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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