Posted By Mark Heese, three time Olympian
What if I mess up? This was the question that kept swarming around in my mind during the weeks leading up to my first Olympic experience in Atlanta, 1996. Despite all the training and mental preparation to be at my best, I had trouble relieving the pressure that was building up. I let that one question creep into my thoughts more and more, and my mind would race with several nightmarish versions of me playing poorly. It was my own little secret that I was hoping to battle against with daily training and a strong will. But I wasnʼt strong and mature enough to reach out to my teammate and coaches to truly share the extra pressure that I was feeling. I hoped it would subside at game time.
I dreamt all my life of that moment when I stepped on the court for my first Olympic game vs Spain, but my fears were too strong, and I served the first ball into the bottom of the net. I followed that up with a poor pass off to the side of the court, a spike out of bounds, and then another attack straight into the block with the ball caroming back to hit me square in the face. The game quickly spiraled out of control and my dream turned into my worst nightmare. We went on to lose that match by the embarrassing score of 15-1.
I was devastated. I felt like I didnʼt belong. I had completely blown it, right in front of my team, all our supporters, not to mention a worldwide audience.
I immediately started worrying about the next match the following morning, where we would be facing elimination. One more loss and we could pack our bags and go home. I had already started giving up on the next day as those thoughts of playing poorly began swirling around in my head again.
Enter JP Pawliw-Fry, our mental training and performance coach. He helped organize a team meeting that evening. I was amazed at the overall energy of that meeting. I thought we would be spending our time dissecting the last match, but I could sense that the overall direction of the meeting was not to look back. I sensed optimism believe it or not. I sensed a certain enthusiasm to re-commit to what we do best. The support that I felt at that time from my partner John Child and our coaches, was amazing, especially considering that I had performed so poorly just hours before. After a very calm opening statement from JP, where he very clearly stated the objective of preparing well for our next match, he then asked a couple of open-ended questions giving us an opportunity to jump in...and I did just that. I shared my secret of the pressure I was feeling and about my swirling thoughts in my head, which JP quickly identified as "awfulizing”.
It felt so good to open up and bring a new standard of honesty to the table. JP, along with our beach coach Hernan Humana, must have recognized the potential to create a little momentum, and the conversation was steered toward the matches the next day. We started filling our minds with all the reasons why we can rebound with a great performance the next day. We talked about all the past times we responded well to a tough start or overcame some adversity. We spoke about all the training we did for years leading up to the game. We also reminded ourselves that we were one of the best teams in the world, having won a world tour event just weeks before the Games... all simple reminders, but all factual and instrumental in helping us find the right perspective.
I learned a lot about big game preparation during that one hour meeting. Leading up to that first match, I had been filling my head up with all the reasons why I might not play well. I had not been open enough with my teammates and coaches, and made some poor choices of giving life to certain distractions in my head. But in one hour, I had connected with my supportive team, I had demonstrated a newer standard of honesty, and started to give life to the idea of playing great, simply by filling my head with some obvious reasons why I can be the great player that I am capable of. I walked out of that one hour meeting feeling totally charged and ready to compete.
The next morning I went from playing my worst volleyball to my best... literally overnight. We beat Sweden 15-2, then in the afternoon we eliminated the Czechs 15-9. We went on the next day to beat a tough German team 15-6, then the mighty Cubans 15-6. We were on fire!
That set up a quarterfinal match against a familiar opponent - we got to play Spain again! I knew they would come right after me, but I was ready, and played amazing! We turned the table on Spain and beat them 15-4, advancing to the medal round where we went on to beat Portugal for the bronze medal... Canadaʼs first ever Olympic volleyball medal!
It was a definite highlight of my career, with many lessons learned - lessons that I would absolutely apply to another 12 years on the World Tour, as well as two more strong Olympic performances.
But the biggest lesson I learned - something that JP has helped me determine as the biggest contributor to having your best performance, is the understanding that it will always come down to you... you and your ability to choose to believe in yourself. And it is a choice… a choice to fill your head with all the reasons why you can, and prove that little voice wrong. The voice that was constantly trying to remind me of the possibility of messing up. He also helped me recognize that this perspective is something that needs practicing daily. He helped me create some "mindful morning notes” that accomplish just that... simple daily reminders to bring a winnerʼs perspective to my daily challenges.
Thanks to JP and some of the valuable Olympic experiences that he has helped me persevere through, I have gathered the proper strategies and tools to help me manage my emotions and help me face pressure moments with great performances. I understand now that it is about gaining comfort with the discomfort. I no longer search to relieve the pressure or secretly pretend that my "little voice” isnʼt there. I simply acknowledge it and appreciate the opportunity to face it with the best version of myself.
So as we get ready to send our Canadian Olympic athletes off to London, in search of their best performance, letʼs hope they too have the proper support and strategies to help them appreciate the precious opportunity they have to live out their dream and be great at the right time. Go Team Canada!