When you think about Olympians, strong bodies and insane workouts are usually the first things that come to mind. But what’s arguably more impressive is the mental strength and fortitude that it takes to compete at that level. Yes, elite athletes spend day after day in the gym, but they also invest a ton of time into training their minds.
As a sport psychologist and mental skills coach, Nicole Detling, Ph.D., works closely with Olympic athletes and hopefuls to help sharpen their concentration, focus, self-talk, and even confidence. Referred to by some as the “Swiss Army knife of sport psychology,” Detling does it all. She talked to us about what it’s like to train the brains of some of the best athletes in America and offered a few tips on how you can think more like an Olympian.
What’s a typical day on the job like?
There are no typical days in my job, which is one of the aspects I love! On any given day, you can find me in an office having a one-on-one session with an athlete or coach, on an athletic field doing a team session, or even at a corporation doing leadership sessions.
Essentially my job is about building mental toughness and teaching mental skills for performance enhancement to anyone and everyone who performs, regardless of what that performance may be. To be honest, I think I have to best job in the world.
There aren't as many differences as you might think. The primary difference is that Olympians are working for that moment of glory, which they might experience once every four years. That creates a different mindset, since the Olympian doesn't get as many do-overs as other athletes.
What’s one of the craziest things that’s happened to you on the job?
I had an Olympian break down the night before competition over not knowing whether she should wash her hair. That was an interesting 45-minute conversation that left both of us laughing after the Games.
What’s the coolest part about your job?
What isn't?! I get to spend my days helping people achieve their dreams. I'm not sure there's anything more rewarding than that.
What’s the hardest part about your job?
Two things: One, when an athlete is forced to retire before they are ready (due to injury, etc.). I feel their pain, and my heart breaks for them. Two, the travel. I work with a lot of teams and am on the road quite a bit. That gets really hard at times, and I miss my kids tremendously. Travel sounds sexy to a lot of people, but the reality is I know a lot of airports, hotels, and competition venues around the world. I don't get to be a tourist.
What's one of the most surprising things about working with elite athletes?
They struggle with the same things we all do. Over the years, there have been two things that people have come to me for more than anything else: anxiety and confidence. There's a misperception that once you get to that level of competition you must "have it all together." Elite athletes are human beings who have the same struggles the rest of us do.
Never quit. If you want something, go after it with all that you have. Find a way to get it done when you feel like you just can't. If you want to be better than average, you have to be willing to sacrifice and go the extra mile. You have to be willing to do what you committed to do, even when you don't feel like it.
What healthy habits make you the healthiest?
Being active on a regular basis fuels my body and soul. I also started eating healthier a few years ago, and now my body craves healthier food. It's interesting how we adapt to our nutritional intake and activity levels. Once those habits are formed, our body expects it. If we choose to engage in eating poorly or not exercising, we feel off and wrong. We set our own norms. So I would say to set your norm on healthy, and happiness is a wonderful side effect!
In one word, what inspires you to go to work every day?
Kids. I have two and am a single mom. Those dudes are my world. Everything I do is for them.
And just for fun... what’s the background on your phone right now?
A picture of my kids and me at Disney World in front of Cinderella's castle.
Coffee or no coffee?
COFFEE!! Is it time yet?
Favorite guilty pleasure?
A glass of wine in the evening as a nice reward for a day well done.
Quotes edited for clarity.