Monday, July 15, 2024

Paris 2024: Interview With USATF’s Sports Psychologist Chris Stanley

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The Summer Games will begin in Paris on July 26, as 10,500 athletes compete to get their hands on the coveted Olympic medals.

Ahead of Paris 2024, I spoke to Dr. Christopher Stanley, the sports psychologist for Team USA Track & Field (USATF).

Dr. Stanley, Professor of Sports and Performance Psychology at University of Western States, been involved with USATF for over a decade.

He served as its lead consultant at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, where the U.S. topped the medal table in track and field events with 7 gold medals, 12 silver medals and 7 bronze medals.

Here’s the full interview with Dr. Stanley:

The Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was mentally challenging for athletes because it was in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. How will the Paris Olympics be different?

There are reduced stress levels and speculations like, “What if I test positive the day before? What am I going to do?”

Tokyo was stripped of a lot of the social aspect. The family and spectators weren’t there but I wouldn’t say that was something a lot of athletes leaned into and very much derived some positive benefit from. So I think the social aspect returning for the 2024 Paris Games will be a positive.

Of course, it’s not just more people more stimulation the better, it doesn’t work that way. It will be something that athletes now need to manage and they’re still going to need a fair amount of personal space and time. They will have to advocate for that.

Noah Lyles and Simone Biles opened up about their mental struggles during the Tokyo Games. How do you as medical practitioners help athletes cope?

I think the athletes who have elected to disclose more broadly and publicly [about their mental issues] do so out of reducing the stigma… that’s certainly their prerogative if they want to do that on their own end.

There’s a richness of diversity in athletics and Team USA that includes a variety of physical and mental history. What we’re doing as a sports med staff is during the Games we want to support them, their health and wellness, but also their performance enhancement needs while we are on the ground in Paris. We want to support the work that they are doing with their own medical providers or practitioners.

There is some mental health background that athletes bring with them, but then there is also the pressure and the stress associated with the Games too that athletes need to deal with. These are elite athletes who are in a lot of high-performance situations, but the Olympic Games can still be at that next level.

Receiving negative comments on social media is another challenge that athletes face these days. How does it impact their mental wellbeing?

For athletes, there is a surge and uptick in followers, attention and media requests almost immediately after making the Olympic team. And so if that’s something new to the them, they certainly have to manage.

This may fall under the conversation with athletes about where they are drawing lines and maintaining boundaries… I always tell athletes that if they don’t advocate for their own space and boundaries, there are very few people who will do that for them.

Just by being strategic and mindful of how you prepare to restrict yourself from social media and if you do have to engage or post, what can we plan ahead and exactly how that is going to work out… it can be very efficient. Sometimes athletes might set specific goals by weaning themselves off social media leading up to the Games.

A conversation with athletes that I have is when you talk about advocating for your own space, energy and time, sometimes on the surface that can appear rude. It’s not that we’re not necessarily reaching for broad understanding or empathy from the masses right here.

But if you need space, if you need to shut down.. that is okay. There are respectful and mindful ways to set those boundaries… Protect your space and time.

You have been part of USATF for 10 years. Can you tell me how things have changed over the years in terms of the mental health support offered to athletes?

Since my original involvement with USATF, and particularly maybe in this last quad when I had a little more insight into the senior elite level, I think there has been expansion in terms of what we at USATF along with colleagues at USOPC (the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee), were able to offer at high performance meets such as the World Championships and Olympic Games.

At the sports psychology subcommittee, we try to find the sweet spot with establishing and maintaining some continuity of care through a particular quad. So we we want athletes to grow to some extent or get to know a lead provider… after the Olympic Games, the next practitioner in line will come in for that next quad and establish that pathway for the next one leading up to the next Olympic Games.

Continuity of care is important, but we also don’t want one lead practitioner to be there quad after quad because that would get into a 12 years and that’s a little too much. We want a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives.

What is your role for the Paris 2024 Olympics?

We have a “athlete-first” perspective. Once on the ground, I am there as a resource to support athletes with their mental skill and mental performance needs. I can say when I was at Tokyo that was about as busy as I’ve ever been as a professional with athletes.

There are some athletes that I have pre-existing dialogue with that. I’ll be there and we will continue that. There’s others whose needs will arise we will connect once we’re there.

But it’s making myself available to work with athletes on regulatory skills, strategies and behavioral and mental skills and strategies so they can perform at their best leading up to competition and hopefully up to the finals.

After that we pivot to a processing type framework about what happened, what went right, what didn’t and maybe some some initial planning thereafter.

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