Beijing Olympics

Associated Press
Mark Spitz, 1972

90 Percent of the Olympics Is Half Mental

August 20, 2008 08:03 AM
by Shannon Firth
Psychological warfare has become commonplace in Olympic competition.

The Summer Mind Games

As American gymnast Alicia Scaramone prepared to start her routine on the balance beam at the Beijing Summer Games, she encountered a significant hurdle: an unexpected and unexplained delay of nearly five minutes. For a young athlete about to deliver a performance that is scored in hundredths of a point, such a delay can be highly unnerving. And indeed, Scaramone fell off the beam, which seriously impacted her score. Afterwards, she said, “The delay contributed to my mistake. I was pretty nervous already and I had to stand there for what seemed like forever.”

Although this is a rare case in which Olympic officials themselves were accused of playing mind games with an athlete, Olympic athletes have a long history of playing mind games with each other, and the Americans are hardly exceptions. Don Schollander, a multiple Gold medalist at the 1964 Olympics, would hover over his competitors, stare at their swimsuits and follow them to the bathroom. In his biography “Deep Water,” he explained that “psyching out is part of the game. You’ve got to be able to take it and you’ve got to be able to do it.”

The “ready room” where Olympics swimmers wait pre-race with their competitors is a psychological war zone. Amy Van Dyken, an Olympic swimmer who competed in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, recalled how she turned to face Le Jingyi of China, “For the next half-hour, I sat there and stared at her like you just took the last Double Stuf Oreo.” Van Dyken was a very popular athlete until she was caught on camera practicing her infamous technique of spitting pool water into the lane of her chief opponent.

Olympic swimmer and former world record holder Mark Spitz was renowned for his intimidation tactics. When his teammate Steve Genter suffered a compressed lung and decided to race despite doctor’s advice, Spitz tried to get under his skin. Genter said, “He said I might hurt myself again.” Because of Spitz’s history of playing mind games, Genter ignored the warning. In retrospect, he should have heeded it; the stitches on Genter’s lung loosened and he bled into the water.

Some coaches believe mental preparedness and toughness can be as important a skill as physical ability. But Colleen Hacker, the mental skills coach for the women’s Olympic field hockey team explained that psychological skills can be learned: “It’s not something you have or you don’t.”
Sports psychologists in China are having a difficult time undoing years of firmly ingrained cultural beliefs. Some believe the pre-competition anxiety Chinese athletes feel would be less intense if they weren’t competing at home, in front of all of their friends, family and teachers. Shi Yan, deputy dean of Shanxi University's sports college also believes Western athletes have more fun: “The Chinese are too serious. They think the sky will collapse if they lose.”

Lesson 1: Get inside your opponent’s head

Related Topics: Psyching players up instead of out; Chinese athletes under pressure; Olympic etiquette

Reference: Body Mind Mastery: Creating Success in Sport and in Life


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