Ole Einar Bjørndalen | Mental training secrets of an Olympic athlete
JEANETTE: These days are putting our mental strength to the test. We need some motivation and inspiration. Today’s guest might be able to help with that.
Through 25 years at the top of his sport, the “King of Biathlon” has impressed the world with his abilities to handle challenges and pressure. Ole Einar Bjørndalen won 13 medals in the Olympics, 45 medals in World Championships, and had 95 individual World Cup wins before he retired a couple of years ago.
One incident in particular at the very start of his career set a standard.
OLE EINAR: That was quite many years ago. It was in 1998 in Japan, in Nagano. I was very well-prepared for this competition. It was a 10 kilometer sprint. The race went really well. Around 2 kilometers before the finish, they cancelled this race because it was too much wind and too much bad weather, so they felt it was not a fair competition.
I was in the lead. I got a message from my staff people. They said I was 15 seconds in front, so that was my first gold medal, I thought. But as you remember, directly before I finished, they cancelled the race.
I got really angry up in the mountain there and smashed my skis and poles on the track, for sure. But then I understood that this race was not finished after a few minutes. I needed to come back to the stadium. So I skied slowly down to the stadium again, and then I saw a lot of media and journalists and I knew exactly what they would ask me about.
I thought, “Why should I speak to them? This race is not finished. I used 4 years for this competition; I don’t want to miss this competition again.” So I went straight forward, didn’t speak with anyone, no media, nothing, because I had no reason because the race was not finished. I would make this race finished before I spoke with anyone.
Then I went into my wax cabin, and in my wax cabin, my waxer was sitting in a corner there and he was more sad than me. He was sitting and crying because he lost also one gold medal. I remember the words I said to him. “I have fantastic skis these days,” and I said, “Thank you for the skis. Make the skis the same tomorrow, because it was really great.”
Then I took the bus down to the hotel. I needed to think about the next day. For sure I was feeling a bit sad, but I went to the hotel, took some food, and then I called my mental coach. This mental coach, Øyvind Hammer, I’d worked with him since two years before. We went through this competition the day before this race, and for sure I had to call him and explain what had happened.
He took the phone and he was a little bit different coach than others, because he was not interested in biathlons. He was more interested in what I am doing. I’m not sure if he was looking at this competition because he had a big business and he worked like hell, so I’m not sure if he looked at this on TV.
His first question was, “How was the race?” I explained it. “Skiing was fantastic. First round was also good. I shot four, and on the last shot I missed one and I put my rifle – but still I went in front because I was fast skier this time. Shot clean standing, so everything was good.” Then I explained they stopped the race.
Then it was quiet a little bit from him, and he said to me, “You’re quite lucky that you have a chance to make this race again, because we had an agreement yesterday” – because he prepared every race an agreement. I prepared on the paper, I wrote everything down what I had to do, and I signed it. When you sign the paper, then you need to hold what you write on the paper.
This time I didn’t hold my prone shooting. I was not on the place. I had the rifle on my back before I shot the last shot, almost. So he said to me, “We’ll do exactly the same preparation for the next race the day after, and you should do a single shot, prone, single shot standing, and don’t leave the stadium before you have done this job because you did not do this job before.”
I did that. I made my best race ever, shoot 10 from 10 and win more than 1 minute. I didn’t speak with anyone, almost, because it was in Japan. I didn’t speak with any media. I was focused on myself. I had the right person around me and not people who were sorry about that happening. That is really a challenge when you make a bad race, because everyone is sorry to you. You don’t need that because you have a chance to wake up again and make the race better than what you have done before.
JEANETTE: But how do you protect yourself from negative energy? Because it’s all around.
OLE EINAR: It’s all around, but you don’t need to meet them. Go around. For sure, you’d be shorter in the dinner, shorter in all – because the main point is the meal. All others, you stay in the room and I go running in the evening, so I don’t see any people. You need to be in your vacuum and think about yourself, especially when there’s a championship like that. Then you’re a little bit shy from people.
JEANETTE: But everybody wants a piece of you. Is it difficult to stay in your bubble?
OLE EINAR: For me, it’s normal. You need to give a lot for the media and people, but you need to give that with that you get energy. If you lose energy – which is really easy to do when you are a good athlete because everyone wants a piece of you – the moment you start to lose energy, you need to stop. Then you need to explain it to people around you, if you have somebody who can help you with that to inform, or you inform them yourself to say that you need time for yourself. I think that is important when you are in a challenging time. If not, there’s only one man who loses, and that is yourself. So you need to take control about your time, your balance in your life.
Competition is to stay focused – everyone stays enough focused on the sport, I think. The problem is they don’t take control of their life. If you don’t have balance in the rest of your life, you have no chance to make a good race.
When I started to work with mental coaches, my colleagues worked 90% with the sport and 10% with the private. I do the opposite. I work 90% with my life and 10% with sport.
JEANETTE: Why did you decide to start with the mental training? Was it normal at that time to do it, or was it something new?
OLE EINAR: Today, it’s totally normal. In 1996, it was definitely not normal. This man, Øyvind Hammer, he doesn’t get any chance to come to our hotel. All coaches don’t like him. He was dressed in a suit and coming with different cars than usual normal people. He had no experience in sport. He thought different, and always when people are different, they feel threatening to people, so they get always afraid. It happened also this time, but he definitely was the most important guy for me to come through, to be World champion the first time and definitely my Olympic gold the first time. When you make it one time, it’s much easier to make it again.
JEANETTE: What was the biggest difference you could notice before you started doing mental training and after?
OLE EINAR: As you’re a professional in your sport, you know plenty enough about the sport. Different what I did, I put everything in a system. When I should think in the right way after each other, because you know plenty about everything. You don’t need to have more information, but you need to make a system. That was a big difference. Plus I fixed my private life.
JEANETTE: Do you do some kind of mental training every day? Or did you do it only before competitions or championships?
OLE EINAR: I did it every day. Sometimes I did a lot, other times I did not so much. But you can definitely be overtrained in that. I did that too. It’s easy to get overtraining mental training because you need to have balance in everything. Physical training, mental training, private life, and then you have a chance to make a good race.
JEANETTE: When it comes to the sport you have been doing, biathlon, it’s much like agility, for example. If you miss the target, you get a penalty. That’s precisely what happens when our dogs knock a bar, for instance. When something like this happens, it’s easy to lose focus, but you are really good at fighting till the end. What were you telling yourself in these situations?
OLE EINAR: First of all, you should never give up. I’m training the Chinese team now, and that is the first rule. Never give up. That is first. Second is the mental stability. You have happiness, you have depression, and you have aggression. Many emotional things can happen with you. If there’s some sport that you’re doing shooting or like with animals, you need to have balance in your life.
If you are more stable yourself, I think your animals or your stuff around you will also be more stable. So you should not go too high and not too low. When you have a good result, you should be a little bit calmer, and when you have a bad result, you should not go to hell, too low. If you have a bad result, my rule is 30 minutes you can be in a bad mood, but after that it doesn’t help anything.
I think it’s also really important to be analytical, not so much emotional. Analytic, how I can fix it, stay positive, and fix it and use energy in the right way.
JEANETTE: Your mental strength also shows in competitions where you are really pushing yourself to the limit of what’s physically possible. How did you use your mind to work through all the pain?
OLE EINAR: It’s quite a long time since I made a really hard competition. If I make competition today, it’s painful, but when I was a professional it was not painful because I trained every second day. So that was more a habit. I was prepared for that.
I can maybe remember one race was painful, many, many years ago. But really pain – when you’re in bad shape, you remember pain, but when you’re in normal shape, you have so many things you need to think about and techniques you need to think about, everything. I was quite professional. I was quite prepared for what I had to do, so I didn’t think that was pain. It pushed me a lot, but really it will be a little bit same as when you brush your teeth. You have to do it. For me, it was fun. I live for my sport and I do it every day, and that was my life.
JEANETTE: Through 25 years in the national team, you have done a lot of competitions. Some were big, some were not that big. But have you ever been nervous?
OLE EINAR: Well, I was really nervous for a small race in Norway. Some relays in the World Cup I could be nervous for. In the first years, for sure, I was really nervous. I could not sleep the whole night until I started to be good at mental preparation. When I started to be good at mental preparation, then I did all nervousness the day before and then I was calm for the race.
The Olympics, I was less nervous for all races because I had trained for this race 4 years. That was like to brush teeth again. I only had to do the job. Everything had to be okay with all the equipment. You need to stay fit, right weight, right food. Your health had to be working well. So there’s many things you need to fix, but nervous, I was not so in an important race.
JEANETTE: What differs the best athletes from the second best?
OLE EINAR: For sure, you need to have extreme talent. If you don’t have talent to be in the national team, you have no chance. If you’re on the national team, I think you’re good enough to be quite good to win medals. But to be constantly on the top, there’s really few people who have this quality.
There’s something with talent, but also about mental – not health, but mental strength that you can handle success, handle bad races. You need to do not always the right choice, but you need to do 95% the right choice. You need to stay healthy. If you are not healthy – I made 25 years World Championship. I was healthy in each World Championship. That is quite good. You cannot stay unhealthy. If you are sick, you lose too much to your opponent.
JEANETTE: How did you manage to stay healthy all the time?
OLE EINAR: You can get bacteria, you can get virus from a lot of people. I get that also. Everyone gets that. Then you need to handle it and fight against it with your immune system. Sometimes you have it; some other times you do not have this immune system and you need to use something to be able to cope.
But most of the time, if you’re mentally tired from mentally negative stress, that is the worst case and you can have bacteria and virus. That’s my opinion. It’s not proven, but I say that each time I get sick is because I am mentally tired from mentally negative stress. From huge working stress or huge hours of training, I never get sick and I get overtrained about that. It’s more about balance in your life. If you have a lot of negative people around you and mentally negative stress, then you can get everything if you want.
JEANETTE: How important is it to have a good team around you that’s giving you that energy instead of draining you?
OLE EINAR: This is about this 90%, what I spoke about before. You have no chance to do all this job alone. You need a crazy strong team. You need really smart people around you and you need to fix them. If they’re not so good, you need to make them good.
I don’t want to say a name, but one of the best coaches in Norway came to us many years ago. He was educated from the Norwegian sports university and was okay, but when he left the job, he was in the highest level ever. He got good from the athletes, not from other coaches. Athletes can make the coach great. You need to make people around you really good. If not, you have no chance because our sport is a little bit like business. You can survive in business, but in sport, you are on the podium or you are – not a loser, but you are –
JEANETTE: You’re just out.
OLE EINAR: You take part in the race. But in Norway it’s a really high level of what is acceptable from results. It’s really heavy to be top level at Norway because everyone has to win if you start for Norway.
JEANETTE: You made a comeback as a 40-year-old in Sochi, and then people said you were too old to do this now, but you still won the gold medal. How did it feel to prove them wrong?
OLE EINAR: That was more about the media. The closest people, they trust me. As I said before, I worked crazy hard with this 90% in this period because I had some challenges and also some back problems. A lot of my health was not good. Then the year before the Olympics in Sochi, I was good. I was really well-prepared. And then I was back in my best age.
For sure I don’t recover as fast as before, but I can make some good races, and it was attitude. I was really well-prepared for these races. So it’s been fantastic. I’m really happy for that. It’s my second most important race in my life. The first Nagano race, and these were maybe the two best races I ever did in my life.
JEANETTE: One of the reasons why you succeeded might have been that you dare to do things differently. How did you find the right way, and was it ever difficult to make your own path?
OLE EINAR: It’s not so difficult if you like a sport, if you want to develop yourself. Before the first time I won, I was afraid to win, because what should I do when I win the race? Because then you are the world’s best; what is next? But the first victory I got, then you saw so many other specs about the sport. You saw many other ways to develop yourself, your team, and everything.
I was at my best when I won races because I work much harder when I win races. I did it opposite. I worked crazy hard when I won races, and when I was bad, I didn’t work so hard because then I needed to rest. So when I won races, I was crazy afraid to make a bad race after, so I worked really hard.
JEANETTE: That brings us to a topic that many have some questions about. You’ve been doing this for so many years, and being a top athlete is hard work. It’s basically like training, eating, resting all the time. How did you stay motivated through all these years?
OLE EINAR: I love my sport. Nothing else. Of course, you love what you do. It was heavy to stop my sport, but life goes on and I’ve got a family. That’s the only reason why I stopped my sport. If not, I will guaranteed continue, one more Olympics.
JEANETTE: Could you tell us a bit more about what you’re doing now? You are a coach?
OLE EINAR: Now I’m a coach for the Chinese team. I felt I think I have the best job I can get. It’s really interesting to develop such kind of athletes who are motivated. The nation are crazy motivated. They are willing to train hard. So I am a little bit back in the game. I feel not so tired because I can work a lot. I am motivated too. From outside, it’s totally unrealistic, what they wish to do in two and a half years, but I think it’s possible. But we’ll see. It’s a really hard job.
JEANETTE: A nice challenge.
OLE EINAR: Yeah, it’s maybe one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had before in my – to win the first victory in World Championships or Olympics is a hard challenge, but to the next one, what I’m doing now is much harder.
JEANETTE: One question we ask everybody on this podcast is if you had to do another sport with your dog, what would it be? You don’t do any dog sports right now, so the question for you could be: if you had to do a sport with a dog, what would it be? Would it be skijoring? I know you’ve tried it before.
OLE EINAR: Ski touring is okay. No, I think I will do mountain biking. Professional mountain biking. I like that. I think I could have some talent for it.
JEANETTE: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on this podcast.
OLE EINAR: You’re welcome.