The mental work behind medals

Sports psychology consultant Wayne Halliwell helped three Canadians Olympians earn medals at the Vancouver Games

Wayne Halliwell, MA’73, describes himself as a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, somebody who isn’t all that comfortable in the full glare of the spotlight. Maybe so, but he wasn’t able to evade the spotlight completely a month ago as he found himself an important participant in events that captured the attention of almost all Canadians – not to mention a good chunk of the entire world.

Halliwell, a sports psychology consultant, was a key member of the entourage surrounding three of Canada’s most prominent Olympians at the Vancouver Games – moguls skier Jenn Heil, who won Canada’s first medal in Vancouver, moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, who won Canada’s first-ever Olympic gold medal on Canadian soil, and figure skater Joannie Rochette, who won admirers across the planet with the most heart-wrenching performance of the 2010 Winter Games.

“It was such a remarkable experience,” says Halliwell, whose work with the Olympians was arranged through B2ten, a non-profit organization that supports Canadian elite athletes. “I am so proud of all three of them.”

When Bilodeau triumphed in his event, earning his historic victory, Halliwell was one of the first people the skier embraced in celebration. “I was the uncomfortable-looking guy in the red coat who handed Alex the Canadian flag,” says Halliwell.

Halliwell was also prominent on the sidelines when Rochette took to the ice only days after losing her mother, part of a tight inner circle that kept a close watch over the skater.

Rochette’s mother died of a massive heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver to see her daughter perform at the Games. When Rochette learned of her loss and travelled to the hospital to spend time with her mother’s body, Halliwell and Rochette’s coach, Manon Perron, accompanied her. Halliwell remembers the cab ride back to the Olympic village, during which Perron gently broached the question of whether or not Rochette wanted to stay in the competition.

“Manon said, ‘Joannie, you don’t have to do this.’ But Joannie said, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it for her.’ And I said, ‘You’re going to do it with her. Your mom will be with you.”

Halliwell was there when Rochette participated in a practice skate later that day. “I encouraged her to focus on the little things that she enjoyed about skating – feeling the wind through her hair, for instance. Then, when she saw the other skaters on the ice landing jumps, her competiveness kicked right in.

“One of the things that really helped Joannie, was how, in her event, she really had to focus on interpreting the music and skating to it. In the free skate, she had to focus on skating to ‘Samson and Delilah.’ She couldn’t think about the podium, she couldn’t think about her heartache.”

Halliwell was also there when Heil earned her silver medal. Heil, a McGill management student, was the favourite to win gold going into her event. Her second place finish could have had a dispiriting effect for the Canadian team – but Heil didn’t let that happen.

“I’m proud of the performance,” she said after the race, thanking Canadians for their support before adding, “All I can say is that [first] gold medal is coming soon. We’ve never been so well prepared, I’m so proud of all the other athletes.”

“I think, in some ways, Canadians got to know Jenn even better than if she had won the gold medal,” posits Halliwell. “She showed so much class, so much dignity. She exuded pride.”

Halliwell, a professor of kinesiology at the Université de Montréal and a former pro hockey player in Switzerland, is no stranger to the world of elite athletes. He has worked with Olympian medalists before, including sprinter Bruny Surin and diver Anne Montminy. In Vancouver, he introduced Rochette to hockey stars Sidney Crosby and Shea Weber – he knew both from his work over the years with the Canadian men’s junior hockey team.

“When people look at these athletes and they see all the time and effort that they put in to their training, they call it a sacrifice. That’s not how I see it. I call it a choice. They are doing what they love to do.”

Much of his work with athletes involves putting them in the proper mental state to perform at their best. “We have equipment that can monitor heart rates with great precision. We can get a very precise reading on things like the percentage of body fat in an athlete. But the thoughts that are going through [an athlete’s] mind, the emotions they’re experiencing, we can’t measure that.” And in Halliwell’s estimation, a focused mind is just as important as a powerful body for experiencing success in sports.

“It’s not just a matter of being in the moment. It’s about embracing the moment and relishing it,” says Halliwell. “As opposed to being tight and feeling the pressure.”

Part of his work with athletes involves visualizing the events that they will soon be competing in and breaking them down into individual components – how do they want to approach the different jumps, for instance.

"One of the things I go over with the athletes is something I call the ‘I Know List,’ – ‘I know I’m healthy,’ ‘I know what my race plan is,’ ‘I know I’ve done everything possible to prepare for this event,’” says Halliwell.

Once the athletes reflect on how well-prepared they are for their events, Halliwell focuses on another key message. “It’s about remembering that they’re about to do what they love and they have the greatest stage in the world to do it on. In the end, it’s important to just take pleasure in the moment. It’s what they all worked so hard for.”

These key messages are reinforced in a few simple phrases that Halliwell develops with athletes for them to keep in mind during their competitions. For Bilodeau, one of these phrases was “no regrets,” a reminder that he had done everything he needed to do to prepare for the event. Another phrase for Bilodeau was “f**k it,” “which meant, ‘I’m going to attack the hell out of this course,” says Halliwell.

“For Joannie, her phrase was ‘stand tall.’ That’s what I told her before she skated. It reminded her that she was rising above everything that was going on around her.”

And, thanks in part to Halliwell’s support, that’s exactly what she did.

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89