The crowd has quieted, but an electric energy from the packed grandstands fills the air. The diver stands atop the platform, aware of television cameras below that are broadcasting his every muscle twitch to millions of viewers worldwide. He can smell the chlorine wafting up from the diving pool 10 meters below. The texture of the platform feels rough beneath his feet. He takes a breath, makes his approach and jumps sharply upward. Then he twists through the air, executing a perfect dive and, finally, with no more than a few drops of splash, knifes smoothly into the cool water.
The diver opens his eyes. Feeling confident and relaxed, he now looks ahead at the platform and gets ready to climb the familiar ladder to make his practice dive before the actual competition, still weeks down the road.
This diver had just gone through one of his most important workouts before he actually stands up on the Olympic diving platform: visualization. Olympic divers, such as David Boudia and Thomas Finchum, as well as other top athletes, use trusted psychological tactics such as visualization and positive self-talk to stay at the top of their games—even when the pressure is on. Yet the sports psychologists who teach these techniques now have more scientific results in hand, and they are learning that the athlete's mental tools are just the jumping-off point to achieving peerless performance. Giving an athlete or team the best chance of bringing home the gold also requires creating an entire environment of carefully constructed group and interpersonal dynamics. Sports psychologists are no longer just training athletes. They are also training the coaches and family members in the competitors' lives.
"We've learned a lot in the past 10 or 15 years about how to be more effective" in teaching everyone around an athlete how to help him or her excel, says Daniel Gould, professor of applied sports psychology at Michigan State University. And the athletes say the work is paying off.
Getting inside the coach's head
Even an athlete in the most individual of sports is part of a complex network of relationships. Coach, family, friends, even team administrators are an extensive and often under-recognized part of the experience. Elite athletes might be better than the average person at shutting out distractions, managing their emotions and controlling their energy levels. But they are not immune to an overbearing parent, negative coach or unsupportive teammate.
Coaches and support staff, whether they realize it or not, are creating a mental environment for athletes, not just a physical training regimen. And although sports psychologists are often deployed for the benefit of the athletes, "a lot of times we work through the coach because the coach is creating a psychological climate," Gould says.
Counselors are achieving "a huge gain in better educating our coaches," Gould continues. By the time an athlete reaches college or professional levels, coaches are almost operating like CEOs, Gould notes. They're in charge of coordinating a huge organization of specialists—athletes, nutritionists, strength coaches, media liaisons and psychologists. So to gain access to athletes, physically and mentally, a sports psychologist must first be accepted and supported by the coach. Then the expert can start working to help the coach maintain a productive, balanced emotional arena for the athletes. Gould describes this environment as a fine balance of autonomy—individually empowered athletes and staff—and connectivity, essentially a feeling of relatedness among the entire group. "That's pretty easy to say," Gould says. But helping coaches and teams achieve that state is no small task. Especially when everyone is under extreme stress of high-level competition.
At professional or Olympic levels, coaches are increasingly in the spotlight. "Their job is in many ways harder than the athlete's," Gould says. "They're trying to create an environment for the athletes, and at the same time the coach gets nervous, so sometimes they overcoach." Combine that with nervous athletes and tensions can rise, hampering an athlete's ability to perform at his or her best.
For team sports, of course, creating cohesion and good communication among team members—whether for synchronized swimming, volleyball, doubles tennis or even equestrian events—is key. To excel, players also need to feel confident about their own roles as well as their contributions to the team, notes Craig Wrisberg, a professor emeritus of sport psychology and past president of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP).
Family gain or drain?
Athletes also have people outside of the sport's circle in their daily lives. Friends and family members can provide mental stability, but they can also be a psychological drain. Even for veteran athletes, "one of their greatest supports is their family—and it's also one of their biggest distractions," says Chris Carr, a sport and performance psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who has coached previous Olympic teams, including the 2008 U.S. Olympic diving team. Carr had learned this over years of working and talking with athletes. —Long before the team left for Beijing, he and his colleagues held workshops for divers' family and friends to teach them how they could provide the most support—and the least distraction.
Other psychologists have focused their efforts on helping athletes smooth over these support relationships themselves. Adeline Gray, a 2012 Olympic hopeful as an alternate for the first U.S. women's wrestling team, can attest to the powerful role sports psychology can play in helping her support network help her. Gray knows that to do her best she needs to be calm and upbeat before hitting the mat. "If I get too jittery, it's too much," she says.
But her father, who has been one of her biggest supporters and long-time coach, had a habit of trying to pump her up before matches, getting in her face and yelling. This interference was starting to get to Gray. So her sports psychologist helped her work up the courage to ask her dad, instead, for a hug and a smile. Just like that, her dad switched to the hug, and she was able to enter into her matches in a better frame of mind.
Gray, who is 21, has been working with a sports psychologist since she was in her mid-teens. She says she encourages other athletes to find one to meet with—even if they just chat about their dog, she says. "It's one more thing that's going smoothly in your life so you can focus on your sport."
Always an individual sport
Psychologists are focusing more on their own relationship with an athlete, too. Mental preparation is likely to be very different for a weight lifter, who needs an explosive burst of almost superhuman energy and strength, than it is for a marksman, who must calm her mind and even her heart rate while aiming. Understanding an individual’s personality and habits will improve how well the sports psychologist can best help the athlete.
Carr prepared the U.S. Olympic diving team for the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. By the time the opening ceremonies launched, "I had worked with a number of those athletes for four years—through observations and one-on-one discussions," he says. Benefits accrued not just from his formal sessions with athletes or the team, he says, but casual, incidental interactions, such as "the informal bus ride chat from the training facility to the Olympic Village," where he could check in and see how athletes were feeling and make sure they had their mental checklists ready to go.
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.
Not even the best mental preparation can guarantee gold. But, says Carr, it can help an athlete "be able to compete when their Olympic moment comes."