US Speed Skating mental skills coach Dr Nick Galli will not be trying to convince anyone that the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games is just like any other competition.
For the man who has been looking after the mental health of the USA Short Track Speed Skaters and Speed Skaters since 2016, honesty is the best policy.“The winter Olympics is the largest crowd most of the athletes will ever perform in front of. There’s more media, more lights, more pageantry, more of everything. Everything is amplified,” said Dr Galli.
“They know that intellectually but it’s something else to experience it. And we want them to experience it. I want them to experience it.
A lantern with the Olympic rings at a lantern show in Zhangjiakou in China's northern Hebei province for the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games 2018©AFP
“It’s a fool’s errand to try and convince an athlete, ‘Oh, it’s just the same, the size of the track is the same, it’s the same task, it’s the same sport, everything is the same’. It’s not. Clearly.”
A professor at the University of Utah, Dr Galli is aware that athletes must navigate a complex path, where pressure and expectation are embraced but not allowed to overwhelm.
“My message to them consistently is, ‘Be you, do what works, trust your training and allow the energy of the moment to take you to new heights. But don’t try harder than you normally do. Trust that your body knows what to do and that all those lights and cameras and that pageantry will give you that little extra juice’,” he said.
ISU World Allround Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union ISU
“But you don’t have to try for it. You just do what you do and still acknowledge that ‘Hey this is big and this is cool and I am here, the sport is still the sport, skating is still skating’. We are not rejecting anything, we are still acknowledging that it is big and we can still do what we’ve trained to do even though it is big.”
Dr Galli says being at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games was an “utterly invaluable” experience because this time, due to the impact of Covid-19, he will be working with his athletes from afar.
Beijing 2022 will take place just six months after the biggest Olympic star of the summer thrust mental health to the very front and centre of sport. For Dr Galli, Simone Biles’ experience at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was heartening but also a reality check.
Simone Biles (USA) at the Women's Balance Beam Final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (JPN) 2021©Getty Images
Biles, the 24-year-old United States gymnast who won four gold medals in Rio in 2016, withdrew from competition during the Games in Japan to focus on her mental health.
Dr Galli said: “These struggles have been going on for years. Things have changed a bit, the pressure is heightened due to social media and the sheer reach of these athletes but the struggles have always been there and now we have high-profile athletes, like Simone Biles, brave enough to bring it to the forefront. So it’s encouraging in that way but it’s discouraging in that it does get to that point.
Ivanie Blondin (CAN) at the ISU World Allround Speed Skating Championships 2018©International Skating Union ISU
“I strive for the lofty goal of optimal mental health and optimal mental performance. Both. I want both to be sky-high.”
Being able to hit such a balance is where Dr Galli and his peers come in. He will spend the next few months delivering consultations, observing, offering new techniques and listening, to ensure as many 2022 Olympians as possible find themselves in China ready to do what they do best.
“I know that it becomes easy for mental health to be sacrificed for the sake of mental performance,” Dr Galli said. “There is a line, a line that athletes toe and it’s easy to fall over.”