Catherina McKiernan: Mental preparation vital for Irish athletes to overcome common Olympic pitfalls
Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30
By now most of our athletes will have moved into the Olympic village in Rio and be trying to settle and, for those who are doing it for the first time, that's not easy.
Rio looks very glamorous, obviously, but I'll never forget my first experience of an Olympic village, in Barcelona in 1992. It was so daunting.
I was 22 and had won silver at the World Cross Countries in Boston in March which was my first big breakthrough.
There was a team holding camp in Spain a week or so beforehand which allowed me get to know the rest of the athletics team. I always remember we took the train then to Barcelona and I was chatting to Terry McHugh, the javelin thrower, and Noel Berkeley. I was so small and Terry was so tall and we had a bit of fun about that.
But I had never seen anything like the athletes' village. I wasn't long running internationally and had never experienced anything like it.
It was huge, and walking around it and seeing your sporting idols can be overwhelming and distracting. He wasn't one of my heroes but I distinctly remember seeing Linford Christie.
The food-hall is another thing! It's usually enormous and caters for athletes from all over the world so there's every possible type of food there. You've a lot of time on your hands and could nip into it at any time. You could really pig out or eat things you'd never eaten before if you weren't careful.
But the biggest challenge is the spare time you have on your hands. You can have far too much of it and begin to get anxious. That's possibly the biggest challenge.
You can't go exploring because you want to save your energy.
There are lots of games rooms to kill a bit of time but I used to prefer to just get stuck into a book and have a bit of fun with my team-mates.
There was only a 3,000m and a 10,000m race in Barcelona. I was too young for the 10,000m at that stage and the 3000m was too short for me, but I felt that that first Olympic experience would stand to me four years later.
Things like warming up on the same track as your opponents and the 'call-room' - where you all sit before you go out on track - can all be quite intimidating for young athletes.
Everyone in the 3000m was brought from the warm-up track to the call-room in the same bus.
Everybody on the bus was tense and nervous, you didn't want to look at anybody. I had no previous experience of that at all because cross-country was very different.
Four years later, for Atlanta, I arrived 10 days early to acclimatise. Ray Flynn had arranged for us to stay with a friend of his on the outskirts of Atlanta. It was kind of lonely and, as you're tapering at that stage, again you're not doing much training, just killing time.
I remember going out on a bike one day and falling and banging my knee.
My coach Joe spotted it the next morning and asked me what happened so I had to tell him. It didn't affect me but you can do stupid things like that when you're bored.
That's something our athletes want to make sure of in the days ahead of their races, that they get into a routine and have some normality in their lives.
In Barcelona and Atlanta I had myself convinced that I wasn't going to do well because of the heat. That was very wrong, and that's something I'd try to get across to our athletes now, not to be making excuses.
I remember getting off the plane in Atlanta, feeling the heat and saying 'how am I going to run 25 laps of the track in this?'
We arrived in the evening and I woke up next morning in a lovely air-conditioned room and thought 'oh, it's not so bad after all'. Then I headed out for a run in a pair of shorts and T-shirt and I'll never forget it: you were sweating standing still!
I wouldn't ever be good in that intense heat but I definitely thought far too much about it. I was making excuses in my head, thinking 'those people I'm competing against are much more used to it than me'.
The races were at 10.30-11pm as well, so you had to adjust to running at night too. I had one 10,000m heat and the final three days later.
I'd run a PB of 31.08 that May in a race that included Derartu Tulu and Elana Meyer (both medallists in Barcelona) so I went to Atlanta with a lot of confidence.
I wasn't always comfortable running on the track, I felt confined and a bit claustrophobic in the pack, but I ran at my own pace and led the final for a few laps.
I finished 11th in 32 minutes flat and I was happy with that performance because I'd given it my best. When any athlete does that they have to be content.
But I still wish it had been somewhere where the climate had been kinder to me and that I had the mental maturity to deal with that better.
The following year I moved up to the marathon and 1997-99 were quite good years for me. I had hoped to run the marathon in Sydney in 2000 but I overcooked it in the build-up and had to pull out three to four months beforehand.
I moved house recently and found some magazines and cuttings that reminded me of all the hype and expectation at the time.
When I started running these fast marathon times people started tipping me to win the Olympics or make the podium and that pressure just kept building.
My way of dealing with it was training more but the body can't take that. I ran myself to exhaustion. With hindsight I wish I had given myself more of a break, especially at the start of 1999. But that's why the Olympics are different than everything else in sport.
Everyone is asking you about it, every four years and you can't blame people for that, it's up to you as an athlete to be able to cope with it, but it's a heavy expectation.
That's why the whole mental aspect of things is so vital for our athletes over the next two weeks.
They need to constantly keep their thought processes positive, to feed their minds with good thoughts and memories of good races they've had, so that anxiety or negative thoughts don't overwhelm them.
My advice to athletes is to treat the Olympics exactly like another race. Treat it like the best race you ever had.
Try and block out all of the Olympic hype before and during it, because it's all that hype and expectation that drains your energy.