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Roger Friesen talks sport psychology and the Rio Olympics

The Olympic games may be entertaining to watch, but it’s not always that easy for the athletes involved. UFV kinesiology professor Roger Friesen knows this more than anyone and has worked in sport psychology and with Olympic teams for the past 27 years.

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The Olympic games may be entertaining to watch, but it’s not always that easy for the athletes involved. UFV kinesiology professor Roger Friesen knows this more than anyone and has worked in sport psychology and with Olympic teams for the past 27 years. In the last four years Friesen began working with Cycling Canada as a sports psychology consultant and recently returned from the recent summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil.

How did you get started in sports psychology?

Kind of by accident. I’ve always been involved with sports and I thoroughly enjoy coaching, but I was always really attracted to the psychological development. This was before I even knew sports psychology existed; all I knew was that I was really interested in the psychological and the emotional state of a performer and what can be done to make somebody more mentally tough. I started pursuing those things on my own to make me a better coach and that’s how I stumbled on sports psychology. I was going to be an architect, so the instant it was presented to me as a profession, it struck a deep chord with me and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”

What do you find most challenging about your work?

The most challenging thing, because of the magnitude of stress and pressure, is just doing everything you possibly can working with the people who you are responsible for to help them navigate that stress and pressure. Every single person has a breaking point, and as stress and pressure increase and people start moving towards that breaking point, holding it all together on the biggest stage when there’s a lot on the line is hard. The Olympics are a very unique entity in that way because there’s no other event in sport or outside of sport that produces the kind of stress and pressure that comes with the Olympic games.

What do you find most rewarding about the job?

Working with people. Particularly, I’m having so much fun with Cycling Canada and we have a very good thing going right now. It’s a sport that I adore in any case, and I’m heavily involved in cycling on my own, so it’s a sport that I have a close connection with and the people who come into cycling are awesome people. It’s fun working together. The whole administration, coaching staff, and the athletes — it’s one family. We refer to it as a family and that makes it very rewarding to work with people who you like being with.

Was there anything different about the Rio Olympics than the work you’ve done before?

I’ve gone to many different games with different teams and different sports, so every game is unique, just as a result of that. My role was similar in many ways, but because of different sports, different people and different context, that changes it. In Vancouver in 2010 my role there was to be crisis management / crisis intervention. I was responsible for any major event that had emotional trauma attached to it. At those games an athlete died before the games even started and so I spent the first 12 days just working with the emotional aftermath of everybody who was involved in that fatality. In that sense, the role was different, but for the most part, I go to an Olympic games with an athlete or with a team, and that’s within my capacity as sports psychology consultant.

There was a lot of negative hype before the games started. Did you find any of it was true or not?

No, but because I’ve been around this for a long time, I didn’t pay too much attention to that. It’s not an uncommon thing. In Athens, for example, they said that Olympic games were headed for disaster and they weren’t, they were fine. When you hear that story enough times, you kind of listen to that with a healthy dose of skepticism, and so this was no different. I knew Brazil was struggling and that’s no secret, so I was of curious how it was going to go, but I certainly wasn’t worried to the degree that it was portrayed through the media. The reality was that as soon as I landed it was awesome.

Are there any moments that stand out to you?

There’s so many. The bronze medal, obviously, was a huge moment because it was a staggering amount of work that went into that achievement. For the women’s pursuit team to win a bronze medal, that race and the period after the race, all the euphoria and the release of stress and pressure, seeing them on the podium — that was by far the highlight.

Do you find that athletes are prone to depression from all the stress and pressure of the games?

I wouldn’t say they’re prone to depression. As an Olympic athlete, every single moment in their life is dictated by that goal — to qualify for the Olympic games — and the expectation is to do well. Every choice goes through that filter. What you eat, how you conduct your life, your training schedule, your competition schedule — everything is dictated by one goal at a crazy high level of intensity. When that’s finally done and you walk into the unknown, the structure is taken away. At that point, you may not have the next goal, so that can be a very unsettling time for people. There are athletes that may fall into depression, but that’s not a given. It is something to guard against and it is a reality, but it’s not a given that somebody will fall into depression.

Do you find that there are a lot of other misconceptions about what you do?

Fortunately, in this day and age, not too many. When I started 27 years ago, there was a lot of misconception because the instant people hear the word psychology they flee because we have all sorts of stigma attached to psychology. People in the early days were hesitant because it immediately has connotations that there’s something wrong. But I’m happy that’s really not the case anymore. For the most part, we have come into an era where psychological health is more freely talked about, generally speaking. But in sports psychology or performance psychology, it’s quite different from mainstream psychology. It’s also our mental state and it’s our emotional state and then it’s how we manage ourselves with teammates and coaches. We need to train ourselves mentally and emotionally to be mentally tough, and so in this day and age it’s more of an accepted fact that I have to train those dimensions as well.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to keep working with Cycling Canada. I absolutely love working with them and I’m happy to work with them into the future. I’m not thinking about the next Olympics right now, that’s four years away. I know that goes by fast, but we’ve just come off the Olympic quad and everybody is catching their breath.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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