Olympics on the brain

Olympic runner Manteo Mitchell broke his leg mid-race and still completed the event.

 

Guest blog by Hope Caldi

Imagine being American runner Manteo Mitchell last Thursday, when he heard something snap in the middle of his 4×400 meter Olympic relay preliminaries—and finished the race on a broken leg. Imagine how a first-time athlete at the Olympics learns to deal with having the expectations of an entire country weighing on their shoulders. Imagine being Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield, finishing his stellar Olympic career by breaking his collarbone in a freak cycling accident mid-race.

For most of us, the mental pressure faced by Olympians is as unimaginable as the physical demands.

What does it take mentally to continue focusing on a race – or a career – when faced with the agony of pain, self-doubt and even broken bones?

Some would say it simply takes grit. But psychological research provides much more sophisticated insight into what kind of mental state an athlete needs to succeed.

Wilfrid Laurier University Kinesiology researcher Kim Dawson helps some of Canada’s fastest runners develop the right kinds of mental strength. Four people she coaches are competing for Team Canada at the London Olympics: Marathoners Eric Gillis and Reid Coolsaet, steeplechaser Alex Genest, and Hilary Stellingwerff, who competes in the 1500-metre event.

Pouring her twenty years of research on sports psychology into her coaching, she shows athletes how their minds can affect their bodies’ potential.

“It doesn’t matter how strong their biomechanics are,” Dawson says, “If their minds are working against them, they’re just not going to do as well.”

Athletes have to conquer mental hurdles as well as physical ones.

“You have to remember that most of our athletes in Canada toil in obscurity, and then all of a sudden they’re thrust into the media and get a lot of attention,” Dawson says. “To keep focus in the games in terms of all the chaos that’s going around at the village, the timing of your event –  it’s all different.”

Dawson’s takes a structured approach to understanding the nexus of thought, emotion and physical performance in sport. Through this knowledge and one-on-one training, she has taught her runners to use cognitive restructuring and “trigger words” during a race to saturate their minds with positive messaging.

Dawson’s runners break a race into thirds, with different cue or ‘kick’ words for each section. The first third of the race includes words like “control,” “pace,” “set,” and “easy.” In the middle of the run they use “hold it,” “now,” and “you’re fine.” To finish she encourages very powerful words such as “let it rip” and “fly.”

Dawson also helps runners interpret what’s happening in their bodies – even helping them use physical pain to their advantage.

“I’m trying to get them to interpret pain as really valuable feedback,” she says. “The stimuli are going to be the same, but it’s the perception and interpretation of it that they can learn to control.”

Manteo Mitchell was asked what was running through his mind once he felt the snap in his leg, he said, “Faith, focus, finish. Faith, focus, finish. That’s the only thing I could say to myself.” While he does not train with Dawson, he does exemplify how powerful the mind can be in a physical challenge.

Stories such at Mitchell’s and research such as Dawson’s are both reminders that as impressive as Olympians might be physically, we can be equally impressed with the sheer force of what is happening in their minds.

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Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

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