The Surprising Way Athletes Are Preparing for the Olympics This Year
While watching Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh practice with her trainer one morning on a sprawling beach in southern Los Angeles, I am not surprised by her incredible ability. Walsh has been a defending world champion for more than a decade, after all, with three gold medals (and countless other titles) to her name.
No, as the 6'2" Olympian spikes the ball and leaps effortlessly into the air, before taking a breather to chat breezily with the group of gaping onlookers, I am more struck by how at-ease and confident she is. Even before she says the words out loud, I know that she knows she's going to win again this summer in Brazil.
Did I mention that she got shoulder surgery last fall and is playing on her non-dominant side this go-around? (She and partner April Ross both favor the same side, and Walsh volunteered to take one for the team and swap.) No matter—she's recovered. "We're ready," she says.
But as we talk, both on the beach and during a sit-down lunch hosted by Almond Breeze almondmilk, it dawns on me that her infectious positivity is just another advantage on the field. Her trainer, the equally affable Marcio Sicoli, agrees—in fact, it's all part of the plan.
"We do a lot of training where we put [the players] in situations that train the mind-set," he explains. "It's how you behave through a problem, through training, through stress." In fact, the pair says, training the mind is the hardest part of preparing.
"The physical part almost comes easy. What separates good from great is all up here," Walsh says, pointing to her temple. The goal, she adds, is learning how to work through stress so that the team doesn't just find a rhythm after a few minutes of play—it should happen from the get-go. "You've got to train these things—it doesn't just happen. We want to make practices so hard and so gnarly that when we go to play, we just press play. We can just slip into that mode."
The team has a psychologist on staff to help facilitate this part of training, and Walsh says that she and Ross also regularly meditate—something that's relatively new for her and didn't necessarily come easy. "I tried just silence for a week, and it got really hard for me. I just tried music—same thing." She's used to having a coach, and now, she sticks with guided meditation in 10-minute sessions. "I just want someone to help me find my flow, and then ultimately, I feel like I will walk away and create my own," she says. "There are a lot of keywords, a lot of triggers that bring me to where I want to be, and then it's stuff that I talk to myself all day about. Just positive energy, momentum, attention, all these things that I'm in control of."
It's hard to believe that Walsh could hone her craft even further, but she insists that she and Ross are "a different team" since picking up this meditation habit. "In the most competitive moments where you can tighten up and kind of separate from your partner, we just paused and breathed. And now there's a patience to us even when we're playing great."
Of course, Walsh and Ross are not the only athletes who have incorporated mindfulness into their practice regimens. The U.S. women's soccer team (who will also be defending a gold medal this year) regularly does yoga together, and swimmers Rebecca Soni and Kim Vandenberg have also talked about the importance of meditation in their training.
"My last Olympics were stressful for obvious reasons but also for personal reasons," Vandenberg recently told MindBodyGreen. "I was on edge and worrying a lot about everything; I wish I'd had the perspective then to embrace that chaos." As she preps for this cycle, she's experimenting with everything from transcendental meditation to breathwork to sound bathing.
"It's really, really special," says Walsh. "Yes, I've seen a difference. It's really powerful."
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