Behind the sinewy limbs, rivers of tears and buckets of sweat shed by every athlete at this year’s summer Olympics, there was a mind and a will that needed a workout, too. As a sports psychologist and kinesiologist, West Chester University’s Margaret Ottley worked with members of the Trinidad & Tobago team to overcome their mental hurdles as they prepared for major events. And though she’s back in the lecture hall now, a fourth Olympic appearance in Rio is a real possibility.
MLT: What exactly does a sports psychologist do?
MO: Typically, we handle issues like an athlete’s approach to competition or motivation. But when you’re dealing with an Olympic team, it’s already assumed you’re at the top of your game. For them, we focus on performance anxiety, confidence, self-doubt, energy management, relation techniques and more—plus the three Cs: concentration, composure and confidence.
MLT: What’s the most common issue you encounter at the Olympics?
MO: Confidence. You’re dealing with individuals who have such diverse experiences, all meeting on one playing field. There’s an immense pressure to medal so they keep their sponsorships. There’s also the fact that they don’t want to let their country or their support team down. There are so many external factors besides the pressure of the game that can affect an athlete’s self-confidence.
MLT: What types of mental exercises help an athlete prepare?
MO: We do a lot with guided imagery. Eighty percent of an athlete’s sensory experience is visual, but we want to have all the sensory receptors engaged to contribute to an overall balance. So much of what they do is in a rhythmic flow, so we try to get them to be more consistent in their techniques. We do that by having athletes talk through their whole routine, detailing what their movements will be and how they’ll execute.
MLT: How many athletes did you work with from Trinidad & Tobago?
MO: Thirty-one in the areas of track and field, sailing, boxing, swimming, and cycling.
MLT: What other teams and events have you been a part of?
MO: I’ve been to the Commonwealth Games, the Pan American Games, the IAAF World Youth Games and the IAAF World Junior Games, and the Olympic Games in Athens and Beijing. I was on staff with the U.S. track-and-field team for Beijing.
MLT: What was one of the more challenging cases?
MO: We had a track cyclist who was very young, and here he is coming up against the rest of the world. You have these athletes that you’ve looked up to for so long, and you think it’s impossible to beat your mentors, until you begin a cognitive restructuring that allows you to see the value of who you are, what brought you to this point and what makes you a worthy competitor on this playing field.
MLT: What was this Olympic experience like for you?
MO: The camaraderie among the athletes was great. And staying in the Olympic Village was cool, because you can walk into the cafeteria and see the Williams sisters or Usain Bolt.
MLT: Who was your favorite athlete to watch?
MO: Keyshawn Walker, who won the gold in the javelin throw for Trinidad & Tobago.
MLT: Do you have your sights set on Rio?
MO: I’m at a crossroads now, depending on whether or not my contract with Trinidad & Tobago is renewed. Chances are, I’ll be going.