Four evenings a week, before Ian Magrath goes to bed, the Canadian Olympic ski jumping hopeful listens to a 15-minute cassette tape. Magrath, 22, from Whitby, Ont., is among the growing number of athletes using psychological techniques to prepare for the Calgary Winter Olympic Games. For more than two years University of Ottawa sports psychologist Dr. Terry Orlick has helped Magrath attempt to fully utilize his leg strength at the critical split second when he takes off from the ski jump ramp. The cassette, designed to buoy Magrath’s confidence and reinforce the positive aspects of his jumping, is a recorded pep talk by Orlick. In soothing tones, he offers, among other encouragements: “You are strong. You have the power to do what you want to do.” Said Magrath: “It may seem unorthodox, but when you get to the level of sports where everyone is of equal physical skill, what differentiates you is the ability to use your psyche, your ability to concentrate. The mental part is vital.”
Mental: Until recently, self-confidence and the ability to concentrate were considered aspects of an athlete’s natural talent. But each year more and more athletes and coaches are adopting psychological training techniques, convinced that mental and emotional strengths can be learned, nurtured and controlled to enhance performance. Indeed, by next February, members of all but one of Canada’s Olympic teams—bobsleigh—will have had consultations with one or more of the 17 sports psychologists funded by Sport Canada. Indeed, Canada’s best hope for a gold medal, world figure skating champion Brian Orser, will work with his psychologist, Dr. Peter Jensen, up to the moment his blades touch the ice. Like Orser, world-class Canadian backstroke swimmer Mark Tewksbury, 19, is a firm believer in the techniques. Said Tewksbury: “I give mental preparation half the credit for my going from 38th-best in the world to fourth.”
Still, psychological training is not universally endorsed, even within the Canadian Olympic community itself. Said Abby Hoffman, director general of Sport Canada and four-time Canadian Olympic middle-distance runner: “My
concern is for the environment surrounding the athlete and whether it is in danger of becoming cluttered with the support staff. And I’m not sure that having crutches supports the capacity of athletes.” Skeptics like Hoffman contend that sports psychologists may diminish the role of the athletes themselves. Said Canadian Olympic cross-
country skier Angela Schmidt-Foster, 28, of Midland, Ont.: “If you have a desire in your heart to become world class, then mental skills are very much a part of your work naturally.” Support: Still, the psychologists will be in Calgary to provide Canadian team members with relaxation techniques, imagery training, emotional support or simple pep talks. Said sports psychologist Dr. Brent Rushall of San Diego State University: “Cana-
da has definitely led the way in Western countries in the use of psychological support for athletes.” Indeed, according to Dr. John Partington, a sports psychologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, the best athletes are those who practise mental imagery. Said Partington: “Athletes visualize a really good performance, trying to to-
tally recall the environment and to repeat it in their minds. The effect can be dramatic. Sometimes the hair rises on their arms and they breathe heavily. We try to reinforce what is working for them.”
To assist national coaches, the Coaching Association of Canada produced a 24-minute video of athletes undergoing mental-imagery training. In it, former Olympic diver Sylvie Bernier of Ste-Foy, Que., declares that her
ability to visualize the perfect dive enabled her to repeat it physically. Says Bernier: “Everything was in my head. I could see my perfect dive, and when I actually went up on the platform, I had seen it before.”
Monitor: Figure skater Orser will also have a sense of déjà vu when he skates at the Olympic Saddledome. Last week Jensen, athletic director at York University’s Glendon College in Toronto, took Orser to an arena in Orillia, Ont., to simulate a competition. With seven figure skating judges sitting at rink-side, Orser performed his short program. For two minutes and 15 seconds he imagined that Orillia was Calgary, that the judges were critically assessing his every move and that the gold medal was at stake. On the eve of his actual Olympic performance, Jensen will take Orser and his teammates through a relaxation session. And minutes before he takes to the ice, Jensen will monitor the world champion’s mental rehearsal as he physically walks through his program.
The role of Canada’s sports psychologists received support from a report commissioned by Sport Canada following the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Assessing the Canadian team’s preparations for those Games, the report found that the athletes considered mental readiness crucial to their performances. But according to Partington, there is a lack of understanding by some coaches. Said Partington: “We find that some coaches are still not helpful agents in this aspect of training. We refine, not impose, mental skills. We help athletes find the recipe.”
Puzzle: For his part, Marty Hall, coach of the national cross-country ski team, endorses the work of sports psychologists. Said Hall, who has worked with Rushall for the past three years: “It is the final piece to the puzzle. When two athletes are even-steven, the difference is in the head.”
Next February, with more than three billion people around the world watching via television, and thousands of people cheering just metres away in Calgary, Canada’s Olympians will call upon that psychological training. After years of physical preparation and sacrifice, Magrath, Orser and the maj ority of their teammates will try to calm their pounding hearts and visualize a perfect performance. Said Magrath: “Just the sound of 55,000 people cheering will be something to contend with. But I will try to treat it like just another jump, like the ones I do before going to sleep.”
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