For an Olympic athlete who has dedicated years of training to his or her sport, the difference between success and failure can come down to just a few seconds, a few inches or a fraction of a point — slim margins that contribute to the intense pressure elite competitors face.
Fortunately, there has been growing acceptance among both athletes and coaches of sport psychology's role in helping athletes manage those pressures and enhance their performance. One sign of that growing commitment: The number of full-time sport psychologists hired by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has increased from just one to six over the last 20 years.
When senior sport psychologist Sean McCann, PhD, started at the USOC 21 years ago, his talks to teams would focus on trying to sell the idea of sport psychology. "Now we don't have to do that," he says. "They get it."
Today, McCann and other sport psychologists — within the USOC and beyond — are prescribing imagery, relaxation techniques, self-talk and other evidence-based interventions as they help prepare the nation's top athletes for the 2012 summer Olympics in London July 27 to Aug. 12.
Ideally, McCann starts working with teams two to four years before the next Olympics so he can build strong relationships with athletes and coaches as they compete in trials and pressure builds.
"You're like any other coach, except you're focusing on the mental domain," says McCann, who estimates that USOC sport psychologists spend 100 days a year on the road following athletes to training camps, matches and the Olympics itself.
Although he gives talks to entire teams once or twice a year, most of McCann's time is spent working with individuals.
Many just want help maintaining their focus or finding other ways to boost their performance. "It's not so much that there's something going wrong," says McCann, a former "serious amateur" bike racer who is preparing the shooting and equestrian teams for this summer's games. "It's like strength conditioning; it's part of what they do to get ready for competition season."
Other athletes need help with such concerns as low self-confidence or problems communicating with teammates or coaches.
Anticipating potential problems is another part of the job. At the Beijing Olympics, for example, American shooters were up against a Chinese shooter who was a national hero favored to win the gold. To prepare shooters for the distraction of a boisterous, home-country crowd cheering for an opponent, McCann urged athletes to listen to iPod files of crowd noises during workouts.
Sport psychologists also help athletes cope with the same kind of problems everyone has, whether it's a death in the family or a break-up. "You can't wait for issues to resolve themselves," says McCann. "The game schedule is the game schedule; they need to be ready to go and focused on July 26."
There are also sport-specific problems, says Karen D. Cogan, PhD, another USOC senior sport psychologist whose "sportfolio" includes acrobatic and combat sports.
With sports like diving and gymnastics, she says, one common issue is fear, as athletes confront "doing multiple flips in the air, twisting to land a certain way or jumping from heights that are more than most people can imagine jumping off of." In some cases, Cogan recommends that athletes practice envisioning themselves doing a difficult task. Other athletes are already thinking too much, so she urges them to use distraction techniques, such as feeling their movement rather than thinking about what they need to do.
"For the most part, the body knows what to do," she says. "They just have to turn off their minds."
Sports that require athletes to have direct contact with an opponent, such as boxing and fencing, bring other potential problems. "Then it's not just about them being mentally tough and focused — things that are under their control — but also dealing with how well someone else is performing," says Cogan. Combat simulations in which athletes either imagine or engage in mock fights can help them learn to focus on what they're doing rather than on their foes' actions.
When you're dealing with teams rather than individuals, says Cogan, the potential problems multiply. "The more people you have, the more different personalities and dynamics, the more complicated it can be to get them all working toward the same goals," she says. With teams, one critical focus is facilitating communication — helping teammates overcome disagreements or misunderstandings and work toward the same goal.
For Jim Bauman, PhD, the consulting sport psychologist for USA Swimming, the key to working with athletes is to make his suggestions as concrete as possible.
"Athletes tend to be a lot more visual and kinesthetic learners," says Bauman, who spends most of his year as a sport psychologist at the University of Virginia. "They're hands-on versus auditory learners."
Using props helps ensure that athletes remember Bauman's recommendations even under maximum stress, he says. To demonstrate the importance of being pliable, durable and resilient rather than mentally tough, for example, he shows how it's possible to break a piece of wood over your knee but impossible to do the same with a phone book. "Some athletes get into a routine that becomes ritualistic," says Bauman. "If they can't do that routine — if there's a surprise, distraction or delay — it's easy for them to be taken off track."
Bauman also scours junkyards for car tachometers to help teach athletes how to manage anxiety. Tachometers, which measure an engine's revolutions per minute (RPMs), offer a useful analogy for athletes' anxiety levels, he says. At one extreme, he shows athletes, the tachometer indicates the engine is idling. As a driver shifts gears and heads down the highway, the tachometer settles around the middle as the car cruises comfortably. On the far right side of the dial, the tachometer is typically colored red or orange — a warning not to put the engine under so much stress.
"What I'll see is that a couple of days before a race or the night before, athletes' tachometers — their emotional revolutions — are just redlining," he says. The tachometers provide a visual lesson in inefficiency and wasted energy and the need to cruise rather than redline.
To underscore that message with the swimmers he's working with, Bauman suggests that they put together their own music playlists, with slower music that represents idling or resting, medium- to faster-paced music that offers a beat-per-minute pace similar to their competition stroke-per-minute rate and very fast music to represent "redlining" or excessive anxiety.
"Using these playlists makes it easier for them to remain aware of their psychological and physiological energy levels, or RPMs, as they relate to various stages of getting ready to compete," he says.
Cues can also help during competition, says Bauman. "It's good for us to sit and talk in the office, on the sidelines or on the pool deck during practice, but it's so easy for them to go back to their old ways as soon as they're back in a competitive environment," he says. "You can't depend on memory, because the emotions are so high."
When Bauman worked with ski jumpers, for example, he noticed that they all looked down to check their bindings before jumping. Putting a relevant word or symbol on each ski helped remind them to do whatever they needed to do. A simple letter "P," for example, can remind athletes to keep a healthy perspective and focus on their assets — skills, strength and great support staff — rather than negatives — inadequate preparation, tough opponents and the high stakes of competition.
Working with coaches is another way to make sure sport psychology messages get through to athletes, says Steve Portenga, PhD, chair of the psychological services subcommittee at USA Track and Field.
Portenga has helped develop educational programs that teach coaches basic sport psychology principles and help them understand the needs of special populations, such as younger athletes. The programs also teach coaches interventions they can use to help athletes hone such skills as relaxation.
"You can get to hundreds of athletes through coaching education," says Portenga. "It's much more difficult to get to athletes directly." Plus, he says, coaches usually have more influence over athletes than sport psychologists do, for good or bad.
Portenga recalls working with a college team several years ago. Just before a match, the coach announced that the opposing team was one he used to work for and urged his current team to go out and beat them. "It took only 30 seconds for the coach to undo the great progress we'd made over the course of four or five months," says Portenga. "We had been focusing on the process — being able to perform at your best regardless of the outcome — and had been getting good outcomes." The result of the coach's message? Distracted players and one of the season's worst meets.
Once the Olympics begin, Portenga will urge coaches, medical staff and others to be "his eyes and ears," watching for signs of trouble.
"There's a tremendous amount of nervous energy and boredom," Portenga says of the Olympic Village. "Given enough time to sit and stew, people who normally handle pressure well sometimes struggle."
The pressure doesn't just get to athletes and coaches, adds McCann. Psychologists have to take care of themselves, too.
"As a sport psychologist, you need to make sure you've got good skills so you're not freaking out at the games," says McCann. "I try to be a positive presence and be someone who doesn't look terrified, because that can be contagious."
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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