Olympic athletes get mental training boost

Canadian athletes are getting some rigorous training before the Olympics that doesn't target their bodies so much as their minds.

Canadian athletes are getting some rigorous training before the Olympics that doesn't target their bodies so much as their minds.

Penny Werthner is one of four University of Ottawa psychologists who will be in Vancouver to help counsel and guide Canadian athletes during the Winter Games in February. But much of the mental preparation is being done in the lab and during training beforehand.

Werthner, a professor in the department of human kinetics, is putting athletes through a 50- to 60-hour program to help them recognize and manage their stress, recover their focus and stay calm.

"They're going to be stressed — that's the name of the game," Werthner said Monday.

What they need to do is manage the stress on competition day and leading up to it, she added.

"The reality is, if you're not calm enough … you can't focus. Even if you know how to do it, you can't do it in the moment."

Werthner is a former track athlete who competed for Canada in the 1,500 metres in the 1976 Summer Olympics and who has recently been working with the freestyle ski team.

Her training regime is part of an $8 million Canadian Olympic Foundation project dubbed Top Secret that harnessed scientists to help Canada's athletes win medals.

Lab stress-testing 

The program involves inducing stress in the lab using activities such as math problems. Instruments allow the athletes to monitor their own physical responses such as their breathing rates and how much they sweat — a process known as biofeedback.

Then Werthner teaches them breathing exercises and gets them to talk to themselves, using phrases like "reaching for the height" or "fighting for a smooth landing." All the while, they can monitor themselves using biofeedback and neurofeedback to control their stress levels. Neurofeedback uses instruments to monitor brain activity and has been used to help children with attention deficit disorder learn to focus.

Werthner said the technologies aren't new — what is innovative is the way they are combined and applied.

Following training in the lab, athletes apply what they have learned in the field.

Werthner said the response she has been getting so far from athletes is very positive, though they balk at her advice that playing video games on race day is a stressful no-no.

Jeff Bean, a three-time Olympic freestyle aerialist, said sports psychology is all about preparation. His own mental training taught him that he needed to write down his entire jumping sequence. He memorized it and shut out all other pressures, including the thousands of people watching him, at the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.

He said he enjoyed the moment, knowing there was nothing else he could do. He ended up finishing fourth.

"Right before my jump …I have this huge smile on my face. People ask me, 'How does that happen?'" he recalled. "I was prepared."