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Mikael Kingsbury during the men's final freestyle moguls event at the Sochi Winter Olympics February 10, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Mikael Kingsbury during the men's final freestyle moguls event at the Sochi Winter Olympics February 10, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Fighting pressure and expectations just half the battle for Olympians Add to ...

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It was just after the men’s figure skating free program that Kurt Browning, former Olympian turned CBC commentator, announced something was missing in Friday night’s finale. The skating was good, but there was no brilliance.

Virtually every man in the field, insisted Browning, had succumbed to the pressure, including Canada’s Patrick Chan, who won the silver medal but didn’t skate nearly as well as he could have for the gold. The opportunity was there, and then it was lost.

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That has been a recurring theme throughout the Sochi Olympics, and not just for Canada. World and Olympic champions have failed to make the top 10, let alone reach the podium. The mighty Americans, always in the medal hunt, have seen some of their brightest stars – snowboarder Shaun White, skier Bode Miller, speed skater Shani Davis – fall short like never before.

That has people wondering if the pressure of having to produce on command gets the best of them. Think about it: The Winter Olympics are not the fun little Games any more. Here, they’re a $50-billion extravaganza with thousands of athletes and intense competition for medals. Nowadays, the race doesn’t always go the swiftest; it goes to the athlete who can shrug off fears of failure and compete with a clear mind.

It sounds so simple, but achieving it is another story. That’s why teams employ sports psychologists to teach athletes how to deal with the smothering pressure that comes once every four years.

Dr. David Paskevich was the sports psychologist for the Canadian moguls team in Sochi that produced on cue despite intense strain. Collectively, Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, Alex Bilodeau and Mikaël Kingsbury won two gold medals and two silvers.

So how did they make good when so much was expected of them? “The first thing is self-confidence,” said Paskevich. “We don’t want them stepping into the start and saying, ‘I hope to do well.’ It has to be, ‘I know I can do well.’ “The second thing is performance on demand. It’s knowing that on Friday, Feb. 14 at 2 p.m., I’ve got to be good. It’s about not being too anxious. The third thing is having the right focus. We try to get the athletes to move away from the outcome.”

Athletes have buckled under the weight of not only being on the winter world’s biggest stage, but also representing their country. Medal favourite Mellisa Hollingsworth turned in an uncharacteristically poor final run in the 2010 Olympic skeleton event, and broke down emotionally and apologized to Canadians for not producing. Yet teammate Jon Montgomery, subject to the same home Olympics scrutiny, managed to win skeleton gold.

“I never really felt the external pressure,” Montgomery explained. “I didn’t feel like peoples’ hopes for Canadian success was anything more than support, and all I wanted was to execute my game plan with as few errors as possible. … I got the best of myself on the day that mattered most.”

Before she retired, luger Regan Lauscher’s approach worked this way: She may be at the Olympics, but she was up against the same competitors she saw on the World Cup tour. She knew them, she knew herself. It was a matter of delivering.

“Expectation and pressure from fans, coaches, family or media are going to exist, but at the end of the day I embraced it as ‘believing’ in me,” she said. “I figured if no one thought or wanted me to perform well, they wouldn’t have any expectation at all. The fact that they did was a compliment.”

Canada’s moguls skiers spent the night before their Sochi competition meeting with their individual coaches and going over the game plan on how to attack the hill. It was in keeping with what the team does before every World Cup event. Following a routine helped ease the anxiety. Paskevich was there, too, if anyone needed to calm their nerves.

“You just want to make things as normal as possible,” said Paskevich. Asked if he’s ever had to provide last-moment advice to a rattled athlete, he answered: “I’ve had athletes do that five minutes before they were in the starting gate, and be outstanding.”

Chan wasn’t as outstanding as he has been in other competitions. He was hoping to become the first Canadian male figure skater to ever win Olympic gold, but he settled for silver, as did predecessors Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko. Browning? He went to three Games and never reached the podium. He was good but never brilliant.

The Olympics have a way of doing that to an athlete.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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