A plan of action
A plan of action
The Winter Olympic Games have arrived, and the pressure is on for every athlete striving to step foot on the podium. Past Canadian Olympic figure skating contenders have had Robert Schinke, Canada Research Chair in Multicultural Sport and Physical Activity, by their side, keeping them focused and motivated to win. A sport psychology professor at Laurentian University and a former professional equestrian, Schinke is a mental coach, guiding hopeful athletes through a gruelling four-year plan to get them to the Olympic Games ready and able. Most recently, Schinke co-authored a paper on the mental-preparation plan for the Canadian men’s and women’s Olympic boxing teams for Rio 2016.
Q: What is it about the Olympic Games that makes it difficult for athletes to stay focused and win?
A: At the Olympics, athletes aren’t just competing against the best in the world. They’re competing in a complex environment with elements such as high security, the risk of sport terrorism, high visibility and a global television audience. On top of that, they’re living in the Olympic Village with six to eight athletes to a room, so they often have sleep-deprivation issues. In addition to these challenges, the athletes are expected to produce their best ever performance during this event, the pinnacle of an amateur athlete’s career.
Q: Why is mental preparation crucial to winning?
A: Mental preparation for athletes requires mental toughness. It’s not just a one-off tournament. There are a lot of rounds of competition in the lead-up to the Olympics. One of the things I’ve found when travelling with athletes is that they start off fresh and then experience tournament fatigue due to overexposure to stress over a prolonged period of time compounded with a lack of sleep. They become flatlined. It makes perfect sense, but how do you devise a mental-training plan to enable athletes to remain fresh and build momentum throughout the Olympic Games? A four-year plan that allows for micro-transitions as the athletes progress through the rounds of qualifiers is important.
Q: This seems like quite an undertaking. How did you develop this four-year plan?
A: I approached Natalia Stambulova, a colleague of mine who is a psychologist, and we began working together on what a four-year template would look like so that the athletes will peak psychologically at the Olympic Games and be able to regroup into the next cycle. We built a template with a series of objectives in year one, then the athletes graduate from those objectives to objectives for years two, three and four.
Q: Take me through each year of the plan.
A: In the first year, we introduce the athletes to the philosophy of performance, sports science and the expectations that go along with performing in the Olympics. What the athletes lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm. During the first year of the cycle, I strike up a relationship with the athletes, work with the coaches and make sure that everyone’s sleeping well and that communication within the team is good.
In year two, the athletes are expected to push themselves through the tournaments, but with less of an expectation than when competing in the Olympics. For example, they’ll compete in the Commonwealth Games or, for winter sports, the world championships. The athletes should have all the major game competencies, such as how to combat tournament fatigue, how to regroup after each successive performance and how to communicate with other athletes.
By year three, they’re into Olympic qualifications, and if they don’t have their competencies, they won’t qualify. Athletes become expert self-evaluators and have logbooks to keep track of everything about themselves. The best athletes are the most self-aware and resilient and use appropriately selected mental strategies. This combination creates winners.
By year four, ideally, the athletes have already qualified for the Olympics, and if they haven’t, we have to re-engage them in a whole new cycle. If they’ve qualified, we’re tweaking things and adding the skills that are unique to the Olympic context, such as dealing with increased lines for food, tighter security, more variable officiating, the highest levels of media exposure, a global audience, a crowded Olympic Village and sleep deprivation when they’re expected to perform at their best. It takes four to six months to ground the athletes — and those who work with them — in what those expectations are like. Once at the Games, it’s pure execution, with much of the psychological adaptation done in advance of the tournament.
Q: In your experience working with athletes, what do they struggle with the most?
A: Past setbacks affect their future performances. To get athletes out of their own anticipated constraints is a very big challenge. They can know something at a cerebral level, but at an experiential level, they can’t get ahead of their past poor performances.
Focus is another thing. We start setting goals three weeks before a tournament. Each athlete has his or her own trigger words, such as an “I am” statement: “I am invincible” or “I am an enduring athlete.” I have the athletes post these statements all over their rooms, their workplace, the fridge, locker room, hotel room. These phrases are effective because the athletes have to stop and read them, ingraining those ideas into their mindset.
From three weeks prior to the event to the day of the competition, it’s a matter of execution. I am the guy who works closely with the athletes. We have breakfast, they’ll go to their room to rest, and I’ll go for a walk with them afterwards or touch base with the coaches. I’m beside them on the way to the venue, and in the dressing room, it’s the coach, the athlete and me.
Q: With all this preparation, a loss must be even more difficult to handle. How do you train athletes to deal with loss so that they don’t set themselves up for failure the next time?
A: Athletes can come off a loss and then come back and win a world championship, and it’s all in how they interpret the loss, looking at what they did well and what they need to improve upon. The debriefing with each athlete and the coaching staff, which is conducted after every international tournament, happens in two stages. During the first stage, at approximately the 24-hour point post-performance, we look for logistical errors and mistakes in equipment selection. Within two to three days post-loss, we do a thorough video analysis to stimulate our discussions and then proceed to talk about the personal and emotional components of the performance. With each successive debriefing, it is important to leave the athletes with an understanding of their performance, which leads to substantive confidence steeped in factual data, and of their ability to improve and win the next time around.
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