Athletes ‘Embrace Panic’ Ahead of Tokyo Olympics


In the year leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, Connor Fields was struggling with his nerves. His problem ? It seems he wanted to feel After nervous.

Gold-medalist BMX rider, forced to wait for his third consecutive Summer Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, met with other riders to discuss the rising stakes in their routine daily.

They wanted something more than practice, hawking furiously around a course day in and day out, leaning into banked turns and flying off jumps.

“We were in simulation [races] to stay sharp and catch butterflies, ”says Fields. “You know, even bet lunch on that.”

Connor Fields, center, competes in a BMX semi-final at the 2016 Games in Brazil.

(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Training for the Games – a big-name competition that normally only takes place once every four years – can be intimidating. There is pressure to stay healthy and reach peak form at the right time. This year, the global pandemic has added another challenge.

The coronavirus shutdown wiped out a year of races, games and matches in all sports, depriving athletes of opportunities to hone their competitive edge. For many, what should have been a gradual build-up throughout the season was reduced to a few events and Olympic trials at the last moment.

“Any disruption of the plan right now is frightening,” said Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist for the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “It created a lot of stress.”

Some athletes have gone to unusual efforts – more than just betting on lunch – to recreate a game day atmosphere. Others have spent months solving their problems in therapy.

“It’s scary,” said Yul Moldauer, who qualified for the US men’s gymnastics team last weekend. “We haven’t had all the opportunities we usually have.”

A gymnast screams and pumps his muscles.

Yul Moldauer celebrates after floor exercise during the United States Olympic Gymnastics Trials June 26 in St. Louis.

(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Most Olympic hopefuls learn from an early age to deal with the nervousness of risking everything. They can handle winning and losing, but uncertainty is another matter.

Elite athletes tend to be careful planners, working with their coaches to plan training routines and competitions well in advance. Track athletes, for example, like to run a half-dozen or more events before trials in the United States in June, and then two more the month before the Games start.

“You want to create momentum,” said Christian Taylor, two-time Olympic triple jump champion whose candidacy for a third gold medal ended with a torn Achilles tendon in May. “But this is uncharted territory.”

With few synchronized dive events on the calendar, Kassidy Cook and Sarah Bacon improvised by placing a camera poolside and inviting a panel of judges to join them on Zoom. The duo, who won a national 3-meter springboard championship in 2019, treated the virtual meet like any other competition, until their ritual punch before each attempt.

“You have to convince yourself it’s real,” Cook says. “It gets the adrenaline pumping and the nerves go up.”

The gymnasts put something extra into their morning workouts, cartwheeling and turning around on the mat as if it were the world championships. The sprinters envisioned opponents on their heels as they hurtled down the track on their own. With the training facilities closed during the shutdown, swimmers tied themselves to the edges of small pools and stroked each other as hard as if they were looking for a national title.

“It’s scary. We haven’t had all the opportunities that we usually have.

Yul Moldauer, who qualified for the US men’s gymnastics team

Summer Rappaport, a triathlete en route to Tokyo, has only competed once in 2020 and was surprised at how difficult it was.

“There’s just something special about being on the course and learning to thrive under pressure and rise up,” she says. “I tried to fill the void with a visualization of the race that I worked on with my sports psychologist.”

The process requires homework, says McCann. He tells the athletes to sit down and close their eyes, imagining every moment of their ordeal, whether it is the last turn of a 400-meter race or the last attempt at gymnastics jump. It is a technique that skiers have used for years and that works for other sports.

Breathing exercises – often reserved on race day – have become essential for staying calm in the months leading up to Tokyo. USOPC psychophysiologist Lindsay Shaw asks her athletes to watch a video of their best performances of 2019 to remember what it looked and felt like to win.

Coaches can also play an important role. McCann urges them to put a few surprises into practice, as almost all competitions feature what he calls a “disruption,” something about the time, place or weather that pushes an athlete out of his zone. comfort.

“You have to find a way to disrupt the way you think about training, when everything is easy,” says the sports psychologist. “It’s about being disturbed and then getting back on the road.”

Amid the pandemic, American athletes had to fight feelings of envy as they watched their foreign rivals continue to train and compete in countries that did not shut down. When infection rates finally started to decline in many parts of the world with life returning to normal, another problem arose.

Competitions resumed – the BMX Fields rider was fortunate enough to resume racing in the winter – but the limited schedule made athletes feel the pressure to excel right away, pushing hard at events that should have been. tune-ups.

Nick Itkin, a young Los Angeles fencer who made it to the top 10 in 2019, was not thrilled with how things turned out at his only international pre-Games event, a tournament in Qatar. He and others have had to rely on training with their teammates at home to boost their confidence.

“It’s kind of like coming back from an ACL injury,” said McCann. “They are like, ‘Am I still the athlete I was in 2019 when I was in top form and no one could touch me?’”

As the reigning two-time Olympic champion, the US women’s water polo team spent more time observing their opponents from afar, studying reruns of European tournaments in recent months.

A polo player walks on the water.

Maggie Steffens, a member of the U.S. women’s water polo team, trains with her teammates on April 27 at MWR Aquatic Training Center in Los Alamitos.

(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“Fortunately, there are a lot of videos online these days,” says veteran Maggie Steffens. But, she adds, it’s “a little different than playing them physically and having the emotions involved and having someone grab your costume.”

Just weeks away from the Summer Games, McCann was impressed with how his athletes adjusted to the most extraordinary circumstances he had encountered in 30 years as a sports psychologist.

“It was a big job,” he says. “But I see people going through it and not just surviving, but striving for excellence.”

Sprinter Jaide Stepter Baynes knew the situation was far from optimal as she attempted her first Olympic Games. There were long months when the best she could do was lift dumbbells on her balcony.

When competition resumed, she adjusted her expectations, taking a realistic approach to athletics trials in the United States.

“Either way, you’re going to panic,” she said. “So just embrace the panic.” “


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