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Olympic sports psychology with Kelly Clark

January 16, 2014

When three-time Olympian Kelly Clark fell on her first run of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic snowboard halfpipe finals, she instantly relived the 2006 Torino Olympics, where a fall put her in fourth place.

“I repeated my greatest defeat in the first run of finals,” said Clark, who already has locked up a spot on the 2014 Olympic Snowboarding team and who will appear among the many stars at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, today (Thursday, Jan. 16) through Sunday.

In her bid for a medal at the Sochi Olympics, however, Clark along the way learned about the psychological process in overcoming disappointment to reach a Gold Medal mentality.

 “Being able to reel it in and have the opportunity to overcome it was cool for me.”

Though Clark, 30, was the favorite to win gold in Vancouver, she was more than happy with her second run, which earned her a bronze medal because of what she was able to overcome mentally. 

With time running out on her, Clark rebounded from being in last place after the first run of the Olympic finals.

For Olympic athletes who have dedicated their lives to training, it is a combination of their mental game and physical strength that gets them to the podium—not one or the other, according to Sean McCann, senior sport psychologist for the United States Olympic Committee.

But mental weakness can easily keep an elite athlete off the podium. Competition at an Olympic level is only 5 percent mental, Clark said, but that 5 percent can easily take out the other 95.

“We are mind-body dualists at the USOC because every training session we are also working on motor control,” McCann said. “Everything is combined.”

As the 2002 Olympic halfpipe gold medalist and an eight-time X Games gold medalist, Clark has the most wins of any winning snowboarder—male or female—in the history of the sport.

Having locked in a spot on the 2014 team, it is her commitment to the training process, she said, that allows her to be successful.

Physical training and mental preparation can’t be separated, said David Epstein, author of the New York Times bestseller, “The Sports Gene.”

When an athlete learns a motor skill, they are engaging certain parts of the brain, he said, but they are also using the prefrontal cortex, which is the higher conscious area of the brain.

The goal for athletes is to relegate the task to more primitive parts of the brain that are in control of automatic functions.

“That’s the hallmark of excellent performance—automating skills,” Epstein said. “The hallmark of choking is de-automating those skills.”

Though McCann, Epstein and Clark agree that Olympic success is a combination of mental and physical skill sets, athletes and coaches have identified mental preparation as the most important factor in success or failure.

The U.S. Olympic Committee recognizes the importance of the mental game, and increased its staff sports psychologists from one to six over the last 20 years.

The committee works with athletes and teams on managing the stresses of the games by executing mental plans and strategies for handling the crises that arise at every Olympics.

Although sports psychology is not new, athletes today are more receptive to the benefits of mental preparation than ever before, McCann said.

Devices are being developed that allow athletes to easily track their neurological state, heart rate variability, and bio-psychological state. They are paying more attention to things like sleep, rest, and stress levels. 

Stress can increase with the extra scrutiny focused on top tier competitors.

With the growing support of sponsors, athletes are sometimes recognized and celebrated before they even become Olympians. The star-factor can be dangerous for athletes feeling the pressure “to do something spectacular,” McCann said.

“For most athletes, the Olympics are completely unlike anything they have experienced before,” Epstein said.

“They really have to find a way to be confident in their training and their coaching, otherwise they can unravel.”

Even Clark, who is consistently one step ahead of her competitors and always working to progress the sport, said she has to constantly work on her mental game.

“It’s easy to get caught up in expectations,” Clark said.  “I’ve found that you can never lose your focus, but you can focus on the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

As Clark prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, she said that committing to her process is most important for success.  She said she chooses to focus on things she can control.

Her comfortable run might be enough for a podium finish, but she strives to get better, she said, adding that she’s working on a new run for the Olympics—a combination of tricks that no woman has attempted yet.

“I set high goals,” Clark said.  “I’m at a point in my career where I’m not looking to the Olympics to define me or arrive somewhere.”

Every Olympian dreams of a podium finish, and Clark said she wouldn’t be telling the truth if she said she was not going for another gold.

The most difficult trick of all, as it turns out, just might be in getting her head around it.

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