Sports

Mental toughness 101 with UFV's Roger Friesen

Performance psychologist Roger Friesen (left) mentally trains athletes like Olympic white water kayaker David Ford (right). Friesen focuses on increasing mental toughness not only in athletes, but in performers of all kinds.  - Submitted
Performance psychologist Roger Friesen (left) mentally trains athletes like Olympic white water kayaker David Ford (right). Friesen focuses on increasing mental toughness not only in athletes, but in performers of all kinds.
— image credit: Submitted

What do jazz musicians, belly dancers, paramedics and Olympic athletes have in common?

If you ask Roger Friesen, the answer is the pressure of performance.

Friesen is a staple figure in the athletics department at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) where he teaches courses in sport psychology and counsels student athletes to mentally train for their sports.

“There’s a parallel between what happens in the psychological realm and in the physical realm,” Friesen explains. Athletes who want to be physically successful must also train to be mentally and emotionally successful.

This sort of training applies to anyone who puts on a performance. Friesen has been called upon to help train not just athletes, but chiropractors, doctors, dancers and musicians. Sport psychology isn’t just for sports any more; this sort of counselling has broadened its horizons into the wider world of performance psychology.

“Anyone who’s in performance mode has to come to grips with stress and pressure,” Friesen says. “They have to become more emotionally fit.”

It comes down to recognizing emotional and psychological training have just as important a role as physical and technical training. Friesen’s job largely boils down into helping athletes and other performers develop and increase their mental toughness—a sort of psychological endurance.

“Mental toughness is our ability to stay focused to maintain appropriate attention, to deal with distractions, to deal with adversity—all from a psychological and emotional realm,” he explains. “The more mentally tough we are, the greater the [stress] we are able to manage.”

This spring, for instance, Friesen has been helping train a pair of Vancouver athletes who have entered a competition to row across the pacific ocean—from California to Hawaii.

“Accumulated fatigue is a big issue,” he says. “We talk about strategies to manage energies. We talk about strategies to remain mentally tough, even if emotionally fatigued.”

This sort of challenge is an extreme version of the same stresses any athlete feels when preparing for competition. Pressure, after all, is inherent in every performance.

With 27 years in field experience, Friesen has developed and tried and true method of discussion and mental exercises to prepare athletes and performers for the psychological or emotional obstacles they might encounter on the field, the court, or the stage. Through his work at UFV, he meets with the varsity teams both as a group and one-on-one on a weekly basis.

“Every one of those athletes will approach situations slightly differently,” he says. “The context is different, but the principles are the same.”

With recent public interest on lifting the lid of mental illness, more athletes and performers are cognizant of mental and emotional strain than ever before.

“The whole attitude of sport psychology has changed tremendously. It has become more and more well-known and more and more accepted,” Friesen concludes. “People are far more accepting of sport or performance psychology than they were in early days.”

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