What Premeds Can Learn from

Olympic Athletes

by Jennifer Nemecek

February 15, 2018

As I sit here in my living room watching the downhill skiers of the 2018 winter Olympics, I can’t help but reflect upon how these elite athletes got to this point. I can only imagine their daily routine, diet, training, injuries and numerous sacrifices and setbacks. Although a very different journey, I believe there are many transferable lessons premeds can learn from our dedicated Olympic athletes. 

  • Results Require Hard Work

  • Take Care of Your Body

  • Mindfulness Training

  • Invite Reflection and Practice Resilience

  • Be a Team Player

1) Results Require Hard Work

Hard work is synonymous with being an Olympic athlete. Long hours, repetitious exercises, multiple sacrifices and constant revisions mark the life and struggles of an elite athlete. An Olympic athlete did not get to where they are by just doing what is expected of them or less. They are fundamentally motivated to do more than what is asked of them. Many premeds have a similar drive, but some simply do not know what is required to excel.

In order for a premed to survive (not excel but survive) students must dedicate at least 60 hours/week to their academics. If they want to excel, they need to dedicate even more. For every one hour of academic instruction, a student must spend at least 3 hours of outside study time. For a student taking 15 semester hours of classroom contact time, they must dedicate AT LEAST 45 hours of outside study time per week. So 15 + 45 = 60 total hours/week. In reality some classes will require more than 3 hours while others require less but the basic formula still stands.

As an Assistant Dean for 15 years, I often encountered premeds who complained that they were indeed spending a lot of time studying but they were not seeing the results they expected. After closer examination, it was determined that these students were not dedicating the necessary hours of study time. Being a full time student requires putting in full time hours. 20 hours of study time per week is not enough to see results in any curriculum. 45-60 hours of study time is expected for a full time student. I’m not suggesting that you train like an Olympic athlete but you need to understand that there is a direct correlation between study time and results. 

2) Take Care of Your Body

Olympic athletes are incredibly in tune with how their body works. They understand the importance of diet and sleep as ways to excel and improve athletic performance.

As a premed, you learned that nutrition, exercise and sleep play essential roles in maintaining a healthy body and disease prevention. You know regular exercise has been proven to improve memory and strengthen brain activity. So listen to this advice and take care of your own body. College campuses also have many services and centers to help you succeed but far too many students don’t take full advantage of their offerings.  Take a free class at the Wellness Center, find a work out partner for motivation and inspiration, take a meditation class or nutrition seminar.

Let’s be honest, college life is packed with opportunities to embrace an unhealthy lifestyle. Staying up late, grabbing a snack for dinner then eating late, stress and cramming for exams all contribute to an imbalance that can negatively impact your studies. Just like an Olympic athlete, get to know your body and make changes to improve your health. Create a schedule and for the most part, stick to it.  Get proper sleep, eat a balanced diet, make exercise a priority, learn coping strategies for stress and limit alcoholic intake. Consider biking to work or enroll in a spin class; join the rock climbing club or intramural sports team.

You can even turn your health interest into a tangible activity on your medical school application. Perhaps find the psychology sleep lab on campus and become a research assistant. Volunteer as a mentor in the campus wellness center or become a fitness partner for someone recovering from surgery. Apply to be an athletic trainer for a sports team or design and teach a salsa dance class at the senior center. Practice what you preach and embrace a healthy lifestyle.

3) Mindfulness Training

Just watch the Olympics you can see how many athletes fall short of their expected performance due to nerves, pressure and stress. Mindfulness training can be very helpful when athletes seek to enhance athletic performance but it’s not an easy achievement and requires practice.

Mindfulness is very important in competition as you need all your senses focused on the moment. When you observe elite athletes (e.g. Michael Phelps) just before their big event, you often see them listening to music or closing their eyes and imagining their routine. For Phelps, music relaxes him and helps him focus on his race.

As a premed, mental preparedness and mindfulness training can also be helpful. MCAT worries and preparation, test anxiety, ever-challenging coursework, and constant pressure to maintain high grades can paralyze even the most talented student.  Practicing mindfulness can clear your mind of distractions and worrisome thoughts so you are better equipped to perform on the task assigned. Find balance in your life through proactive planning not reactive emergencies that create stressful occurrences and anxiety. Like an athlete, take care of your body as well as your mind and the two will work in harmony for optimal success.

4) Invite Reflection and Practice Resilience

Olympic athletes often experience multiple setbacks on their journey to greatness. Sometimes these setback can mentally paralyze an athlete and stop forward progress due to the overemphasis on the mistakes and not on positive outcomes. Elite athletes strive for continuous self-reflection both positive and negative. This allows them to incrementally grow towards their goal without feeling constantly pulled back by their shortfalls.

In addition to mindfulness training, keep a reflection journal of your goals, experiences and setbacks. Olympic athlete Mikaela Shiffrin and tennis superstar Serena Williams keep journals. Serena uses them to clear out negative thoughts while Mikaela fills her pages with thoughts, goals and ideas for improvement in preparation for competition.

As a premed, you are not immune to setbacks and disappointments but do not let these experiences drag you down. You need to figure out how to turn setbacks into opportunities for improvement and success. Journal about these setbacks and create goals to move forward. Harping on the past does no one any good. Focusing on strategies for improvement shows resilience and integrity both qualities that are important to medical school admissions staff.

The medical school application will not only require you to articulate your experiences but it will require you to reflect on them. So how did working at the Hope Clinic inform your decision to become a physician? What strategies did you employ to improve your grade in Organic Chemistry from a C+ in the fall semester to an A- in the spring? Keeping your own premed journal including details about your clinical and work experiences will help you recall these experiences and reflect upon them in an essay or interview.

5) Be a Team Player

No Olympic athlete stands on a medal podium and says I did it all by myself. Athletes may win individually, but they train together. Athletes create a support system of peers, coaches, advisors, doctors, friends and family all pushing and supporting the individual to achieve great heights. Throughout this process, each athlete then shares their own support and knowledge with others and looks for new athletes to mentor and encourage. 

The field of medicine is a team sport, so start practicing this as a premed. Create a team of individuals that will support you through this challenging journey. Your team might consist of other premeds, a premed advisor, faculty, doctors, research mentors and of course friends and family. Once you feel supported, reach out and mentor others. Tutor someone in a science subject you mastered; share your love of science with middle school students who are struggling; volunteer to be a mentor in the premed office.

Consider creating a study group, mentoring an underclassman, or becoming a leader in your lab or student club. In your secondary applications, you will often be asked about your experience solving a problem using teamwork. To best answer this question, have at least 2 leadership experiences to draw from and refer back to your journal to re-read your reflections, observations and details in order to build a compelling, reflective essay.

Premeds should not feel in competition with one another for grades or placement at a particular medical school. As a premed, you are only in competition with yourself.  

So a recipe for success as a premed should include working hard, taking care of both your body and your mind and creating a supportive team.


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