Health: Barcelona is a state of mind: The important thing is not winning, but taking part and staying sane. Michael Durham reports on the British Olympic team's courses to cope with the pressure

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IF BRITAIN'S Olympic athletes look especially happy and relaxed when the Games open in Barcelona on 25 July, one reason could be the 'lifestyle training' they have been given. Everyone expects Olympic stars to be in the peak of physical condition. What is less often considered is the mental stress that can build up after months of tough training programmes and emotional pressure.

For the first time, the British Olympic Association has recognised the psychological impact of the games on the athletes. This year, the British team will be among the first in the world to have been offered a stress management course to help them cope with winning and losing.

Sean Kerly, England's hockey captain and already an Olympic veteran, is one sportsman who says he has already benefited from the advice. For the past few months, he has trained for up to two hours a day and spent every weekend on the pitch or at an intensive Olympic training camp.

He is married with two young children, so suffers the added stress of family commitments. The lifestyle management training has helped him sort out his priorities and plan ahead. 'Now I have a system and I can plan everything out very clearly. If you just let things happen, you end up running around like an idiot,' he says. 'This time I've been able to sit down with Jacqui, my wife, to discuss when I'll be around and when I won't. Some people say we sound more like business partners than a married couple. But it definitely helps to keep you sane.'

Olympic athletes are under enormous public pressure to perform and succeed on the day. What makes their lifestyle particularly daunting is the unrelenting programme of preparation that aims to maximise and peak their talents at the right time.

Aspiring gold medallists can expect to train for several hours a day and all weekend, month in and month out. At the same time they may be under pressure to hold down a job, maintain a normal family life, keep up with friends and plan for the future.

Even the most efficient could be expected to feel the strain. Cutting down on commitments by, for example, giving up a paid job brings its own anxieties. And for the super-fit, common physical stress-reduction techniques such as going for a swim or a jog are unlikely to make much difference.

Relationships suffer, marriages break down and athletes have been known to be fired by their employers for spending too much time in the gym. The psychological stress may take its toll in the stadium. Worse, in the long term, is the danger that once the big event is over, the athlete may return to a life in ruins.

'Unless athletes get their private lives sorted out, their performances can suffer,' says Brian Miller, consultant sports psychologist to the BOA. 'Some try to fit two lives into 24 hours a day. Their sport can go down the drain, and so can their careers.'

In collaboration with a management consultancy that specialises in stress reduction techniques for company executives, the BOA has offered 'lifestyle management' training to more than 1,000 shortlisted athletes, managers and team coaches. Individual programmes are tailor- made for every participant and every sport; about half of them have taken up the offer.

Using established time-management techniques more often applied to burnt-out executives, psychologists encourage athletes to cope with their lives by setting goals, making priorities, drawing up timetables and thinking ahead. The aim is to help them retain a psychological 'even keel' and sense of perspective.

Athletes have been sent a Filofax-style manual for planning, and invited to a weekend course, paid for by the BOA, where they receive counselling from psychologists and specialists in stress management. 'Very often an athlete focuses on sport to the exclusion of the rest of his life,' says Jeff Matthews, marketing director of TMI, the consultancy providing the training. 'We have to broaden horizons.'

To keep personal relationships healthy, athletes are advised to set aside firm blocks of time when they will see their partners and children. In psycho-speak, they are urged to exchange 'strokes': giving the people closest to them support and recognition, and jointly facing up to problems.

'Success in sport is often at the expense of relationships,' Mr Matthews says. 'Athletes can be so obsessed with winning they are literally unaware of others. There are some prima donnas in any job, and athletics has its share.'

The stress does not end once the competition is over. For many athletes, there is the added psychological angst of returning to a humdrum life, perhaps with no job to go to, and faced with picking up a new career. Holding down a job while training can be psychologically important as well as vital for the future.

Mr Matthews says: 'An athlete needs to be aware of all this and make some conscious decisions. We encourage them to block out chunks of time for each activity. It's no good if there are constant distractions, like worrying if you've posted the credit card bill, got the car serviced, or remembered your daughter's birthday.

'Going in for the Olympics is a life decision, usually taken at an early age. Proper time management is a lifeline to the athletes who have done the course.'

One former Olympic athlete who knows what it is like to be under pressure is Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, the British ski-jump star. He now admits that after his one-off appearance at the 1988 winter Olympics, his prospects looked very uncertain.

Since then Mr Edwards, 24, has launched himself as a celebrity, appearing on talk shows, making commercials and opening charity events all over the world. Time management training, he says, would have helped him to cope with stardom and perhaps to sustain relationships.

'I've only ever had about three girlfriends in my life. The trouble is I'm never at home, so it's hard to form relationships. My fiancee, Clare, has just broken it off because she never saw me,' he says.

It remains to be seen whether healthy minds will bring Britain's athletes any more Olympic medals this year - that's if any of them have found the time to put their mental preparation into practice, of course.

(Photograph omitted)

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