Have you ever wondered what goes on in an Olympic athlete’s mind when they are wholly owning a competition? To cheering fans, it’s clear that the athlete isn’t just having a good day or even a great day, but likely, THE BEST DAY EVER. But for the athlete, “nailing it” is very different. In fact, it might be characterized by the complete absence of thought.
Christa Dietzen, captain of the 2016 Olympic USA women’s Indoor Volleyball Team calls this being in a “flow state.” She describes it this way: “I almost feel a ‘blackout’ phase in sports where I don’t remember what happened and I’m not thinking, just doing what my body has trained and programmed me to do.”
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This explanation is right in line with the findings of K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida State University and author of the new book Peak: Secrets of the New Science of Expertise. In his research, Ericsson found that when a once-in-a-lifetime performance takes place, the main thing an athlete might notice or recall is that, “all the elements of the performance were following each other without the need for effortful corrections.” In other words, there was nothing really out of the ordinary happening, except that none of the many things that could go wrong, did.
When an athlete “nails it” during a competition, they’re repeating elements they’ve likely already perfected during a practice, only all together, in front of a huge audience, and with much higher stakes. Nailing it is less about the stars aligning and getting lucky and more about having had the proper preparation and coaching up until that point. “Those individuals who engage in more deliberate practice with a coach tend to perform better than their competitors at public competitions,” says Ericsson. “If you can produce the peak performance consistently during training then you are more likely to do so during competitions.”
That double layout followed by a half-twist that Simone Biles nailed during her floor routine? You can be sure that wasn’t the first time she was able to perfectly execute that sequence. It was just the first time she did so in front of 20-plus million fans with a gold Olympic medal up for grabs.
“Nailing it means hitting the best sets that you’ve ever done,” says Biles. “You just feel so ready and confident … Once you get up there, you’re on autopilot because you’ve just done your routines so many times.”
The “flow state” individual athletes experience can also happen in team sports, with many people simultaneously performing at their peak in order to score a goal, win a relay, or otherwise kick-ass. And not surprisingly, the path to getting into this group zone is the same: purposeful practice.
“Something that we pride ourselves on as a team is the fact that on a random Tuesday afternoon, we’ll come out to train, and no one is watching, and no one knows that we’re training, but we put 100 percent out there,” says Lauren Crandall, USWNT athlete, and Team USA field hockey defender. “When you get to the Olympic Games, it’s not just showing up and playing six to eight games of your best hockey. It’s knowing that you’ve put in that work on a random Tuesday afternoon and you’ve done 100 percent every single practice for the last three-and-a-half years. You’re just banking on that work that you’ve put in to show up at the Games and perform like you know you can.”
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The practice can be rigorous, but for some athletes, this flow state—when your mind is blank and your muscles are firing like a machine—makes it work it. “A wave of contentment goes through your body,” says swimmer Maya DiRado, a four-time 2016 Olympic medalist, including two golds. “All of that [training] goes into that one moment when you’re able to execute and do what you know—what you’re capable of—when you have to do it. It’s one of the best feelings in the world and I think that’s why people get addicted to sports and why they keep coming back and keep trying to compete.”
“That’s something that I’ve learned through swimming and years of practice—how to put it together when it counts,” says DiRado, who is also a member of the BMW Performance Team. “That’s why you see a lot of emotions when that happens. You feel proud of yourself and you feel grateful for all the people who helped you put that effort together. You feel lucky that that was able to happen to you because it’s not guaranteed. You can do everything right and still fall short sometimes. So it’s a truly special moment when that all comes together.”
Reporting for this article was done in collaboration with Cristina Goyanes.