Work & performance

August 10 2016

Meet the Australian swim team sports psychologist

the Psychlopaedia team
By The Australian Psychological Society

Helping swimmers struggling with anxiety or poor performance, building team dynamics and minimising distractions in the athletes’ village are all in a day's work for sports psychologist Georgia Ridler at the Olympics.

Georgia Ridler MAPS* is the Australian swim team’s secret weapon, but she’s neither a coach or a manager. Ridler is the swim team sports psychologist charged with fine-tuning the athletes’ mental readiness for the rigours of competition. Her role is crucial because mental strength and resilience is very often the difference between winning gold in Rio and failing to qualify. If swimmers feel anxious, distracted or disappointed, Ridler is on hand to offer support and encouragement. This is what she gets up to during the Olympics while the swimmers are in the pool.

Keep unusual competition hours 

Thanks to the power of US television giant NBC, swimming events in Rio are held much later in the day than usual to cater to American audiences. “Typically swimming has heats from 10am until 12.30pm and finals from 7pm until 10pm, but in Rio there’s been a massive shift and heats are from 1pm until 3pm and finals don’t commence until 10pm and finish at 1.15am,” says Ridler.

Since the swim team arrived in the US for a pre-Olympics staging camp and then in Rio, Ridler has worked with team staff to help the swimmers – who typically wake very early for training – transition to a later schedule. The team usually eats breakfast at 9.30am, lunch at 3pm and dinner in the wee hours after competition.

“It’s a really big shift for us as a team,” says Ridler. “We looked at how we could shift the mindset of the entire team leading into the Olympics and so far, it’s been really successful.”

Promote positive team dynamics

Except for relays, swimming is an individual sport and a huge part of Ridler’s role is making sure the team of 40 athletes and 20 support staff – who only get together about three times a year – get along in the Olympic pressure-cooker environment.

“Relationships are the most difficult thing for any human being to manage, especially when you bring together a group of 60 people who don’t typically sleep, eat, wash, exercise and catch transport together,” says Ridler.

“Here in the Olympic village we have three two-bedroom apartments and most of the beds are next to each other so you’re pretty much sleeping right next to someone who you don’t hang around with very often.

“The better people can get on and the less issues people have with each other, the less distractions we’re creating internally, which is very important because there are enough external distractions. A lot of my work in terms of team dynamics is helping everyone focus on similarities and respect differences.”

Manage anxiety and distractions

Unlike some sports like golf, tennis and soccer, the Olympics is the premier global swimming competition, so it’s no surprise that Ridler spends a lot of time working with athletes to reduce anxiety.

“When swimmers experience anxiety, a lot of the support I provide is around reassurance and reinforcing peak performance routines,” says Ridler. “In the competition venue the crowd is very close and the Brazilians are very loud. We talk with the athletes about focusing in a noisy environment. Some swimmers like to embrace the noise but others prefer to protect themselves from the noise so they create an imaginary bubble over the pool area which allows them to stay focused.”

From sharing a village with more than 10,000 athletes to the increased media attention and even spotting superstar athletes like Rafael Nadal in the cafeteria, distractions are ripe for the taking at the Olympics. As such Rider spends a lot of time making sure distractions don’t morph into anxiety.

“About 50 per cent of my role is working with our management team to ensure we are communicating the right messages and using the right language in the lead up to and during the Olympics,” says Ridler. “We consistently talk about ‘expecting the unexpected’ and ‘focusing on the process’. This ensures team members do not get emotionally caught up in the challenges and distractions of village life.”

Supervise warm-ups

Before competition begins each day, Ridler is by the warm-up pool offering support to the swimmers. “The athletes will do their warm-up and stretches, and some will come over to talk through their anxiety levels,” she says.

“Some are feeling anxious and need to be reminded of the benefits of an adrenaline surge, while others will talk through their pre-race routine to remind themselves of the right key words. When we’re under stress our cognitive levels, or our ability to think clearly, can be impacted. So as the athletes’ anxiety increases at the Olympics, which is natural, normal and healthy because you want the adrenaline to increase, their decision making starts to decrease and they can’t process bucket loads of information.

“We encourage our athletes to use cue words. These are key words that are a very quick reminder of how they want to swim and may be related to focus, technique, power or confidence. For example: me, length, build, go! This athlete is reminding themselves to focus on self, ensure length in their technique, build power in the water and to go for it.”

Counsel winners and losers

Olympic competition is tough and many athletes don’t progress beyond the heats, so part of Ridler’s role is to help unsuccessful athletes cope with and learn from being unsuccessful. “Swimmers who don’t achieve their goals will have a natural emotional response and you don’t need a psychologist to wipe away your tears,” she says. “However, once an athlete has come to terms with the outcome, it is very valuable to reflect on the learnings in order to grow and improve.”

Ridler is also on hand to help swimmers who qualify for semi-finals and finals with less-than-optimal performances. “Sometimes swimmers get through to semi-finals or finals but it may not be a good time and they perceive that they don’t get a good lane,” she says. “In these cases, we assist the swimmer to reframe their thinking and focus on the opportunities.”

 *Member of the Australian Psychological Society

 

Georgia Ridler is an endorsed sport psychologist with more than 15 years’ experience supporting individuals and teams to realise their potential. Throughout her career she has worked with amateur, professional, masters and Olympic athletes with the Australian women’s water polo, gymnastics, beach volleyball and, of course, swimming teams. Georgia was previously a level two gymnastics coach and a former state level gymnast, diver and swimmer.