We shrink Games anxiety down to size, say psychologists

By Mary Milliken

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - If only Olympic competitors' fears really could be quelled by reading "Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies."

In a playful jab to the sports psychologists who mentally massage athletes at these Olympic Games, popular American comedian Stephen Colbert pointedly perused the book in his honorary advisory role of to the U.S. speedskating team.

"It is an indication that the field has made it when Stephen Colbert is able to mock it," said Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist for the U.S. Olympic team who works with competitors including gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn.

Yes, sports psychology has probably made it. Just ask the powerful U.S. women Alpine skiers who stood atop the downhill podium this week or the calm Canadian freestyle skiers who won gold and silver on the moguls.

American snowboarder Scott Lago told reporters he worked with a sports psychologist to stop choking in the big events and even "read a couple books" about sports psychology. He walked off with a bronze medal in the halfpipe.

Once a fringe trade on the margins of Olympic training, psychological preparation of athletes is now at the heart of many nations' sports programs.

For Penny Werthner, sports psychologist to Canada's freestyle ski team and women's curling team, the prestige grows with the stream of Olympic athletes who go into coaching and bring memories of the mental rigors of their competition.

"I don't have any miracles to help an athlete win if they haven't done the training," said Werthner, herself a former Olympic competitor in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

"It is how well an athlete, and a coach for that matter, manage their nerves and anxieties so they can do the job they have trained to do."

In a nutshell, the secret seems to be to breathe deeply at the startline and not think -- too much, at any rate.

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Under the auspices of host nation Canada's not-so-secret "Top Secret" project, she placed Alexandre Bilodeau (gold men's moguls) and Jennifer Heil (silver women's) in the lab.

They learned how to see physiologically what happened to them when they were stressed and how to manage it at race time.

"For Jenn and Alex, it is so technical and it is over in 23, 24, or 25 seconds, that in order to do those skills they need to be physiologically and psychologically calm," said Werthner.

That they were last weekend. Heil did lose the gold medal to American Hannah Kearney, but Werthner maintained that she ran at the top of her game, physically and mentally.

Over on Whistler mountain this week, the women skiers faced a treacherous downhill course that led to spectacular crashes and had veterans and rookies frightened at the starting gate.

For the U.S. women's ski team, McCann worked with coaches to emphasize that racers had to be aggressive and on the attack, "which is so important at the Olympic Games."

"If you watch the race tape, what I am most proud of in the teams is that our athletes attacked it and there were a bunch of athletes that were just really trying to survive it," said McCann.

Vonn and team mate Julia Mancuso finished in the gold and silver positions. McCann cannot discuss his specific work with the women, but said their mental fortitude helped them to the podium.

"Lindsey and Julia are really skilled skiers ... but there are probably 20 other women with talent close to that level," said McCann.

"What sets them apart, in different ways, is the mental game."

Even if the athletes are psychologically prepared, the people around them may not be. Panicky coaches and anxious relatives can increase the workload of a sports psychologist.

"Often I manage people around them if they are starting to lose it," said Werthner. "I see that all the time."

(Editing by Jon Bramley)