HAMPTON ROADS — With the Paris Summer Olympic Games officially one year away, local athletes are gearing up for a year of qualifying competitions.
WYDaily recently sat down with two local sports psychologists to learn more about the mental training these elite athletes go through.
Dr. Deidre Connelly, William & Mary sports psychologist, has been working with NCAA athletes for over 20 years. Through her work with athletes, she’s helped aid in test anxiety, competition pressures, and more.
“The mind is the gateway to performance. Your mindset will either feed or impede. People that work under stress for a long period of time have to be aware of how they manage stress, how they internalize it, how they react to it, what their coping mechanisms are, and what works for them. When you take athletics, it’s just like any high-powered job or situation, where there are things you can control and things you can’t,” Connelly said.
When it comes to the mental pressures that elite-level athletes are under, most of them are aware of the limited chances they have to compete at the highest level of their sport.
“Whenever you have limited chances to do something, the stakes are always higher. You become concerned with the consequences, and at a lower level you may be able to keep those in perspective, but your perspective gets really altered when you have a limited number of chances to win,” Connelly said.
Connelly says that if those athletes trust their training, know they have left everything out on the floor, they want it bad enough, it can happen.
While the Olympics are the world’s biggest sports stage, Connelly says that many athletes train under crowd conditions, noise, and more to prepare for their Olympic competition moment.
“You have to get used to what it feels like at this level, how do you have confidence in something that you have not done before? You have to feel confident to compete at this level before you even set foot on the Olympic stage. In order to compete under pressure, you have to practice under pressure,” Connelly said.
When it comes to dealing with the joy of winning and the agony of defeat, the key according to Connelly is processing.
“Any big event, when it’s over, we have to come back down from that adrenaline rush. It’s normal to feel a certain way after experiencing a big disappointment or a huge victory. You have to process that and come to grips with it. Sports will always be emotional, getting support from coaches and professionals, and understanding that another team may have just had a better day than you did is key,” Connelly said.
Kai Laird, Director of Integrative Health at The Performance Pursuit at the WISC, has also worked with top-notch athletes. Laird is a licensed professional counselor who helps athletes deal with the mental pressures of competing at various levels.
“It’s a multitude of pressures that these athletes face from dealing with earning sponsorships, training, the competitive landscape. It’s a lot more challenging, they are having to generate this revenue from different areas, just to fund their entire career. The Olympics is the peak of that career, you compete as a professional for your whole life and you do Olympic Trials, which comes with its own set of pressures, because even if you do well, it doesn’t mean that you will make the cut,” Laird says.
Once an athlete has made the Olympic team, an entire new set of pressures take over. Competing with the world watching, Laird often tells his athletes to focus on their own training, what they can control, and staying in the here and now.
“It’s all about perspective. You can think about the thing that is causing all the stress or you can redirect it. It is up to the athlete, as best as possible, to try and manage their perspective and to focus on the things they can control. They should focus on the things that make them excited, not nervous. Some of the same physical things we experience when we are nervous could easily be the ones we experience when we are excited,” Laird says.
According to Laird, the mental pressures of competing on sports highest stage can take a toll on athletes, but it all comes down to trust.
“99% of them have done the work to get to the games. At the end of the day, it’s not going to come down to practicing that extra session or putting in extra hours, it’s really about trusting in everything you’ve done to get to that point and trusting in yourself to enjoy that moment, that moment of bliss where your body goes into autopilot and you can just compete,” Laird said.
When it comes to watching the games, Connelly hopes that spectators will remember that these elite athletes are normal people.
“These athletes have devoted so much time to their sport and have devoted their life to doing this. They are human and mistakes will be made, but it is so hard to match your performance mindset to where your training is at the exact moment of competition. That’s why we don’t see hundreds of records falling at the Olympics because of all of the uncertainty of competition. They make their sport look easy because they are so talented but that doesn’t mean that what they are doing is easy,” Connelly said.
As the games draw closer, stay tuned to Olympics.com for all the most up-to-date information.