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Olympics lead psychologist on athlete mental health before the games

Georgia Ridler, Sport Psychologist and Allianz spokesperson, shares how our Tokyo athletes mentally prepared during the one year postponement.

2020 served us all some curveballs – and none more so than our athletes in their preparation for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

Our Aussie athletes are always working towards performing at their best, and their Olympic and Paralympic Games training programs are developed based on a regular four-year cycle.

The announcement of the postponement of the Games and an additional 12 months of training saw our athletes needing to not only readjust their regular training program to account for this, but they were also required to readjust emotionally, socially and mentally to meet the new timeline.

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While our Olympians and Paralympians took this setback in their stride and continued to prepare and work hard, it was also important for them to be aware of the impact that a change in their program has on their mental wellbeing. Now that we’re starting the Games, it’s a proud moment to see how far they’ve come.

As a Sport Psychologist, I’ve worked closely with our athletes on ensuring they’re mentally prepared for the upcoming Games. Here’s what they faced over the past 12 months:

Emotional adjustment

Four years is a long time to work towards a goal. With the postponement of the Games and the onset of the pandemic, many athletes would have experienced emotions of shock, uncertainty and grief for the loss of such a significant goal, as well as the loss of their daily training routine that they were so accustomed to.

Most athletes would have ridden a wave of denial, anger, sadness and acceptance, which is known as the grief cycle, in their emotional adjustment to the Games being delayed.

Social adjustment

Do I continue or not? Particularly for those athletes who are planning to retire after Tokyo 2020, a one-year extension may have presented a significant social and life challenge.

Depending on their retirement plans, they may have had to question their goals and desires beyond their sport – such as starting a family, making a career transition or travel. For those at their peak performance, there was a greater need to dig deep and find their motivation to continue training for another year.

Mental adjustment

It’s important for athletes to plan when to switch on and switch off in order to maintain performance progress, recover properly and perform at their best. Athletic performance, just like any performance at work or at school, requires a delicate balance of mental focus and mental recovery.

Focused attention over an extended period of time can lead to fatigue and reduced recovery, so our athletes have had to consider this and plan accordingly in order to sustain focus and peak performance across the last 12 months.

Stronger reliance on support networks

With all of this change and adjustment, the support networks of our athletes have played a more significant role than ever before. According to research by Allianz Australia, three in five Aussies who stated their confidence is affected by other people also said having someone behind them and knowing they are supported boosts their confidence.

Coaches of our athletes were focused on redesigning training plans and maintaining a sense of calm and confidence in the adjusted plan. They continued to spark confidence in their athletes when faced with uncertainty, in a calm and logical manner.

Family and friends have been there through the emotional highs and lows and have been a stable source of positive reinforcement.

Their unwavering support has been recognised by some of our athletes, such as Cate Campbell and Madison de Rozario who, through Allianz’s latest initiative, are shining the spotlight on their own support networks that have given them unwavering support. Aussies are invited to do the same using the hashtag #SparkConfidence.

What have we gained?

Looking back at the last 12 months, despite the challenges, a lot of positives have come from the extended road to the Games.

Our athletes were able to develop stronger bonds with their support network that continued to be behind them for what’s ahead despite the challenges and uncertainties of the last year.

From homemade weights to training sessions via video call, athletes and their coaches have been pushed to think outside the box to suit the new normal. New, creative and innovative ways to stay sharp and motivated during lockdowns and border closures were developed, which has made a positive impact on both our athletes and the way that they will prepare for future Games and competitions.

Our athletes are also coming out the other end with a stronger focus on what is within their control. They have discovered a new appreciation for their ‘controllables’, which is the power to stay focused on what is within our control and letting go of what’s outside our control.

As the world prepares to watch Tokyo 2020, now is a great time to reflect on what we’ve all learnt and experienced from the past year and look to our Olympians and Paralympians as inspiration and motivation to keep persevering.

Georgia Ridler is the Australian Olympic Team Lead Psychologist, and coaches people to understand the art and science of high performance and sustained wellbeing in life, sport and business.