Ryan Cochrane says spending time in the classroom has helped him better understand what he should be doing in the pool. Applying those lessons in competition has been another matter entirely.
The two-time Olympic medalist recently finished his psychology degree at the University of Victoria, but translating some of the knowledge gained from his studies to his swimming hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s really hard to change internal patterns and what you do on a daily basis,” Cochrane said in a recent interview. “What I’ve learned in psych is to try to be less neurotic and just let things happen and be okay with that process, but that’s one of the hardest things.”
Cochrane, who will lead Canada’s swim team at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, added that one of the benefits of learning about the human mind and behaviour has been the ability to take a step back from the high-pressure environment of competition.
“As an athlete you want control over everything,” he said. “You’re trying to better every single precise detail and we’re focusing on that one per cent of things we do wrong, but we’re doing a lot of things right.
“It’s that constant berating of yourself — trying to fix those tiny things. You just have to see the bigger picture sometimes.”
Part of the bigger picture for Cochrane is that at 25, he’s entering the twilight of his career.
Now the veteran on the Canadian squad, Cochrane wants to leave his mark not only on the podium at the Glasgow Games — which open Wednesday and run through Aug. 3 — but also on his young teammates.
“When I first started to get success I wanted to be a leader through what I was doing, not necessarily as a vocal leader on the team — that’s really changed,” he said. “(Now) I want to be a vocal leader on the team. I want to share my experience.
“Every Games is different, every athlete is different, but if you can instil just one or two things that might help the younger athletes, I think that’s the best thing you could hope for in terms of a legacy.”
A six-time medalist at the world championships, Cochrane won the 400- and 1,500-metre freestyle at the Commonwealth Games four years ago in New Delhi. Although he won’t use the word “retire,” in all likelihood Scotland will be his final Commonwealth Games appearance as he continues to prepare for what will surely be his final Olympics in 2016.
“I’ll be 28 years old (after the Rio Games),” said Cochrane. “It’s hard for some people to understand because you think ‘Oh, 28. He should be able to go another 10 years.’ You see hockey players do it, but considering we start at the age of five, it’s a long process.
“It’s wear and tear, it’s the mental thing, and it’s also that you want to start your life outside of sport at some point.”
The Victoria native has been using this non-Olympic and non-world championships year to train a bit differently in the leadup to the Commonwealth Games, including spending less time in the pool.
“We’re trying more sprint-based things,” said Cochrane. “My training has just kind of changed slightly, so we’ll see what those results are like.”
They seem to be pretty good so far.
Cochrane came third in both the 400- and 800-metre freestyle during the final stop of the U.S. Grand Prix swimming circuit last month and appears to be on track to challenge for the podium in Scotland.
He’s also relishing the role of elder statesman on a Canadian team that saw several retirements following the last Olympics, including former world champion Brent Hayden.
“The older you get, the faster the years go by,” said Cochrane. “In my first Commonwealth Games in 2006 it was my first international team, it was exciting and you couldn’t wait to get there.
“My third Commonwealth Games is somewhere I didn’t think I’d really get to. It’s an exciting team and a pretty young team but I think you can expect great things.”
Cochrane said it will be difficult to repeat his podium-topping performances from four years ago, especially with a new crop of Australian swimmers coming up the ranks.
Still, he expects to be right there.
“It’s exciting because the event can be pushed that much further,” said Cochrane. “I’d like to get on the podium at least twice.
“I said this was going to be a bit of down year for me because I was finishing school and trying to do the balance is a bit hard. That being said, I’m somehow in the same place I always am, which is good.”