WLU prof looks to give Olympians mental edge

Photo courtesy of WLU Public Affairs.

When marathoners Eric Gillis and Reid Coolsaet, steeplechaser Alex Genest and 1500-metre runner Hilary Stellingwerff take to the road and the track at the London Olympics, Kim Dawson will know that she helped get them there.

Starting in January of 2011, Dawson, a professor of kineisiology and physical education at Laurier, provided sports psychology consulting for these four Canadian Olympians, along with 13 other middle and long distance runners at Guelph’s Speed River Track and Field Club. Now that the Games have arrived, Dawson can’t wait to see her pupils in action.

“I’m so excited to see their faces [on TV], they’re so deserving of this honour,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard, it’s such a thrill.”

According to Dawson, who has taught at Laurier for 15 years, the mental side of sport is crucial for any athlete. It’s also something that has been gaining attention in recent years.

“The bottom line is that physically you have a certain amount of potential. But your mind can either increase that potential or it can limit it,” said Dawson. “You can’t pick up the sports pages without an athlete talking about the mental side of the game. It’s gotten to a point where they’ll talk more about the psychological aspect than the physical aspect.”

So what does a sports psychologist like Dawson want to achieve with her athletes

“We want a congruence between mental and physical strength,” she said. “A lot of athletes walk up to the plate or start running and they’re talking themselves out of it right away. “So, it’s making them aware of that dialogue that goes on in their mind and how they can control it.”

Using techniques like visualization, self talk, relaxation, proper use of music and confidence building, Dawson said her main goal is to put an athlete in the right mental state to maximize his or her body’s potential. However, that optimal mental state can differ greatly from sport-to-sport  and athlete-to-athlete.

“For example, adrenaline is great if you’re doing a high endurance sport,” said Dawson. “But if you have too much adrenaline and you’re doing something like playing quarterback, it can change your mental focus and harm your ability to see the playing field.”

According to Dawson, that proper mental state is even vastly different between different types of runners.

“With a sprinter, we really don’t want them to be cognitive at all, we want them to be impulse driven… once the race starts, they shouldn’t be thinking at all,” she said. “But marathoners have to be so mentally disciplined and so aware of what their thoughts are and where those thoughts are leading them, because certain thoughts and emotions can deplete your energy level and others can accelerate it.”

Dawson is confident that Gillis, Coolsaet, Genest and Stellingwerff will be in a good mental state when they compete over the next week and a half. But if  they need her, she’ll be a phone call away.

“I’ll definitely keep the lines of communication open, but I don’t like to bug them,” said Dawson. “If I’ve done my job properly, they’re perfectly capable of getting themselves in and out mentally in terms of where they should be. But if they need me, they know where to find me.”

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