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Olympic Athletes Know Stress — Judo Gold Medalist Kayla Harrison Shares Tips For Handling It

By Lisa Costantini | April 13, 2017, 1:03 p.m. (ET)

Kayla Harrison poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 8, 2016 in Los Angeles.


Close your eyes. Now take a deep breath in, and out. Again. Do you feel less stressed? No? Well then it’s a good thing there is more than one way to relieve stress.

In honor of April being Stress Awareness Month, we took a few minutes out of two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison’s busy — and stressful — schedule to ask her advice on the best ways to handle stress. The self-described “calm and centered” woman — who said “it would take a meteor landing in my house for me to freak out” — had more advice than just taking deep breaths.

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When was the last time you were stressed?

I’m stressed every day. I think that stress is a normal part of life. I think it’s a healthy part of life. If we’re not stressed it means we’re not making ourselves uncomfortable. And if we’re not uncomfortable, we’re not growing.

So you think there is such a thing as healthy stress?

It’s a classic case of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You have to put up with the rain if you want to get the rainbow. There are always going to be obstacles in life. There are always going to be bad moments. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to last forever.

For me, often when I’m in a stressful situation I remind myself that it doesn’t last and this is all part of the journey. Actually, during my Olympic career that was a big thing for me. I was very stressed. There was a lot of pressure, being No. 1 in the world, expected to win — but if I didn’t win, whatever. The thing is it’s all part of the journey. In those moments where I was completely stressed to the max and I felt like I was going to break, it just made me that much stronger.

Do you prefer the chaos of winging it or the calm in being prepared?

I think I’m probably a mixture of both. Like can I thrive in chaos? Yes. But I prefer to be prepared, for sure. I think having a plan and being able to fly by the seat of your pants comes with practice. Just like everything, you have to practice. You have to practice dealing with stress the same way you have to practice tying your shoe.

You had something very stressful and traumatic happen to you as a kid.

It’s no secret I was sexually abused for years before the age of 16 by my first judo coach. He served 10 years in a federal prison and soon after it was over I moved to Boston to train with Olympic bronze-medal judo coach Jimmy Pedro and his father, Big Jim.

It was really there where I found my path of healing — not only in terms of being an athlete, but off the mat as well. I got counseling and I got back in school. I was able to become the Kayla that you see today.

At 16, I couldn’t look you in the eyes. I was a mess. I was suicidal and I was going through one of the most traumatic things I think a person can go through. But at 26, I’m a strong, confident, happy young woman.

Has the way you handle stress changed over the years?

Absolutely. Obviously with what happened to me as a kid, I didn’t know how to deal with it emotionally, and I used very, very, very negative outlets such as cutting and self-abuse and food as a way to deal with it.

Now I’ve gone the opposite of that. When I’m stressed out I like to focus on visualization and positive thinking. People don’t understand how powerful the brain truly is.

If you think about the Olympics, it’s one of the most stressful things a human being can do. It’s your entire life focused into one day – and for some people, focused into just seconds. It’s a high-stress situation. But any time I would have negative thoughts, I would replace those negative thoughts with positive thoughts. And I would replace images of me losing with images of me winning. I would drive out the negativity with positivity.

What did you find were the drawbacks of dealing with stress in negative ways?

I think you have to have a moment of realization where you’re like, OK, either I’m going to continue going down this path and something extremely bad is going to happen, or I’m going to choose to try something different. I’m going to choose to try to talk about it, or I’m going to choose to write in my journal instead. Or I’m going to choose to go for a walk instead. These are all things I learned with a therapist. You learn coping skills. Like a lot of the ways that I deal with stress now are what I learned in therapy. I think its super important for your mental health. Why do we neglect our minds yet we wouldn’t neglect your bodies?

What is the first thing someone should do when they’re feeling stressed?

I always, always, always take a deep breath. That’s like Stress 101 is you just need to breathe. What I do is seven, three, seven. So I breathe in for seven seconds, I hold it for three and then I breathe out for seven. And I usually do that three times. I do that before every fight I have. I’ll do it when I’m super stressed out — sometimes I’ll do it at the end of the night like after a long, hard day. It just sort of releases everything and gives you a chance to reevaluate and refocus.

Do you have any favorite mantras that help you stop worrying?

One of my favorite sayings is, ‘There is no such thing as bad days, just bad moments.’ I try and tell myself that when life is bringing me down. At the end of the day, you’re in control of how you react to everything: stress, what happens to you, what doesn’t happen to you. You’re in control of your life. Once you realize that and take power over that, you can change your life in such a positive way. It’s unbelievable.

And when I would compete, I would always say ‘This is my day. This is my purpose. I’m not afraid to win. Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion.’ And then I would just go over what I would have to do in the fights. I would say ‘five hard minutes to win. You grip first. You attack first. One minute at a time. One grip at a time. One breath at a time.’ And I would say it over and over again.

What’s your advice for athletes on how they can channel stress to their advantage?

I think goal setting is a huge stress reliever. Every year I sit down and I write down my goals — inside of judo and outside of judo. I put them on my fridge and every single day I look at them. I see what I need to be working and striving towards. And if you do that, it eliminates stress in your life. Because if it doesn’t help you with that goal, if it doesn’t make you better as a person then it shouldn’t be in your life and you shouldn’t be stressed out about it.

For most people their work causes them a lot of stress, but working out is your job and that’s a big stress reliever.

Even though it’s my job, I think the number one thing that helps me deal with stress is just taking an hour every day for myself and doing something active where I move. There was a point in time after the Olympics where I wasn’t working out and I was super stressed out. It was because I didn’t have that healthy outlet where I was getting those endorphins going.

I consider my strength and conditioning coach more like a life coach. There are some days I go in and it’s like therapy. Terrible things could be happening, but if I go in and get a work out in then I know I’m going to be able to deal with it. I think working out and physically doing things gives a feeling of accomplishment that helps you have confidence and deal with stress in a much more positive manner.

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Kayla Harrison