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Mental Health just as important for athletes as physical fitness and training

February 13, 2014

olympicsThe Sochi Winter Olympics are here! As spectators cheer for their country, athletes gear up to face the culmination of years of preparation. For them, a split second can mean the difference between winning a medal or being left off the podium; and the desire to succeed for one’s self, family, team and country is enormous. Additionally, some athletes may be coping with the diagnosis of a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression. To help athletes prepare for competitions, cope with performance anxiety, function well as part of a team and cultivate resiliency, many countries employ sports psychologists.

Sports psychologists use a variety of techniques to help athletes perform to the best of their ability. They usually begin working with athletes and their coaches four to five years before the Olympics, to establish trust and rapport. Through team activities, such as rock climbing, holiday parties and shared meals, they help athletes develop solidarity amongst each other. Sports psychologists also employ techniques such as visualization, simulation and positive thinking.

Sports psychologists employ techniques such as visualization to help athletes perform to the best of their ability.

Visualization involves the athlete using all five senses to envision the details surrounding an event. Athletes think about how they would feel during an event, what the crowds would sound like as well as all the motions that they would undertake to successfully complete their activity. The focus is always on the process, rather than on the outcome of winning or losing. Athletes would also use positive self-talk to build their confidence.

Often, the sports psychologist will use music and sounds to simulate a noisy crowd cheering on an opponent to help athletes deal with potential distractions on the day of the event. They show athletes that a certain amount of anxiety is helpful to succeed, but too much anxiety can be detrimental. They use cues of action to help athletes remember concepts such as the letter “P” on a ski to cue athletes to have a healthy perspective and think about all of their assets and strengths before they undertake their event.

Recently, sports psychologists have encouraged athletes to think about the potential for failure. It is impossible for athletes to completely ignore the thought, and the more one tries to ignore it, the more it surfaces. In order to help athletes deal with the concept, psychologists ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And athletes realize that their true identity will not be compromised by the lack of a medal. Their families will still love and support them. Their countries will not lower their flags or stop all activity. This realization helps athletes to develop resiliency and overcome crippling anxiety to perform to the best of their ability.

The Olympics are a testament that gold medal performances require good mental health as well as optimal physical functioning. Additionally, resiliency in the face of loss is the greatest determinant of future success.

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