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Opinion

What are the Tokyo 2020 Olympic athletes thinking now?

Physical and mental conditioning are what matters

| Japan
The Japan National Stadium, pictured on May 9: what athletes can do is keep themselves in good mental and physical condition so that they can achieve their best performance.   © AP

Dai Tamesue was a hurdler who represented Japan at the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics. He won two bronze medals in the World Athletics Championships. He currently heads sports consultancy Deportare Partners.

The Tokyo Olympics will kick off on Friday, despite the controversy surrounding COVID-19. What are all the athletes thinking now?

The number one priority will be conditioning. Improving athletic ability dramatically is unlikely at this stage. But what athletes can do is keep themselves in good mental and physical condition so that they can achieve their best performance.

The best technique for maintaining the conditioning required for optimal performance is called peaking. As training necessarily causes damage to the muscles, and athletes cannot perform at their best with even the slightest physical impairment, athletes will need to rest and recover to improve their performance compared to their previous states.

It usually takes between 48 to 72 hours for damaged muscles will recover from training, depending on the age and strength of the individual. It is the same reason why it takes a few days for muscle aches to fade away after training.

All athletes try to train their bodies to be in peak physical condition as they prepare for the Olympics and other major sporting events by going through a routine of ups and downs while training. Those who are good at training their bodies to reach such a level know well what kind of impact training has on their physical well-being.

The other major priority for athletes is to actually achieve their peak performance at the Olympics.

One of the best criteria for judging an athlete's performance is the demonstration rate, which measures the time or results at major events such as Olympics against an athlete's best time or results during the season.

If a sprinter whose best time for the season is 10:00 seconds runs at 9:99 seconds or lower, the demonstration rate will be above 100%. If the sprinter records a time of 10:01 seconds or above, then the demonstration rate will be below 100%. You can say that the demonstration rate is a major factor in judging whether a particular athlete is a clutch player or not.

Still, lifting one's demonstration rate is not an easy thing to do. Physical performance is one thing. It can be measured to some extent, and there are relatively easy ways to strengthen physical performance. But when it comes to evaluating an athlete's mental strength, this is much more complicated because it is so difficult to control what is happening inside a person's mind.

It is up to individual athletes themselves to do whatever is necessary to condition their minds to help them lift the all-important demonstration rate. Speaking from personal experience, what was most important for me to achieve my best performance in competitions was to control my attention span.

As different thoughts keep entering our minds, it is a bit like watching bubbles being created within other bubbles. Athletes not only get nervous. Negative thoughts keep crowding their minds, like "How am I doing today?" or "I feel worse than usual," or "That athlete next to me looks great," and "People will think of me as a choke artist if I lose."

When you are so nervous and anxious about what comes next, you cannot simply bring such mental association to a halt because thinking itself cannot be controlled.

The best way for me to try to influence my thoughts was to focus my attention on something and hopefully stop myself from thinking the kind of negative thoughts that can reduce performance. With exercises such as standing in front of a wall, I would focus my attention on a stain on the wall. Whenever I stood at the starting line at a major event, I would pick out a spot in the stadium and stare at it as hard as I could.

Dai Tamesue, pictured in Rome in July 2004: when he stood at the starting line, he picked out a spot in the stadium and stare at it as hard as he could.   © AP

Not that it is so easy to simply stare, either. I might start to have distracting thoughts, such as "Why that guy is wearing long sleeves in this heat?"

But after noticing things like that, I tried to rally my concentration and then was able to keep focusing my attention, limit negative thought association and stop feeling anxious. After all, anxiety is just a figment of the imagination. People do not get anxious as long as they focus on the work at hand.

When people are able to achieve complete concentration, they fall into a state called the zone, where the line between thinking deliberately about each move and allowing your body to move automatically completely dissolves. I myself have experienced this state, where my conscious mind recedes and the unconscious mind takes over, only a few times in my life.

At big sporting events like the Olympics, athletes have similar levels of physical abilities. Therefore, ranks are determined depending on their body condition and their ability to achieve their best performance when it counts. Learning how to deal with yourself in such an extreme state will dramatically help to improve your understanding of the situation.

What the Tokyo 2020 athletes are about to see and talk about at the Olympics is similar to what astronauts talk about what they describe what they saw from space.

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