Why athletes thrive or choke at the Olympics

TORONTO – His final score comes in, and at the 2014 Olympics, Canada’s Patrick Chan is second in the world in men’s figure skating.

He looks at the camera and apologizes to Canadians. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Chan says.

Chan had the weight of delivering a gold medal to Canadians on his shoulders during his last two stints at the Olympics. How does that play with an athlete’s performance?

“Doubt is a real thing. For some people, they don’t want to disappoint others and wonder what would happen if they didn’t perform to their best,” Dr. Todd Loughead said.

He’s a sports psychologist at the University of Windsor in Ontario. There, he’s part of a lab focusing on enhancing athlete performance to make sure they compete at their best while enjoying the experience.

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READ MORE: Patrick Chan responds to critics after second place finish

Sports psychology is a burgeoning field of study in Canada, but Loughead says that it’s been studied for much longer in Europe and other parts of the world.

Olympic athletes have access to trainers, nutritionists, coaches and a bevy of other support staff. That includes sports psychologists who are on hand to walk athletes through any mental roadblocks.

So what helps?

Focus on the training, not the outcome

Loughead says it’s all about focusing on the process and not the outcome. Take two-time moguls Olympic gold medallist Alexandre Bilodeau as a prime example.

He told reporters that defending his title had nothing to do with his training.

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“I’m not looking at Sochi as defending my medal, I’m looking at Sochi as another Olympic gold medal potential,” he had told Global News.

READ MORE: Canada’s Alexandre Bilodeau on winning gold

Loughead said that’s key: “He said he didn’t really think of [defending his title] because once Vancouver ended, it was done and then he had to get ready for the process for Sochi,” Loughead said.

The Dufour-Lapointe sisters are also a great example. They were making history with the possibility of having three siblings on the podium in a single sport. But they didn’t internalize it that way, Loughead suggested.

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READ MORE: Justine, Maxime and Chloe Dufour-Lapointe qualify for moguls final

But Loughead doesn’t want to confuse readers: the Olympics are high stakes. It isn’t a matter of telling yourself “better luck next time” if you slip up.

“For any athlete going into the Olympics, it’s ultimately where they want to be. It means a lot to represent a country on the global stage,” Loughead said.

It just depends on what an athlete does with those high expectations and pressure to deliver.

Focusing on the process instead of the outcome is a great start. Loughead suggests a four-point strategy: prepare for the technical, tactical, physical and mental aspects of the sport.

Acknowledging your fears and doubts and then finding ways to resolve them also helps.

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It could be a matter of walking yourself through what would happen if you lost. Loughead says that athletes could be afraid of losing their support system, but that’s not true.

“I think at times it’s an illusion.”

Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris broke one of his ribs just two weeks before Sochi. He managed to snag a bronze medal and became a Canadian celebrity overnight.

His takeaway? “With what I’ve been through in the last two weeks, just standing on the podium in general feels like a gold medal to me. It’s a huge, huge sigh of relief,” he told reporters.

Self confidence versus festering doubt

Sometimes, athletes thrive under pressure, they love it and feed off of it. But others break down.

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“Worrying about performing well would be detrimental. You have to have self confidence — you have to believe in yourself that you’re going to perform well,” Loughead said.

“They’ve rehearsed it a ton of times before they actually perform it. If they have clean, sharp images of themselves performing well, a lot of the time that’ll translate into a better performance.”

Dr. Peter Crocker, a Simon Fraser University sports psychologist, said that confidence — being sure while you’re in the driver’s seat, so to speak — goes a long way, especially when you’re making snap decisions on the course.

“Depending on the sport, you need to have the ability to refocus. Some are over so quickly. But sports like hockey or curling where situations are constantly changing, you need to have the ability to recover from mistakes and go back to the plan,” Crocker said.

Testing your boundaries

When you’re talking about Olympic-calibre athleticism, Crocker suggests that testing your limits is also crucial.

“Sometimes winning means you need to be on the edge and take risks and you have to be willing to acknowledge that when you take risks, things may happen. It’s a calculated risk,” Crocker said.

And what happens when you screw up? Crocker hopes that athletes don’t dwell on it — it isn’t healthy for your game.

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“In figure skating, if you fall, don’t reappraise it as a failure but as an opportunity for learning. The more you ruminate about it, the more you’re going to encode that information and it has a negative impact, “ Crocker explained.

“Then when you get into a similar situation, that situation will trigger the negative and produce performance-related anxiety,” Crocker said.

But suppression in general doesn’t work either. In the past, coaches would tell their athletes to push away any thoughts of failure. Your brain actually takes up valuable energy stores to try to actively block this out.

But Loughead and Crocker say that the Olympic Games shouldn’t be seen as threatening, that’ll only create stress. Ultimately, Crocker says it’s about taking on a challenge and setting high but realistic goals.

Loughead tells his athletes a simple message: “Have fun and enjoy the moment because you’re doing something, especially at the Olympic level, that so many people wish they could. Embrace it — we always do our best when we’re having fun so if you can enjoy it, you’ll perform better.”