We have a record contingent in Turin. I’m talking about the sports psychologists. Twelve of them. Only seven were in Salt Lake City. Their job is to help win the 25 medals promised by the Canadian Olympic Committee.

I have two problems with sports shrinks. Like other results-based exercises, such as dating services and negative campaign ads, they work except when they don’t. And, like much in the social sciences, there is no actual body of expertise, just a shifting discourse. Sports shrinks used to teach athletes to visualize. Then they stressed relaxing. Now their focus is on focusing. Do you really think some expert badgering you to focus isn’t going to distract you? Yet, like most experts, they rarely suffer criticism; it’s the clients who get the blame.

Let them speak for themselves. Kimberley Amirault, who works with speed skaters, says Canadians may be too nice to win. “Our athletes sometimes get too caught up in not wanting to offend anybody.” Now what effect is seeing that in the paper going to have on an athlete? Will they get mean in order to win? Can you make yourself do that? I mean, mean is mean, it’s not a (pardon) means to an end. A psychologist should know that.

Terry Orlick, who has written 20 books, sounds like a motivational speaker whose main model is himself: “I never dread going into a meeting with an athlete. . . . I am always focused. Right there — in the moment — absorbing, listening, learning. . . . I find it rewarding and I am very good at it.” If you’re an athlete who reads that, and misses your gold, then you feel like an even bigger loser, since you know Terry is great at what he does, so it must be your fault. This is therapy? Maybe he’s the guy Olympic kayaker Caroline Brunet meant when she said, “If I met a good one, perhaps I would have used one. But the ones I met I think need to see a psychologist themselves.”

Here’s sports shrink Carl Botterill, whose daughter is on the hockey team. He’s worried the pressure of the COC’S prediction of 25 medals “could really cost us” since “Canadian athletes are much better at the underdog role than when they’re considered the favourites.” So is his job to counter the stance taken by his employers? Maybe he should just treat the bureaucrats.

What message is sent to athletes by having all these sports shrinks around: that you guys are screwed up and being a Canadian jock is a losing proposition? Yet there’s no evidence that sprinkling therapists or grief counsellors in tense settings like school shootings and natural disasters does any real good. A study in the Lancet says disaster counselling “could even delay recovery” among those who might have “recovered normally by talking with friends and family or by blocking out any recall of the incident until they felt they were ready.” A psychologist on that study said, “We have an ideology that it’s ‘good to talk.’ But sometimes that’s not so.”

Maybe the athletes would do better without the shrinks. What about the geniuses from “13 major sports groups” in Canada who put out a study saying Canadian Olympians “have a history of choking on their big days.” What’s their problem and what effect will that have in Turin?

Now consider the athletes, who I find far more aware. Here’s Jeremy Wotherspoon, a speed skater who fell at the last Olympics and “disappointed” this week with a ninth: “It’s mostly a mental thing where, as soon as I get close to the first turn, I start to think, ‘I don’t know what this is going to feel like.’ Because of that I back off.” He sounds highly articulate and self-conscious. He seems to lead an interesting, examined life.

It might be better to lead an examined life and win a gold, but if you had to choose . . . The Toronto Star‘s Rosie DiManno said the skater had been “thinking himself into a muddle,” whereas sports is about “just doing, muscle memory and instinct taking the lead.” Rosie, sounding like she was channelling the sports shrinks, said Jeremy should have concentrated not on a gold lost, but a bronze still possible. But he spoke on another, more resonant level: “I was too mad at myself for too long.” I’m with him, he sounds like a mensch.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.