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.

Share: Print

Leave Comments

Blog Posts

Creating community through cuisine

Emma Drake | April 27, 2016

Food is more than a meal; it can be intrinsic to a person’s identity. But for refugees, part of their identity is challenged when they settle in countries that don’t offer foods from home. “We share culture and richness through food,” says Valencia Gaspard, a PhD student in rural studies at the University of Guelph. “Food can be used to build communities and bring people together.” Valencia is part of a team of student studying the availability of ethnocultural foods in Toronto. They will be examining how these foods are used to manifest a culture through cuisine. “Keystone ingredients, such as camel’s milk or sesame oil have great importance to the meal,” she says. “Not being able to choose what you eat is dis-empowering.” read more »

Farmers get ahead of ...

Araina Bond | April 19, 2016

Anticipating Mother Nature has always been an important part of farming. Now farmers in Northeastern Ontario can make more informed decisions using real-time data about environmental conditions, thanks to Nipissing University researchers. The Nipissing team has created an online system called GeoVisage, which uses seven weather stations throughout Northern Ontario to collect data on microclimates. That includes air and soil temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, leaf wetness and photosynthetically active radiation — that is, sunlight plants can use for photosynthesis. read more »
quinoa plants

Quinoa puts down roots ...

Jessica Shapiro | April 14, 2016

Ancient Incas considered quinoa their most sacred food. Packed with protein, vitamins and amino acids, it gave them stamina, strength and energy needed for survival. No wonder NASA has researched growing quinoa on long journeys to outer space. Despite the seed's explosion in world popularity over the past few years, including a massive increase in demand throughout North America, almost no farmers outside the Andes Mountains in South America grow it. Issues related to quality, supply, cost and importation have encouraged scientists to experiment with cultivating the crop in Ontario. At the Trent University Sustainable Agriculture Experimental Farm, Mehdi Sharifi is working with his students to make organic quinoa production viable for Ontario farmers. read more »
Larissa Barelli waters plants

Fine tuning fungi’s ...

Sharon Oosthoek | April 8, 2016

Nobody takes revenge like Mother Nature. After all, she created entomopathogenic fungi — organisms that not only kill crop pests, but offer up nutrients in the insects' bodies to the plant. "It's a cool mechanism," says University of Brock PhD biotech student Larissa Barelli who studies evolution of these fungi. "Certain species can drill through the insect's cuticle, grow within it and eat it from the inside. They can also release toxins that kill the insect. The fungi then transfers nitrogen from the insect to the plant." read more »

Trash-talking weeds stress crops

Sharon Oosthoek | April 4, 2016

Crop scientists have long known that plants can communicate with each other about their environment and make decisions about growth based on these conversations. But recent research out of the University of Guelph shows weeds can "talk" a crop plant to death. Plants trade information through chemical signals and changes in sunlight reflected off other plants growing nearby. University of Guelph plant agriculture researcher Clarence Swanton and his team showed for the first time the effect of communication between crop seedlings and nearby weeds. read more »
More Blogs »