An Olympic State of Mind: Q&A with US Olympic Team Sports Psychologist Karen Cogan

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Olympic athletes are masters of preparation. Most of us are aware of the years of physical training the athletes endure to compete at the highest level. But there’s a significant mental aspect to their preparation as well. Imagine if your entire life’s work lead up to a single event that lasted a matter of moments and the entire world got to watch. The pressure inherent in any Olympic event is as much an obstacle as any physical gate or hurdle that an athlete must clear. Not only that, with such slim margins of victory, an athlete’s advantage can often come from the mental side of the game rather than the physical.

To find out more about the mental work that goes into an Olympic athlete’s preparation, we spoke with Karen Cogan, a Sports Psychologist with the US Olympic Team. She is currently in Sochi for her 5th Olympic Games. She works primarily with acrobat and combat sports (gymnastics, diving, synchronized swimming, taekwondo, wrestling, boxing, fencing, and judo), which compete during the summer. Her role in Sochi will be to provide support for families and friends of the athletes who are attending the games in order to prevent any outside issues from trickling down to the athlete. We spoke with her to get a better sense of what it takes to prepare an athlete mentally, and how she helps them deal with the intense pressure.

Evan Nesterak: What are some of the recurring themes as you work with athletes and help them prepare for the Olympic Games?

Karen Cogan: To some degree that depends on the athlete, but overall one of the biggest things that I work with them and the coaches on is setting up high pressure situations beforehand. Not only do they go to world cups and world championships, and qualifying events and Olympic trials, but in training we try to set up high pressure situations, so that they can see how they react. Then, we can start to develop some coping strategies. That was one of the main things I emphasized going into London–making sure that we had done enough of that, [so] the athletes understood how they responded to those anxieties.

We also talk a lot about “What if” scenarios. What if you are in medal contention, it’s your last dive, and you have to hit the dive? If you don’t, you don’t have a medal. If you do, you have a medal. How do you deal with that kind of a pressure situation?

We talk about stress and anxiety as being a normal part of the competitive process. We talk about being able to face that and use it to their advantage.

Anything from that to something like: What if one of your family members dies while you’re over there at the games? Do you want to know before you compete, after you compete? We would talk through those kinds of things just in case something like that would happen. Chances are the exact situation we talk about isn’t necessarily going to happen, but the fact that we did this sort of preparation, and the athletes thought through options for coping with stressful situations could help them deal with whatever they [do] face.

EN: Can you talk about some of the day-to-day work you do leading up to the games?

KC: In general I think you need at least a couple of years to really set the stage, to really set up a good mental training plan for each person. Usually it starts way ahead of time. I will go in and talk to the team as a group [and] let them know what I do. Sometimes we’ll do group workshops so they can learn basic mental skills, like breathing and relaxation, and imagery techniques. Then they’ll come in one-on-one and we’ll talk through whatever their specific challenges are. Some of them don’t really have anything that’s wrong, it’s just they want that edge. They want to have a really good mental plan going into competing.

EN: Athletes seem to face a balancing act between stress-management and self-belief. Their life’s work comes down to a few moments. Can you talk about how you work with athletes to balance these two competing forces?

KC: We talk about stress and anxiety as being a normal part of the competitive process, and to some degree if they don’t have that, then they don’t have enough adrenaline to do well. So we expect there to be that sense of anxiety, especially in those important competitions. We talk about that as normal. We talk about being able to face that and use it to their advantage, and work through it, rather than avoid it or ignore it. Maybe even reinterpret it as more their excitement and anticipation, as opposed to something that they’re dreading.

EN: What does the game-time scenario look like for a sports psychologist?

KC: The way I work, I hope that at that point we’re down to maintenance, because we’ve done all the work–they know the skills, they know how they need to prepare. Then, it’s just making sure they remember to do what they need to do. Maybe putting out a few fires here and there if something comes up that’s unexpected. Sometimes I’ll just meet with them for five minutes at a time—how are you doing? What do you need? And remember to do this, this, and this that we talked about. The interactions then become fairly brief unless there’s a problem.

At that point I end up working more with the coaches, because coaches have their own anxiety as they see their athlete progress to this point. If they haven’t been to an Olympic Games before, sometimes they feel their own stress. So then I’m partly helping them manage that and do the right thing to help support their athlete. It’s really a variety of things. I’m there and I’m available. I never know what it’s going to be. I very much have to respond in the moment.

EN: Most people think about athletes preparing mentally for a game, but can you describe in a bit more detail what you do with coaches to help them manage their own stress, so they can be at their best, and also to make sure you’re on the same page in terms of coaching the athlete?

KC: The coaches and I usually interact quite a bit throughout the year, and with the coaches it tends to be a little more informal. With diving I’m on the deck with them, in between dives asking questions about their athletes or how to help. With wrestling I go into the wrestling rooms and [coaches will] come over, talk to me and ask me questions. Same thing with fencing.

As it got closer to the Olympics, we did some training in workshops for coaches and I did some “What if” scenarios with them. What if you’re coaching and this happens to your athlete? Or this, this, and this goes on–how are you going to handle that? We did some training like that, which turned out to be beneficial because some of those things actually did happen. So they had a chance to talk through some of that, and then they had a little better knowledge of what to do going in.

EN: Leading into the games there has been a lot of talk about two political issues in particular: security at the games and Russia’s strict laws and poor record concerning gay rights. Have the sports psychologists worked with the athletes or the athletes’ families to help prepare them for these potential distractions?

KC: I can’t comment on any of those specific things, but any time we have an Olympic Games there are so many distractions. It’s just a different type of competition than anything else the athletes do. Even if they go to world championships or world cups, the Olympics is different because of all the media attention and the importance of it. Many more friends and family usually come to the Olympic Games than go to other competitions, so we’re dealing with those other people who want time with the athlete. The athlete is trying to balance that with training and being focused on their competition. There’s just many more distractors and we do prepare them for that ahead of time.

EN: What is most memorable Olympic moment?

KC: One was with our [2012] women’s team Épée events (a specific form of fencing). This group was not expected to medal, but they made it all the way to the Bronze medal round. At that point they were going to be either third or fourth. They had already progressed further than anybody had expected and it was a very intense bout. They were tied at the end and it was in overtime. Whoever got the next touch was going to be the winner. I was sitting in the stands right there watching and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more anxious in my life, even for things that I’d personally done. It was just such an intense moment watching that last touch. When the light came up on the US side, when they realized they had won a bronze medal, they might as well have won a gold medal. It was just such an amazing feeling to watch that happen and to see them achieve that. Then the celebration afterwards and how amazingly happy they were. That’s a moment I will never forget.

EN: That’s amazing, and it kind of made me wonder who’s the sports psychologist for the sport psychologists?

KC: [Laughs] Yeah, I know. I was sitting with some other US people, and everybody was feeling the same way. To go from that intense anxiety of that last touch and then to see them get it and win and know what that meant and then all of a sudden everyone’s jumping up and cheering. From one extreme emotion to another. That is somewhat normal in the Olympics. That happens a lot.

To experience the final moments of the 2012 Women’s Epee event scroll to minute 54:00.