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Getting your head in the game

Elie Waitzer

In a 1987 interview with Wilt Chamberlain, Roy Firestone asked the legendary big man about the secret behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s unparalleled ability to score. What made him so fundamentally different than all the other freakishly athletic seven-footers who couldn’t cut it in the NBA?

“I believe they have athletic ability, [but] they don’t use this right up here,” Chamberlain said as he leaned forward and tapped his head. “I think that basketball players today are much better athletes, but [...] their thinking process as far as the game is concerned […] pshht.”

When Chamberlain tapped his head, he was pointing to the athlete’s brain, the central focus of the fascinating study of sports psychology. Born as an interdisciplinary mix of kinesiology, psychology, biomechanics, and physiology in the 1920s, sports psychology is a fledgling field of study as far as the sciences go. At McGill, Dr. Gordon Bloom directs the Sports Psychology Research Laboratory and oversees the university’s graduate program in sport and exercise psychology. After being immersed in the world of Division I sports at California State University, Fresno, he wanted to come back to Canada to conduct further research and share his insights in the field of coaching.

“I came here in 2000,” Bloom said. “When [McGill] brought me in to teach, the sports psychology program had been stagnant for five to six years [….] So they were looking to hire somebody, and they gave me a lab and basically said it’s yours to do what you want.”

Since then, the lab has grown to accommodate its surging ranks of post-graduate students. It provides training services for McGill and Canadian athletes in the 7,000 square foot Seagram Sports Science Centre and in a satellite laboratory at the Olympic Stadium: Many of its graduates have gone on to apply their knowledge to startling degrees of success.

[Sports psychology] focuses on health and wellness,” Bloom said. “When we’re doing research on coaching and training, we’re trying to identify ideal [...] practices that not only improve performance, but also improve quality of life.

“Sports psychology […] is probably the fastest growing discipline in kinesiology—we get the most applications every year,” Bloom said. “It’s new, and it’s gotten a lot of attention with the Olympics [….] In Canada, a lot of universities have it, [but] doctoral programs are a bit more unique.”

Bloom’s primary field of research is in coaching, and after settling in at the lab, he quickly began to build relationships with the top-tier Redmen and Martlet teams.

Like so many other athletes at my level, I was being forced to reconsider what sports meant to me. When you grow up believing that you have a future in the game, it inevitably has an impact on your relationship with it. I began to question whether all of the hours spent playing and practicing had been time wasted.

“Our two hockey coaches at the time—Peter [Smith] and Martin [Raymond]—both had backgrounds [in sports psychology], so they had me come speak to their teams,” Bloom said. “I use them for my research and try to help the teams here as much as I can, so it’s a good two-way street.”

If an athlete is going through an intense period—whether coming back from injury, anxious about something off the court, or getting nerves before big games—Bloom is an invaluable resource. The lab offers one-on-one sessions and works with coaches and teams around exam time to help balance studies and athletics. On the flip side, many of the grad students in the sports psychology program complete internships with Redmen and Martlet teams, gaining valuable applied experience.

When Martlet basketball captain Françoise Charest graduated and left the team last year, she left a hole in terms of leadership. Dianna Ros, the starting point guard for the team, said she struggled with the abruptness of the change, losing her mentor and having to slide into the veteran role of all at once.

F“The leadership component has been big for me this year,” Ros said. “I have had to move up this year and fill that spot with a few other girls.”.

She started seeing Bloom in May, meeting a few times a month to sort out her thoughts. Though they did discuss specifics—displaying confidence on the court, embracing a leadership role, and mentoring younger players—their conversation went beyond just basketball.

“We talked about the whole environment,” Ros said. “What’s going on in my life, the bigger picture.”

It all sounded like a normal session with your run-of-the-mill therapist.

“[Sports psychology] focuses on health and wellness,” Bloom said. “When we’re doing research on coaching and training, we’re trying to identify ideal [...] practices that not only improve performance, but also improve quality of life.”

While much of the research that goes on at the lab involves rigorous studies on various specific topics, the overarching philosophy of sports psychology is that promoting overall wellness in life has a powerful trickle-down effect into every facet of an athlete’s performance. Nobody has grasped this knowledge and applied it better than Chantal Vallée, head coach of the Windsor Lancers women’s basketball team.

After graduating from McGill with a master’s degree in sports psychology, Vallée took over the Lancers in 2005 with the goal of transforming one of the nation’s worst basketball programs from the top down. She had never coached above the high school level, but knew she could bring something special to Windsor.

“She interviewed the top coaches in the country [...] and found out how they built their programs, and [identified] ways to be successful on the court and off the court,” Bloom said. “[Taking] this personal approach, and care about [your athletes] athletically, academically, and socially [....] That’s a common theme in our research—how do you improve the quality of life and make [your athletes] feel better through coaching practices?”

Within five years, Vallée and the Lancers were hoisting their first CIS Championship, setting the stage for a historic run of dominance from 2010 to 2014, during which the Lancers took home four consecutive Championships. Luck and good recruiting surely played a part, but Bloom did not want to understate the importance of sports psychology in achieving sporting success.

“The most successful [...] coach in [North American] sports history is Phil Jackson,” Bloom noted while pointing to a bookshelf lined with Jackson’s best-known titles. “He’s had talent, but before he coached the Bulls and the Lakers, other [coaches] couldn’t get the players to buy into it [….] You need talent to win, but that missing ingredient is team chemistry that starts from the coach […] and goes through the team leaders.”

On an individual level, McGill’s lab has used this philosophy to help raise the performance of several professional and Olympic athletes. Anastasia Bucsis, an Olympic speed skater for Team Canada and a visiting student at McGill, said that her experience with the lab helped her reflect and recover before Sochi. She explained that at a certain level, it’s a mental game, and learning to put things into perspective is crucial.

“Everyone tells you that it’s the Olympics—anything can happen,” Bucsis said. “You just have to trust your preparation and everything you’ve done up until then because ultimately, you’re going to be skating in a circle.”

Sometimes, perspective can be everything. After winning three gold medals in swimming at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, Valérie Grand’Maison started to grow tired of the sport to which she had dedicated her life. When she came to McGill to pursue a degree in psychology, she decided to join the Martlet swimming team to change things up.

“I had won six medals, so I thought everybody knew me—again, cocky,” Grand’Maison said. “It was very humbling […] and it was nice being one of the gang.”

Grand’Maison got to know Bloom after taking a few courses in the sports psychology department, and soon began to see him on a semi-regular basis. Like Ros, she said that her sessions seemed to wander off course, straying from the pool and landing on broader topics.

“I would also talk about my life, not only swimming [...] to align my priorities and work on assuming them,” Grand’Maison recalled. “Making my own decisions and going along with them.”

Though the Martlets were never particularly successful during her time on the team, the experience was invaluable for Grand’Maison. Hearing her teammates, girls who had only just met her, cheer her on at meets—win or lose—completely changed the way she viewed the sport.

“It really helped me to have fun with it and take some pressure off,” Grand’Maison. “Losing is a silver medal at the Paralympics—it was the end of the world for me [….] But being part of a team that means something, and juggling school and my dreams beyond school–putting everything in perspective–made me enjoy the sport way more.

Aside from his generational talent, Wilt Chamberlain was known for being a loner. He drove across America 20 times, always by himself, and never once married or had a girlfriend. But, as he explained to Firestone in 1987, it was all by choice.

“I am really very content with myself—I enjoy people, I like to interact—but basically I like to reflect and I like to do that by myself,” Chamberlain said.

His solitude came from a deep understanding of who he really was, and gave him a sense of mental fortitude that made him unstoppable on the court and remained with him many years after he retired from the NBA. For Chamberlain, and for sports psychologists, the fundamental key to athletic success lies in the knowledge that the brain has to be well for the body to perform. As Grand’Maison put it: “It’s more important to be a better person than a better athlete,” she said. “It goes together.”

(Photo courtesy of Alain Quevillon /; Lauren Bensen-Armer / McGill Tribune; Matthew Murnaghan / McGill News)