After that much time, Carr was intimately acquainted with the concentration, confidence or composure challenges each diver faced. So when it came time for them to prepare for their big days, he had constructed a "very tailor-made intervention" for each athlete"—important, he notes, because "the Olympics is different than everything else."
Despite his years of experience with U.S. Olympic teams, Carr says that if he got a call tomorrow to help out with the 2012 team he would think twice about it, fearing that not having been there all along could make him more of a detriment and distraction than an asset. Gray agrees that history is key in relationships between athletes and their sports psychologists. After her psychologist of a few years changed positions Gray started working with someone new. It was tough, Gray says, to form a new relationship with someone lacking the history and deep knowledge of her previous challenges and successes that her former psychologist had.
On the other hand, Gray notes, the athlete must be willing to develop the relationship. "It does take time and commitment," she says. "And it's a two-way street; it's hard to release your emotions and allow someone into your personal life and tell them I do this before a competition and not worry they'll think you're crazy."
Nevertheless, a coach has even more history with an athlete, and it falls to coaches to implement a lot of the mental training. The key is to push athletes beyond their mental comfort levels, allowing them to fail sometimes, but not to break them, Gould says. This can build mental toughness seen in many elite athletes, but for coaches to do this successfully takes skill and individual knowledge.
Special mental preparation is needed to soar at the lofty Olympics, "It's a lot of emotion, it's a lot of energy, it's a lot of pieces," Carr says. And "If you fall short of your goals, how do you manage that?" Sure enough, sports psychologists have further broadened their scope by helping athletes after their event. A team loss in a close soccer game might be tough, but how does a psychologist help a diver or a gymnast regain composure after a single mistake that they know could have just cost them a medal? That's where the mental toughness training comes in, AASP's Wrisberg says. "Mentally tough athletes are really good at making adjustments and doing them quickly. They look for a lesson in it, and if there's none, they move on," he says. "Otherwise, it's a downward spiral, and it gets pretty ugly."
Taking training to the next level
Widening sports psychology beyond individual athlete training still involves a lot of trial and error. Despite a wealth of scientific papers being published on everything from parents of young tennis players to competitive college teams, studies of truly elite athletes are relatively few and far between. That leaves most sports psychologists to craft their own approaches, rather than work from an industry standard. "We have to use the artistic nature of our profession," Carr says.
The field is spotty on a global scale. Although many pro and Olympic—and even college—teams in the U.S. and other wealthier countries work extensively with sports psychologists, most teams across the world do not have this luxury. One of the biggest challenges facing the field, however, is that it's nearly impossible to measure results. Athletes can report what they were thinking and how they felt, and those answers can be measured against the competitive results. But Gould says that's not good enough. Brain-imaging studies are likely to be the next step in improving the mental game. With a peek into high-performers' brain activity, sports psychology and coaches might be able to learn some of the secrets to success—and then try to teach these ways of thinking to other athletes.