Other Sports

Cracking the mental code

Three-time Olympic gold medallist Stephanie Rice helps Australian athletes prepare mentally for top-flight competition and wants to do the same for India’s best swimmers. What does this entail? Rice explains

Stephanie Rice is fascinated by the human mind; she is especially interested in how to train it to handle the intense stress of competition. She knows what it takes to thrive under pressure: she won three swimming gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with world record times. The 31-year-old Hall of Famer works with Australian swimmers, passing on her knowledge of performing on the big stage. Rice was in India recently to explore the logistics of setting up a high-performance academy. She spoke to The Hindu about mental conditioning, the demands of top-flight competitive swimming, and how elite athletes train. Excerpts:

To deliver at the Olympics or the World Championships, many factors have to fall into place. With competitors at a similar level, does mental preparation separate the champions from the others?

Mental performance is very important, countries are now focusing a lot on this. The pressure of an Olympic performance is huge, [with the] expectations, the media presence, fans... everything. So, training the mind is something I worked on, learning how to get the best out of myself mentally in those conditions. I tried to block what was not under my control and focused on the one thing that mattered... performing, being in the right mindset. I am helping a lot of current Australian athletes get ready mentally. Mind training is something I am passionate about. I will be working with the athletes in our program one-on-one… about handling that kind of intensity.

Was your mental conditioning an acquired skill, learnt on the job in the pool, or did you seek help from outside?

I did not ever seek external help, via a psychologist. My swimming coach [Michael Bohl] and I had an amazing relationship about getting the best out of myself, getting into the best mental frame to race and [knowing] what to block out. It is a skill that I built on, doing it day after day till it became a habit. I kept rehearsing all the time, so when the time came to deliver, it came naturally, instinctively.

Which athlete’s mental strength and awareness did you admire in your time?

Serena Williams. I looked up to her during my swimming career and [still do so] now. As an athlete, she is incredible. She is able to perform year after year after year and gets better. To me, that is the ultimate [quality]. Someone who can repeat their success again and again is the supreme athlete. Serena does it with such grunts and such determination, she is an incredible character.

You walked away from the sport at 24, two years after London 2012. What made you make up your mind?

In sport, a career span is smaller [than it is for others], given the intensity of effort. It is not uncommon for an athlete to be at their peak from 14 to 24; a 10-year span is common. When you are an Olympic athlete, the focus is on the Games. For me, the focus was on finishing after an Olympic Games, that is, a four-year cycle. After London, I decided to stop, instead of doing another four years of competition.

I did not have the same passion to do the same thing for another four years. Swimming takes up 50 out of 52 weeks, we train seven hours a day and put in 60km in the pool every week, year after year. After 10 years of that, I felt burnt out. The probability of improving was getting smaller and smaller, and the expectations were going higher and higher. That is why I made the decision to stop when I did.

Did Beijing 2008 give you an opportunity to understand what makes China a sporting powerhouse?

The focus was on competing at Beijing, there was no time for other things. I would say, in reverse, having done the PKL [Pro Kabaddi League] presenting, which took four months, I got a good opportunity to see what Indian sporting culture is like, swimming in particular. I have seen what is working, what can do with improvement, where I can help in this space. Over the course of three years here, working with my team to set up an academy which fits into all the niches that are not getting addressed, at the highest level, is my objective. [The Olympics in] Tokyo next year will be used as a benchmark of what is working [in India] and what is not. It will be an amazing time to find out what we can do four years after Tokyo to make an impact on swimming within India.

Asian sporting standards are high. Should Indian swimmers look to make a mark at the Asian Games or Asian Championships, rather than target Olympic qualification?

In any sport, the Olympic Games is at the top. There is a hierarchy, the Olympics followed by the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games after that, the Asian Games and the National Championships. Of course, you have got to qualify for the Olympics, go there and perform under that pressure. In Indian swimming, I see a reference to the Asian Games a lot. If you were to ask any swimmer from Australia, USA or China, they care what you do at the World Championships or at an Olympic Games. Those are the events when you are racing against swimmers from the best countries in the world.

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 3:20:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/other-sports/cracking-the-mental-code-with-three-time-olympic-gold-medallist-stephanie-rice/article29660554.ece

Next Story