What Olympians can teach us about performing under pressure

Filipe Donadio
Filipe Donadio

When watching the impressive achievements of Olympic athletes it is natural to wonder what is going on in their heads, and how they do to stay focused in the face of so much pressure. Researcher Gabriele Wulf from the University of Nevada studied this and the answer is interesting and somewhat unexpected.

You might imagine that when a swimmer kicks off into the pool or a soccer player needs to score a penalty kick, that all focus and concentration is on their physical movements. This may be true for newcomers to sports, but for elite athletes, it’s not quite true. Wulf explains:

“Research suggests that what an athlete concentrates on can be the difference between winning the gold and not even making the team. What might be surprising is that shifting your focus from within yourself – what’s going on in your body – to what’s out there – what you’re trying to accomplish – is a winning strategy.”

According to the studies, athletes should never focus on their movements - or what scientists call internal focus. Instead, the focus should be on the goal of the movement. This is called the external focus of attention. She explains:

“It can mean concentrating on a target to be hit, such as the corner of a goal, a golf hole, a bull’s-eye or a catcher’s mitt.”

The body does what it has to do to complete the action – unless you interfere via conscious attempts to control your movements.

An external focus is also beneficial for everyday people. No matter your area of expertise, “your body can more masterfully execute the actions you desire if you’re able to move your conscious focus from what your body is doing and instead think about what you want to accomplish.”

Next time you are under pressure, it is better to move your focus to what you want to achieve rather than overthink what your body is doing.


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I'm a software engineer and YouTuber. I make videos about note-taking and knowledge management apps like Obsidian, Logseq, Roam Research, and Notion.