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Zika, pollution and politics: How Olympians compete against stress

Runners at the starting line

(iStock photo)

For many high-performance athletes, the 2016 Rio Olympics represent the pinnacle of countless hours of intense physical and mental preparation. After dedicating their lives to competing at the 17-day event, how do they deal with the pressure to perform? And how do they deal with additional concerns, including Zika virus, polluted waters, infrastructure problems, possible political demonstrations and potential doping issues? 

Assistant Professor Katherine Tamminen, from U of T’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, explains how these athletes cope with psychological stress and whether it could make or break their performance. 

How do Olympic athletes prepare for competition when the host country presents so many challenges?
While Rio presents many challenges for athletes, other Olympics have had similar issues. There were security concerns at the Sochi Olympics and Beijing had a lot of air pollution. I think that the key thing to remember is that the athletes, coaching staff and Olympic staff have been planning for this event for years. This includes contingency planning and developing protocols to ensure that athletes are safe and ready to perform. These plans cover small issues like what to do if an airline loses equipment to larger security planning, which involves liaising with site organizers.

In terms of dealing with the risk of Zika virus, the Canadian Olympic team is constantly monitoring the health risks to athletes. I know that Rio’s organizing committee is advising athletes to use insect repellent, stay in air-conditioned rooms and wear long-sleeved pants and shirts when outside. The South Korean team has been given formal attire that’s infused with insect repellant. These solutions reflect the organizers’ commitment to remove as many distractions as possible for the athletes. The coaches, support staff and organizing committees have a critical role in communicating to the athletes how to prepare for competition and what’s being done on site to minimize risks.

What tactics can athletes use to deal with stress in these challenging situations?
Everyone has a very individualized approach. Having social networks is important, including supportive teammates, trainers, coaches, friends and family members is crucial. This reduces the likelihood that the athlete will experience stress in the first place. On the flip side, some teams at certain times will minimize cell phone or social media use because it can be distracting.

A lot of high-performance athletes and teams have sport psychologists working and travelling with them for a long period of time before the Olympics, so they’ve been working on mental training strategies including visualization, positive self-talk and relaxation. These techniques will help address both expected and unexpected issues in Rio.

In general, there’s a lot of research to suggest that if athletes see competition as a challenge rather than a threat they’ll have more positive outcomes. Instead of just minimizing anxiety, it’s also important to promote feelings of pride, joy and happiness surrounding the Olympics for athletes to perform their best. And anxiety isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If an athlete is at the starting block and they’re anxious, that can be okay – if they feel nervous that’s usually a sign that the race matters to them. So it’s completely normal to have anxiety, but it’s important to use that to your advantage. If an athlete is feeling nervous or anxious before they compete, they can try to use positive self-talk or they can reappraise the situation to see it as an opportunity and a challenge – and these are skills that they’ve likely been using for years to make it to the top level in their sport.

Does the psychology of sport make or break an athlete’s performance?
There are so many things that go into optimal performance and sport psychology is one piece of an athlete’s overall preparation. There’s also hydration, nutrition, sleep, training and a multitude of other things that athletes do to prepare for the Olympics. There are situations where nerves get the best of athletes, like false starts at the starting line, so in those situations, being able to control their emotions can mean the difference between a disqualification or getting off to a strong start.

Their confidence, and their ability to overcome challenges, is founded on confidence in their training and the skills they’ve developed.  It will be exciting to see how athletes, and particularly Canadian athletes, perform at this year’s event.

What advice would you give to athletes preparing for Rio?
I would say that they should keep doing what they’ve been doing all along. They’re already quite successful and they should trust in the foundations they’ve built. First-time Olympians can also rely on athletes who have competed in past Olympics for advice on how to stay focused and enjoy the event.