By Kyle Shewfelt (as told to Katherine Dolan)
I close my eyes.
Take a deep breath.
Focus on my routine.
See myself execute a flawless performance.
Let go of the outcome.
Open my eyes.
Take a deep breath.
I am an Olympic gold medalist, but what I want you to know is that every day wasn’t perfect leading up to the day I won gold at the Olympics.
Each day was different – some were full of joy while others presented obstacles that I had to overcome. Some days I was motivated and driven while other days I felt so far away from my ultimate goal. I was bullied in high school, I questioned myself, I doubted my ability, I rebelled against my coach when I was a teenager, and did some things that an elite athlete should not be doing.
My coach, Kelly Manjak, said my superhero power was that I held onto this belief and dream of becoming an Olympic Champion so strongly that even with all the adversity I faced, I couldn’t let it go. It was like a magnetic force pulling me along.
Now 15 years later, thinking about that moment of winning at the Olympics in Athens still gives me butterflies. I still have to pinch myself that it was real. I believe all of the moments of both triumph and failure were essential to my progress. They were learning opportunities and stepping stones that helped me reach the pinnacle.
Today, I run my own gymnastics centre, Kyle Shewfelt Gymnastics in Calgary, so I see a lot of young athletes come through our doors with big dreams. I had such an incredibly supportive community that helped me achieve my goal, so I want to make sure the next generation of youth athletes get the same level of support that I did.
So, if there was one thing that I want all youth athletes to know that helped me become the best in the world, it would be this: Be mindful and always find time to self-reflect.
I’ll give you an example.
Back in 2004, on the day of my Olympic final, I was having my customary afternoon nap. But on this particular day, I was lying there and freaking myself out. I was trying to visualize my routine that I would perform that evening and kept messing up. I thought to myself, I can’t even do it right in my brain, how am I going to do it right on the floor?!
I then said to myself: just visualize yourself being adaptable. If I did land and take a small step, which does happen, how could I re-set my brain to go to the remainder of the routine without being disappointed, distracted or upset?
I asked myself:
How could I get through this and maximize it? The vision of being adaptable made it feel less stressful — rather than having to be perfect, I allowed myself to aim for excellence instead.
The mindset of ‘perfection’ makes you rigid and afraid of making mistakes, where the mindset of ‘excellence’ allows you to be free and go after it without holding back.
Getting through things with a very positive mindset worked for me, and I know it can work for you too.
Remind yourself that there are so many things that are out of your control. You can’t control your competitors, the audience, the equipment or the judges. The one thing you can control is your thoughts and how you react. The soundtrack in your mind can be very loud and negative in those high-stress moments. How many of you have thought:
• I am not good enough.
• Everyone else is better.
• I don’t have enough experience.
• Who do I think I am to be here with these elite athletes?
This little negative demon lives in all of us, and in those high-pressure moments, you have to focus on the positive voice. We all have both voices inside of us, constantly at battle with one another, and we have to train our minds to feed the positive one as much as possible.
Positive self-talk is a trained skill that becomes more powerful when you can catch yourself in those negative moments and shut that narrative down. Focus on positive mantras such as:
• I have done this before.
• I believe in myself.
• I always rise in competition.
• I am here, I am ready.
Take your brain away from the clutter and craziness and get to a simple place. Focus on the performance -vs- the outcome.
• What am I here to do today?
• I am here to do a great routine.
• What does a great routine look like?
• This is what a great routine looks like (and then visualize it)!
I promise you, if you can shut down the negative voice and listen more to the positive one, you will be light years ahead not only in your sport and in competition, but more importantly in life.
I am very passionate about helping others reach their potential. In fact, I am currently writing a book about my experiences in sport in hopes that it can be a resource for today’s athletes, parents, and coaches as they navigate through their journeys. It is due out in the spring and I’ll definitely be back to share more!
In the meantime, remember that every athlete goes through struggles. It is a normal part of the journey. We all have ups and downs along the way, but it’s how you deal with them that sets you apart.
You are not alone.
Yours in sport,