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Canadian athletes at the Athens Olympics were mentally unprepared to compete against the best the world had to offer, according to several leading sports psychologists.

The 2004 Summer Games, which concluded Sunday, were an abject failure for Canadian athletes, who won only 12 medals, the nation's lowest total since winning 10 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

"I thought mentally, Canadian athletes could have been dealing with things a little better, a little more effectively, especially in respect to swimming," Saul Miller, a Vancouver-based sports psychologist, said in an interview this week.

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Canada boasted four world champions who failed to win a medal in their specialty in Athens, while members of the swim team, normally an Olympic event the country fares well in, were kept off the medal podium altogether.

Canada managed only three top-eight finishes in swimming, its worst Olympic performance in 52 years.

In terms of total medals, Canada finished tied for 19th place with Bulgaria. Canada's total of three gold medals was matched by Turkey, Thailand, Poland, New Zealand and Spain.

"Any time your performance isn't optimal, something has gone wrong," said David Paskevich, a sports psychologist at the University of Calgary.

"For some athletes, it could have been a physical thing. Maybe they were sick, hurt. There could be a variety of things.

"Part and parcel with all that, I'm sure there were some athletes who didn't manage their emotions effectively. There were probably some athletes who just got anxious and worried."

For television viewers, it seemed as if every time they tuned in during the two weeks of competition, there was a Canadian athlete bemoaning his or her inadequate performance, often laying the blame on outside pressures.

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Nicolas Gill, Canada's flag-bearer for the opening ceremony and a medal hopeful in judo, was ousted in his first bout. The veteran international competitor later said he may have gone into the bout a little too relaxed.

Swimmer Morgan Knabe, Canada's top breaststroker heading into Athens, flamed out badly in both the men's 100- and 200-metre events.

After finishing last in his heat in the 200, Knabe broke down while talking to the media, terming his effort "a rookie swim."

Diane Cummins, considered a medal contender on the track in the 800 metres, failed to qualify for the final after finishing fourth in her heat.

Afterward, the 30-year-old said the stress of competing in her first Olympics got to her.

"There were some tremendous disappointments," said Peter Jensen, a sports psychologist at Queen's University in Kingston. He was in Athens as an adviser for Canada's synchronized swimming team. "Canada as a whole doesn't seem to do a particularly good job of converting top positions to medals."

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Part of the reason, Jensen said, is many Canadian athletes head into these big events without having prepared themselves psychologically to compete with the best the world has to offer.

"I think that there are still a fair number of coaches and athletes who don't acknowledge or value the mental dimension in performance," Jensen said, adding that knowing and understanding how to compete is just as critical to an athlete as the daily physical training.

Penny Werthner, an Ottawa-based sports psychologist who travelled to Athens as a consultant with the Canadian team, said she was "saddened" by some of the comments of the nation's athletes.

"I think there's a lot of good [sports psychology]knowledge out there and I don't know if our athletes are using it," Werthner was quoted as saying in a story posted on the CBC's Olympic website.

A former Olympian, Werthner said most of the Canadian athletes train without the support of a sports psychologist.

"A number of coaches only use it if they think there's a problem," she said.

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"It's unfortunate because even though most of what an athlete does is physical, the mental component always seems to come up when you get to the Olympic stage.

"You get to the event and your brain just runs away with scenarios that make us lose our focus. And that's no way to compete."

Perhaps the biggest Olympic disappointment for Canadians was the crash and burn of hurdling champion Perdita Felicien.

Favoured to win the gold medal, the world champion never even made it over the first hurdle in the women's 100-metre final.

Felicien had no explanation for crashing into the barrier, later saying she felt no pressure heading into the race.

According to Paskevich, that response offers a significant clue to Felicien's thinking and may explain why disaster struck.

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"Sometimes it's better not to shut off all the pressure," Paskevich said. "Sometimes you want to embrace the pressure.

"I think if you're always kind of saying, 'There's no pressure, there's no pressure,' it's like saying don't think of a pink elephant. You're kind of bringing to mind the exact thing you don't want to happen."

Athletes will use different motivational ploys to help them run faster or jump higher.

"The big thing is matching the right coping strategy with the right athlete," Paskevich said.

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