New research looks to improve mental training for swimmers


By Jim Morris

VANCOUVER – Believing is a big part of doing anything in life.

Athletes train to the peak of physical condition to have the ability to perform on a given day. A new Swimming Canada science project being conducted at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver will research new ways for athletes to enhance their mental training so they are cerebrally strong and confident.

The study, being conducted by Dr. Hap Davis of Calgary and Dr. Georg Northoff of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research will use various imaging techniques to study the brains of 40 swimmers while they visualize a successful swim. By analysing the data collected, Davis and Northoff hope to better understand the chemicals the brain produces during a successful competition.

“When an athlete is on pace in a race, they know that. The question is, how do they know that?” said Davis, the lead psychologist with three Olympic teams who has worked with Canadian Olympians in swimming, synchronized swimming, gymnastics, equestrian show jumping, speed skating, downhill skiing, snowboarding, and numerous other sports.

“What I am hoping to do is provide better information to an athlete on how they can prepare for a race, so regardless of what happens, they can deliver the performance they are trained to deliver.”

Northoff believes if you understand how an athlete perceives what is happening during a competition, you can better train that person on how to cope with different situations.

“The study is about the mental capacities of timing in swimmers,” he said. “If we understand the underlying neuronal and biochemical mechanisms, we can develop specific mental training protocols to improve physical performance.”

The 40 swimmers will include 20 members of the Canadian national team and 20 elite swimmers as controls.

“We will be looking at what is going on in the brain when the athlete is focused and is delivering the performance they are trained to deliver,” said Davis.

In the past, Davis headed a collaborative team to use endocrinology with functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) to advance the understanding of an athlete’s disappointment to setback and to develop sport psychology methods to help the  athlete get back on a winning track.

Part of the new study will use magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to better understand the neurochemicals chemicals functioning in the brain.

“Nobody has ever done this in sport,” said Davis.

“We will know what neurochemicals are involved. Let’s call it the focusing strategies of the athletes and where the chemistry is taking place.”

The study may help introduce new approaches to sports physiology.

“In terms of sports physiology techniques, we will be able to teach people to visualize and mentally prepare so that they are going to be way more consistent than they’ve been,” said Davis.

“I think some of the techniques and strategies that have been used in sports physiology for many years will be modified somewhat by what I think we are going to find in this particular study. We’re going to be able to enhance the general package the Olympic athletes brings to competition.”

The project will focus on swimmers, but Davis believes the findings can be applied to all athletes, especially those preparing for next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

The information can also be applied in other areas of mental health research such as depression and anxiety.

“It really is a study of consciousness,” said Davis. “Essentially, how people have a  sense of their place in time.”

Among the athletes participating in the project are swimmers coached by Randy Bennett at the Victoria Academy of Swimming, Tom Johnson at the National Training Centre-Vancouver, and Jan Bidrman of the Calgary Academy of Swimming Excellence.

Bennett is open to any innovations that make his swimmers more competitive.

“You don’t close any doors,” he said from a training camp in Florida. “There is value in anything if it works for the individual.

“If an athlete is very interested and they get a benefit from it, then there’s a huge value. You open up as many doors as possible and put together a performance package that is suited for the individual.”

The project is being made possible by the generous private support of Calgary residents Scotty Haggins and Stephen Chester.

Another key factor will be the contribution of staff and financial resources from Northoff’s research group. Northoff, who has been described as a scientific superstar, is a medical researcher, psychiatrist and philosopher.

“He is really the brains,” said Davis. “Without Dr. Northoff’s input, enthusiasm and intellect, this research would not be commencing.

“It’s huge he is at all interested in us.”

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