“In the 1990s, a lot of coaches saw sports psychology as – well, if an athlete really has trouble or is a choker, then he/she needs to see a sports psychologist,” says Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee, who says that now “100 percent” of US athletes are using at least some of the mental skills he and his team teach. Those skills include visualization, breathing, body control, energy management, and the use of key words to help an athlete perform at his or her best – which is the key challenge of an event that is more media-intensive than most other competitions.
“At the Olympics it’s not about getting to a new level. The challenge of the Olympics is executing. All these tools are in service of executing your skill. That’s really hard to do at Games,” says Dr. McCann. “There are so many questions, so many thoughts – thoughts like, ‘If I don’t throw my long program [in figure skating], it will be worth millions of dollars to me.' ”
For better or worse, sports psychology has become tightly woven into the fabric of the Games. In Scandinavia, that’s set off a controversy, with Swedes ridiculing their Norwegian neighbors for bringing four full-time sports psychologists to these Games.