Forging Olympic Mettle

In a Venn diagram of practice and performance, the circles should ideally overlap, but the Olympics, says Nicole Detling, MS ‘01, presents a set of rings all its own, linking athletes and their nations on an overwhelmingly historic worldwide stage.

“As an athlete, you might tell yourself it’s just like training or any other competition, but the reality is—it’s not. It’s the freakin’ Olympics. There’s no reason to discredit or discount that,” says Detling, the owner of HeadStrong Consulting.

Competitors must first comprehend the gravity of the experience before anticipating and working through all of the unique thoughts, feelings, and pressures the games produce.

“That way, they’ll build the tools to handle this being the biggest competition of their lives.”

As coordinator of mental performance of athletics for the University of Utah, where she received her PhD in 2007, Detling helps prepare winter athletes who are thrust into the spotlight only once every four years. Detling even got a taste of that attention when she appeared on The Colbert Report before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

It was at those same games that one of her athletes, a speed skater, ended up winning Olympic gold. That night, she heard a knock on the door. It was the athlete, holding one of the most prestigious award in all of sports.

“Before I even knew what was happening, he was putting it around my neck. I said, ‘What are you doing? That’s yours!’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but I couldn’t have gotten there without you.’”