressure, they can feel overwhelmed and out of their element.
Try to imagine training for years, navigating your sport and competition at the local level to become elite and master your skills. Then after your most challenging competition in your country (where you have tested and surpassed the athleticism, skills, and talent of your opposition), you are awarded the opportunity to go and challenge the athletes who are the elite of the elite in the world. They are likely more advanced in their ability to challenge you than any athlete was at your local level. On top of that, you are going to be observed by millions, if not billions, of people who will be judging your ability to perform at this level.
If you have had the opportunity to experience this environment before, you will have an edge over the competition. This edge is psychological. The athleticism, skills, and talent are approximately equal amongst almost all of your competitors. The difference that will separate an athlete above others, such as Michael Phelps, Aly Raisman, and Gabby Douglas, is the mental edge. These veteran Olympic athletes will have better awareness of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; which likely leads them to more consistent performance, despite the challenging environment. A new Olympic athlete will attempt to remain consistent in their approach to their sport and performance but will lack some of the awareness that is key (and available to those veteran Olympic athletes). For these reasons, Gabby Douglas will be viewed by her coaches as a better psychological fit to the Olympic Games than Laurie Hernandez – even if Laurie Hernandez may have scored higher prior to the games, the edge of experience will go to Gabby Douglas.
Having a veteran Olympic athlete on your team, even in individual sports, can enhance the competition amongst the team members. When Michael Phelps pushes harder and uses his mental edge to inform or even model for his teammates, the effects can be amazing. Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman will make Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian work harder as they are crushing competition – even among each other. The mental edge on competition is not limited to experience alone, however; working with a sport psychologist is a great way to prepare you for higher levels of competition – especially when transitioning to higher levels for the first time. While having already experienced the Olympic Games first hand is a very rare advantage, working with a sport psychologist may be the best option available to you. Do not neglect that mental edge.