Hubert Lawrence | Haughton is right, mental preparation is key
Greg Haughton, the Olympic and World Championships 400 metre bronze medallist, is right. Jamaica needs to attend to the mental preparation of our athletes. Haughton may well be right that with the departure of the incomparable Usain Bolt, the need is more pronounced than ever. The need, however, has always been there.
Herb McKenley arrived in London for the 1948 Olympics in great form, with the world record for 400 metres, and was expected to win. As recounted in Herb McKenley: Olympic Star by Errol Townsend and Jimmy Carnegie, Herb made a mental mistake by blitzing the last curve of the race.
"I felt so relaxed at 200 I just kept running at that pace", said Herb. "My time at 300 was 33 seconds," he noted, "Halfway down the home stretch it seemed the entire stadium had fallen on me."
Luckily for Jamaica, Arthur Wint marched forward to win the gold medal. "Moreover", those erstwhile scribes wrote, "Herb had clearly panicked, glancing around to see where Wint was."
You might remember shouting at your television 22 years ago as Merlene Ottey charged off the curve in the 200 metre semi-final at the 1996 Olympic Games.
"Cruise, Merlene, cruise." I yelled, "and save it for the final." She ran powerfully to the line and won by almost three--tenths of a second over Russia's Galina Malchugina, 22.08 to 22.35 seconds. The effort cost the evergreen 36-year-old Jamaican in the final when Marie-Jose Perec of France surged past an out-of-gas Ottey to complete a famous double. Though she ran for Jamaica at the 2000 Games and for Slovenia at the 2004 event, that 1996 final was her last real chance at an Olympic gold medal.
In what former JTTA President Michael Strachan calls interactive sport, the athlete and his or her team must respond positively to mental shifts. In 2003 when Jamaica hosted what is now known as the Netball World Cup, the Sunshine Girls had Australia on the run at the National Indoor Centre. Boom! Thanks to a car crashing into a nearby light pole, the electricity went off and on in a flash. The playing arena stayed dark as those special lights needed 25 minutes to sparkle at full intensity.
When play resumed, the Aussies overran the Jamaicans. According to Jill McIntosh, then coach of the Australian team, her girls were ready. "We were told about this before we left Australia", she is reported as saying in the International Netball Federation website, "and we practised what we would do".
The Australians brandished a flashlight and huddled together until the resumption. In all three cases, better mental preparation would have helped. It would be great if sports psychologists worked with all our junior teams every year. By the time the youngsters reach 20, they would be equipped mentally to face the world. Scholarships and professional contracts might take them away from home after that, but the preparation would serve them and Jamaica well. At the high level, specialists like professor Haughton, who has opened an organisation devoted to mental preparation, Aggrey Irons, Olivia Rose, and Dennis May should be put to work helping our best to be their best in the moments that count the most.
The alternative is to leave things, as they are and to hope that talent is all we need. That would be a mistake.
Countries of our size need to cross every 't' and dot every 'i' to get the best results from a comparatively small pool of class athletes. Sharp, relaxed minds will help.
- Hubert Lawrence has made notes at track side since 1980.