Q & A with Dr. Judy Goss

We caught up with Dr. Judy Goss, the mental performance lead, at the Canadian Sport Institute in Ontario to get her thoughts on athlete development and more.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself.

So my background is in mental performance so I work mostly with the athletes in terms of making sure the psychological climate they’re working in is good…. So that they are mentally prepared, that they are communicating, working well within their group or team depending on what kind of sport they’re in and also making sure that their life is also going well. We try to work in a very holistic manner but it’s basically performance enhancement.

Q: For athlete development how do you view it from a holistic perspective and how do you try and incorporate that with how you work with the athletes?

I think that we know that athletes throughout their career go through transitions whether it’s going from a junior level to more senior, where it’s transitioning from high school to university or college and then onto their focused more professional kind of career. They do have difficulties moving through those transitions so in a holistic approach you have to consider what they’re going through individually and as a human as opposed to as an athlete. So we work on various facets of that in terms of communication, and career planning and just their ability to manage stress and recovery and regeneration, all those kinds of things that are around their performance as opposed to just the performance.

Q: In terms of the work that you’re doing day in and day out what are some of the challenges or issues that the athletes are facing? How do you think it’s changed over time? What are you doing to address those issues now?

Some careers for some athletes are really extending because they are getting funding so they can stay and be an amateur athlete as you would say it for a longer period of time. That then make the pool a little bit larger and they’re fighting for fewer spots as we would say and that natural transition of maybe university age then they retire and move on is now much more extended. So when it extends, they have families, they have other things going on in their life that just kind of adds to stress. We have a big gap. We have 16 year olds training with 32 year olds, which really changes the dynamics of a group training situation and what they’re all going through. There’s a lot of challenges whether it’s just coping with stress and pressure of the performance and just coping with the rest of life.

Q: Do you think there’s been an increase in the stress that athletes face in training say from 10 years ago to now?

I think it’s similar. I think they get a lot more support now. We have the way that sports are funded, they have physiologists, we have nutritionists. They have a lot of people around them that can help them. They have to ask for the help and they have to be willing to accept it. I think they’re monitored a lot better but they still have those stressors.

Q: Do you think that athletes now are more inclined to ask for help now? Has it changed at all like there is more of an openness to engage in these conversations not only for their future or where they are mentally in their career?

Since the athletes get help at a younger age, we can focus on the ones that are below national team level so that they’re used to having a mental performance consultant or physiologist there or a doctor there so they are used to it and do ask for help. Still, we can’t help everyone, so there is still lots of athletes that are underserved, as we might say, that don’t know where to even ask for help.

Q: One of the things that is fascinating is that your husband was an Olympic swimmer, you have a daughter that is an Olympic swimmer, have you been able to help your daughter differently or is there different approach than the other athletes that you deal with?

I started when they were young. They were like little experiments for me. I’ll admit that. I was always very conscious of what I would say and do to them and how I presented sport and how I presented competition to them. They were always going to do sport because we try to be active and encourage them and that opportunity for them. They were very multi-sport athletes because I really wanted them to determine what they wanted to do. Between the ages of 8 and 12 you have to be doing 3 to 4 different sports so that they can figure out the 1 that they want to do as opposed to specializing too early, I mean everyone probably knows that one now, right? She was always energetic and you could tell she got a little of that competitive instinct from her father so it was easy to cultivate it from a psychological point, to make sure you stuck with those “get out there, challenge yourself, fall down, get back up” kind of attitudes and she’s pretty good at that.

Q: Speaking to development in youth sports, where do you think the parents or coaches are screwing up when they’re working with the young athletes?

I always try to say, I think that everyone should try to learn how to swim, so you can do any kind of thing in the pool. Everybody in Canada needs to be able to skate, you know you have hockey or skating or whatever. Then you want some kind of racquet sport, you have to be able to handle some kind of tool. If you give them those kind of opportunities I think they’ll probably find something like that. I think that I was pressured by coaches at certain ages when my daughter was there that said “oh she’s going to be 15 minutes late for the 10th workout of the week for one sport.” And I was like, “yeah, that’s okay.” [Coaches] do pressure you, oh she’s going to miss so much. No, she’s not. It’s okay. She was still doing 2 sports up until the age of almost 16. I got pressure from that but that’s okay, I can handle it.

Q: What is the biggest mistake of people working in the field of athlete development in terms of engaging them and how could it potentially be rectified?

They look for the ones that are really good early on. Just because you’re really good, I mean you obviously want to have some skill in the sport that you’re doing but just because you’re winning at an age group level, like if you’re winning when you’re 10 and 12 it gives no indication of how good you’ll be when you’re a senior level athlete. I think coaches move towards those age group winners and parents focus on those age group winners and keep them confined to that sport. Because of physical maturity or some easy talent right off the bat that does not indicate that they will be good once they get to senior level. We discard some other ones that haven’t matured physically because to me, if you look at the psychological makeup of the athlete for sport, you should be able to teach the physical skills. It’s what I say to coaches. If they can’t do it, you should be able to teach them. We can’t teach them some mentalities.

Q: Are you seeing athletes being more open to engaging in sports psychology?

Some coaches, some athletes are still very hesitant but I find that people are a lot more open to it. When you’re in the daily training environment, when I’m around all the time, it makes it so much easier for them than when someone has to call or come to me to make an appointment or where am I going. It’s so add on, I’m in the daily training environments so it’s easy.

Duncan Fletcher