The Case For Athletic Optimism [Or: How Julia Mancuso Used Her Underdog Status to Win Her 4th Olympic Medal]

by Charlotte on February 12, 2014 · 20 comments


For the record, the next time I win anything I’m totally crowning myself with a tiara!! How fun is that on the medal podium? Way better than that stupid bite-the-medal pose everyone else does…

Four Olympic medals make some pretty sweet bling but, for skier Julia Mancuso, her latest addition also makes her the most decorated American female skier in Olympic history and the only one to medal in three straight Olympics.

On Monday Mancuso wowed crowds and gave the U.S. its first Alpine skiing medal in Sochi by winning the bronze medal in the women’s super combined. This event has both a downhill portion, which Mancuso excels at, along with a slalom portion, which she hasn’t had as much experience in. So while she’s known for shining at high-stakes events—her other medals are a gold from the 2006 Olympics and two silver from 2010′s Games—many experts counted her out from the beginning, citing her lack of experience in the event and the fact she took a break from the competition circuit in the last half of 2013.

And not only were the experts worried but Macuso herself later admitted she wasn’t even sure she would finish the race, much less medal.

“I haven’t raced a full length of slalom since last year so that was definitely on my mind when I kicked out of the starting gate,” she explained in her finish-line interview. “Super combined wasn’t one of the events I was thinking gold [was possible]. A medal was kind of a long shot, too.”

Yet I was surprised to hear that some athletes can actually use this underdog status to their advantage. When I interviewed him for a Shape piece on Mancuso,  Vernon Williams, MD, the director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology, told me that “Some people can use that feeling of being counted out to push themselves harder and even outperform their normal standard.” He adds that some athletes even seek out that feeling, using it as a twisted kind of motivational tool. You count me out? I’ll show you!

This was so surprising to me because it never would have occurred to me in a million years to have that reaction. I have more of the ehhh they’re probably right, why am I doing this? reaction. Unfortunately. Listening to interview after interview with Mancuso, I was increasingly impressed with her optimism. Despite not feeling ready, she had enough faith in herself to just go out there and get it. Plus, she was having so much fun the whole time! I hate to say it but I know if I ever made it to the Olympics, I’d likely be a nervous wreck – and therein lies the key. Nerves.

When I asked Williams if Mancuso’s optimism was inborn or a cultivated trait to help her win stuff he told me – of course – some of both, most likely. But his theory is that she’s had a lot of practice learning to manage her anxiety and the surge of adrenaline that comes with it. “It’s about learning to balance the good and bad aspects of stress,” he pointed out. I think I often forget that stress is a good thing – it’s a natural bodily response to excitement. It’s our response to the stress and whether or not we let it control us that can be, well, less than helpful. As Williams talked about how athletes cultivate their “state of flow”, which he describes as an almost out of body experience where they are operating on a higher plane of consciousness (high praise for a neurologist!), I started to think that while I’ve never been an Olympian, I have had moments like that myself.

We’ve all had them, in fact. They read like the Best Of ESPN sports reel in our memories. They fill us with pride and awe and emotion and strength and confidence. I’m talking about the good days. Not just the good days but the days when you are really on. Somehow you woke up with boundless energy, the sun is shining and everything in your body works as it should. You don’t just run, you are liquid lightening separating the clouds. You don’t just lift the iron, you toss it like a baby and catch it with a laugh. It’s a perfect ice skating routine with no bobbles. It’s catching 24 feet of air off the top of the halfpipe like Shawn White did today in the snowboarding competition. (Seriously did you SEE THAT? My heart kind of stopped watching him and then I cheered. Out loud. In my living room. I can’t find a link to the video. Stupid NBC.) It’s hitting that last double arrow on Dance Dance Revolution with both arms stuck out in the air, sweat streaming down your face and knowing you hit every count on the hardest level. Sometimes, on those days, a little voice may creep in warning you to rein it in. Hold back a bit. You don’t want to get hurt. But you go for it anyhow. Because deep down you know you own it.

More often are the other days. Not the truly horrible ones – although you know I love to talk about those – but the mediocre ones. The ones where you realize that every day for the past month something on you has hurt (usually something strange and nagging, like your xyphoid process, that makes you – okay me – automatically and hypchondriacally think cancer). The ones where the treadmill is a chore, the weights seems heavier than the last time and strangely you are crazy sore despite cheating your way through half your workout. Occasionally, right before I’d step onto the balance beam or while I toed the line for the vault my heart would drop out and my legs would go weak. I was overcome by my nerves. I just knew I wasn’t going to stick anything that workout. I’d be lucky just not to get injured. The blah days. (Note to the wise: if you feel like this every day, it might be your first clue that you are overtrained and need a break.)

Whether we are an Olympic athlete coming in fourth (like Shawn White did… yes, even after that magnificent qualifying run!) or the mom with the jogger stroller huffing around the lake while arcing goldfish crackers over the rain fly to a whiny toddler, everyone has the blah days. But it’s the memory of the really great days that keeps us going. I honestly believe that how well you can keep those beautiful flying memories alive is your exercise barometer. Everyone fails. But athletes, like Mancuso, learn to see their failures as just another tool to help them succeed. The lesson is in the falling. People who don’t struggle, don’t learn.

By all accounts Mancuso shouldn’t have been able to do what she did yet she was able to push through her fears and medal. I learned a lot from thinking about Mancuso’s story – and none of it had to do with how to improve my downhill (okay maybe it did a little!) but rather how to stay optimistic even when everything and everyone is working against you. Whether or not you’re on a ski hill, a hill run or running your household, training for optimism is important:

1. Enjoy it. Alex Hoedelmoser, the head coach of the U.S. women’s Alpine team, said, “Julia sucks up the spirit of the Games and uses it as motivation, and gets really, really excited about it. She loves to compete.” Remember you’re where you are for a reason, Williams told me. Whatever you are doing, do it with your heart and be in the moment. No matter what happens at the end, you’ve earned the right to be there so make sure you don’t let the worry overtake your enjoyment of the event.

2. Find a method to calm yourself down. “A little anxiety and adrenaline is good for your performance,” Williams says. But he adds that too much can cause your body to shut down which is why pro athletes pick a way to calm themselves down in the moment and then practice it until it becomes second nature. Williams suggests trying visualization, meditation and diaphragmatic breathing. Ah, meditation, my old nemesis! But he makes a good point. Everyone has anxiety. Not everyone has a good way to control it. And he reassured me that it’s a learned technique that gets easier and easier with practice.

3. Be positive with yourself. While it doesn’t go over so well on the subway, talking to yourself is a great way to keep your spirits up and your mind focused. “I was just thinking, ‘Stay calm, and ski with my heart,’” Mancuso said, “and I skied my heart out!” Williams adds that many professional athletes say they feel “in the zone” when everything is going right and using positive self-talk can help block out outside distractions or negative Nellies from messing up your groove. Plus, we’re so often our own worst critics. There’s no need for that. The world is plenty good at pointing out our failings, we don’t need to beat them to the punch!

4. Have confidence in yourself. “Be the athlete you are,” Williams says, adding that a key factor for Mancuso was realizing that even if she hadn’t skied slalom in a while, she is still a world class skier. “Doubt can be overcome by reminding yourself that you are strong, balanced and you’ve trained for this moment,” he adds.

5. Keep your eye on the prize. “Focus on success and not what you’re lacking,” Williams says. Where our brains lead, our bodies follow so endlessly worrying about something can make your fears happen. 

What does it feel like to you when you’re in the zone or a state of flow? What’s your trick for staying optimistic? What do you do when you feel like you’re the underdog- does it make you a scrappy fighter or does it make you mess up more?


{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Darwin February 12, 2014 at 1:55 am

To answer you questions in order:

1. What does it feel like to you when you’re in the zone or a state of flow?
A. Bruce Lee once said: “Remember, you are expressing the techniques, and not doing the techniques. If somebody attacks you, your response is not Technique No. 1, Stance No. 2, Section 4, Paragraph 5. Instead you simply move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation.”

That is what being in the zone or a state of flow feels like to me. Move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation. This can happen in anything physical, but it was very pronounced a few times playing basketball. I had practiced a shot on my own where I am moving away from the basket, and toss the ball over my shoulder without looking and make it swish.

No backboard.


THEN…I am in the midst of a game, my teammates, the opposing team, people watching…and I went for it, without even thinking about it. NO looking, back wards…over the shoulder…and…


That shot won the game.

2. What’s your trick for staying optimistic?
A. Focus on the thing…no matter how small…a piece of the bigger thing…that I know I can do.

I always wanted to be an actor…ever since I was very young. I got to college, got my first acting class…and I was nervous and had a great deal of anxiety and embarrassment…I was tense. And I couldn’t see a way past it, as I had no confidence in regards to acting at all.

Then my prof said that we would get extra credit for being cast in a play 10 points…and we would get extra credit for auditioning for plays.

5 points.

My salvation was just handed to me! I could actually pass the class!!!!

All I had to do was rack up enough auditions at 5 points a shot!

So I went to my first audition and EVERYBODY else was nervous and anxious, running through lines while pacing, jumping up and down to get out the jitters, panicking and getting into a sweat.

I just smiled.

I was there with a goal to AUDITION…not get cast.

Just showing up…I had already succeeded.

So my turn came.

I read what they wanted me to read, I did what they asked me to do, answered their questions and sat down.

At the end I stepped up to get my paper signed so I would get my credit.

They said, “Here is a copy of the script! First rehearsal is day after tomorrow!”

Me: “Beg pardon?”

Them: “You got the role.”

So I overcame my problem of not being able to relax…by just relaxing. Who knew?

3. What do you do when you feel like you’re the underdog- does it make you a scrappy fighter or does it make you mess up more?

A. Scrappy fighter.

I tend to go all Aragorn stepping up to a hundred Orcs advancing.


Azusmom February 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Darwin, you seem like an amazingly awesome dude.
Just wanted to say. :)


Darwin February 12, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Wow! Thank-you!

I can live on a compliment like that for a good…


And I know from your comments that you are an all around accomplished woman. You thrive.

I tend to survive by the skin of my teeth.


Azusmom February 12, 2014 at 4:55 pm

I think we're all making it up as we go along. <3


Darwin February 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

*laughing* In TRUE Indiana Jones style!

You, however, seem to do it less…clumsy? Less awkward? Less inefficient? And much more intelligently?…than myself.

And in my case what is ALSO true is…”Its not the years….Its the mileage.” – Henry Jones Jr.

You have inspired me! I am going to watch RAIDERS tonight in honor of your “making it up as we go along”!

Naomi/Dragonmamma February 12, 2014 at 6:09 am

If it’s a skill situation, then being an underdog doesn’t help. (I mean, if I thought I had the skill, then I wouldn’t be an underdog, would i?) But if it’s something that can be won through sheer endurance or brute force, then yeah, it’s a rush to be underestimated and then surprise everyone.


Heather C February 12, 2014 at 8:26 am

When I used to run a lot and do races it drove me a bit batty trying to figure out why some days I could go out and feel like I could go for miles and other times I felt like I was running on dead legs. I still very distinctly remember one awesome, in the zone, run when I was on vacation in Hawaii (all that oxygen at sea level as opposed to the 6,200 feet where I live helping tremendously). When I would do marathons and the long runs to train, I used a lot of self talk to get through the lows. I read somewhere once that in endurance things, your brain will want to quit long before your body will actually give out, so those times at mile 22 when it felt like my brain was screaming at me to just lay down by the side of the road and be left for dead, I would remember that and literally tell my brain to shut up. Strange maybe, but it helped me go from feeling weak and defeated to tough and able.


Geosomin February 12, 2014 at 9:27 am

I like the idea of being in the moment. Not only do you focus on what you need to do, but you experience it all with less worry and more joy :)


Hannah February 12, 2014 at 11:14 am

I so needed to read this right now… big time…. THANKS!
I am signing up for a half ironman this year and am a bit petrified and almost nervous to start training. Mainly because I hate running. I can’t seem to get my breathing in control when I run. I can swim for hours no problem but for some reason running just a warm up gets me all out of breath.

That zone is an amazing feeling – I’ve had crossfit workouts where I just felt on even if I wasn’t the best of the bunch. I would leave to drive home and be giddy grinning and singing in my car because even though it kicked my arse it felt amazing. I have also had swims that just clicked and I could have kept going and going.

Definitely depends on what I am doing if the underdog thing works or not. Of course I am my worst critic and will over analyze everything which is usually to my downfall. My first tri I went in with the goal just to finish and I did much better than I thought I would. Hoping to keep that same mindset for the half ironman.

Oh and still think of the bone broth article from yesterday – I just don’t think I can bring myself to make it and/or drink it even though I love all of the benefits. any chance there is a pill form? ;)


Hannah February 12, 2014 at 11:25 am

oh and wanted to add that for me the enjoyment comes with doing the events and races with friends is a huge factor. When I hear my friends cheering for me or knowing that they are out on the course with me is HUGE! Part of the experience and makes it more fun to share it with someone. (Even if I only see them as they pass me on the bike and run portion! – I have one friend who is an amazing triathlete and I just see how far I can push ahead of her on the swim and how long I can stay ahead of her on the bike – doesn’t usually last long but it does give me an interim goal that feels good! the last one we did together she commented that she was surprised to see me that far ahead! granted her run is 3-4 minutes faster PER MILE!)


crabby mcslacker February 12, 2014 at 11:31 am

My simple strategy is to avoid competitive events completely! Wouldn’t work for an olympian, but for a slacker, WAY much less hassle. :)


Darwin February 12, 2014 at 11:50 am

*laughs* You are pretty accomplished for a slacker. Impressively so!

I had mentioned in my comment about using my trick shot in a game and winning. But I have used it in a game that my team lost as well. (It STILL felt wonderful!) And when I say team, I mean pick up games with random teams and most of the time we forget to keep score.

I don’t really consider myself an underdog in competitive events because I really do not care if I win or not. Leaves me free to be sincerely “Yay!” for the other team or person.

My underdog moments are in life…not in organized sports.

Generally speaking, we all get to have those.


Azusmom February 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm

I also equate a lot of this with acting. One of my favorite quotes is from a Scottish actor named Peter Capaldi:
“I’ve been really terrible in a lot of things, because I learned by making mistakes. That makes you a different kind of actor, because you have to figure out for yourself what to do.”
I had A LOT of training, and, while I found it invaluable, I also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to do it “right.” It wasn’t until I was working professionally that I figured out that the best thing I could bring to the table was ME. Like Darwin said, I started going to auditions with the goal of auditioning, not getting the part. And 9 times out of ten, I got the part. I also started enjoying auditioning.
Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) also gives similar advice: He said that when he stopped focusing on trying to impress casting directors and just made it about doing the best work he could, he started getting hired.

I worry about some of the kids I see these days when I teach. They are SO driven, to the point where perfection is more important than the process of learning. They would rather cheat and risk the consequences of that than make a mistake or hand in work that is deemed anything less than an A+ performance. Not only does it create crippling anxiety, it prevents them from truly growing and learning. They’re usually the kids of parents who made sure they got into the “right” preschool, ensuring they were on the Ivy League track from day 1.

Lately, of course, I’ve learned this lesson from my kids. Kids with special needs will never conform to either my or society’s idea of what they “should” be. They are who they are. There are things I can, and do teach them, but there are many more things they teach me. And some of the best lessons are in sports: They take part in events sponsored by Special Olympics, Ride A Wave, and Surfer’s Healing, and the atmosphere at those events is incredible: Everyone cheers on everybody else. Sometimes I just feel so blessed to be a part of this community.


Hannah February 12, 2014 at 12:35 pm

One of the reasons I love Crossfit – everyone cheers for everyone else even in competitions. Watching the Olympics has been mixed – saw one of the speed skating finals and was shocked that the Norway guy who ended up winning gold left and went below instead of staying and cheering on his own teammates. But then watched a downhill ski jump thing (not very good with actual event names!) and two guys from other teams rushed the guy who ended up getting gold and picked him up cheering for him. Seeing that reaffirmed my faith in humanity.


Darwin February 12, 2014 at 12:51 pm

The big Olympic moment in my humble opinion in Tuesday’s cross-country men’s sprint semifinal was when the Canadian Coach Justin Wadsworth ran out and replaced a broken ski for Anton Gafarov to let the Russian Olympian finish his race. (didn’t see it…read about it after.)

Like Hanna said it reaffirms one’s faith in humanity, and it is in the same spirit of community that Azusmom was speaking of. Azusmom, you ARE truly blessed.

And you are a fellow thespian with extensive professional credentials and a molder of young minds. Honorable accomplishments abound!


Emma February 13, 2014 at 1:07 am

On the topic of stress and the effects of your brain on your body, have you seen this TED talk? (Isn’t it awesome!?)


Amanda O February 13, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Love Malcolm Gladwell for both his description of flow in “Blink” and of the power of underdog perception in “David and Goliath”


Kake Yun February 17, 2014 at 7:28 am

Nice blog…if anyone ever wants to count the number of steps or number of miles ran while doing their activities, I would recommend the Fitbit Flex wristband. It is accurate and has helped me set goals especially with soccer training. Check out the demo here:


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