Gold Medal Shrink

By Sally Craig / March / April 2006
April 13th, 2007

The Torino Olympics marked Sean McCann's seventh time on the U.S. Olympic Committee team. That's a long run, especially for someone who's never won a medal. But as head of the committee's sports psychology department, McCann has led dozens of athletes to victory.

Well before the Olympic Games, McCann and his staff decide which teams each of them will work with. They then begin integrating themselves into the teams' training programs, attending practices and meeting regularly with the athletes and coaches; they've already picked their teams for 2008. For Torino, McCann counseled the women's alpine skiers and the short-track speed skaters. In past years he has worked with numerous sports, including boxing, cycling, and shooting.

By the time the athletes arrive at the the Olympic village, the psychologists aren't teaching them anything new, McCann said in January in a phone interview from his home in Colorado. "We're helping athletes remember what they already know," he noted. "Winning is such a big deal for these athletes. It's very easy to get there and lose sight and just focus on 'what if' rather than how to get the job done."

On the Friday before the team left for Italy, McCann met with several athletes individually, attended a two-and-a-half hour speed-skating practice, prepared an imagery CD for another athlete, and attended a team dinner hosted by the speed skating coach. In McCann's free moments he was on the phone and online with an alpine skier who'd shattered her kneecap that morning during a training run in Europe. The skier's chances of competing in Torino had ended, and McCann described their conversation as grief counseling.

While television coverage focuses on the glitz and success of the athletes, McCann shares their everyday struggles. "Other people," he explained, "are not under the scrutiny these athletes are."

On the teams he's worked with, he continued, "every single athlete has gone through a small amount of hell with all kinds of challenges, both physical and emotional. To see these young folks face this and come through with all that work and hard training - it's very rewarding. It's not easy for them."

McCann thrives on the variety and unpredictability of the job. "I'm not just in my office doing my consulting," he said. "I consult while riding a team bus, sitting in a hotel lobby, or even riding a chairlift. I can't change the environment, so I have to just start doing it right there."

When McCann joined the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1991, the field of sports psychology was in its infancy. A club cyclist at Brown, he'd concentrated in psychology. He followed that with a doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Hawaii and a postdoc at the University of Washington.

At first, he said, he was the lone psychologist on the U.S. team. In contrast, he now has a staff of three, and at least seven U.S. sports psychologists were scheduled to travel to Turin this winter. "I used to have to give talks about sports psychology and try to sell it," McCann sid. "If something went wrong, an athlete was told they needed to go see someone. Now, I've been to every competition this year with the skaters. We're integrated into the training."

The job's only downside, McCann said, is the time away from his family; last year he spent 100 days traveling, leaving his wife and ten-year-old daughter at home in Pueblo, Colorado. While he has consulted in other areas, including business and professional sports, he said there's something special about the Olympics.

"I love it, and I'm still learning," he said. "Nothing is as much fun as working with an Olympic athlete. They're such motivated athletes. There's also their pursuit of being great. There's purity to it with the Olympic athletes, and it's really fun to be a part of that."

Sally Craig is a freelance writer in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

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March / April 2006