When the Summer Olympics start in Brazil in early August, cyclists from Team Canada will be gunning for gold.
Their secret weapon as they take on the world is Chilliwack resident and University of the Fraser Valley professor Roger Friesen.
For nearly three decades, he has served as sport psychologist to Canada’s elite athletes.
Each of the Canadian cyclists he currently works with is a marvelous physical specimen. They fine-tune their bodies for hours each day to achieve maximum performance on the track.
Friesen helps their minds keep pace with their bodies, because mental hurdles can humble the greatest of athletes.
“I spend a lot of time with the athletes and the coaches, doing one-on-one and group sessions,” says Friesen, who signed on with Cycling Canada shortly after the London Summer Olympics in 2012. “I make sure everyone stays emotionally and mentally fit.”
A professor of kinesiology at UFV, Friesen breaks athletic performance into five dimensions — technical/tactical, physiological, team, psychological and emotional.
“Everyone understands that being a world-class performer means thousands of hours in the gym or doing dry-land training right?” Friesen asks. “No mystery there. But what most people forget is that our psychological and emotional states can be trained just as well.”
“The phrase ‘mental toughness’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and mental toughness doesn’t happen by chance.”
“People aren’t born to be mentally tough. They are trained.”
What that looks like for Friesen is lots of meetings.
One on ones.
In each meeting he watches and listens and probes for anything that will aid his athletes.
“It’s takes a lot of effort and energy developing the tools and skills to be mentally tough,” Friesen says. “It starts with fundamental things like visualization and goal-setting and understanding our inner dialogue — the basic tools we have access to.”
“And then, over time those tools have to be refined because how I use them is different from how you might use them.”
There’s tons of overlap between psychological and emotional, but Friesen sums it up like this.
“Psychological is anything that happens in our mind,” he says. “Our thought process and how we process information, how we communicate with our teammates or anybody else.”
“It’s literally what happens on a cognitive level.”
“On an emotional level it’s our reactions and responses — in essence, ‘Can I hold it all together under stress and pressure?’”
Friesen believes there is such a thing as a ‘clutch’ performer, someone who rises to the occasion when the spotlight shines its brightest.
“Some people thrive on stress and pressure while other people find it hard,” he suggests. “Some perceive it as threatening and some perceive it as something that energizes them.”
“Someone will make a mistake and it becomes a show stopper because they haven’t learned to manage their emotional reactions.”
“They get angry or frustrated or discouraged or scared. For others, it’s not a show stopper.”
The more time he can spend with an athlete, the more Friesen feels able to help them.
“The more I get to know them as a human being and discover what their triggers are, what their mental and emotional makeup is — it helps me refine a package to fit that individual person.”
When he first started 27 years ago, it was hard getting athletes and coaches to buy into mental training.
There was a stigma and a perception of weakness if an athlete couldn’t power through things on his or her own.
“There was a lot of sales pitches and education in the old days getting people to understand that it was just another dimension of training,” Friesen recalls. “It was a long process for people to recognize that struggling mentally and emotionally didn’t make them a flawed person.”
Friesen still encounters athletes, from time to time, who are resistant to what he does.
But it’s not because of any stigma.
That has faded away.
“It’s because they think they’re capable of functioning on their own as long as they’re strong, healthy and technically dialed in,” he says. “They think that’s all they need to have success, but the majority of Olympic-level athletes now acknowledge they need to be mentally fit to succeed consistently.”
Friesen is very good at what he does and his work has helped Cycling Canada achieve stellar results in recent years.
“They’re very open and willing to embrace sports psychology,” he says. “Cycling Canada had historic, unprecedented results at last summer’s Pan Am games.”
“I don’t know if I can say that was because of sports psychology because I’m just one piece of a bigger puzzle. But I know we’re making a difference.”
The Brazil Olympics will be Friesen’s fourth and he spent a couple weeks on a sailing vacation with his wife before leaving for Cycling Canada’s Toronto training camp.
The Olympics are exciting, exhausting and intense.
The demands and expectations are high for everyone involved, Friesen included.
“It’s fun and exciting but also dead serious,” he says.
Each of his previous three Olympic experiences were radically different.
He’s worked with enough sports that he’s started losing track. The list includes but isn’t limited to men’s field hockey, women’s volleyball, women’s basketball and whitewater kayaking.
He expects these games to be special.
“It’ll be different again because it’s a different sport with different people and dynamics,” Friesen says. “Our whole team has been together a while now everyone and everything fits together nicely.”
“What’s why I’m very excited about these games, because of that fit.”
The 2016 Summer Olympics start Aug. 5 and finish Aug. 21.