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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Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

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Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.

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