Training the mind of an Olympian

It takes more than grueling workouts to become an elite athlete. Mental strength is just as important as physical condition. UCalgary researchers study how athletes can win on the playing fields of the mind.

By Karen Thomas
August 2016

 

For two weeks in August, during the XXXI Olympiad in Rio de Janeiro, millions around the globe were glued to the enthralling stream of Olympic events on our televisions and our favourite Web sites.

We saw athletes at the podium, medals around their necks, beaming with pride. What we didn't see were the grueling training sessions, years of life sacrifice and gut-wrenching work it took to get there. There is a team behind that moment – loved ones, of course, and a crew of expert mentors dedicated to optimizing performance and helping athletes achieve big dreams.

"An Olympian wrote to me"

For gold-medal-winner Erica Wiebe (BA’12, BA’16), the road to Rio began nearly a decade ago with a handwritten letter from one of those pivotal mentors.  In 2007, Christine Nordhagen – a six-time world-champion wrestler – invited Wiebe to move across Canada and join the Dino squad at UCalgary. “I still have the letter. I remember how cool it was that an Olympian wrote to me,” she remembers.

Wiebe went on to win three Canadian championships with the Dinos as her passion for wrestling grew. Then, a turning point in 2012: during the trials for the London Olympics, she lost a close match to her friend and teammate Leah Callahan. And out of those dashed hopes came a new twist. “Leah invited me to be her training partner in London, and I got to go as an accredited member of Team Canada,” she says with a smile.

After soaking in the London games, Wiebe returned home with a new understanding of the importance of mindset. “I said, 'Erica, you need to believe in yourself and you need to put everything into this journey.'”

Training the mind to overcome stress and distractions

Penny Werthner, PhD, dean of UCalgary's Faculty of Kinesiology, has seen this transformation in dozens of athletes. “Talent is a piece of the performance puzzle, but a small piece," she says. "The physical, tactical, and technical aspects, as well as health, nutrition, sleep – as an athlete and coach, you want to get all that right. With those pieces in place, the psychological component becomes important, and it is what often determines a medal-winning performance.”

“Talent is a piece of the performance puzzle, but a small piece."

 

Having worked with Olympic medal-winning athletes for more than two decades, Werthner’s approach is to utilize bio- and neurofeedback to help athletes understand what is going in their body and brain. Canada’s national initiative, Own the Podium, allowed her to equip her laboratory with the latest technology for research, and for training athletes.

During sessions, she uses both biofeedback and electroencephalography (EEG) to record, measure, and display to athletes the cascading effect their thoughts can have on their nervous system. “The process of learning to self-regulate, both physiologically and neurologically, is quite powerful. And it is important that what an athlete learns in the lab can be utilized in real world training and competitions.”

In research with a group of elite athletes, examining the outcomes of learning to enhance self-awareness and self-regulation (in press, The Sport Psychologist), Werthner describes the process of learning. In a study of fifteen elite athletes, published in the journal Biofeedback, Werthner and colleagues found that the better athletes are at self-regulation, the better their world rankings in their sport.

Iñaki Gomez (JD’15) was thrilled when the Athletics Canada head coach introduced him to Werthner in 2013. Gomez’s own coach, Gerry Dragomir, also encouraged him to participate in this research. “Being involved in her research means I get to plug my brain into a computer, and see how it reacts. Cool,” he jokes. A silver medalist in the 20-km race walk at the 2015 Pan Am games, Gomez represented Canada in Rio. No matter how many punishing miles he logs on the river pathways of Calgary, working on his mental game is just as essential.

Gomez_Inaki.jpg

Caption: 

Photo credit: Claus Andersen, Athletics Canada

Werthner takes athletes through a step-by-step process with an initial assessment to see how they react to stressful situations, from both a physiological and psychological perspective. “What they begin to learn is that while anxiety is an inevitable part of high performance sport, they can learn to effectively manage that anxiety – to shift their internal states and produce thoughts that are more productive,” she says.

The training portion involves auditory and visual feedback that helps athletes learn to focus on a particular task and how to recover if they lose that focus. Athletes perform a series of visual tasks to help hone the ability to focus their attention. “There are three boats racing. I control one of the boats, and when my mind wanders, my boat gets slower or stops, and then loses the race,” says Gomez. With training, athletes learn to manage distractions and maintain the requested focus. “Our process teaches athletes who they are, how they react to stress, and how to effectively manage it,” Werthner says.

Join researcher Penny Werthner as she reviews how her work has helped Olympians improve performance by learning to maintain focus and manage anxiety.

Watch webinar

It’s like a strategic plan for business

“Penny and I have developed a written plan: what I do when I wake up on race day, what I visualize during the warm up, and what I think about during the various segments of the race,” he says. Gomez takes an hour and 20 minutes to race 20 kilometers so his sessions with Werthner help him practice being in two states: clearly focused or an ‘idling’ state.

“Iñaki has learned how to ‘dial it down’ neurologically," Werthner says. "His objective for the first 15 kilometers is to use as little energy as possible to stay in a good position – shoulders down, relaxed, not processing too much information in the early stages."

 

Staying in the zone

Inhabiting that “flow state”, as David Paskevich, PhD, describes it, is everyone’s goal. However, this rarely happens in competition. “We know that mental skills and emotional management are essential, so we train those skills – relaxation, energization, visualization, self talk, attention, and focus. It generally takes two, three years for athletes to take ownership of the things we work on,” he says.

Paskevich, an associate professor of kinesiology, has trained dozens of Olympians to optimize their mental performance from Salt Lake City in 2002 to Sochi in 2014. His work focuses on building the mental skills and emotional management needed to perform under pressure.

“The most challenging piece is stress. Athletes come to a fork in the road and start thinking, I am nervous. I am not prepared. I don’t have the abilities,” he says. Paskevich works with them on interpreting their anxiety as something that will help them, giving them a sense of control.  Athletes can then slow their breathing, counter negative thoughts with positive affirmations, and visualize performing their best. “I can still have a racing heart, and butterflies in my stomach. But instead of seeing a threat, I see a challenge. We reframe that pressure, and influence how the athlete responds,” he says.

This advice is useful to anyone who needs to perform – whether it is a presentation to customers, or a high-powered meeting with investors.

Things to remember:

  • Tune into what circumstances are stressful for you and how that stress affects your body. Notice whether your muscles get tense, or your heart races.
  • Develop a routine. Sit in a chair and relax your muscles one by one. Take slow, deep breaths, about six per minute.
  • Practice calming strategies in low-pressure situations. You can draw on that learning when you are stressed.
  • Anxious thoughts are normal. Generate positive statements to counteract negative ones.
  • Stop judging yourself. Shift your attention. Breathe and relax your shoulders.

 

Werthner and Paskevich also emphasize the importance of tapping into the support of friends and family. “A key ingredient in how you manage is who you surround yourself with, and who’s in your support network,” says Paskevich.

Your posse really matters

Wiebe credits her support system, coaches and teammates with keeping her on the path to Rio. “In wrestling, you literally need someone to train with every day. My core training partners are the Dino varsity teams – men and women. Their energy and passion push me to go out on the international stage.”

Gomez, too, appreciates that coaches, teammates and his UCalgary professors have helped him earn his law degree and compete internationally as an elite racewalker. He notices the lessons he has learned with Werthner are valuable in everyday life, and especially useful in his future work as a lawyer. “Commit. You have to commit fully. Otherwise, doubt and lack of focus will show itself.”

As these two athletes hit the mat, and the road in Rio, their invisible support team resides behind-the-scenes cheering them on. “It is incredibly rewarding when you see them accomplish something they have worked so hard for. If they go prepared, you know you have done your job well,” says Paskevich.

“I step out on the mat as one person. But my wrestling is the culmination of so many people’s efforts, support, and belief in me,” says Wiebe, with a smile.

About our experts

David Paskevich, PhD, is an associate professor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. His research focuses on applied sport psychology, and how athletes and coaches perceive stress, and develop their ability to cope with stressors during practice and competition. He currently studies how mental skills, mental toughness, psychological hardiness and coping effectiveness impact sport performance. Access a list of David’s academic papers here.
Penny Werthner, PhD, is the dean of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology. One of Canada’s top consultants in sports psychology, she serves on the editorial board for the International Sport Coaching Journal. Her research, done in collaboration with elite athletes across Canada, investigates the effect of bio- and neurofeedback on athletic performance. Find a list of Penny’s academic papers here.​
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