The importance of mental preparation

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During the PyeongChang Olympic Games, many athletes working with Jean-François Ménard stood on the podium, namely Maxence Parrot in snowboarding, who won a silver medal, Olympic champions Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, and Mikaël Kingsbury, or Mik. “It was on Monday, February 12, the evening of the moguls finale. Mik was on the first of his three runs. He was at the top of the hill. Then, I saw his face on the big screen. His eyes, his cheeks… I knew he was off.”

I haven’t talked much about it, but now I can, because I can finally prove that I was right. After my first Olympic Games in Rio, in 2016, I still had doubts. Derek Drouin’s gold medal in high jump, and Damian Warner’s bronze medal in decathlon, two athletes with whom I was working, came two days apart near the end of the Games.

I told myself it was pure luck. But then, there was also Dorothy Yeats in wrestling who ended up in fifth position. She missed the bronze medal by 1 point. Antoine Valois-Fortier, in judo, ranked seventh. He lost in overtime against a Russian athlete. When you know about judo, you know everything can change in a second. He would have been able to win the gold medal. I thought: “J-F, is there something else you should have taught them?”

When I came back from Rio, like any good competitor, I asked myself some questions. Were these medals a simple coincidence? Is what I’m doing really working?

I had to wait two years before to know for sure.

Before to talk about Mik and February 12, 2018, it’s important to put into perspective the reason why I chose my career path.

I’ve never been an elite athlete in any sports, but I’ve been a good one in many. My two favourites were hockey and softball.

When I started playing Junior in hockey, many were less talented than I was, but they still performed better. They were able to get back on their feet after a defeat, while I would bang my head on the wall. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was a sore loser.

I reflected a lot during those years. I simply had to change my perspective, and be a little more constructive. I really saw a positive impact when I started to make these changes: I started being more successful in sports and in school. I’m one of the few who had better grades in university than in high school. My average was 10 to 12% higher. For me, having a positive attitude was a turning point.

Then, I had my first sports psychology class. I finally understood was I had done instinctively at the end of my adolescence. I thought: “Wow, can I teach that for a living?”

There was also another turning point for me. That one was the premise of a very important principle that I now teach to coaches: never, never underestimate the impact of your body language.

At the end of my second year in the Sports Psychology Master program, before starting to work on my doctorate, I had to do a one-hour oral presentation in front of all the teachers in my program. We had to talk about our 400-hour internship and what we had learned in the past 2 years. We had to answer the question: “Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?”

I was 24 years old and had no experience. I had never worked in my field, but I knew I had to say something different. We shouldn’t be afraid of being different. The reason why some people stand out in their field is because they are different. “Different” doesn’t mean “harmful” or “bad”. It just means you’re doing something else.

I told them, “10 years from now, I’ll have been working for a professional sports organization for at least 5 years. I’ll be paid at least $5000 to give a conference, and I’ll be working with an elite athlete who’ll become the best in the world.”

I clearly remember the faces of those in front of me. Only one of the five was smiling. It was his way of saying: “You’ll make it. Go get it!” The others were in shock, and their body language was telling me: “That’s impossible. He has no idea what he’s talking about.” Without knowing it, that one person who believed in me had an impact on my life. That’s all I needed. If all five had had the same look, I’m not sure I’d be where I am now.

My first job, when I was 25, was with the Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen worst for a professional sports federation! I worked with them for 5 years. About my conferences, it’s sometimes awkward to think about how much I ask for one now. The elite athlete who became the best in the world… I think we all know who it is.

For 4 years, working with Mikaël was a big project. A BIG project. I got a phone call from B2dix 2 months after his silver medal in Sochi. They offered me to be his mental performance coach. That what B2dix does; they take athletes under their wing and give them everything they need to perform. I knew there was only one desired outcome. In my mind, my work wouldn’t be worth much if Mik didn’t win the gold medal in PyeongChang.

February 12, 2018 was a great day.

At 11:00, we had a staff meeting. Mik wasn’t there. The National Head Coach, Rob Kober, made sure that everyone knew what they have to do and when during the day and in the evening, for the finale. At the end of the meeting, Marc-André Moreau, the High Performance Director, asked if anyone had anything to add. I did.

“I want you all to know that everyone in this room has done an exceptional work this year with Mik. The way you talk, your body language around him, how you interact with him, everything was perfect. He owes you a big part of his success in the last year. Since I got here, it’s the same thing. You were amazing during his training. During qualifications, you were calm and in control. It was great to be around you. You didn’t talk to him too much, nor too little. You were yourselves, as usual.

It has to stay the same tonight, or it’ll mess everything up. If you’re not acting like you usually are, Mik will notice. He’ll be bothered. His mental state has been amazing since he got here, but tonight, I know he’ll be nervous. It’s okay. We have three finals tonight. He doesn’t have to be first in all his runs; he simply needs to be in the top 12, then the top 6.

Then, the goal is to win the final. In the runs before the last one, he might finish 3rd, 4th or even 5th. It doesn’t matter. If he’s a little shaky after his first run, he’s good enough to adapt. He’ll be able to get back on his feet. He’ll score well enough to be in the top 12. He’ll never not be good enough for the top 12.”

At 9:30 PM, Mik was on the first of his 3 runs. He was at the top of the hill. Then, I saw his face on the big screen. His eyes, his cheeks… I know he was off. He scored 81.27. Fourth place. The last time he was shaken like that after a first run during a World Cup was a long time ago. A really long time ago.

At the bottom of the hill, I was about 6 metres away from the coaches and I looked at them. They had recorded him, as usual. They were perfect: calm and in control. Mik went straight to the video to watch it. He looked at the screen for a couple of minutes. His coaches told him “Good job, Mik,” like they usually do. A quick fist pump.

Mik came to me and said: “J-F, I was really nervous.” He knew he was; he was simply admitting it. He wasn’t mad at himself. Then, with a huge smile, he said: “We did it! I’m going through to the next round.” He was focused on what was to come instead of what he had just done. He took a sip of this soda, gave me a quick fist pump, and went back up the hill.

He was getting ready for his second run. I saw his face on the big screen. He was a lot less nervous, but it still wasn’t the Mik I know. He made his run. His jump was near perfection. He made the same mistake as before on the bumps.

He scored 82.19. We knew it was good enough for a top 3. Same thing as before: he watched the video with the coaches. Same thing, same body language. He watched his run, and then came to me. Same thing. Fist pump. We did it.

I let him talk: “I was still going too fast in the moguls. By slowing down a little bit, I might lose 15 hundredths of a second, but in the end I’ll have a higher score.” That’s where Mik is one of the best in the world: he gathers the important information from run to run to make sure everything’s in place for the last one. Another quick fist pump, and he was gone.

I saw his face. I saw him breathe in and out. He hit his poles together, slowly. Before that, it was click-click-click-click-click—now, it was click   –   click   –   click. He took another big breath in. I could see that he heard Rob telling him, as always: “You’ve got this, Mik.” He hadn’t heard him before the previous runs. Then he was gone.

When he crossed the finish line, for me, Mikaël’s project came to an end.

I had never been so emotional in my life. It was coming from everywhere. When I hugged his parents, it was intense. Then it was Rob’s turn, and Marc-André’s. Those who were there in the morning for the meeting asked me: “How did you know it would end up that way?” Obviously, I didn’t know.

When Mikaël came out of the run, he went to see his parents first. I wasn’t far behind. When he saw me, the organizers were trying to bring him to the podium. He pushed them away to come and see me. He took me by the shoulders, and gave me a big hug. He told me, “I couldn’t have won that medal without you.” At that moment, with all the emotions going through him, he couldn’t have been more honest. I started crying.

That’s when I understood that Rio wasn’t a coincidence.

It’s funny how I wasn’t surprised when Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue won their medal. I wasn’t nervous.

When they decided to come back to competition in 2016, even their coaches weren’t sure they’d be competitive. Between their come back and PyeongChang, we had 14 competitions to find a good approach, the one that would allow them to be in their best physiological and mental condition to give two near-perfect programs in a row. We found it after the thirteenth.

It happened in Vancouver, in January. It was during the Canadian Championships, the last competition before the Olympic Games. That’s when we had our moment.

Before Christmas, during the Grand Prix in Japan, they weren’t good enough and their biggest competitors, the French team, beat them. Not only had they finished in second place, but they had made mistakes. I knew what they were missing. They hadn’t had yet enough poise on ice.

They knew that Vancouver was their last chance for everything to fall into place. It was beautiful to see them work in preparation to that competition. When they were coming to my office, they’d leave with four or five pages full of notes. They were reading through it, looking at their notes. When they came back for the next session, they’d link things with the previous session. Working with them was great. There’s an expression for that: they’re students of their game. They are so good to extract the important information and integrate it properly. It’s the same thing with Mik, Derek Drouin and Maxence Parrot.

In Vancouver, the scores obtained by Scott and Tessa for both their short and free programs were, by far, new world records. There’s actually one of the programs for which they couldn’t have had a higher score. In terms of scoring, it was perfection. I was emotional when they finished their long program. I couldn’t stop crying, because for me, that was the confirmation they were finally ready for the Olympics. Before that time, we hadn’t had that confirmation yet.

It’s true that the athletes I worked with in PyeongChang had a lot of success. I helped them realize their dream. It was an honour and a privilege.

In slopestyle, snowboarders have three runs to do. They get a score for each run, and the judges use the best one for the final ranking.

Max didn’t do well in the first two. He felt badly on both occasions. He was mad when he came to see me after the second one. He asked me what to do, and I asked him back, because I knew that he knew what to do. He did. He told me, “I’ll think about the qualifying run. I’ll visualize it. I’ll forget about the jump that doesn’t work, and on the lift, I’ll think about the little 9-year-old Max who mowed lawns all summer long to have enough money to buy his first snowboard.”

It’s that silver medal, won after two missed runs, that inspired all the others.

I take everything as a performance. I have a very strong discipline. Everything is calculated to make sure I’m always the best version of myself: my training, my sleep hours, my food, my naps. I’m well aware that my personality can bother some people. I come from a family where I’ve learned to be respectful, nice, authentic and grateful, but I’m intense. I’m a go-getter.

In 2015, I went to a training camp with Mik in Zermatt, in Switzerland. I’m not a skier and it had been 13 years since the last time I had skies on. I had to go on a pretty steep glacier. The camp was in October, so I couldn’t train in Quebec to get ready for it.

I spent about 15 hours on YouTube to visualize what I had to do and get ready. I did just enough to have enough confidence not to show Mik I was scared. As his mental performance coach, it was important that he knew I was in control. At some point during the training camp, he told me: “I thought you couldn’t ski.”

It’s part of who I am.

Since I came back from the Games, I’ve received about forty requests from everywhere. It’s crazy. A coach from the National Hockey League saw the performances of the athletes with whom I’m working, and he wants me to work with his team. Mik told me that since winning his medal, a dozen athletes have asked him who his mental preparation coach is. It created a lot of interest.

It’s funny how my most beautiful memory of the Olympic Games is when I came back home. I walked through the door, and my kids put a medal around my neck. They made me a gold medal, on which they wrote “Papa” (daddy) and drew the Olympic rings. They chose a ribbon the same colour as the one from the Olympics. They wanted to make it exactly the same. It makes me very emotional to think about it. They watched it religiously on TV.

My son told me: “I know that you don’t normally get any medal, but now, you have one.”


This is a translation of an article originally published on Ici Radio-Canada (in French):

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