German biathlete Magdalena Neuner came into the Vancouver Olympics with six world championship titles in her pocket – but a history of wildly inconsistent shooting that has also left her with some poor results.
So when the young stand-out won her first of three medals so far at these Olympics – including two of Germany’s six gold medals – she had a simple answer for how she had become so much more consistent this year.
“I worked very hard, especially in the mental training,” she said, a concept she elaborated on later. “One has to understand that physical fitness alone isn't sufficient. My mental training is very complex and it makes me believe in myself…. To control your mind is more difficult than to control your body.”
As individual athletes increasingly come into the Olympic Games with huge expectations on their shoulders – not just for veterans, but for rising stars who have been hyped at home by eager advertisers and Olympic committees looking to cash in on sponsorships – sports psychology has become more mainstream than ever. Athletes from Neuner to Canadian gold medalist Alex Bilodeau to luge athlete and five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette have all talked about the mental techniques they use to achieve top success when it matters most.
“In the 1990s, a lot of coaches saw sports psychology as – well, if an athlete really has trouble or is a choker, then he/she needs to see a sports psychologist,” says Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee, who says that now “100 percent” of US athletes are using at least some of the mental skills he and his team teach. Those skills include visualization, breathing, body control, energy management, and the use of key words to help an athlete perform at his or her best – which is the key challenge of an event that is more media-intensive than most other competitions.
“At the Olympics it’s not about getting to a new level. The challenge of the Olympics is executing. All these tools are in service of executing your skill. That’s really hard to do at Games,” says Dr. McCann. “There are so many questions, so many thoughts – thoughts like, ‘If I don’t throw my long program [in figure skating], it will be worth millions of dollars to me.' ”
For better or worse, sports psychology has become tightly woven into the fabric of the Games. In Scandinavia, that’s set off a controversy, with Swedes ridiculing their Norwegian neighbors for bringing four full-time sports psychologists to these Games.
"There are only losers who use sports psychologists. My God, when athletes start to scream for psychologists is when we know that they have already lost," wrote columnist Lasse Anrell in the Aftonbladet newspaper, according to a translation on skierpost.com. "The Norwegians have a bit desperately called in an entire army of mumbo-jumbo talk."
Marcus Hellner, who won Sweden’s first gold in men’s cross-country skiing since 1988 on Saturday – beating Norwegian heavyweight Petter Northug – was quoted on skierpost.com before the race as saying that he didn’t need a psychologist. “I have teammates to support me if times are difficult,” he said.
Comedian Stephen Colbert also poked a bit of fun after being named assistant sports psychologist to the US speedskating team. In a live crash course with a real sports psychologist in which he learned that intimidating other athletes could be an effective tool, he suggested that a good tactic would be to tell the guy next to you that the stitching on the back seam of his speed skating suit had come out just before the race started.
But for most athletes, sports psychology is no joke. They rely on it to build their confidence, their belief in their training and their own capabilities, and to climb out of any ruts.
French biathlete Simon Fourcarde, who came into the Olympics as the overall World Cup leader – the biathlete with the most cumulative points in all the World Cups contested so far this season – credits a psychologist for helping him through a tough autumn.
“My mind was in a hole, so I asked [a psychologist] to help me,” he explains, adding that each mental training session lasts about 20 minutes. “We find a program to do step by step, to find confidence again.”
That includes breathing exercises – like yoga, but not, he says – and sessions both with the psychologist and alone.
“Also some visualizing,” he adds. “I try to visualize every possible situation – with wind, with fog, with people around me. Sometimes it stresses me when people are around me, when they pass me very fast.”
Unfortunately, that has been happening a lot at these Games, with Fourcade yet to medal – although his younger brother, Martin, won silver on Sunday.
But US skier Lindsey Vonn, who explained in a conference call before the Olympics that she usually spends an hour's preparation in visualizing her races, and then uses breathing exercises at the start gate to calm down, has had better success – gold and bronze, with more events to come.