Australia’s Olympic pole-vault champion Steve Hooker qualified for the London Games in a disused railway depot, where a select guest-list mingled to thudding electro beats under strobe lights.
It was a deliberate attempt to avoid the public scrutiny that has followed his tumble from form, after a knee injury triggered the kind of psychological crisis elite athletes dread.
“The confidence I require to stand at the end of the runway and then charge down, land my pole and soar almost six meters into the air has left me for the time being,” Hooker admitted in February.
“Sometimes I run in and I don’t take off. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Hooker has faced down his mental demons, clearing an Olympic-qualifying 5.72m in the specially sanctioned, invite-only event at his personal training center, with just 150 people present.
However, his battles provide an extreme example of the importance of an athlete’s mental state — which, according to experts, will often be the difference between winning and losing at the London Games.
“Many years ago, psychology was the sort of thing you did when you had a problem. It’s now part of an athlete’s weaponry,” said Matt Favier, director of the government-funded Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
“It’s less of identifying a problem and it’s about how you maximize your performance potential,” he added.
Australia’s Olympians will be offered a clinical psychologist in the team’s mobile recovery center for the first time in London, where they can debrief and come for relaxation and other stress-management techniques during competition.
Some athletes will have counseling or learn breathing or sleeping techniques, others will simply listen to music or practice positive visualizations of their disciplines.
Shona Halson, head of the AIS performance recovery program, says mental recovery is being recognized as “just as important” as physical repair at major events.
Sports psychologist Paul Penna has accompanied Australia to two Olympics and three Commonwealth Games and he says it is a ruthless experience, as only a handful of athletes and one team will typically succeed — leaving the others to grapple with their disappointment.
The Olympics is the world’s premier sporting event and Penna said it brought out “the best in some people and the worst in others, and that’s just because of the pressure.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, they believe that it is life-defining,” Penna said. “It’s about that media expectation, it’s about the exposure, it’s about the sacrifice.”
Penna said his own approach had shifted significantly in the past decade, from minimizing pressure to teaching an athlete to embrace the moment and use the enormity of the event to their advantage.
“They’re not going to call the Olympics off just because you’re having a bad day,” he said.
Hooker’s teammate Brendan Cole knows what it is like to have a bad year. Cole, who has missed squad call-ups, says it is a huge psychological challenge to deal with the rejection “and come back stronger and better.”
The 400m hurdler meditates every day to keep his mind clear and he says he runs his best races when he is “not really thinking about anything in particular; it’s more just capturing a feeling of the body.”
Cole says even now, mental preparation is often underrated.
“A lot of athletes, and coaches probably, don’t respect the power of the mind and how it really does have an impact on what we do, and what we don’t do ultimately,” he said.
“Leading into a competition as big and as important as the Olympic Games, your mind can play tricks on you and it’s a lot of pressure. I think dealing with that pressure is something that you need to practice — it’s not necessarily being crazy or not being crazy, but it’s just another part of your training,” Cole added.
According to Penna, it is vital for athletes to step back from the pressure that comes with representing their nation.
“As soon as you think like that you’re going to fail. It’s teaching people the routines and the strategies to switch off,” he said.
“The best athletes in the world work really hard to simplify it — ‘there’s my job, it’s just like going to work,’” Penna added.
Furthermore, the psychologist said, the public should remember that Olympic athletes such as Hooker are simply ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
“I think it’s important that athletes be seen for who they are; normal people have breakdowns, normal people don’t always make good role models,” Penna said.