British Columbia

Harnessing butterflies: preparing for mental challenges of Olympics

Months of gruelling training comes down to just one moment at high-level competitions and, for many athletes, the mental strains can be as challenging as the physical ones.

The Olympics are part mental game and it’s not just the athletes who are playing it

The mental preparation it takes to compete at the Olympics is like nothing else, says Bruce Pinel. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

Months of gruelling training comes down to just one moment at high-level competitions and, for many athletes, the mental strains can be as challenging as the physical ones.

Bruce Pinel, a sports psychologist based in Victoria, B.C., has helped Olympians and World Champions cope with the pressure at multiple international competitions.

"You basically have a Disneyland-Woodstock-Mardi-Gras-slumber-party all thrown on top of a big media event and [the athletes] are still expected to perform," he told CBC host of On The Coast Gloria Macarenko.

The sudden "massive circus" of attention and high stakes can be overwhelming for athletes new to the  games, Pinel said.

"From a mental perspective, in my role, I'd be looking at keeping things very simple, not letting the task that is in front of them get bigger than it needs to be," he said.

That means focusing on the run, the shot or the play that has been practiced hundreds of times before and not on who is attending the event, what is being said in the media or the what-ifs of worst-case scenarios.

Harnessing the butterflies

Former Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliati, who won gold in 1998, said anxiety is part of the game. 

"Use the energy in a positive way so that it can fuel your experience and fuel your performance, give you that edge," he said. 

When he was competing, he would practice envisioning the start of the competition and harnessing nervous energy.

It's mental training that helps prepare you for all the feelings that arise when the gun goes off, he said.  

"When you have the butterflies — that's what we refer to as the anxiety — get them to fly in formation," Rebagliati said. 

Snowboarder Ross Rebagliati shows off his gold medal at the Nagano Games in 1998. He was later stripped of the medal after a positive test for THC, but was later reinstated as Olympic champion. (Reuters)

Preparing coaches

It's not just the athletes who are playing mental games at competitions.

Pinel also works with coaches and trainers to help them prepare psychologically.

"Once it starts, it's out of their hands," he said. "It can be actually quite unnerving for them."

How coaches carry themselves, handle the media and deal with distractions can significantly impact an athlete's preparation and performance, Pinel said.

And preparing for a win also means being able to handle a loss, he said.

"I've been fortunate to share a lot of cheers but with that has come some tears as well," he said. "That's one of the hard parts of dealing with a sport."

With files from On The Coast.

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