Olympic Mental Challenges – Insights from Dr Nicole Detling

Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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A guiding philosophy to face adversity, Olympic challenges and the exhilaration of achieving goals


Mental Performance Coach, Dr Nicole Detling, is distinguished by her ability to cultivate exceptional progress in her athletes. Professionally, she was a fundamental part of Team USA’s incredibly successful campaigns at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. She worked with the US Speed Skating and Freestyle Aerial Ski Teams as well as the Snowboarding team for PyeongChang. Over 2 decades she’s developed a unique insight into the pressures associated with Olympic performance, how to work through them and lay the foundations for success.

In this article, Dr Detling talks about the driving force behind those pressures, the technique she uses to work with athletes of all levels and the principal challenges athletes commonly face. She also shares her guiding philosophy to get through adverse situations, the similarities between performers and athletes and the relationship performance anxiety and confidence share.

At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Detling was part of the team that worked with incredible athletes preparing them for record-breaking performances. Overall, Team USA won a total of 37 medals, placing them at the top of the medal tally and a monumental 28 medals at Sochi in 2014, PyeongChang was no different with 4 gold medals in the snowboarding team alone.

Working with individual athletes and teams, preparing them for qualifiers, training and competition, Detling understands the pressures of high-performance sport and the Olympic environment. She also knows exactly what mental tools athletes can use to overcome them. Detling says, “because the Olympics only occur once every 4 years for these athletes, there is a lot more pressure surrounding them than other competitions.”

“The Olympics also brings so many unpredicted situations when athletes are actually there. We spend a lot of time discussing pressure and how to handle it prior to them ever getting there (sometimes years in advance). Other competitions also bring pressure and can be used as stepping stones to understand how to manage the pressure of the Games. With the unpredictable situations, it’s a bit tougher, but we plan for as much as we can in advance.”

Detling explains that while the Olympics present unique challenges, mental preparation and training is crucial for all athletes, regardless of what level of sport they’re playing. She says, “it’s all about meeting the athlete wherever they are mentally and showing them the path for how to get where they want to be, mental training and preparation is all based around this concept.”

A simple Google search reveals countless podcasts which feature Detling discussing strategies for athletes who are further along that path of mental development and performance. In one interview she analyzes what made Samurais such powerful warriors, leaving athletes to take what they need from the discussion and build it into their own performance preparation.

Detling works with athletes of all levels, Olympians, professional teams, student-athletes and she was a Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Utah for 9 years until 2017. Interestingly, she also works with performers and talks about the similarities between the two.

She says, “everything we do every day is a performance and all of our performances can be enhanced with mental toughness training. The key is to understand the performance through the athlete/performer’s eyes. Once I am able to understand their perspective, I am much more effective in helping teach them how to get to where they want to be.


Progressing athletes along the path to where they want to be is one of the most satisfying and exciting parts of her job, Detling says, “being able to help others achieve their dreams is genuinely fulfilling to me.”

She elaborates further explaining that it doesn’t matter to her, whether that dream belongs to a high school student hoping to make Varsity or an athlete in a high-performance environment. She says, “everyone I work with is so very important to me, and achieving dreams feels amazing no matter what the level of performer.”

However, she does give this piece of valuable advice to coaches and athletes alike, “be sure to have a very good understanding of why you do what you do. If this isn’t in place, the adversity will be even tougher to manage and may even tear you apart. However, when it gets tough, and you tap into that deep level and understanding of your personal “why”, you can learn and grow through that adversity. It also makes the victories that much sweeter.”

When it comes to adversity or dealing with losses, Detling’s philosophy is the same, “Embrace the Suck, but Don’t Get Stuck in the Suck”. In other words, acknowledge when you’re not happy with something, but then DO SOMETHING about it. I am currently working on my second book, which is all about this concept.”

Detling explains that these strategies and mental skills apply to all sorts of hurdles but, she says, “I’ve been in private practice for 20 years now and there are two struggles that people come to me for FAR more than anything else; and regardless of sport, level of sport, or gender. Those two struggles are: emotional control (usually pre-performance anxiety) and confidence. Interestingly, these two are also inversely related and one does tend to affect the other.”

In combination with her diverse and exceptional experience, Dr. Nicole Detling received her BA in psychology and sports science from Ohio Wesleyan University, her MS in sport psychology from Ithaca College, and her Ph.D. in sport psychology at the University of Utah. Detling regularly travels the world giving talks and trainings on mental toughness to athletes, coaches, businesses, and at professional conferences. She owns HeadStrong Consulting, LLC, a sport psychology company focusing on performance enhancement through mental skills training. She has co-authored book chapters as well as professional journal publications and is the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sport Sciences (IJKSS). Detling is a member and a Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CMPC).

Personally and professionally, Detling passionately pursues knowledge and challenges herself to improve. When we asked her about the changes she had put in place to improve her practice, she told us that the change which was making a significant difference to her professional practice was, “getting certified in Athlete Assessments DISC!” She says, “It has helped me understand so much more about the behavioral tendencies of the coaches and athletes I work with. It has helped people who struggle to explain themselves, give them (and me) a better understanding; which then drives our sessions.”

When we asked her what she was aiming for in the future, she said, “I’m so happy with where I currently am… so I’m just riding this amazing wave of life and seeing where it takes me next!”

There was so much more we could cover in this article and if you’ve found yourself at this point wanting to know more about Dr Detling, you are welcome to read the extended Q&A interview.

Where to from here…

Are you a sport psychologist looking to achieve similar results with your clients? You too can take your consultancy to the next level and achieve the success that Dr Nicole Detling has.

As a top consultant, your clients rely on you being the best in your field, knowing the true determinants of success and having access to the tools that will make the most impact when it comes to improving performance. Athlete Assessments’ DISC Profiling is the tool you need to help your clients realize their potential.

Find out more about Athlete Assessments’ Consultant Program now.

At Athlete Assessments we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can do to be of service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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