Olympian Ajee' Wilson on staying focused: 'Races are won and lost in your head'

·5 min read
Ajee' Wilson opens up about the Olympics and her approach to mental health and wellness. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Ajee' Wilson opens up about the Olympics and her approach to mental health and wellness. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

If anyone knows the secret to staying cool and calm, it’s Olympian and 800-meter U.S. record holder Ajee’ Wilson. Fully aware that her chosen sport is as much a head game as it is a physical one, the Tokyo-bound middle-distance runner has an arsenal of tips and tricks to staying focused and consistent in life, on and off the track. 

The New Jersey native, who admits to loving pizza (“everything in moderation!”), also recently partnered with wellness brand Thorne for the nutritional supplements she relies on to keep her in optimal shape, telling Yahoo Life, “I love that the products I use meet my specific needs, while being held to the utmost standards of an NSF certification with no banned substances. Having that peace of mind is important."

We caught up with Wilson to talk about how she stays focused.

What’s your day-to-day approach to mental health?

One of the things coaches and athletes say is that running is 90 mental mental and 10 percent physical; sometimes I think races are won and lost in your head. Mental prep is super-important for training and racing — but also in my everyday life. If you’re not [feeling] good as a person, like physically and mentally healthy, there’s only so much you can do in terms of making physical demands on your body.

What stresses you out?

In training and in life, as broad and silly as it sounds, [what stresses me out] is the unknown and not knowing how things are going to play out. One of the ways I combat that when I’m racing is through visualization. I’ll run through five to 10 different race plans, playing different scenarios in my head of how things could go. While I don't know what’s going to happen, at least I can feel prepared. It's a bit of a mind game, tricking yourself into being calm and not letting [nerves] get to you, mentally.

Do you do that before every race?

I do it pretty much before every race with my coach; it’s a collaborative effort. He’ll give me two or three different scenarios about the race, based on other athletes at the race. Having those thoughts in my back pocket — "regardless of what happens you’ll be OK” — makes me confident when I go to the line.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

"Consistency is key." Whether it's on the track or off, showing up and being consistent at whatever it is you’re going after — that’s some of the best advice or wisdom I use to get through life.

Is that your mantra for life?

Yeah! When you’re tied to the process — instead of the results — your highs aren’t too high and your lows aren’t too low. It makes for less stress because you can only control what you can control — and you can control your output.

Aside from physical activity, what else brings you joy?

Family, connecting, being social. Either with friends, teammates, family — being around people and connecting with people brings me joy.

Also, music. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not a big part of the athletic side [of me]. I don't listen to music when I'm training, only before I race. I’m a huge Beyoncé fan, so my go-to pre-race song is "I Was Here." I’ll have that on repeat. When I’m competing or training, I like to be in my own head and focus; because I love music so much, it’s a distraction... I’ll sing along! [laughs]

Video: Ajeé Wilson on training outdoors during the pandemic

Is there a wellness trend you think is overrated?

I don't know if this applies, but strictness around food seems passé. The idea that everything has to be so stringent is, to me, overrated.

Where do you get wellness or health inspo?

I rely on the USATF dieticians on staff; Alicia Glass is my go-to for any questions. I follow a lot of mental health pages on Instagram. I follow some vegan-ish pages too; I like watching people cook. I watched a YouTube series of [Olympic] shot putter Darrell Hill called Feeding the Streets.

Do you have a secret skill?

I like crafting and I like to think I make some pretty cool stuff. Last weekend, my niece had a drive-by graduation party and I made the letters. I’m a "craftinista;" I have a Cricut machine, but most of it is small, tedious finger work. I’ve been joking that I want to get on Etsy [laughs].

What are you looking forward to seeing at the upcoming games?

I'm looking forward to seeing gymnastics like everyone else [laughs]. Simone Biles is incredible! Another Simone, Simone Manuel, in swimming — I’m looking forward to that... and fencing.

Fencing?!?

At the last Olympic games, I randomly got tickets to other events. On my day off, there was a fencing match. It was super-cool... I didn't know anything about it before. Since then, I've become a fan and I’m excited to watch that competition. And, of course, track; it’ll be a long week of amazing performances.

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