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Marnie McBean

August 10, 2016 by Speakers' Spotlight

Mental Toughness and Focus Help Athletes Prepare for Medals and Life’s Stresses

Marnie McBean is one of Canada’s most decorated Olympians, and an expert in turning potential into performance. As a former Specialist in Olympic Athlete Preparation and Mentoring for the Canadian Olympic Committee, McBean prepared athletes emotionally and psychologically to ensure that they performed at the highest level in everything they can. Drawing on her years of experience as a top competitor and her current expertise, she leaves audiences with a recipe for success that can be applied to all endeavours. The CBC spoke with Marnie about the tricks and tactics athletes use to calm their nerves during Olympic competition:

The brain training exercises Olympic athletes go through to prepare can be applied to the rest of us, a Canadian gold medallist and mental performance consultant to athletes say.

Rower Marnie McBean won three Olympic gold medals and a bronze for Canada. When your goal is to be perfect at what you’re doing, she said, you’re so focused on the little details that podium pressures disappear.

“Once you start thinking about results, and with the Olympics once you start thinking about the Olympic Games, you’re screwed, because you’re thinking about the big things that you can’t control,” McBean said in an interview.

The way she calmed herself was to focus on the small details of performance under her control, such as the tasks of technique.

“For me in rowing, it would be the little details of my hands going around the finish or the blade being clear off the water.”

Nowadays, some athletes thrive and are energized from tweeting and engaging right before a performance. Others need to retreat to their quiet hotel room, McBean said.

Athletes seeking to improve their mental performance need to build a strong sense of self-awareness of what works for them, said Rolf Wagschal, a former national team sailor and game plan adviser with theCanadian Sport Institute Ontario.

In Rio, the institute supports silver medallist Penny Oleksiak and her bronze relay teammates Michelle Williams, Sandrine Mainville and Chantel Van Landeghem, a spokeswoman said, as well as athletes from rowing, athletics and cycling.

“What are those situations in which they’re calm and they are able to focus?” Wagschal said. “What are those situations which perhaps trigger them to be a little more nervous and they start to let that creep in?”

Get butterflies to fly in formation

To bring about a change, you first have to realize what is happening, he said.

Wagschal suggests keeping a journal to track your state of mind and how it correlates with performance. “It’s a matter of identifying certain triggers and either enhancing or avoiding those types of things.”

From a physiological point of view, Wagschal said, excitement and anxiety exhibit in similar ways, such as shortness of breath, increased heart rate and sweaty palms.

“Another sports psychology colleague of mine, a mental performance consultant, said it’s not necessarily about eliminating the butterflies in your stomach, it’s about getting them to fly in formation.”

Stress is the spice of life, McBean said.

“Once you realize that stress isn’t such a terrible thing, you start to wear it better,” she said. “Accept it. Then you become like a reed in the wind.”

In contrast, McBean said, often when someone has no stress in their life, they’re bored.

CBC/August, 2016