How to win Olympic gold
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - October 25, 2014 - 12:00am

This writer received an e-mail from Sheryll M. Casuga, Psy.D., CC-AASP, Doctor of Clinical Psychology with an M.A. in Sport Psychology. Casuga has sent this writer information about sport psychology before. From 2009 to 2011, Dr. Casuga’s dissertation entitled “The Filipino Athlete’s Experience of the Bahala Na Attitude in International Sporting Competition” was given the distinction of “Outstanding Dissertation Award” by the John F. Kennedy University faculty and research director for the 2011 graduating batch. She wrote The STAR to offer advice on what it takes for the Philippines to get an Olympic gold medal, from a sport psychologist’s perspective.

The first key is to get past the knowledge that this will be a first. Casuga proposes that the toughest challenge for Filipino Olympians is the mental barrier that comes from knowing that no Filipino has won a gold medal before. On two occasions, Filipinos (Arianne Cerdeña in bowling in 1988 and Willy Wang in the side event wushu in 2008) have won, but there was always an asterisk next to the accomplishment. For Casuga, there are no road maps for Filipino hopefuls who have to burn their own path. The fact that it has never been done before plants the seeds of doubt in their minds that it really can be done in the first place.

“In 1954, Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to break the four-minute mile believed that he could do what scientists say was not humanly possible,” says Casuga, who previously studied at the University of the Philippines. “In order to get a gold medal, the Filipino athlete must believe in his/her core that he/she will be an Olympic gold medalist and not settle for anything less against all odds.”

Casuga, who received the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) Student Diversity Award in 2008, acknowledges that developing a positive, winning mindset for Filipino Olympians does not happen a few months or days prior to competition. She says the athlete has to mindfully commit to winning a gold medal as early as possible, set realistic goals to achieve this, and internalize this commitment daily. This is not an easy task for Filipino athletes because there are plenty of things that could demoralize them and make them feel inferior to their potential or real competitors.

“But if there is anything we can learn from history is that Filipinos are very resilient and we can overcome overwhelming adversity,” she clarifies. “Manny Pacquiao is an excellent example of an athlete who has a winning mindset despite whatever obstacle has come his way.”

The next key is optimizing mental preparation for success. The athlete’s mental preparation (including psychology and visualization, among others), should be done with the same level of intensity and consistency as his or her physical conditioning. Simply put, Filipino athletes should have no doubt about their capability to win, and as the cliché goes, they should want it more than the rest of the field. Athletes that reach the highest level of competition all have an innate will to win and have shown mental toughness to make it to the Olympics.

“Mental preparation is the key to execution,” Casuga adds. “As a sport psychologist, I often hear coaches and athletic trainers talk about an athlete in his/her peak physical fitness and sport skill but perform poorly in competition. This can be prevented by mental preparation. Filipino Olympians need a sport psychology program that addresses the mental side of their performance.”

Casuga says the mental game is the “great equalizer” because she believes an athlete with a stronger mental game can beat an athlete who is more skilled or has more competitive experience. The Philippines, she says, may be an underdog but we have as much chance at winning as any of the other competing countries with all their resources if our athletes have the stronger mental game.

“One of my favorite underdog stories is Mike Powell beating the long jump world record and beating his biggest rival, Carl Lewis who was favored to win at the 1991 World Championships in Athletics,” she says. “The previous record-holder, Bob Beamon made the record in Mexico City in 1968 Summer Olympics, wherein the wind is friendlier to long-jumpers. Powell broke this record in Tokyo’s thick pea soup-like air. Powell had the better mental game than Lewis that day. Powell said that he envisioned everything with precise details in his head over a hundred times and it was as if he has already broken the world record in his head long before his actual jump.”

Similarly, when Dennis Conner’s crew lost the America’s Cup to Australia decades ago, they rededicated themselves to visualizing victory in the coming years leading up to the next America’s Cup. The Americans won with relative ease. When asked how they did it, the crew members said they knew they would win because, in their minds, they had already beaten their opponents over 4,000 times in practice. For Filipino athletes, optimal mental preparation is to make sure they feel competent in their mental skills to handle the stress of competing in the Olympics. Every country goes through the same experience no matter how many gold medals those countries had in the past. It is easy to panic, feel discouraged, deviate from the game plan, and lose focus on what it takes to win a gold medal. This is one of the main causes of choking. According to Casuga, with appropriate mental training, Filipino athletes would still experience Olympic stress just the same, but they will have the internal resources to stay calm, trust their training, and remain confident that they can execute.

The next key, according to Dr. Casuga’s research, is creating a winning environment for the athletes.

“The Philippines may have limited resources monetarily but it does not cost money to come up with ways to morally support our athletes,” she elaborates further. Fostering a winning environment for Filipino Olympians is a collective responsibility. The challenge is for the Philippine national training staff, the government, media outlets, and our nation as a whole, to make a conscious effort to empower athletes on a consistent basis and not just the weeks leading up to the Olympics. After all, when the Philippines start winning gold medals, it will boost our nation and everyone will benefit.”

Casuga believes we can positively use our spirituality and cultural traditions to overcome our own negative beliefs, as well.

“Because the Philippines has a collectivist culture (as opposed to the Western individualist culture), Filipino athletes are more susceptible to social influences and have values such as utang-na-loob, hiya, and pakikisama that could sometimes become counterproductive to performance if there is no awareness on how these influences impact the athlete’s sport psychology,” she says. “This is the role of the sport psychologist, to identify these influences and interpersonal relationships, and turn them around.”

Dr. Casuga has offered her services to the various national teams. Here’s hoping somebody is listening.

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