Q&A: West Chester University Sports Psychologist Margaret Ottley

Fresh off of her appearance at the 2012 London Olympics, Dr. Margaret Ottley shares her experience as the team sports psychologist for Trinidad & Tobago.

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Behind the sinewy limbs, rivers of tears and buckets of sweat shed by every athlete at this year’s summer Olympics, there was a mind and a will that needed a workout, too. As a sports psychologist and kinesiologist, West Chester University’s Margaret Ottley worked with members of the Trinidad & Tobago team to overcome their mental hurdles as they prepared for major events. And though she’s back in the lecture hall now, a fourth Olympic appearance in Rio is a real possibility.

Photo by Jared CastaldiMLT: What exactly does a sports psychologist do?
MO: Typically, we handle issues like an athlete’s approach to competition or motivation. But when you’re dealing with an Olympic team, it’s already assumed you’re at the top of your game. For them, we focus on performance anxiety, confidence, self-doubt, energy management, relation techniques and more—plus the three Cs: concentration, composure and confidence.

MLT: What’s the most common issue you encounter at the Olympics?
MO: Confidence. You’re dealing with individuals who have such diverse experiences, all meeting on one playing field. There’s an immense pressure to medal so they keep their sponsorships. There’s also the fact that they don’t want to let their country or their support team down. There are so many external factors besides the pressure of the game that can affect an athlete’s self-confidence.

MLT: What types of mental exercises help an athlete prepare?
MO: We do a lot with guided imagery. Eighty percent of an athlete’s sensory experience is visual, but we want to have all the sensory receptors engaged to contribute to an overall balance. So much of what they do is in a rhythmic flow, so we try to get them to be more consistent in their techniques. We do that by having athletes talk through their whole routine, detailing what their movements will be and how they’ll execute. 

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