Training your brain: How to think like an Olympian - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Training your brain: How to think like an Olympian

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Olympian Greg Billington talks to KHQ Olympian Greg Billington talks to KHQ
"The Phelps Face" "The Phelps Face"
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You may not be able to match the physicality of an Olympian, but the mindset that gets them gold is something even we mortals can learn. Sports Psychologist Dr. Tony Pickering researches the side of competition that you can't see... the mental game that separates winners from competitors.

Science continues to try to crack the code. One study has shown clenching your fist helps calm nerves. And forget the little black dress... some research suggests wearing red gives you an edge in competition.

And trash talking? Another study found that athletes who taunt their opponents, are more likely to win. But, while these brain hacks do work for some, Pickering says there just isn't a blanket formula for mastering your mental game.

Dr. Pickering told us “you can't all of a sudden expect to have your mental game in place if you haven't prepared over the months and the years to get to that point.”

Michael Phelps is a great example of this preparation done well. Take the “Phelps Face” for example. In that case we were able to see one athlete who was trying to psyche out the other athlete and another athlete who cared about nothing outside of his preparation.

Dr. Pickering gave us an example from the opposite spectrum as well…”You can see the South African Swimmer multiple times checked, looking across, in other words, he was splitting his concentration between the task at hand and the competition.” But mind-master Phelps? Nothing breaks his concentration... even goggles leaking during a race.

He went on, “how is it that he doesn't lose focus and he's able to perform at his maximum level? And his coach said, well that's easy because in practice I'll step on his goggles and then I'll make him do the workout. It's practicing adversity. Is it fair to say Michael Phelps is the better swimmer because he's physically the best or is he just mentally better than all of his competition?  Yea that's sort of the million dollar question.”

Perhaps he has a million dollar secret. And maybe the secret we've all been missing is that although we may not have the body of an Olympian, we can train ourselves to have the mind of one.

Another great example of athletic dedication at an Olympic level is found in Greg Billington. Long before he was an Olympian, Billington was a teenager who was almost too dedicated to his sport. We asked some of Greg’s close family members what separated him from other young athletes...

"Greg was super motivated. He never missed, ever. His parents would call me on a Sunday and say can you tell Greg to take a day off, just one day off, because we would like to go do something that we want to do.”

We knew Greg had always been a dedicated athlete but we wanted to hear about when his family knew he would reach an Olympic level of dedication. They said, "I think it was his junior year after our American high school season ended. I said there's a couple of British races I'd like to see you do, there's one in London that's pretty high class. I couldn't go ... So I said well give me a call and tell me how you did. He calls and says "I won that pretty easy. I said, you won that? Oh my goodness, that's the best of the best.”

The Triathlon has taken Billington all around the world - but he hasn't forgotten his hometown. Last fall, he made a trip back to Spokane to see his old coach, and spent time with some of the best young distance runners in Spokane.

This is what his proud mentee had to say. "Training with Greg, it boosted my confidence and he gave me a lot of great tips. I felt great because at Rogers I was always alone working my hardest, but working with Greg, he pushed me... he's like hey stick with me, go easy here and then blast up these hills hard. So I just stuck with Greg, training with someone that has more expertise in the area, it was amazing."

Through his wins abroad and his time spent at home in the Inland Northwest, Billington is now inspiring the next generation of Olympic hopefuls.

His former mentee continued to praise Greg. "He never missed a day of practice, he was always there running, consistency. That just motivated me like, oh man I could show up more. I do show up a lot, but some days I'm busy. Greg was always there, always practicing, and now he's out in the Olympic games and that's a total inspiration because maybe I could make it to the Olympic games and be like Greg, that would be awesome."

Ken Bell, a former coach added: "That's what I've been preaching at Rogers to the kids I'm coaching. It's not so much how talented you are or how hard you work sometimes it's just consistency, you just keep showing up, showing up. 50% of being successful is just showing up, come every day."

Bell is overjoyed to be a fan who gets to cheer on his most persistent pupil on the world's biggest stage. This is what he had to say about Greg, ”I'm just happy that he made it, he's going to be on the team. I think it's really exciting for Spokane, not every city has a bunch of Olympians. I was super happy. I knew he could do it too. It was amazing seeing him race there, I knew he could really do it and now it's the Olympic games and we'll see what he could do there."

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