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Optimal mindset

HKR professor doubles as mental performance coach for province's top athletes

Campus and Community

By Ryan Howell

Dr. Erin McGowan says she never reached her full potential as an athlete because her mental skills were lacking at the time.

It was that realization that led the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation instructor to studying sport and exercise psychology in order to still be involved in athletics, but in a different capacity.

Her initial goal was to become an applied sports psychologist and work in the consulting field, but those jobs are few and far between.

These days Dr. McGowan gets the best of both worlds: she teaches sport and exercise psychology, and is a mental performance coach for some of the province’s top athletes.

A reunion

She has worked with the M5 rowing crew who hold the women’s record at the Royal St. John’s Regatta; Newfoundland and Labrador’s Team Young, the youngest curling team at the 2022 Brier; and the iconic and curling Olympic medallists, Team Gushue.

Team Gushue with their bronze medals around their necks, flower bouquets, standing in front of a blue background at a news conference.
Team Gushue proudly show off their Olympic bronze medals in Beijing, China.
Photo: Team Gushue/Facebook

In some ways, working with Team Gushue is more of a reunion than a new partnership.

“My supervisor, Dr. Bas Kavanagh, worked with Team Gushue while I was completing my master’s degree, and I had the opportunity to work with the team and sit in on sessions at that time,” Dr. McGowan said. “Mark Nichols approached me in 2019 and asked if working with the team was something I’d be interested in.”

When Dr. McGowan, the only certified mental performance coach by the Canadian Sport Psychology Association in Newfoundland and Labrador, was recruited once again by Team Gushue, the guys had two goals: regain the world’s number one ranking, and get into the Olympics.

“The mental side of sports became so much more important throughout COVID.” — Dr. Erin McGowan

It’s her job to teach athletes the different skills and strategies that enable them to get to the optimal mindset for them to perform at their best, consistently.

“One thing that’s really important is the planning and preparation side of things. So that when they compete, all they have to do is focus on what they need to do in that moment to be successful. We plan and prepare to remove all distractions.”

They also work on what they can and can’t control — something that was made exponentially harder in a COVID-19 climate.

Dr. McGowan says they identify what the “controllables” are and employ strategies to capitalize on. They also identify things that are outside of their control to make sure they have a good plan in place in case something does come up.

“This enables them them to not focus their time or attention on things they cannot change. As you can imagine, work during the pandemic has obviously changed things, as well. The mental side of sports became so much more important throughout COVID, because they weren’t able to prepare the same. At times they weren’t able to practise, or even compete before big events.”

Enjoy the moment

Despite the obstacles, Team Gushue went on to win the bronze medal for Canada at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Dr. McGowan says her biggest message to the team was to enjoy the moment and not think too far ahead.

Team Gushue wears their red Olympic suits and gives a thumbs up to the camera. They are standing on the curling rink.
Team Gushue gives a thumbs up at the 2022 Beijing Olympics
Photo: Team Canada/Twitter

“We talked about having a very short memory. It’s important to not take things forward with you. For sure, think about a miss or analyze a previous shot, but do it quickly. That’s what makes them so good — they’re so good at being able to stay in the moment and recognize what they need to do to be successful.”

Despite the time changes, Dr. McGowan says she was thankful for the opportunity to have been involved with Team Gushue’s Olympic journey.

“This was very different because they were 11.5 hours ahead of us. Having those meetings and watching the games meant a lot of early mornings and late nights, but it was pretty cool to feel involved as much as I could be with the Olympics.”

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