Tokyo Olympics: Australia leads the way in key area of mental preparedness

Rio gold medalist Kim Brennan says psychological factors are as important as physical factors on performance. Picture: Getty Images
Rio gold medalist Kim Brennan says psychological factors are as important as physical factors on performance. Picture: Getty Images

When spectators think of the Olympic Games, athletes mental preparedness may fall low in their consideration towards peak performance but it is as important as their physical capabilities says a former Olympian.

And Australian athletes will be the better prepared mentally than they have been ever before, in part due to the resilience and adaptability forced by COVID-19 and in part thanks to the AIS' new health and wellbeing approach and gold medal ready program.

Rio gold medalist Kim Brennan is one former Olympian making sure athletes heading to Tokyo are mentally prepared for whatever is thrown at them through the GMR program.

She said it had been the missing piece of the puzzle in previous Games and she wanted to pass on her knowledge to give back to those after her.

"We have a lot of people who have had amazing experiences and have learned through making mistakes themselves and we haven't done a great job of codifying those learnings into the system," she said.

"So, the next generation of athletes coming through can have a shorter learning loop. So they don't have to make the same mistakes but can learn from the people around them to almost accelerate their performance."

The program features 40 previous Australian athletes and coaches passing on their knowledge to those headed to Tokyo in hopes of helping them prepare for what awaits them.

It focuses on addressing how they can manage internal and outside expectations and pressures on performance, other psychological factors and the Games environment.

The retired rower said one of the main focuses was the psychological resilience and readiness for athletes.

"That mindset is a really big part of performing at the top level," she said.

"There's a lot of focus on Covid and the Covid Olympics but the reality is that every Olympics things go wrong, and it's actually not the fastest athlete who wins. You've got to be fast, every athlete is fast, but it's the athlete that deals with the adversity that inevitably will come their way, that's what unravels so many athletes.

"I see no reason that the psychology and the cognitive side of our performance shouldn't be just as important as the physical side of our performance."

The 35-year-old is a big believer in mental health accompanying performance as a spectrum, and that is what she was trying to pass on through the program.

"You can always understand better your psychology and how you think and how you perform and how you deal with pressure," she said.

"It's not mental strength or weakness but cognitive performance, mental agility, flexibility and an understanding about the role of our psychology and mindset in both health and performance."

HOW MENTALLY PREPARED ARE THEY

Athletes headed to Tokyo have had an extra year to prepare and the psychological resilience and readiness mentioned by Brennan is ripe thanks to a three-year program focused on mental health and wellbeing.

The uncertainty of the Games going ahead, schedules, isolation, quarantine and no crowds are all factors playing into psychological aspects of the delayed-2020 event.

AIS mental health manager Matt Butterworth said the nature of high performance sport meant athletes were resilient, which would be crucial heading into Tokyo.

"Athletes are people first and foremost, are in a unique environment so with the Games being postponed it's been a reasonably significant challenges," he said.

"While this is a unique situation in terms of a global pandemic, managing change is something that can come up for them quite regularly. High performance athletes are often working towards selection and qualification and things like that.

"So managing a certain level of uncertainty and having to come up with new plans and ways of doing things to approach their goals is something that's probably quite normal, or something that happens frequently for them."

He said Australian athletes, coaches and staff were as prepared as they could be heading in.

"The feedback we get is that Australia is world leading in the respect of helping athletes, coaches and staff regarding their mental health and their wellbeing," he said.

"On the international stage, the feedback we get is Australia's doing really, really well in that respect. So there's always things we'd like to do better, nothing's perfect, but as far as we can tell the system's a good one, by international standards, and I think people are prepared and ready to go now."

Mr Butterworth said the psychological aspect was a key part to performance and it came down to maintaining a healthy system for all involved, with a holistic approach.

"We very much say that having good wellbeing and mental health goes hand in hand with sustainable high performance but if you want a healthy, high performing system you need to look at the key elements of that system," he said.

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"So we recognised a few years ago and rolled out our mental health support is available for coaches and high performance support staff as well. Because we should be looking after them as well, and if we're helping them, as well as athletes, then that helps us to create a healthy system for everyone."

However, he said uptake rates for mental health and wellbeing referral services for athletes and staff had increasing significantly.

"We've seen quite a big uptake in that service over this year, which is a really really good thing, that people are prioritising their mental health and feeling comfortable to reach out for support, so we are really, really happy that the referral referral rates have increased so significantly," he said.

Canberra Olympian Angeline Blackburn said the pandemic had strengthened her resilience to change. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Canberra Olympian Angeline Blackburn said the pandemic had strengthened her resilience to change. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

HOW DO THE ATHLETES FEEL

Canberra Olympian Angeline Blackburn is one athlete heading to her first Games in Tokyo. She said she felt psychologically prepared, as the pandemic had strengthened her resilience to change.

"We were finding random ovals we could try and run on. There were no lights so we had to kind of finish work and rush to the oval, measure it out with trundle wheels and put cones down," she said.

"But it was really hard because the amount of kids and dogs I had to dodge, and the amount of times my cones got picked up. So we got really innovative with what we could do.

"So I do think Covid helped me in becoming more resilient to change, so it doesn't bother me when they're telling me, look you're going to have to get tested twice a day, you'll only be able to do this ... because I'm like I can handle it."

Another new aspect of the Games this year is athletes having to quarantine on return from the Games, sitting with either the highs or lows of their performance for an extended period.

Whilst the finer details of what athletes would have to do upon return to the country are still being finalised, Mr Butterworth said their support did not end with the Games and their support to athletes during whatever form quarantine took would be based on research from previous quarantine stints.

"What we've been looking at is how people can be supported on a day-to-day basis with structure and routine, not just waiting for them to fall over, get unwell and then put the service in.

"So we're definitely focused on how do they try and stay as well and as engaged as possible, and then also have access to services if they need something a bit more specialised," he said.

This story How mentally prepared are the athletes heading to Tokyo? first appeared on The Canberra Times.