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The psychology of the Olympics - why do we get Olympic fever and how can we harness it for our own wellbeing?

06 August 2021

As Team GB battle for medals in Tokyo, BPS psychologists have explored just what it is about the games that connects with us in a way no other sporting event can.

Why do we become fixated on all sports involved if a British athlete is competing, and why do we feel the urge to try sport ourselves?

Dr Josie Perry of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology, explains just what is going on in our brains when we watch the Olympics.

“Watching sport makes us realise the power of community and triggers the sense of belonging that we all crave. We watch people trying their absolute hardest, achieving great things and looking amazing and we want a piece of that too. We want to feel part of that world,” says Dr Perry.

“There’s something about the Olympics which is unique and fosters a real sense of community in a way few other sports can. It’s possibly to do with its history and standing in the sporting world, or also the fact it combines a whole range of different sports which aren’t normally in the limelight, but it has a different feel to it.”

And while we can be inspired by the feats of Team GB athletes, often we are actually well aware that often their level is too far away from our abilities to really inspire us. So instead Dr Perry says it’s about finding role models closer to home and setting goals which are really personal:

“Greater motivation often comes from looking at those around you, it might be the person at Parkrun who is like you but a bit faster or the guy at your football club who has worked incredibly hard on their fitness who inspires you. They give us what is known as vicarious confidence, knowing they can do it helps us believe we can too.

“It’s also it’s about setting goals which inspire you,” adds Dr Perry. “The trick is to listen to your heart when you pick the goal; the thing you choose to work towards is what turns your tummy with excitement and makes you grin when you think about it; whether a specific time in a race, an event you want to be part of or mastering something tricky like a climbing wall. Setting a motivating outcome goal like this and breaking down that goal into much smaller controllable process goals will keep us working hard and staying active.”

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