Carlsbad Psychologist Helps BMX Rider Get Ready For Olympics
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
Most athletes competing in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been training their bodies for years. But for some, training their minds is just as important. That's the case for BMX rider Brooke Crain of Visalia.
Most athletes competing in Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been training their bodies for years, even decades. But for some, training their minds is just as important.
Brooke Crain is one of them. The 23-year-old BMX racer from Visalia regularly rides her kids-sized bike down a 26 foot ramp and around a curving hilly track at speeds up to 40 miles per hour. She races against seven other women as she flies off 40-foot jumps and rounds steep, banked turns.
"Mental in our sport is literally 90 percent of the game," she said. "I don't know about you guys, but I think most humans don't want to do this. It’s you against yourself. You’re your own best friend or your own worst enemy."
On a recent morning at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, the bicycle motorcross racer was definitely battling with herself. With less than two weeks until her Olympic race, Crain had a bad crash and was feeling rattled. After she finished her final lap, her coaches rushed to her.
"I think this could go down as one of the worst Olympic preps," she told them.
One coach, Tony Hoffman, focuses on her physical training. The other, Jason Richardson, is her sports psychologist. He led her through a quick mini-therapy session, except she was perched on her bike, not a couch.
"I really only gotta beat 15 girls. It can’t be that hard," Crain told her coaches.
"I wouldn’t even say that," Richardson replied. "I wouldn’t say you have to beat anybody. Really, it’s when you show up you bring all of who you are on that gate. And when you execute at the best of your ability, it’s a non-issue who you beat."
Crain has been riding BMX since she was 6. She competed in the 2012 London Olympics and crashed, finishing last. She's been working with Richardson for two years and is now a favorite to win a medal in Rio.
Mental battles are the toughest part of the sport, Crain said.
"I couldn’t imagine life without it," she said. "But at the same time, I’ve never gotten out of the gate where I don’t have a little bit of fear inside.
"BMX racing is not a mellow sport. There are no rules. You can hit somebody on the track and ruin somebody’s day. There’s been lots of people who crash and are out for months at a time."
Richardson said the regular pressures of competing in a scary sport are amplified by the Olympics. That's where the Carlsbad psychologist comes in with his plan to help Crain prepare mentally.
"That fear response, that anxious response, is triggered," he said. "So what we try to do is create a strategy around positive things. So that we can use those tools to distract ourselves to trigger ourselves into a more calm or race-ready state."
Richardson rode BMX until becoming a psychologist eight years ago. He said simple physical triggers cue the brains of athletes so they know when it’s time to perform.
"I’ll take them through, it’s almost a meditative walkthrough," he said. "They’ll say something like, 'I was gritting my teeth really hard. Before I got in the starting block, I would crack my knuckles.' We take those behaviors and try to link those up mentally with that positive outcome."
One of Richardson's exercises for Crain is what’s called “getting into character.”
"Some components to her character are fastest rider, best racer, aggressive rider, which is not a stretch for her since she is always two out of the three on any given day," he said.
Crain described it as taking on a different persona.
"I’m known as one of the nicest people in BMX," she said. "I don’t like cutting people off, don’t like crashing with girls who off the track are my friends. So what we’ve practiced is it’s OK to be mean for those 30 to 40 seconds that you’re racing."
To remind herself to play the role, she uses physical cues.
"You pump yourself up, whether it’s flexing or grinding your teeth. Or jumping up and down," she said. "Whatever it is that you do. Everybody’s different."
Crain’s first race in Rio will be next Wednesday. When she climbs the stairs to the starting gate, she’ll be in character. But she'll also be thinking about something to calm her down.
"Probably about my bulldog and maybe play a song in my head," she said. It'll probably be a country tune. She's a fan.
Then, 30 to 40 seconds later, she'll know if her mental and physical training paid off.
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