By Garth A. Rattray
These were by far the most exciting Olympic Games for me. The Jamaican contingent was on a mission to retain the hard-earned track titles from the 2008 Games. The tremendous pressure brought to bear on them made all of us nervous. The tension was palpable.
The anxiety felt by the spectators pale into insignificance when compared to that experienced by the athletes. Former Soviet Union superheavyweight weight-lifting legend, Vasily Alexeyev (who broke 80 world records, won two Olympic gold medals and held eight World titles in the 1970s), once eloquently likened the stress of top-level events to going to one's own execution! He mused that some weightlifters were stronger than he but they succumbed to 'nerves' at competition time.
Similarly, many Jamaicans remain convinced that, aside from his groin injury, former world record sprint champion Asafa Powell performs best when he is able to fend off 'nerves' when faced with stiff competition.
But the most demonstrative mind-body influence in sports presented itself when 400m hurdler, 2008 Sportswoman of the Year, career competitor, athletics 'warrior', 2008 Olympic champion and people's champion, Melaine Walker, was unable to put out her best performance during the 2012 London Games.
When bombarded with probing questions from the media about a less-than-stellar effort, her response seemed opposite to what was expected. This led renowned psychologist Dr Leahcim Semaj to deduce that perhaps she was glad to get out of the stressful competition, or that she was experiencing 'reaction formation' - a subconscious defence mechanism that hides one's true painful feelings; it manifests as incongruous affect.
Among many other things, Walker said she was physically fit and ready but further explained, "Mentally, when I am ready I can do anything ... . I wasn't feeling it ... there was no fire ... . In my mind there's stuff going on."
And, in asking for Jamaica to cheer on our athletes, triple medallist at London, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce was quoted as saying, "I think Jamaica should know that right now, being here is not all about physical strength, it's about mental strength."
QUESTIONING THE FACTORS
Out of a total of 204 countries competing at the 2012 London Olympics, little Jamaica earned four gold, four silver and four bronze medals, placing third in athletics and 18th overall. Obviously, our elite athletes train very hard and make year-round sacrifices; however, I wondered how much essential sports psychology - the psychological factors that affect exercise and performance - preparedness is invested in them.
There are fewer than five trained sports psychologists operating in Jamaica. However, I understand that some general psychologists and psychiatrists intervene pro re nata.
Athletes from several First-World countries have the advantage of properly established mental-training programmes from sports psychologists. Our sports psychologists offer mental training, but I do not know if it is mandatory here, or if all our elite athletes receive it.
Even though it is a scientific fact that mental training enhances an athlete's performance, I get the distinct impression that Jamaica does not place enough emphasis on sports psychology,
Our athletes need far more continuous exposure to, and prolonged close relationships with, assigned sports psychologists in order to improve their performance, ensure consistent results, and avoid situations similar to whatever precipitated Walker's loss of 'fire'.
On his return to Jamaica, head coach Maurice Wilson bemoaned that although the contingent of athletes was accompanied by one technical director, two managers, four coaches, three medical doctors, two physical therapists and four masseuses, it lacked a chiropractor and a sports psychologist. I hope that the right people are taking him very seriously.
Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.