Olympics on the brain
August 11, 2012
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.
The whole package
Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.