The mental toughness training athletes undergo before reaching the Olympic stage is not typically well documented or understood. In this article, I will provide a behind the scenes look at the psychological preparation athletes go through before the biggest event in sport.

For the past year, I have had the opportunity to work as the sport psychologist to the Singapore Sailing duo on their road to Rio campaign. The coach explained that the team was talented but needed a boost in their mental training to perform consistently under high levels of pressure. If they could advance their mental game, he believed they could qualify for the Rio games and even have a chance at medaling.

When the team first sought my services, they were keen to improve their starts and overall their performance was up and down. These matters are not solely caused by tactical weaknesses; it’s often a psychological dilemma triggered by low mental activation and focus before racing. To combat this we made extensive changes to how they prepared for races. I created pre-race routines that incorporate visualisation – mental rehearsal of their race execution, and breathing and centering work in a sequence to better activate the mind and the body. Now, the team follows these rituals like standard protocols in their race process and have shown they can sail with the lead pack from the start more consistently.

In a recent Mediacorp interview the team said that, working with a sport psychologist helps find the root cause to unsolved problems that keep happening on the water, and learn how to fix the issues with strategies to think and act differently when it counts.”

Most people envision that working with a sport psychologist is the sort of activity you do right before a competition to give you an added boost of focus or motivation. For serious athletes, this mental training involves upwards of 60 hours of contact time not including practice and integration work on the water.

Down to the wire with preparations for Rio over the past 3-months and this meant fine-tuning the team’s mental game – attention to detail for marginal gains – placing a microscope over their focus and conduct in events. Altering response patterns to common challenging scenarios such as, shifty weather conditions, tight situations with other boats, and bouncing back faster from mistakes, keeping the mind proactive, instead of reactive and emotional. Because the mental game is fully under the athlete’s control, even thought statements and cues that cut through distractions and focus the mind are carefully crafted and practiced. Nothing is left to chance in this regard.

In the final days before racing in Rio, daily visualisation practice of race sequences was essential; negotiating likely challenging situations, and seeing and feeling optimal movements and emotions in the boat.

The most decorated Olympic athlete in history, Michael Phelps has extensively trained himself to visualise both good and bad circumstances. Phelps imagines himself racing from the stands, then the pool, and goes through all possible scenarios like, his goggles falling off or suit ripping, essentially programming his nervous system to respond well to anyone of these scenarios.

It’s fair to say that the Olympics places special pressure on most athletes. Nothing else matches it for gut-wrenching anxiety. It’s a combination of the once-every-four years pressure but also the intense nationalism of the Olympics.

Regardless of the athlete’s level of experience, the most important aspect of mental preparation before the games is the assessment of their biggest challenges and greatest potential distractions. For some athletes, it is managing the media hype in their home country, for others its internal pressures. Developing contingency plans to manage these issues can take an entire support team approach.

The spotlight in Singapore was on the 21-year old swimmer Joseph Schooling. In 2012, at the London Olympics, it was surmised that overzealous swimming officials raised issues with Schooling’s goggles and cap and messed up the pre-race state of mind, causing him to finish poorly in his heat event. This year, his support team assessed every scenario to ensure he has the best opportunity to race well in Rio. The decision to drop out of the 200m Fly event would have been a long deliberated team decision. It was a strategic move to conserve his energy and keep himself fresh for his pet event 100m Fly, and it certainly proved to be the perfect plan winning Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal.

Staying well-balanced under the intense pressure and scrutiny of the Olympics is a big challenge, but is a top priority of sport psychologists when working with Olympians, especially when considering the average age of most Olympians. The projected average age of female Olympic swimmers is 21 years of age, 16 years of age for female gymnasts, and track athletes on average are 26 years old. The pressure these athletes experience in the Olympic context, far out ways the common day-to-day challenges they face at this life-stage. During the games, conducting daily debrief sessions is part and parcel of the job to help the athletes refocus their energy at every point.

Dr Jay-Lee Nair PhD | Psychologist MAPS
Book an appointment with Dr Jay-Lee at the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre and UFIT Clinic to learn mental skills training for peak performance in sport, academics, and life.