Tessa Virtue had a confession to make. Earlier this year, during an online chat with Jean François Ménard, a mental-performance coach, she suddenly struck a bashful tone. “I’m going to be very found out here in this talk,” she said with an embarrassed laugh, “because everything I go around saying and preaching in interviews and corporate talks, and with anyone who will listen – it’s really all of your material that I’ve learned from you.”
When sports fans think of Olympic athletes preparing for competition, they often envision years of physical training: strength and skills drills; early mornings and late nights in the gym or out on the field or the ice or the water; the hard falls and injuries accumulated along the way. But there’s another vital element to success that doesn’t tend to make it into the stirring montages and athlete profiles that pepper Olympic broadcasts, partly because it would look so boring on camera: years of talk and study and work on mental toughness.
But now, with less than 100 days until the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open after a year of extreme uncertainty – and with even non-athletes feeling as though they could use some help with mental resilience – sports psychology may be ready for its close-up.
When Virtue and her ice-dancing partner, Scott Moir, decided in 2016 to take one last shot at Olympic glory, one of the first people they called was Ménard. Over the ensuing two years, they spent long hours in his Laval, Que., home office, where Virtue filled notebooks with Ménard’s ideas on how to stay focused when her legs felt as though they were going to give out, how to gain control over negative thoughts, how to boost her self-confidence just before taking the ice, and how to improve communication with coaches.
“When you show up at the Olympics, every athlete is strong physically, every athlete is prepared technically, but the ones who typically perform very well are the ones who can manage the moment, manage themselves, manage the pressure, manage the expectations that come with that,” Ménard said during a phone interview with The Globe and Mail. “The flip side is also true. The ones who choke, they don’t choke because they’re weak physically, they choke because they’re not able to manage the pressure.”
His clients have included freestyle skier Mikaël Kingsbury, beach volleyball player Melissa Humana-Paredes, snowboarder Max Parrot, track and field athletes Damian Warner and Derek Drouin, and the Super Bowl-winning Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who penned the forward to a new self-help book by Ménard, Train (Your Brain) Like an Olympian: Gold Medal Techniques to Unleash Your Potential at Work.
Sometimes athletes merely need a mental tuneup; other times, the situation is more dire. Last summer, Ménard began working with Laurence Vincent-Lapointe, the 13-time world champion canoeist who had endured a tumultuous 2019 that included a six-month suspension – and the possibility of a career-ending four-year ban – imposed after she tested positive for a banned substance, which later was found to have originated with her former boyfriend. Vincent-Lapointe was stuck in a negative feedback loop of catastrophic thinking.
The day she called Ménard for help, she had stopped paddling in the middle of a test race, her natural fight-or-flight biological response stuck in a mode of defeatist flight.
“He helped me realize that whenever I’m afraid of something that’s going to happen, it’s all speculative,” Vincent-Lapointe said during a phone interview. “I’m not basing my fear on something real, I’m basing my fear on something that hasn’t happened. So he helped me get back in the moment and get back to what I know I’ve done – my successes, and every good thing I’ve done.”
Ménard uses the acronym FEAR to describe that phenomenon: False Evidence Appearing Real. For those who have done cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps people avoid irrational or catastrophic thinking, this may sound familiar.
Still, Ménard is careful to note that while he has a master’s degree in sports psychology, he is not licensed to practise psychology.
That field – sports psychology and the subset Ménard practises, mental-performance coaching – has come more to the fore in recent years, which he chalks up to two dynamics. “Back in the ’80s and ’90s, there were people doing this type of work, but they were scarce,” he noted. “But in the 2000s, especially with social media, where people share a lot more, and with books that have been published, and athletes after a performance now thanking their mental-performance coach,” word has spread.
And there is something else.
“The amount of money involved in sports has completely changed the reality of having to perform at a high level,” he said. “If you think of the contracts now, some of these athletes are making a ton of money, and the pressure coming from their sponsors, their organizations – or, for some Olympic athletes, their countries,” is unprecedented.
“There’s a lot of reasons, but the main thing is money.”
And yet sometimes the sessions that athletes have with Ménard can approach the profoundly existential. Humana-Paredes, who won the 2019 beach volleyball world championships with her partner, Sarah Pavan, said that when COVID-19 prompted a postponement of the Tokyo Olympics last year, “I was in a state of kind of mourning my life, and what should have been and what could have been.” Ménard, she said, made her realize, " ‘Well, that’s kind of out of your control now.’”
At first, she was left with, “this feeling of loss and uncertainty, questioning my identity. When sport was taken away from me, I was like, ‘What do I have now?’”
But as she and Ménard explored those thoughts, she began to realize she did not need to be defined by her role as an athlete. “When you kind of put yourself in a box, and everything that you do is a direct result of how you perform in that box – you know, if you’re not performing on the court, then the rest of your day is shot. Your whole identity is wrapped up in what’s going on in that sport.” But the forced break from training and competition last year made her realize she had, “other interests, other hobbies, other roles. I’m not just an athlete.
“I found it very freeing.”
Still, too much disruption can be crippling. Having already dealt with 13 months of uncertainty about the status of the Games, Olympic athletes were chilled again this week when a senior Japanese legislator floated the idea that the Games might still be scrapped on a moment’s notice.
Ménard has a two-fold response for his athletes to deal with that sort of uncertainty. Firstly, he tells them, “Rumours remain rumours. … I keep reminding them I’m not interested in working with speculation. Distractions are distractions only if you pay attention to them.” Whenever there is a news report about a possible change in status of the Games, “we get a memo the next morning from the [Canadian Olympic Committee] telling us: No, listen, [the Games] are still on, if they’re not on we’ll be the first to tell you.”
And then there is this: “I work with this concept that I call No Regrets. So, if an athlete takes the foot off the gas pedal because of these stories they hear on the news, they’re worried the Games are not going to happen – if the Games end up happening, they’re going to regret it for the rest of their lives that they didn’t train optimally for a few months. And especially if they finish, like, fourth or fifth, just off the podium? Oh, my God. There is nothing, absolutely nothing worse than that.”