How five Olympians manage the fear that comes with their sport

Updated: February 13, 2018, 7:36 PM ET
By Aimee Berg | Special to

AFP PHOTO / Fabrice COFFRINIFABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty ImagesIn 2017, Mikaela Shiffrin became the first woman in 78 years to win three consecutive slalom world titles. With four world medals and one Olympic medal from 2014, she's expected to add to her medal haul in Pyeongchang.

At the Olympics when everything is at stake, it's natural for athletes to feel extremely tense under the spotlight. But how do they turn that tension into something useful? Five of the world's best female athletes explain the source of their nerves, what they feel like and how they control them.

Mikaela Shiffrin: I look back at the times I was successful

Mikaela ShiffrinFabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty ImagesIn 2014 at age 18, Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal in slalom.

World and Olympic skiing champion Mikaela Shiffrin, 22, has moments of doubt before almost every race. "If I've had good training, I'm able to shoo those doubts away," she says. "But if I had bad conditions or I didn't get a good feeling on my skis, then I don't feel totally prepared and those doubts start to become a legit fear."

So Shiffrin consults people she trusts. Her mother, Eileen, is one of her traveling coaches. "She will pull me aside and say: 'Go back in time to training a few weeks ago to when it was good, and that feeling you had there.' Or we'll pull up videos of some of my good runs to remind me that I am a good skier," she says.

But Shiffrin has another clever trick: Instead of worrying about the clock or potential errors she can make on the course, she pretends she's being chased. "When I'm skiing, I picture the entire field, all the other athletes, racing right behind me," she says. "They're all trying to catch me and I have to stay ahead." In effect, she converts the fear into something she can control. "Just stay ahead of the arrow that's trying to catch me," she says.

Amy Purdy: I use meditation -- and do power poses

Amy PurdyDoug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAmy Purdy won the 2012 para-snowboarding world championship title.

Amy Purdy, the Paralympic snowboarding bronze medalist and "Dancing with the Stars" finalist says that regardless of how difficult the course is or who else is competing, her whole body quivers in the start gate. "It's just energy trying to escape," she says. "My body knows it's prepping for something." And she welcomes it. "Nerves are important. I've heard they can either make you 15 percent worse or 15 percent better, so it's not about suppressing them -- it's about using them."

Purdy, 38, uses meditation to channel her energy. "At the start, I'll make figure eights in the snow with my fingers over and over again. If I can just focus on one thing and not everything else that's going on, it quiets my mind down," she says. Or she'll practice deep breathing.

Purdy also pays close attention to her posture. "I actually learned this from 'Dancing with the Stars,'" she says. "When I was nervous, my shoulders would be up. Studies have found that the way you stand makes you feel a certain way. If you can change your body position, you can change your emotions. So I physically change my posture. My friend Amy Cuddy has a popular TED Talk about power posing. So I do power poses before I compete that put my body in the right posture so I feel confident."

Kelly Clark: I only take calculated risks

Kelly ClarkTom Pennington/Getty ImagesKelly Clark has competed in every Winter Olympics since 2002.

Kelly Clark says, "I think a lack of information can contribute to fear," although she claims she doesn't feel it when she flips her snowboard over the 22-foot walls of the halfpipe. "Honestly, fear isn't part of the equation for me. It's never been something I've battled or struggled with. It's just not how I'm wired," says the three-time Olympic medalist. "We're very calculated risk-takers."

Nevertheless, Clark, 34, admits that it can be daunting to learn a new trick. This summer, she relearned a McTwist, a trick that helped her win gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. She hadn't done it on snow in 15 years, so when she found herself at Mount Hood, Oregon, without coaches, she consulted friends that she trusted. "I'm talking to Shaun [White]. I'm talking to Danny [Davis], saying, 'You guys have gotta help me.' I worked on it into the air bag at spring camp. I did all the work to get my head around it. And then I was able to land it on the first try. It's intimidating, but it's not necessarily risky and scary. I don't do things because I'm afraid or not afraid. I do things intentionally."

Elana Meyers Taylor: I monitor my pulse

Elana Meyers AP Photo/Mike GrollElana Meyers Taylor won gold in women's bobsled at the 2017 world championships.

Bobsledder and two-time Olympic medalist Elana Meyers Taylor says there's no avoiding butterflies at the start. "It's dangerous, for one; I've had some pretty severe crashes," she says, explaining that driving a 365-pound sled down an icy chute is "like being shoved in a metal garbage can and thrown down a rocky hill."

So at the top of the run, Meyers Taylor, 33, discreetly monitors her pulse. "As soon as I get to the line, I put my hands under my armpits and people are like, 'Oh, she's just keeping her hands warm,' but part of it is I'm just checking my heart rate so I can regulate it to make sure I'm not getting too amped up." Compared to her normal heart rate, which is about 40 beats per minute, she says her pulse is usually pretty high at the start, "like 100 or 120. But during the run, it actually lowers to around 80 -- which is crazy because we're going 95 miles per hour."

Susan Dunklee: I focus on very specific goals

USA Biathlon - Lead 2Nicolas Armer for ESPN Susan Dunklee won the silver medal in mass start at the 2017 world championships.

Susan Dunklee, the first American woman ever to win a world championship medal in biathlon, says her nerves come from her own high standards. "I heap a lot of expectations on myself, especially this year," she says.

Rather than cowering under the weight of her aspirations, the 2014 Olympian reminds herself that "It's not my job to win a medal. It's not my job to qualify for the pursuit [race]. It's not my job to hit all my targets. My only job is to perform well."

To do that, Dunklee, 31, relies on a specific plan for how she'll execute each section of the race, like what kind of skiing technique she'll use on a particular corner or what kind of trigger squeeze she'll want on the shooting range. "Ideally, during the race, you don't want to be making decisions on the fly," she says.

If the plan fails and she misses a target? "You just have to pick yourself up and accept that you're not having a perfect race," she says, stressing that "a perfect race was never the goal. Your job is to do well in the moment -- and do as well as you can going forward."

Case in point: Last March in Finland, Dunklee was leading a two-person mixed relay race when she fell near the shooting range and got passed by seven or eight teams. "I realized: What matters in this race is shooting well. I have about 700 meters to get my head straight and feel calm in the shooting range. So that's what I did." She nailed all five targets, and ultimately finished second to give the U.S. its first World Cup biathlon relay medal in 23 years.


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.