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How the world’s best pole vaulter handles stress

By Kristen Rogers, CNN

When US Olympic weightlifting team member Harrison Maurus shows his strengths at this year’s Games, the pandemic will have robbed him of getting to hear his mother cheer “good lifting,” a distinct voice among what would typically be hundreds to thousands in the crowd.

Since Maurus’ first meet in 2012, his parents have traveled the world to provide in-person support at many of his competitions. But this summer, they’ve hit a roadblock: Both foreign and local spectators are banned from the Tokyo Olympics because of safety concerns during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their “extended family were going to go to … Japan and be able to watch him lift,” Tracey Maurus, the weightlifter’s mother, told CNN. “So it kind of threw a wrench in our plans.”

Harrison Maurus’ ability to shake off the dismay at the postponement of the Olympics in 2020 — after a week of camping with a fellow Team USA member — is part of what alleviates any concerns his parents have about what Maurus’ mindset will be when the Games begin on July 23 and he doesn’t have his support network around him.

“When Harrison gets on the platform, when they introduce Harrison, he’ll march up. And with his glasses on, he can see the crowd and he can see the setup really well,” Maurus’ father, Jim, told CNN. “But when he goes to lift, those glasses come off and he’s always said, ‘I can’t see the crowd, and I’m just there to do my job.’ “

Social support is an important facet of endurance, but we can train our brains to focus on the task at hand despite unexpected circumstances, said Megan M. Buning, a teaching specialist in the Interdisciplinary Center for Athletic Coaching at Florida State University and an approved mental performance consultant in the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s registry and the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Below are six key things you can do to develop and maintain endurance, according to experts who have worked with coaches and athletes on physical and mental stamina:

1. Set clear, meaningful goals

Setting goals for yourself is crucial to building endurance, said Timothy Baghurst, a professor of education and the director of FSU Coach: Interdisciplinary Center for Athletic Coaching at Florida State University.

Articulating your goals according to the SMARTS method Baghurst detailed in his book “Coaching for Sports Performance” is a good way to clarify what you want and avoid giving up, he said. SMARTS describes goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timed and Self-determined.

For example, the general goal “I want to get fit” isn’t specific, but aiming to run a marathon is. Saying “I want to do my best” is relative, whereas planning to finish the marathon within a certain number of minutes is measurable. Your goal shouldn’t be 100% feasible or easy.

“Thirty percent of the time it should be a goal that (people) don’t achieve, and that pushes you to try to make it,” Baghurst said.

Determining how much your goal fits within your lifestyle or what you’re trying to achieve careerwise tells you how relevant your goal is, Baghurst said. Timing your goal is deciding when you want to have achieved it.

And with goals, Baghurst said there are two types of motivators: extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivators can be the rewards meeting your goals might beget, such as pleasing people, prize money or a trophy. Intrinsic motivators, however, are internal factors that push you to work toward something so that you feel improved self-esteem, for example.

Relying more on intrinsic than extrinsic motivators can help you keep going when extrinsic motivators fall away. And writing, instead of typing, what these factors are for you can help you remember them better, Buning said.

2. Tell others about your goals

Telling people about your goals can be motivating by way of accountability, Baghurst said.

“If I don’t tell other people, then I can kind of give up that goal and it’s not really a big deal,” he explained. “But if I’ve told all of my colleagues in the office that I’m going to run a marathon in November, I know they’re going to ask me about it, and so it might hold me a little bit more accountable.”

3. Visualize both challenges and success

One technique that’s “massive” in sports is visualization — using imagery to start believing what you want to achieve, seeing the potential obstacles along the way and picturing yourself overcoming those hindrances, Baghurst said.

What most people do is visualize only success, he added. “If we haven’t anticipated or seen ourselves experiencing challenges, when we experience those challenges, we’re kind of unprepared for them,” Baghurst said.

“We don’t know what to do. That wasn’t part of the plan. And then as a consequence, maybe we lose that motivation or we don’t believe we can achieve that goal.”

4. Practice mindfulness

The mindset with which you enter a situation can either set you up for failure or fortune, Buning said.

If “I know that I have to go for a run today and I keep telling myself, ‘I’m not a good runner. I’m just not a runner. This sucks. It’s too hot. I can’t breathe’ … how likely is it for me to actually one, start the run, or two, finish it?”

Practicing mindfulness is one way you can bring awareness to those negative, unconscious beliefs and reframe them into a growth, rather than fixed, mindset. For example, Buning advised that instead of telling yourself you’re not very good at a tennis serve, think “I’m not very good at it yet. Now, how can I get better?”

5. Set up reminders

Remembering goals in moments of stress can be difficult, but some athletes have practical ways of reminding themselves of their plans and why they’re important, Buning and Baghurst said.

Those have included putting a picture of a medal or registration form for a race on their bathroom mirror, fridge or wall, and wearing clothing or bracelets embellished with motivational quotes.

6. Learn to recalibrate

When we lose control of what we’re trying to achieve, we’ve lost “that sense of destiny is in our hands,” Baghurst said.

You can keep your head up by focusing on what you’re able to do: Let’s say your friends normally pick you up to go to the gym, but one day they can’t. “Will I then find another way to exercise?” Baghurst said.

“The answer is, for most people, probably no. … They still have some control of being able to (decide), ‘Hey, I can still go for a walk or I can still go exercise in my backyard.’ “

No matter what happens during your efforts to improve endurance, persistence is always better than quitting, Baghurst said. Repeatedly overcoming obstacles can help in other areas of your life — so that the next time you’re working toward a goal, you can also rely on newfound confidence sustained by memories of previous journeys and successes.

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