Posted On September 23, 2016 by Print This Post

Advice for Keyboard Athletes—How Olympic Psychology Can Work for Writers by Tessa Shapcott

Did you watch the Olympics? Glued to the screen or just watch the highlights? Either way, Tessa Shapcott shows us how you can use the same training the Olympians use, and bring it to your writing. 

Tessa ShapcottI have been finding this year’s coverage of the Rio Olympics and Paralympics compulsive viewing, not least because of the stories behind the medal wins. I have been struck how the journey to becoming a published writer is not so dissimilar to that of a successful athlete, given the dedication, focus and perseverance that’s required.

The Department of Sport and Performance Psychology at Loughborough University has come up with a list of behaviours needed to become a winner on the track, field or in the pool.  So is there anything on it that could be applied to writing that romance bestseller too?

  • Ignore the competition. Of course, if you write popular fiction, you need to know your market and understand the appeal of top-selling novels. But it can be all too easy to get sucked into the comparison game with fellow writers and lose heart. Athletes are encouraged to focus on themselves rather than comparing their efforts to others’. So, try getting to know your own strengths and weaknesses, gleaning every bit of advice from industry professionals you can and concentrating on developing yourself.  Also, take note of this sporting experiment, which found that winning a bronze medal made athletes happier than winning a silver, because at least they’d won something.
  • Set achievable goals. For sure, successful writers are deadline-driven and plan their content and output to maximise sales. However, their aims also need to be specific, realistic and fit in with their lives. Say you have a three-book trilogy in mind. Before you put your fingers to the keys, make time to work out exactly what it’s going to take and how you can perform at an optimum level. For example, do you need to make a schedule in order to make sure you get to write daily? How fast do you write—are you really going to get 2,000 words down every time, or would 500 be more like it?  Are you able to set aside the next year to write the series?  The sports psychologists have identified motivation as key in the goal-achieving process—if you feel good about something, you’ll do it more. It’s important to work towards your happy ending in ways you feel comfortable with.
  • Get in your bubble. Top athletes are ruthless about winning. Their focus is on assessing what needs to be done, and then sticking to their plan and following the process. They shut out distractions and don’t get side-tracked. For your average aspiring writer who will have a job and family to juggle, this sounds like a tall order! But you can be ruthless too about ring-fencing your writing time! I’ve worked with many bestselling authors and to a woman they’ve succeeded by declaring non-negotiable periods when they just write. Some get up an hour or two earlier in the mornings, before kids and the job kick in. Others have two or three set writing nights a week. One author is a full-time nurse still, but she whips out her lap-top during every scheduled break and writes a paragraph or two. I’ve also noticed that all have a very positive outlook and clear vision of what success looks like, both of which help them maintain their boundaries and keep negative thoughts at bay.
  • Pressure is a privilege. This is the athlete’s mantra. There will be times when your characters aren’t co-operating or your plot has got in a hopeless tangle. But what if you can embrace that stress, channel the adrenalin it generates to thrive and write? Pressure can push us to perform and reach for our best. You also have to know when to relax though too—so your bubble needs to contain places where you can enjoy downtime away from writing and refill that creative well.
  • Connect your brain to success. This is the one I love the most! Apparently, part of an Olympic athlete’s training often includes identifying when they are feeling strong and powerful during training, and then linking that to a sensory experience such as smelling lavender oil or listening to a certain song. They repeat those steps on days when it isn’t happening for them and thus link back to those powerful feelings. I can attest to the fact this works—I have a playlist of music that I associate with feeling productive and creative, and it always helps to hear it when my writing energies are running low.

Overall, the sports psychologists tell us, it’s grit, determination, resilience and desire that separate the winners from the losers, and that’s a mantra we writers can adhere to and benefit from as well. There are inevitably obstacles and setbacks on the path to success. But if you can get into the right mind-set, stay focused, find your optimum rate of productivity and stay motivated and resilient even in the face of adversity, that publishing contract could be yours!



Did you watch the Olympics? Do you warm up before writing, cool down after? What’s YOUR training routine for being a writer?

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Bio: Tessa Shapcott is a freelance fiction editor.  Contact her via  She also writes as Joanne Walsh.

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2 Responses to “Advice for Keyboard Athletes—How Olympic Psychology Can Work for Writers by Tessa Shapcott”

  1. Hi Tessa,

    An author friend once said that most writers don’t succeed because they lack focus and follow through. Your analogy of Olympic athletes is an apt one, their dedication and work ethic is amazing. I’m impressed by athletes who don’t medal but continue to train for the next four years to compete again. That takes focus.

    I write best under pressure and keep a crazy playlist no one would want to listen to except me.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 23, 2016, 11:02 pm
  2. I love this analogy. My daughter is a competitive swimmer (not Olympic level) but I’ve started doing some of the things that their coaches have them doing like visualization, planned practice ect and I’ve found that it really helps

    Posted by Patricia Eimer | September 24, 2016, 12:40 pm

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