At the U.S. Olympic Trials for the marathon this year, approximately 300 of the fastest men and women in our country took to the streets of Houston with the hopes of representing our country at the Olympic Games.
Their finishing times didn’t matter. Instead, they were all racing to fill the three coveted spots for both men and women. They were working to fulfill lifelong dreams of representing the United States.
Qualifying for the Games comes down to one day every four years. To qualify, both body and mind must be perfect. Physically, these athletes had to ensure they were neither under- nor over-trained. Psychologically, they had to control their self-defeating thoughts—which even elite athletes have—and get to the starting line as confident as possible.
In the weeks before the Olympic Trials, I had been working on a research project in which I interviewed these Olympic Trials qualifiers and their coaches. It was one of the most enjoyable research projects I’ve conducted, because it is a joy to talk to the best of the best.
That research project allowed me to watch the trials through my psychological lens. Since I had talked to some of the athletes and coaches before the trials, I knew what they were thinking, what they were feeling, and what goals they were shooting for as I watched the weekend’s events unfold.
I also listened closely to what the athletes said during the weekend and watched their behaviors intently. Here are some of my observations about the best of the best runners in our country.
1. Top runners did not let the pressure of the race get to them.
Many gave each other hugs at the start and smiled before the gun went off. They were enjoying themselves and having fun.
2. Top runners embraced the drama of the big stage.
They felt no fear of failure and weren’t dreading the race. Instead, they rose to the occasion and recognized that the big stage would help them perform better.
3. Top runners believed in their abilities despite injuries or mishaps.
Meb Keflezighi, the men’s winner, missed three of the last 10 weeks of his marathon training leading up to the trials. He had forgotten that he had tucked his Breathe Right nasal strips into his left running shoe before the New York City Marathon in November. After the race, he developed a terrible blister that became severely infected.
Instead of focusing on the training he had missed, he focused on how he would be better prepared for the trials with extra rest, which demonstrates his confidence in his fitness and ability to perform.