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UtahRunning: We’d like to start out with you telling us a bit about yourself and your professional background.
Dr. Gordin: I’ve been a professor here at Utah State for 32 years. I teach classes in sports psychology and other things. I’ve been in the field of applied sports psychology for about 35 years. I’ve consulted with professional athletes, Olympic teams, amateur athletes, and university athletes. That’s kind of what I do.
UtahRunning.com: What got you interested in sports psychology?
Dr. Gordin: I was an athlete myself. My sport was football. I played college football back in the dark ages, ‘60s and ‘70s. I thought there was a mental component that was more developed than just pep talks and those kinds of things. Luckily I hit the career at a time when we were sort of adding on to the research that was being done by sports scientists in this area, and started to get into more of the applied area, as well. I kind of hit the crest of the wave and I’ve been riding it ever since.
UtahRunning.com: Have you had any experiences that are highlights for you, as you look back on your career?
Dr. Gordin: I’ve had a lot of highlights. I’ve been officially at three Olympic Games with different NGBs [national governing bodies]. I went in ‘88 to Seoul with women’s gymnastics, 2004 in Athens with our U.S.A. track and field team, and then most recently 2010 in Vancouver with our Nordic combined ski team. I’m scheduled to be back to another Olympic games in 2014 in Russia, Sochi in Russia with the Nordic combined team.
UtahRunning.com: Tell me more about your experience with the track and field team and maybe share some of those experiences with the Utah Running crowd.
Dr. Gordin: I got into the group of U.S.A. track and field back in the early to mid ‘80s. At the time, Dr. Harmon Brown was in charge of Sports Medicine Services with U.S.A. track and field and we got a group of us involved with track and field at various levels, not just going to Olympic Games, but in coaching education, youth development, and junior elite camps in Chula Vista.
And also writing for all the publications in track and field, coaching clinics; we went to the national convention each yearand made presentations. Of course, the culmination of that is service delivery to our athletes, with Junior World Championships and then the World Championships, and finally the Olympic games. We were totally immersed in the organization. We weren’t just showing up at the eleventh hour to provide service to our teams at the Olympic Games.
UtahRunning.com: That immersion obviously gave you the opportunity to interact with some interesting people, some very talented people I’m sure. Who are some of the top athletes that you’ve had the experience of working with?
Dr. Gordin: If you’re familiar, as your audience is with the elite runners in the U.S. history, all of those. I’ll name a couple. Obviously your group is interested in people like Meb [Keflezighi] and Deena [Kastor] and people like that. I was actually there in Athens in 2004 when Deena became the second woman in the history of the U.S.A. track and field to medal in the women’s marathon, and also Meb a silver medalist. Deena was bronze and Meb was silver. I was there. That’s pretty interesting stuff.
UtahRunning.com: Maybe along with seeing those medaling experiences, what were some other favorite experiences that you’ve had and why?
Dr. Gordin: It’s meeting an athlete early on in their career, because that was our model of service delivery. We would start with juniors and it was about development, not just elite. So we got in with the development area. We got in with the coaches, and we would literally follow the athletes along in their career, until we finally accompanied them to Olympic Games.
For instance, like when I went to the Olympic Games officially in 2004, in Athens, I knew almost all team members since they were in their teens. I wasn’t like somebody just added on to come along for problems. I was part of the staff, so there was a lot of trust developed. I was a normal part of the team. You don’t want to be a distraction. You want to be part of the group that’s there to help everybody to perform at their maximum capacity, at probably the most important competition of their life.
UtahRunning.com: Being part of that team, helping those athletes perform at a high level, tell me when you consult with these athletes, what’s the process you take them through?
Dr. Gordin: The first thing I need to do is get to know them as people and as athletes, and find out what their psychological strengths and weaknesses are. Obviously, they’re bringing a lot to the table, even as a junior athlete coming in. You don’t get invited to junior elite camps unless you’re physically gifted. But they also bring some psychological strengths with them. We do some assessment to pin that down, and then also identify some of the areas that they need to work on.
There’s critical mental skills, like the ability to be poised under pressure, to have the proper focus, to be able to have good self-talk and confidence in these big events, to be able to have a good pre-performance routine to not try to do something different, to control your environment rather than let your environment control you. All of these types of things are skills that need to be learned. You have to learn them before you show up to big competitions because you’re not going to develop them if you haven’t been training on them and working on them prior to getting there.
UtahRunning.com: It sounds like in those areas there are definitely some things that an athlete can do to prepare themselves and ensure performance at a higher level. What would you say are maybe the top-three areas with regards to sports psychology that athletes seem to struggle with the most in training and competition?
Dr. Gordin: It’s making that transition from practice to competition, that’s a big one. For distance runners, for instance, there’s a big difference between a training run and a competitive run. I like to say you need to make your training as much like competition so that your competition becomes like training; so there’s not a big leap between training and competition. You do that through proper training regimes with your coach, staying on track with where you need to be physically, so that you can spend some of your energy during a competitive run, in how to compete against the other runners in the field.
For instance, in distance running, one of the things that a lot of the distance runners always wanted to talk to me about was race planning, how to plan your race, and then stick to it, and still have a little flexibility there, but not let the conditions or the other runners dictate to you; you dictate your race to them and then let them react to you.
Another area would be pain. How do you handle pain? Pain is part of distance running. There’s that whole area of focus. How do you focus in a marathon, for instance, for two hours and thirty minutes, or two hours and ten minutes, depending on what gender you are? World-class runners, how do you keep your focus, and what do you focus on for that amount of time?
Part of that focus has to be on your body and how it feels, but the rest of it has to be being able to leave your body and not focus on the pain for a while. You have to have both skills: to be able to associate to your body and how it feels, but also disassociate. You know all the strategies that people use. People count the number of rooms in their house, go through all kinds of things. At the same time, you have to be able to focus on if you’re starting to cramp up in your right calf; you have to know how to make an adjustment and when to make your move and all those kinds of things.
UtahRunning.com: Those are definitely areas people could focus on and learn as they face those struggles. What mental strategies would you suggest for runners to take in their training, to take their training in racing to the next level? What tips would you provide in mental strategies?
Dr. Gordin: Again it’s making sure that you’ve trained correctly, number one. Sport is physical. But if you want to go to the next level, sport becomes a lot more mental. It’s showing up to a competition knowing that you’re ready to go.
If I can use swimming as an example, I’ll go across another sport. Michael Phelps for instance, in his book No Limits, talks about he and his coach would do the workouts that nobody else in the world was willing to do. Or they either couldn’t do it or they weren’t willing to do. People say why would you do that. So he goes, “That way when you show up at a big competition, you already know that there’s nobody there that’s in better physical condition than you are. You’ve prepared yourself physically for what’s being asked of you.”
I think a lot of mistakes that distance runners make is that they try to fool themselves with their training programs, and say I can only train at this level, so I’ll do that. Then when I get in a competition my adrenaline will take me to the next level.
I don’t think that’s true. I think your adrenaline is only going to take you to running a foolish race. You’re going to try and do something that you’re not ready to do. It’s preparation, confidence, shooting for – rather than competing against other people and maybe shooting for a personal best, and knowing exactly what that takes, and then seeing where that lands you in the final, as you cross the finish line, those types of things. Goal setting, all these things, I think people intuitively think they know how to do it but I’m not sure that’s right. I think sometimes they need to really study how to do it in the most effective way. That’s what I help them do.
UtahRunning.com: That’s great. We really appreciate you taking time to talk with us and sharing your experience.
Dr. Gordin: My pleasure.