There is something awe-inspiring in seeing Olympic athletes display sheer mastery in their sport, pushing their honed and toned bodies to the limits of human strength and endurance. The “lightning bolt”, Usain Bolt, has repeatedly burst world records for running speed, zipping to golds in three Olympic games. Our own Datuk Lee Chong Wei carried the heavy burden of the hopes of a nation through three Olympics, emerging with silvers in all.

The golds are the grand prizes, but just to be an Olympic athlete is a feat in itself. Every athlete performing in the games at Rio was a master, a winner, excelling in his or her sporting field.

The display of human physical prowess was not the only objective of the original games in Olympia. The ancient Greeks valued the holistic development of mind, body and spirit, and thus, spiritual and mental strength were as valued as the physical.

The original “gymnasiums” in ancient Greece, including the noted Academy, were centres for sporting and scholarly pursuits. The Greek ideal was a healthy body and mind. It was felt the path to physical perfection inevitably involved developing desirable traits, such as discipline, endurance and patience.

In today’s Olympics, we barely consider such incorporeal aspects. Perhaps, at best in Rio, there was the inclusion of refugees, a touching gesture of humanity. Otherwise, the human spirit or mind stays in the shadows.

But a wisp of the original ideals of the games still lives on somewhat. On a personal level, many modern Olympians can testify how their training has built character and how they overcame tough mental battles to succeed.

Bolt began “training” as a boy when his father ordered him to carry buckets of water over miles to the family home in Trelawny, Jamaica, which had no running water. That experience, Bolt has said, made him strong, physically and mentally.

Imagine the mental pressure that our badminton players were under in Rio, with the whole nation pinning their expectations on them.

Not surprisingly, there is now a trend to employ psychologists in sports; they help athletes cope and build resilience, by, for example, simulating high pressure situations.

Cara Bradley, a mental strength coach to athletes, says Olympic athletes have to have a “fierce focus” – the capacity to be fully immersed in an activity, shutting out all internal and external distractions, such as anxiety, cameras or noisy crowds. Some experts refer to this as “being in the flow” or “mindfulness”.

Other techniques used include self-talk to pep up spirits, reframing for new perspectives, visualising desired outcomes, writing down goals or meditation to stay calm. At 12, Michael Phelps wrote down his goal to be an Olympian; later he wrote exact times for each race – and got them.

Phelps has said mental toughness is critical, and identified this as the weak spot in the Australian swim team. Indeed, mental strength gives elite athletes the cutting edge.

As gold medallist gymnast Shannon Miller explained in a Huffington Post article: “In the Olympic games, everyone is talented. Everyone trains hard … What separates the gold medallists (from others) is simply the mental game.”

Perhaps, we should consider our own mental game to improve our own physical condition. What mental barriers have we set up? What is our internal dialogue?

“That’s too hard for me” or “I can’t run that far”? Our limits of endurance may be set in our mind.

If you feel age is a barrier, think again. While it’s true that athletic performance does drop with every decade – which matters for professionals – there are still many superb older athletes. Robert Marchand is a champion cyclist – and a centenarian.

Then there is the “Iron Nun” who does triathlons. Sister Madonna Bruder is a record-breaking Ironman triathlete who now features in a Nike ad campaign. Oh, did I mention she’s 86? The only failure, the Iron Nun says, “is not to try.”

And exercise is definitely worth trying for. The benefits of exercise are so plentiful that I could write a whole column on it. It helps protect us against all the big chronic diseases – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and so on. It helps beat ageing, clears our minds, improves memory and protects against Alzheimer’s. And it is an elixir for the spirit, helping combat depression.

So go on, give it a try.

Consider yourself an Olympic athlete in training. Stay focussed, practice mindfulness, do the positive self-talk, have a training plan, and whatever it takes to get the mental game right. The personal benefits of mind over matter may well be olympic for our health in the long run.


Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.