McBean helps Olympians with mental side of Games

'I don’t pretend to be a sports psychologist'

By STEVE GREEN, QMI AGENCY

LONDON -- Physically, the athletes heading to next month's Winter Olympics are at the top of their games.

Psychologically, however, might be a different story -- especially for the first-timers — and that’s where Marnie McBean steps in.

The four-time Olympic medallist in rowing is now the manager of Olympic preparation for the Canadian Olympic Committee. Her job is to help prepare the nation’s athletes to deal with the mental side of the Games.

“I don’t pretend to be a sports psychologist. I’m just someone they can ask questions of and share emotions with,” she said Monday at the London Convention Centre, where she was a head-table guest at the 54th annual Rogers Sports Celebrity Dinner and Auction benefiting the Thames Valley Children’s Centre.

“And nine times out of 10, all I have to do is nod my head and tell them the emotions they’re having are perfectly normal.

“The big thing now for them is to not go changing the wheel between now and when they compete. They’re 99% ready; now it’s just about polishing a few things.”

The biggest issue facing the Vancouver Olympians now, McBean said, is “the burden of waiting.”

“Athletes don’t train to wait, they train to act,” she said. “Now is when they have time to think about what lies ahead and the volume of questions increases, They have to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. They have to be professional in dealing with requests from the media, even requests from their families. Now is not the time to be taking advantage of that. That will happen in March.”

Canada’s athletes are always expected to do well in Winter Olympics, but with the Games back in this country, those expectations have skyrocketed. But McBean said an athlete’s own expectations dwarf anything a nation can place on his or her shoulders.

“If anyone expects gold, it’s because they’ve shown they’re capable of winning it,” she said. “But I say this in the most loving way possible — the average Canadian fan doesn’t really know anything about the Olympics, doesn’t know what these athletes go through for four years.

“So personal expectations far outweigh a country’s expectations. The nation will forget their celebrations or disappointments in two weeks. The athletes won’t.”

McBean rowed at the 1992 Barcelona Games and the 1996 Atlanta Games before a back injury forced her retirement just before the 2000 Sydney Games. She said no two Olympics are ever alike.

“If I said to these athletes that this will by my seventh Olympics, so I knew everything, I’d be lying to them,” she said.

Monday morning, McBean met with two rookie Olympians in Tessa Virtue of London and Scott Moir of Ilderton, the reigning Canadian ice dance champions who won their latest crown on the weekend at the John Labatt Centre.

“She had some great advice and has been really influential,” Virtue said. “What we take from her is that we can’t expect this to be like any other competition we’ve been in. We have to be prepared, have a plan and know our limitations when it comes to outside distractions.”

“We just like to focus on our performance,” Moir said, echoing something McBean said only minutes earlier. However, he did acknowledge the fact they will have the backing of millions when they step on the ice in Vancouver.

“At one point (Saturday), Tessa squeezed my hand and said, ‘Just imagine in a month what this will feel like.’ ”

Another Londoner who has benefited from McBean’s experiences is Canadian heptathlon champion Jessica Zelinka, who was fifth with a Canadian record of 6,490 points in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

“There were so many unknowns going in,” said Zelinka, who also worked closely with a sports psychologist. “I didn’t know how I’d feel going into the stadium, how I would handle the pressure or deal with the energy from the crowd. But Marnie helped me feel I was in control of any situation. She puts into perspective that these are people going through the same experiences you can be going through.”

Did she have any advice of her own to impart to the Olympic rookies?

“Take in the experience. Take it all in and live in the moment, because it only comes once or twice in your lifetime. The Olympic spirit is such as amazing thing to experience if you open yourself up to it.”

Opening themselves up to some of the kids from the children’s centre at the afternoon autograph session was a rewarding experience for the head-table guests.

“I love events like this were I get to interact with the people who will benefit the most,” said McBean, whose four Olypmic medals — three gold and one bronze — proved a popular photo prop. One girl even jumped up and down and shouted for joy when she got McBean’s autograph, prompting another of the rower’s big smiles.

Moir and Virtue were a little late to the session because of other commitments, but when they arrived, they were immediately swarmed. Nazem Kadri of the London Knights, signing autographs just a few feet away, saw the lineup in front of him suddenly evaporate.

Also honoured at the dinner was former University of Western Ontario intercollegiate athletic chair and head football coach Darwin Semotiuk, named London’s sportsperson of the year for 2009.

The head table and table of honour had a strong London flavour to it.

Joining McBean, Moir, Virtue, Kadri and Zelinka at the head table were Western Mustangs quarterback Michael Faulds, linebacker T.J. Leeper of the Vanier Cup champion Queen’s Gaels, Olympic swimmer Joe Bartoch, Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Mike Van Ryn, World Kickboxing Federation super-welterweight champ Brad Fowler, former national team soccer player Jason de Vos of Appin, top fuel dragbike race Geoff Pollard of Dorchester, Red Bull air racing pilot Peter McLeod, former NHL star Pete Mahovlich and another former NHL great, guest speaker Dennis Hull.

A renowned dinner speaker, Hull kept the audience in stitches during his address.

At the table of honour were OCAA men’s golf silver medalist Taylor Booth of Fanshawe, two-time Canadian junior triathlon champ Connor Hammond, NASCAR Canadian Tire Series crew chief Bill Burns, London Badgers and UWO baseball coach Mike Lumley, world under-18 sprint hurdles bronze medalist Gregory MacNeill, Ontario and Canadian college individual and team cross-country champ Liliane Sparkes of Fanshawe, Lucas high school girls’ hockey star and Canadian under-18 champ Ally Tarr; UWO all-time women’s basketball scoring leader Amanda Anderson, UWO men’s hockey captain Luc Martin and 2009 world sledge hockey champion Claire Smith.

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