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Sport psychologist Kim Dawson shares mental skills for runners

Wilfrid Laurier University professor Kim Dawson shares her experiences with Speed River athletes and provides mental skills for runners

Kim Dawson wears many hats. She is a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University as well as the director for the Sun Life Financial Centre for Physically Active Communities. She also serves as a mental skills consultant on Gymnastics Canada’s integrated support team and consults with athletes of all types, including figure skaters, hockey players, boxers, volleyball players, and runners.

The mother of two helps the country’s fastest runners apply mental strategies to their sport in order to set them up for maximal performance. Helping the likes of Eric Gillis, Nicole Sifuentes, and Andrea Seccafien find their mental strength is all in a day’s work for Dawson.

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CR recently caught up with her to chat about her transition into applied sport psychology, her 10-year journey that started with the athletes of Speed River Track Club (out of Guelph, Ont.) and expanded into providing high-performance camps across the country in all sports. We’ve also gotten her to reveal a few of her best mental running tips and how she felt about Eric Gillis’s top-10 Olympic marathon finish.

Alex Cyr: What are some experiences you have lived that have shaped you into a sport psychologist?

Kim Dawson: I can trace it back to my own sport participation. During high school, I played competitive rep soccer, varsity basketball, and ran cross-country and track. As an undergraduate student at UW, I was on the varsity volleyball team and competed in road races and triathlons. I’ve always loved sports. I understood early on that finding out who you are and figuring out your own process to follow in achieving your goal is crucial to becoming successful. I believe adherence to training and consistency in performance are the keys to success in any sport.

From an educational standpoint, I started with an undergraduate degree in kinesiology. My master’s degree was in exercise psychology with a focus on adherence. Then, I earned my PhD in psychomotor behaviour where the focus was on understanding cognitive and environmental factors that increased the probability of individuals learning and performing motor skills.

Interestingly, as part of my studies, I worked at a medium security women’s prison as a recreational officer. In that environment, I learned how people communicated with each other in a place of low privilege, and how we can still reach our potential when we are disadvantaged. It was a great human experience.

AC: How did you begin working with Canada’s best runners at Speed River Track Club?

KD: In 2008, Dave Scott-Thomas approached me to see if I would work with Speed River Track and Field Club. At first, I was hesitant, because I was primarily an academic. I also had two small children at home, and my own fitness and desire for competition were still large priorities. But, I decided to give it a try. From the beginning, I loved it. I was fortunate to get to start with amazing runners like Taylor Milne, Reid Coolsaet, Alex Genest, Hilary Stellingwerff, and Eric Gillis. They were hungry for success – they were willing to buy in and invest time into learning how to mentally become more in control of their performances and ultimately better athletes. The approach at Speed River was, “how can we be develop running excellence?” Dave invested a lot of time and support into developing a strong integrated support team (IST) for his athletes and I was fortunate to be able to be part of that approach in the beginning.

With this group, we worked towards the 2012 Olympics. The endpoint was having four athletes (Alex, Reid, Eric, and Hilary) qualify for the games. After the Games, I had caught the bug. I was getting more and more calls from athletes from various sports looking to consult with me, and so my expansion to consulting with athletes of different sports was a natural transition.

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AC: Do you often travel to meets and events with athletes?

KD: Though the option to travel with teams is often presented to me, I rarely go. I believe that I do not need to be on site for the races. If I’ve done my job correctly, the athletes should have the mental tools necessary to successfully navigate any situation that they are presented with. That does not mean, however, that I do not hold close relationships with the athletes. [London Olympian] Alex Genest texted me often when he competed, and Eric [Gillis] talks to me as he travels the world to race.

Sometimes, travel is not necessary because I can catch all I need to see from home. When I saw Eric preparing for his marathon at the Rio Olympics (in which he finished 10th), the look in his eyes before the race gave me a good photo of where he was, mentally. In fact, I was so confident that he would race well that I left my television and went to the gym to work out for the first 90 minutes of the marathon! I was not surprised with how well he placed.

AC: To accurately guess their mindset based on facial expressions, you must know your athletes quite well.

KD: Absolutely. Over time, you get to know your athletes, their individual needs and challenges, and how they react differently from each other. I feel that if I do it right, when running careers are done, the athletes and I will stay friends. Alex Genest continues to be one of my favourite people to spend time with. Our friendship is based on shared experiences, mutual respect, and the same sense of humour!

Concerning Eric, he was the first athlete to walk into my office when I began working with Speed River. It was right after the 2008 Olympics, and he was not satisfied with his performance. Since then, we have had the time to build a strong relationship. Eric is a conservative type – he needed to learn how to get uncomfortable mentally in races and take calculated risks. That is something we worked on, and in Rio, he executed. He was prepared to go outside his mental comfort zone within the race.

Eric has learned so much over the years. It’s been a pleasure to be part of his journey and I respect his skill set and his openness to challenge himself immensely. His ability to navigate a qualification process and compete in three Olympics is remarkable. The consistency that he has shown in his results is really outstanding. I always tell him that he’s the Wayne Gretzky of running!

AC: In general, are there any recurring themes/issues you encounter with runners? What do they struggle with?

KD: Runners are time-oriented. They have a very narrow latitude of defined success, which is usually what the clock says. Sometimes, thinking in such a way is debilitating. What I can do for most runners is to help them establish the purpose of each race beyond time, so that they can still extract positives from those performances in which they do not achieve personal bests. Each run has a purpose. Success in a championship race, a race in which we are chasing a time, a race to test fitness, and a first race of the season is defined differently. Having a distinct purpose for each race aids in setting better goals and building momentum throughout a season.

Additionally, most runners are always dissatisfied with their races to some degree. Even with quite good results, they think they could have done better or that they made to many errors in the race. This is a good thing when kept in context or a temporary reaction. Runners need to believe that their season best or personal best time is always right around the corner. This belief serves as their motivation to keep training. However, runners also need to also be able to see their accomplishments in order to be motivated to keep at it. I sometimes have to remind runners to find the joy of running as fast as you can and for as long as you can. I don’t want them to miss the enjoyment of the process in the singular quest for the outcome.

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AC: How do you think sport psychology provides an advantage to the runners who practice it?

KD: I think runners who devote time to mental training are more prepared for their training and races. When new runners come into my office, they have had good and bad races in their careers. Their habits and streaks are chaotic – they have less understanding of their performances. With these athletes, we figure out their unique process and develop strategies to give them more control over their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They learn how to exercise their personal control over distractions, how they practice, how they react to the weather, and so on. We work a lot on consistency from one performance to the next, even if the circumstances between races are different. It is not that athletes who practice sport psychology have different feelings than those who do not; it is that now they have the coping mechanisms necessary to control factors that could potentially detract from their race.

AC: Could you provide us with a few tips/guidelines/tricks that all runners could implement in their own mental training?

KD: Every runner should ask himself or herself the million-dollar question, “why do you do this?” At the end of your day, when your running journey is complete what would you define as a success? It might be faster times, consistency in running, socialness in the sport, or something else. It’s important to define and understand why you would invest your time into running and what you want out of your investment. I have athletes who are competing at international events visualize the post-race interview. Whatever narrative they see themselves telling the reporter after the race, they must find a way to make happen within the race.

I also suggest setting a realistic program to help maximize running objectives. I find many recreational runners set top-down goals such as running a spring marathon. They often times pick an arbitrary running distance and time that is not based on the reality of ability, time, or resources. Unfortunately, this approach rarely leads to success. It is better to set bottom-up goals. This means evaluating your current fitness, time demands, resources, training availability, etc. Let your goals follow more organically from your current running behaviours. For example, if your winter months are not very busy and you’re a good winter runner, go ahead and set some lofty spring running goals. However, if winter months are busy or a challenge for you, see where your fitness is at the end of February, and set your spring running goals accordingly.

To contact or consult with Kim, find her at thedawsonclinic.ca