or an Olympic athlete who has dedicated years of
training to his or her sport, the difference between
success and failure can come down to just a few
seconds, a few inches or a fraction of a point — slim
margins that contribute to the intense pressure elite
Fortunately, there has been growing acceptance among
both athletes and coaches of sport psychology’s role in
helping athletes manage those pressures and enhance their
performance. One sign of that growing commitment: The
number of full-time sport psychologists hired by the United
States Olympic Committee (USOC) has increased from just one
to six over the last 20 years.
When senior sport psychologist Sean McCann, PhD, started
at the USOC 21 years ago, his talks to teams would focus on
trying to sell the idea of sport psychology. “Now we don’t have
to do that,” he says. “They get it.”
Today, McCann and other sport psychologists — within
the USOC and beyond — are prescribing imagery, relaxation
techniques, self-talk and other evidence-based interventions as
confidence or problems communicating with teammates or
“For the most part, the body knows what to do. [Athletes]
just have to turn off their minds.”
KAREN D. COGAN
U.S. Olympic Committee senior sport psychologist
they help prepare the nation’s top athletes for the 2012 summer
Olympics in London July 27 to Aug. 12.
Ideally, McCann starts working with teams two to four years
before the next Olympics so he can build strong relationships with
athletes and coaches as they compete in trials and pressure builds.
“You’re like any other coach, except you’re focusing on the
mental domain,” says McCann, who estimates that USOC sport
psychologists spend 100 days a year on the road following
athletes to training camps, matches and the Olympics itself.
Although he gives talks to entire teams once or twice a year,
most of McCann’s time is spent working with individuals.
Many just want help maintaining their focus or finding
other ways to boost their performance. “It’s not so much
that there’s something going wrong,” says McCann, a former
“serious amateur” bike racer who is preparing the shooting
and equestrian teams for this summer’s games. “It’s like
strength conditioning; it’s part of what they do to get ready for
Other athletes need help with such concerns as low self-
heights that are more than most people can imagine jumping
off of.” In some cases, Cogan recommends that athletes practice
envisioning themselves doing a difficult task. Other athletes are
already thinking too much, so she urges them to use distraction
techniques, such as feeling their movement rather than thinking
about what they need to do.
“For the most part, the body knows what to do,” she says.
“They just have to turn off their minds.”
Sports that require athletes to have direct contact with an
opponent, such as boxing and fencing, bring other potential
problems. “Then it’s not just about them being mentally tough
and focused — things that are under their control — but also
dealing with how well someone else is performing,” says Cogan.
Combat simulations in which athletes either imagine or engage
in mock fights can help them learn to focus on what they’re
doing rather than on their foes’ actions.
When you’re dealing with teams rather than individuals,
says Cogan, the potential problems multiply. “The more people
you have, the more different personalities and dynamics, the
more complicated it can be to get them all working toward
the same goals,” she says. With teams, one critical focus is
MONITOR ON PSYCHOLOGY • JULY/AUGUST 2012