Mind over matter

Dr. Pierre Beauchamp and Heena Sidhu share notes at the end of a training session.-

“In Mindroom, we profile each athlete and work with his strengths to help him become stronger mentally,” says sport performance coach Dr. Pierre Beauchamp, in a chat with Nandakumar Marar.

Mindroom methodology is gaining acceptance in Indian sport. Shooters are adopting mental training and body monitoring techniques to steady their mind and hand. Abhinav Bindra tried it out under Dr. Timothy Harkness of South Africa in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he won the gold medal (10m air rifle). The Indian shooter continues to work on mental training and body monitoring techniques with Dr. Pierre Beauchamp of Canada.

Both Harkness and Beauchamp are experts in Peak Sports Performance (PSP), developed by Professor Bruno de Michelis in 2002.

Beauchamp started mind training for shooters before the London Olympics, when India’s Heena Sidhu (10m air pistol) surfed the net for a mental conditioning expert. After interacting with her over Skype, Beauchamp began working with Heena on her mental conditioning at Pune’s Balewadi Sports Complex before moving over to Hanover for further preparations before the London Olympics.

Beauchamp spoke to Sportstar on Mindroom methodology and his experiences with Abhinav Bindra.

Question: AC Milan is one of the top football clubs in the world using Mindroom to prepare its players mentally in a very physically demanding sport. Will the techniques help in handling players like Mario Balotelli, who is a complicated personality and a match-winner at the same time?

Answer: The key to successful interventions is to be flexible and adaptable for every player and team situation. We term this “individualisation.” Without it, you would be doing the same with everyone on the team and that methodology just does not work. In Mindroom, we profile each athlete and work with his strengths to help him become stronger mentally.

?The world football champion, Spain, is an example of highly skilled individuals such as Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Iker Casillas who put team interest above personal glory. FC Barcelona is an example of teamwork and success at the club level. Do such ideal situations happen always? Can groups of individuals actually prepare for it?

Organisations and national teams can prepare for performance success. A key element that contributed to Canada’s 14 gold medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010 and Great Britain’s 65 medals (29 gold) at the London Olympics was that they were supported by a professional Integrated Support Team of sport science professionals (doctor, physiotherapist, physiologist, biomechanicst, sport psychologist, nutritionist, technician, etc). Today, many countries and professional teams have moved towards the Mindroom Sport Science Model.

The ‘Barca Programme’ at Barcelona FC is an example of high performance success. Over the last four years, they won 14 out of a possible 19 trophies. The secret of their success is development of mental toughness within their academy programme. It arms them with rigorous education and teaches them the ‘Barca’ way of playing through ball control and possession.

These examples highlight the importance of specific skills and actions taken by the coaches and national/Olympic organisations to develop the mental toughness of their athletes.

Abhinav Bindra’s experience in the 10m air rifle event at the 2004 Athens Olympics — his second Games — was so heart-breaking that anyone in his position would have been wrecked mentally. However, he went on to win the gold in Beijing in 2008. What did he do differently?

I cannot talk about this event because I was not working with him at that time.

He broke a psychological barrier for Indian shooters and other participants by winning the gold medal. He needed eight years (Sydney 2000 to Beijing 2008) to do that. Should we be more patient with our national champions instead of expecting them to win medals on their Olympic or World Cup debut?

Abhinav broke an important barrier for Indian athletes. Consequently, many young shooters now believe it is possible to win a medal at the Olympics.

We need to be more patient. In not doing so, and focusing only on medal count, we would be putting unnecessary pressure on athletes. A more effective way of encouraging athletes is to demonstrate the rate of improvement each of them has made in relation to his/her personal best. This allows them to focus on their game-winning strategies, not the expectations of others, which they have no control over.

You are working with Abhinav now. How do Mindroom techniques work when applied to a proven performer like him?

With a proven performer like Abhinav, the first thing I do is listen, observe and take notes. After all, he is the master when it comes to shooting. When he came to visit me in Montreal for 10 days last November, I listened to him very closely as he described his routine, performances, how he handled critical situations in the past, his World Cup and Olympic successes etc. It was an important visit to get to know each other. We had no shooting range there then, which allowed us to have many discussions on a variety of sport science topics, for example, how one processes visual information and sensations within the body during a performance and how one deals with distractions. We then moved on towards goal setting for the next two years.

Abhinav is known for his work ethic. How has your experience with him been?

I have learned first hand Abhinav’s work ethic; I have seen it at his training base in Chandigarh. He is meticulous and very detailed about everything he does, not just shooting but also in life. This quality is for young students, athletes and professionals to emulate. I think Abhinav’s mind is his greatest quality. He asks incredible questions about sport science, performances and life in general. This quality demonstrates a very curious and inquisitive mind. In a sport like shooting, where the mind is critical to performance under pressure, this is an excellent quality to possess.

Heena Sidhu trained under you during the concluding phase of preparations for the London Olympics. What did she focus on during her Olympic debut?

Heena’s focus was on executing her game plans for the London Olympics. Her plans included week before routine, night before routine, day of competition routine, pre-competition routine, competition game plan and a post-competition debrief.

India’s sporting achievers end up using a lot of mental energy fighting the system on way to the top after which critical aspects like equipment, support staff, sponsors and money starts falling into place. How can they channel this energy in a more positive way?

These obstacles are common in all sport and across all countries around the world. What athletes need to do is surround themselves with a high performance team that includes a business manager who will at times take charge and provide the networking skills to cut through the red tape that often discourages athletes from going forward with their dreams. In India, with the Mittal Champions Trust, this role for those selected athletes is done by Manisha Malhotra (CEO of the Trust). Ideally, India needs more people like her to work on athletes’ behalf.

Indian national squads have a mix of players from diverse regions, speaking different languages and thinking differently. It has always presented a challenge for managers and coaches — even experienced foreigners — to get the whole team on a similar wavelength. Can mind-training tools help in this regard?

Mindroom training can help athletes, coaches and support personnel towards talking the same language. For example, I was working with an Olympic skiing team on the importance of every player being aware of whether they are having a positive or negative impact on the team. I pointed out to them that whenever someone was negative about training it could have a negative impact on not only the remainder of their training, but also on the rest of the team. I had someone to restructure what they said in a positive way. Although the team laughed a lot in the beginning, they soon learned to monitor each other towards being on the same page in terms of their professional attitude both on and off the slopes.