Handling the pressure

Cal Botterill is a sports psychologist. It's his job, along with the other psychologists bound for the 2010 Games, to help Canadian athletes cope with the pressures of being in the international spotlight.

Canadian winter Olympic athletes face more pressure than ever before, and sport psychologists will try to help them maintain their focus

Cal Botterill is a Canadian Olympic team veteran. Heading into his ninth Games, you could say he's one of the most crucial people going to Vancouver 2010.

He's not an athlete. He's a sports psychologist. It's his job, along with the other psychologists going to the 2010 Games, to help Canadian athletes cope with the pressures of being in the international spotlight.

There is more riding on this Olympics for Canada than any other. Being the host country brings with it a new level of excitement and expectation. Plus, the Canadian Olympic Committee has set a lofty goal for the Games.

The COC wants Canada to win the medal count and to that end it set up the Own the Podium program, giving elite Canadian athletes more resources and funds than ever before — and more pressure.

Keeping athletes focused is no easy task but Botterill is one of the leading sport psychologists in the country, with almost 30 years of experience.

He's co-written several books on the subject, and teaches psychology courses at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

He's working mainly with the Canadian bobsled, skeleton, and cross-country ski teams bound for Vancouver. What was your reaction when you first heard of the COC's Own the Podium program and its goal of winning the medal count in 2010?

Botterill: I definitely had very mixed reactions to the way it came down. I know what they're trying to do, to set a high enough standard that everybody just rises to, and I do think that a good percentage of our athletes will respond the way they hope.

But there'll be others that will have a little difficulty with the kind of pressure that happens when you're a favourite, before you've had much experience with it. The expectations for Canadians in 2010 are really high. It's in our backyard, and there's a hope the host team can win the medal count. How concerned are you that there's too much pressure on Canada's winter athletes?

Botterill: As long as we start well, there will be no problem. The reality is that home advantage is definitely a factor in the Olympics like it is in pro sport. It's the same old story — if you see a pro team that's struggling, they can't wait to get out of town because what initially felt like support becomes demands.

And when the demands get too high, the little teeter-totter starts to tip and we start to fear failure. I think it's the reality that we have to try and prepare people for, and give them strategies to avoid that interfering.

It's a challenge. I think it's the biggest one we've faced in sport psychology. What's the best way for athletes to handle that pressure?

Botterill: The No. 1 thing if you watch real carefully is the athletes that are primarily about the process of performing [who are the most successful]. That's their focus, and they keep going back to it, rather than getting caught up in speculation about outcomes, or pressures, or what the Germans are doing or whatever. Is it easier for an athlete to go into their second and third Games as opposed to their first?

Botterill: I think it is, but I still think that we need to be there with strategies to help everyone. Two of our very best-ever athletes ended up struggling: Perdita Felicien in Athens [2004], and Adam van Koeverden [in Beijing].

I think they're tremendous athletes and I thought in the end the excessive exposure to the media and public interests started to creep into their pores a little bit, and it hurt their performances. What is the fallout for athletes when they fail to meet expected performance levels at the Olympics?

Botterill: It depends who's set the performance levels. If you go in and you know what you want to do, and you feel confident in the people around you, you can walk away and live with it.

The problem's when there's been a lot of speculation and people doubting. Then you struggle and you feel too much pressure. That's the sad story because some of those people feel devastated for a long time — they feel they've let themselves, their family and country down.

Our objective in sports psychology is to help them make sure that they get in there and they have a strategy and a focus that gives them a chance, and they'll be able to live with whatever it produces. If people can go and focus on the process and believe in it, they can accept wherever they finish. How difficult is it for them to recover from a major disappointment, especially those considered to be medal favourites?

Botterill: I think it's very difficult. The sports psychologist that worked in swimming did studies with MRIs on people's abilities in their brain chemistry to recover from disappointment.

There were some people three months later [who] were still showing biochemical signs of depression and disappointment, so that gives you some idea of what we're dealing with. It's not a lot of fun.

I think being there and finding a way, despite all of the work, to enjoy it is a huge advantage. Because then there's not much chance of you falling into fear of failure, you're just excited about the opportunity to do what you're doing. In Beijing, the Canadian athletes were getting hammered for the first half of the Games because they hadn't won anything, but they picked up the pace in the second half. Is that an anomaly, or is a slow start usually something that countries and athletes can recover from?

Botterill: When I first got into the business in the 1980s, it was pretty clear that the East Germans didn't let athletes compete until they had people they were pretty sure would have success. Because they realized what an impact it [a good start] had on their team, and the whole momentum of [the Games].

So when I look back at Beijing, I'm surprised that there wasn't some effort by the COC to educate the public a little bit about how many more prospects we had in the second half. It might have helped the public understand it, but all they got was that we were doing poorly.

But all I can say there, for our sake, that it was lucky in a lot of ways that it was Beijing and not Vancouver 2010. If that had been at our home Games, the effect of it would have been expanded 10 times. Such is what we have to be prepared for. Canada is the only country never to have won a gold medal while hosting an Olympics. How do you think the gold medal drought on home soil will affect our athletes, in preparation and performance?

Botterill: Canadians are, for the most part, great underdogs. We don't have a lot of experience, hanging our noses out there in front and suggesting that we're the favourite. So whenever we are made a favourite a little bit prematurely, it makes us incredibly vulnerable to fearing failure. 

Over the last 20-25 years, I think we've really developed some pride in performing at the Olympics and that's what people go for now. But [being favourites] is still [a young concept] for us — we gave our fans a history of not being considered favourites at all in most things, and now Own the Podium put us out there and we'll see what we do. Do the major Canadian successes on the various World Cup circuits in skiing, bobsleigh, etc., this season create more pressure for the Olympics?

Botterill: It'll add to the expectations, but most importantly it adds to the confidence of our athletes. That's important because we need some results to really believe that we can do it. Otherwise, this idea of being made a favourite without justification makes you really prone to these pressure problems.  It's a year now to Vancouver 2010. What are your responsibilities leading up to the Games? Is this the most crucial part, or has most of the work been done already?

Botterill: I'm a believer that most of the important work is done early, and I feel we have a great base for most of our athletes and most of our teams. But I do think the countdown time is critical, and my pitch to our organization as well as the athletes is it comes down to efficiency from here on in.

I think that's the big challenge in the next year — to stay passionate, but to respond and not overreact to things, so that you maintain your momentum and hopefully have the most energy when it's game time.