The morning of her second performance on "Dancing With The Stars," Olympian Shawn Johnson wanted to go home. "I've never been so scared in my life," she says.
Although ballroom dancing and competing in three-inch heels was foreign to the 4-foot-10 gymnast, the waltz in Week 1 was at least manageable. "It's very structured and technical, like gymnastics," she says. But Week 2 brought the salsa, a sexy, saucy dance that originates from the hips. "You have to let loose, shake it and just go for it," she says. "I thought I was going to puke waiting for the music to start."
But she didn't. Instead, at the taping that night, Shawn closed her eyes, pictured herself and her partner, Mark Ballas, in the practice studio, and thought about the lessons she'd learned in 14 years of gymnastics training. She focused on the long hours she'd spent practicing their dance over the past week. And the fact that Mark kept reminding her, like her gymnastics coach, Liang Chow, often did, that she could do this.
When Shawn emerged from the mental zone she'd placed herself in at the start of the performance, the dance was over. And the audience was on its collective feet.
"I had overcome a huge fear. I thought I couldn't do it and there I was getting a standing ovation," she says. "I felt like Superwoman."
In eight seasons of DWTS, five of the winners have been athletes. It's easy to assume that athletic ability somehow gave them the edge to win. But there are few similarities in the physical skills required to dart through a defensive line (former NFL running back Emmitt Smith, winner of Season 3), drive a race car (Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves, winner of Season 5), land a standing full on a four-inch-wide beam (Shawn, who went on to win Season 8), and eloquently master the free-flowing, improvisational movements of the Lindy hop. But there is one huge similarity between all of the folks mentioned above: They are champions. So they think like champions.
That winning mindset begins with confidence, something these athletes can tap into at the most difficult and stressful moments of competition. It's like that popular quote-of-the day says: Whether you believe you can, or believe you can't, you're right. Confidence -- the belief that you can -- is a powerful athletic weapon.
"As champions, these athletes make the commitment to the long, arduous hours it will take to perfect a skill, like a dance," says Dr. Marty Ewing, Ph.D., a member of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and associate professor at Michigan State University. "Once they perfect it, they have the confidence that they can step onto a stage and perform. Confidence comes from long hours of practice."
It also comes from having been there before. In Johnson's case, the experience she had in Week 2 carried her through the rest of the show. For the next six weeks, as Shawn's confidence grew, so did her scores. The same is true for any sport: It's important for athletes to build confidence at smaller, low-pressure events and against lower-ranking competitors before tackling a major competition. No gymnast starts out competing at the Olympics.
When Shawn began competing at local meets, believe it or not, she spent a lot of time at the back of the pack. "In gymnastics, the ribbons for third, second and first are red, white and blue," she says. "The farther out you go, the prettier the ribbon." And for a long time, Shawn came home with pretty ribbons. "I got the lowest scores and came in 33rd place all the time," she says.
Those ribbons were frustrating at first, but they motivated her to work even harder in the gym. "They taught me things don't always go your way," she says. "And that if you work harder, you can progress to first and second." The first time Shawn came home with a red ribbon, her confidence soared. And soon the red, white and blue ribbons started coming with more frequency.
In the same way, on DWTS, Shawn pulled from her successful experiences to repeat the process over and over each week. It was not unlike what she felt each time she stepped onto a gymnastics floor. The scenario was familiar, it was just a new audience.
"I was used to performing in front of a crowd that knows gymnastics, so I was comfortable and confident because I knew they didn't have much to critique," she says. "With dancing, I didn't know where I stood. At first, the crowd was intimidating."
Then she earned a standing ovation and a couple of 10s from the judges and her mindset shifted.
Mind Over Matter
Every athlete -- not just Olympians -- can train their brains to think like a champion. Here are three keys to mental success, from sports psychologist Dr. Marty Ewing:
Redefine success: Celebrate "mastering the learning process," says Ewing, not just the big win. "If you run a play perfectly but miss the layup because a defender was in your face, you were still successful at running that play, even if you didn't score."
Think positive -- it really does matter: Don't batter yourself with negative thoughts; focus on affirming what you did right. "If you miss a putt and chastise yourself, that's not helping you get ready for the next putt," Ewing says. "Focus on what you did right -- maybe you set up the shot well or hit with the right amount of power -- and look forward to the next opportunity." Imagery is also a key part of 'self-talk.' When you miss, imagine yourself taking the same shot again, only this time sinking the putt. "Seeing yourself be successful raises your confidence." And confidence is empowering.
Picture the win: On game days, take a moment to breathe deeply, visualize a great performance, and relax. Ewing tells athletes to close their eyes and mentally place themselves in critical situations. Take a shot as the 30-second clock runs down -- and make it. Or sink a free throw to win the game. "When that situation comes up in real life," she says, "you will have the thought, 'I can do this. I've been here before.'"
Besides crowd noise, Shawn's gymnastics training has also taught her how to block out the noise in her own head -- that nagging, negative voice that can cripple athletes with performance anxiety at critical moments.
"Competition day is always the most nerve-wracking for me, but I have to embrace the nerves and use the adrenaline to my advantage," she says. "I picture myself at my home gym with my teammates and music. That was hardest to do in Beijing, but having my teammates there helped put me in my comfort zone, back at my gym in Iowa."
The negative voices can come from the outside, as well, from a jealous teammate or in the form of a cruel comment from a classmate or competitor. But focusing on the negative can be debilitating to an athlete.
"When I was in middle school, my friends would say, 'Don't go to practice. Come to the party.' At competitions, some girls thought I didn't fit in, didn't belong. Some people are jealous and some just honestly didn't like me. But it was my dream," she says. "You need to make sure you are in charge of your dream. There will always be negativity, but you have to be strong, be your own person and stand up for what you believe in. You can't focus on the people who don't agree with your dream."
Shawn also embraces failures as motivation for her next attempt. "When I fall at a competition, I use it like a grudge," she says. "I think, 'I've done this a million times in practice. Now I want to show everyone I can do this.'" Rarely does she fall twice.
Her ability to do all of these things effectively is the reason Shawn left Beijing with four medals, and the reason she succeeded on DWTS. She thrives in pressure-cooker situations and she knew, as well as anyone in the world, what it takes to win.
"I approach everything as a competitor," Johnson says. "Years of hard work prepared me for anything -- the pressures of carrying my country and holding my head up when things don't go my way. In every situation, I want to do my best and succeed," she says. "And if I don't win, I'm not upset. I just want a rematch."
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.