When canoeist Thomas Hall, the 2008 Beijing Olympic bronze medalist for C1 1000-metre, is on the starting line on his home lake at the Pointe Claire Canoe Club in Quebec, it’s just him, the water, and the boat. At the starting line in Beijing, it really was no different, he says: Him, the water, the boat.
And right there, the secret to Hall’s success is revealed. For some athletes, the mastery of their craft can be attained in practice and training sessions, but it can’t always be executed the same way once the pinnacle of their sport is within reach. It’s the mental approach that separates good athletes from medal-contending athletes.
“Physical injuries are visible, but psychological injuries like stress, anxiety, and depression can’t be seen, so we tend to place more importance on the physical side because they’re tangible,” says Dr. Ari Novick, a California-based psychotherapist. “Psychological stress is something that we can’t see as a spectator, but, for athletes, managing it properly is every bit as important as treating physical injuries in terms of having success.”
Hall agrees with the good doctor: his mental approach played a large part in his Olympic success.
“By the time you get to an Olympic final, everybody is physically pretty darn similar,” he explains. “Once you are on the starting line, though, it basically all comes down to the mental approach. That’s not to downplay the huge physical component with training and preparation that is required, but, by the time you’re at an Olympic Final, the mental aspect is far more important than the physical aspect.”
And it makes sense. Canoeing is canoeing, no matter where you are, whether it’s alone on the home lake or at the starting line of an Olympic Final. The lone difference is that one scenario presents no pressure, and the other is as pressure packed as it gets.
But how does an athlete prepare for that type of pressure?
Well, according to Hall, a lot of it comes down to believing in yourself.
“Confidence in your ability and confidence in your preparation is key for any athlete,” Hall says. “I just had confidence that what I had done leading up to the race was the absolute best that I could have done. By the time I got to the starting line, I knew that there was nothing else I could have done to make myself better. There was no area of doubt left in my mind. That took a lot of weight off of my shoulders because I knew, at that point, all I had to do was paddle like heck for the next four minutes and I would be satisfied.”
And paddle like heck he did – for three minutes and 53.653 seconds, straight to the finish, about .584 seconds ahead of Vadim Menkov of Uzbekistan to earn the bronze.
The nights before the best races of his career – and Hall insists that there have only been a select few – have presented the toughest challenges.
“The few really good races I’ve had were preceded by nights of almost no sleep, just lying in bed, going over the worst case scenario – which is something that you really aren’t supposed to do,” laughs Hall. “But I’ll ask myself, ‘if I lose tomorrow, what’s the worst that can happen?’ and, usually, the answer is ‘not much.’ By the time I get
to the starting line, I’m just so at peace with the consequences of what could happen, I’m as relaxed as
In essence, Hall demonstrates an ability to catalogue his thoughts, allowing himself to reach that inner peace with what the result might be, and, in the process, free himself physically to perform at his optimal level. And Dr. Novick agrees.
“It’s so important for elite athletes to learn to compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings, as well as other aspects of their lives, and be able to push those aside and stay focused in the moment of what they need to do,” explains Dr. Novick. “At an elite level, the difference between performing at the level you need to be competitive and being just beneath competitive is so incremental that not being able to manage your stress properly will often make the difference between success and mere average performance.”
The pressure of performing on the world stage – knowing that there is an entire country behind you with millions of people looking on – can be a lot to handle. The desire to succeed is there, but knowing a single error will be enough to let down an entire nation is an overwhelming thought and can work to inhibit the best performance possible.
Hall acknowledges that this type of pressure exists, but explains how he was able to, in turn, mitigate his concern for disappointing a country by channelling that pressure into positive motivation.
“I only ever worry about letting down those close to me, like my coach, my family, or even the kids at my canoe club, but I know that those people will never disown me,” says Hall. “I looked to the rest of Canada, though, for incentive through the enormous amount of support I received from people that I didn’t even know, and that was absolutely huge for me. It was astounding reading all the supportive e-mails I’d received the night before my race and knowing I had so many people caring about how I did, it was the ultimate boost of adrenaline and something I’ll never forget.”
It’s easy to confuse Olympic medalists for athletes that have performed perfectly their whole careers. By and large, we know them, unlike professional athletes, for only a fleeting slice of time, and we see them at their peak atop the podium. The story behind it that led them to that point often
And to say they have never experienced struggles is largely untrue. By Hall’s own admission, a good part of his 15-year career was full of poor performances and let downs, but it was his tenacity – a key ingredient, he says, to success for young athletes – that afforded him that memorable day where we all saw him at his best.
“I don’t think you have to be a naturally great athlete to succeed, but you have to be tenacious and never give up, ever,” he says. “Every Olympic medalist that I know has worked insanely hard to get where they are. I guess I’m a part of that club, but it doesn’t always register. It’s clichéd, but it’s the absolute truth – everybody will go through poor performances, but it’s the people that keep plugging away that don’t necessarily guarantee a win, but definitely give themselves a chance to succeed.”