Finding the ‘happy bubble’: the key to mental health for Olympians
Sean McCann watched the targets through a spyglass and used a portable magnetic board to mark where the bullets hit. He showed the athlete the results as he left the range, then grabbed a broom to sweep the sockets off the mat before the next skier arrived.
To the casual observer, McCann seemed like an American biathlon coach helping his team prepare for the Olympic Trials race earlier this season at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center.
But McCann is not a coach.
He is a clinical psychologist who works for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee – one of seven assigned to various teams. At certain times of the year, he is “embedded” on the US Biathlon Team to help them perform at their best. He lives, trains and travels with athletes and coaches, interacting with them like a friend.
“In psychology, especially in sports psychology, those trusting relationships are really important,” McCann said. “Part of our job is to take care of the whole person, not just the athlete, because you can’t leave the person at the door.”
He may seem laid back, but his presence is serious business.
“Being an elite athlete, being an Olympic athlete is very stressful,” he explained. “You are constantly measured, constantly challenged. You’re constantly under some sort of environmental stress, so what we do in sports psychology is stress management.
The issue of mental health in sport became part of the national conversation last year after tennis star Naomi Osaka revealed her bouts of depression. The discussion grew when American superstar gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of competition at the Tokyo Olympics, choosing her own health and well-being over performance demands.
Biles’ courage prompted Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history and an athlete who has been outspoken about his mental health struggles, to proclaim “it’s okay not to be okay.”
“It was a public education,” McCann said of those mental health revelations. It was useful for the athletes but also important for the public to hear these messages: Have more compassion and empathy with what the athletes are going through.
Matt Whitcomb, head coach of the US cross-country ski team, said each athlete works with a sports psychologist. During their journey, they also receive help from their club coach, national team staff, physiotherapists and massage therapists – quite a support network.
American cross-country skier Jessie Diggins has literally written a book about the struggles female athletes face as they try to stay in shape while facing unrealistic pressures to have a certain body type. Skinny isn’t healthy, she says in her book “Brave Enough” about her journey to recover from bulimia.
Diggins has worked with a sports psychologist since she was 19, she said, and she’s glad more people feel comfortable talking about it.
“For many athletes, there’s a focus on mental health,” she said. “We all have times when we’re not in a good place and it’s even harder for an athlete when the moment you struggle happens at the same time that the spotlight of the nation is shining on you.”
Part of her healing process was talking about her struggles, which is why she wrote the book.
“Yes, I had an eating disorder, but I learned so much about myself in recovery,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s okay to ask for help. I learned that you don’t have to be perfect. I realized that you don’t have to change the body type you were born with. You need to embrace your strength, do your best, and don’t compare yourself to anyone else.
It’s a winning strategy.
Diggins wrote her story after she and Kikkan Randall won Team USA’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing in the team sprint in Pyeongchang in 2018. Randall retired, but Diggins carried on to attack the sport with spirit and enthusiasm, winning the general classification. World Cup title last year and several times on the podium this year.
She is in second place overall for the Olympics.
All Olympic sports come with pressure, although McCann notes that biathlon is “crazy”: “These are two sports that don’t go together.”
Endurance athletes have the mentality to go as hard and fast as they can, he said. But in shooting, “it’s precision. It is control. It’s focus. The mentalities are really different.”
McCann therefore helps biathletes learn to change their mindset depending on their position in the race. Ski hard when you’re on the trails, but within the range, run the shots. “Focus on the process” is a biathlete’s mantra.
Easier said than done.
When a biathlete shoots, he cannot think of the skier who has just arrived behind him; or that person’s heavy breathing; or listen to the sound of other targets falling; or crowd shouts or boos when you miss; or the announcer who broadcasts your progress on the loudspeaker.
And as soon as you think, “If I get that last shot, I’ll win the race,” you’ll miss. The pressure can be overwhelming.
Russia’s Alexander Loginov led the men’s biathlon pursuit race in Oberhof, Germany on Jan. 9 to the final shooting stage. He missed his last three targets and skied penalty laps as Frenchman Quentin Fillon Maillet hit all his targets and skied to victory. Loginov finished fifth.
En route to Beijing, Olympic athletes will not be able to see friends and family, which will be an additional challenge.
“So we’re going to keep an eye out for the whole concept of loneliness that can creep in,” Whitcomb said. “Because that’s probably the biggest danger, but that’s why we’re building what we’ve built.”
Diggins said she plans to FaceTime or Skype a lot with her family during the separation.
“So that way I hope to stay sane,” Diggins said. “I also know there’s going to be a lot of pressure and a lot of different things that draw me in and get my attention.”
So she worked with her sports psychologist to identify what she might be dealing with emotionally during the Olympics, and came up with a plan for how to respond and respond. This plan includes a ban on all interviews 10 days before the start of the Games.
“It’s really important to be able to focus on the team and on this happy bubble,” she said,
Follow Martha Bellisle on Twitter @marthabellisle
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