Wendy Borlabi gives Olympians a 'head' start
Dr. Wendy Borlabi is an integral part of the USOC's preparations for the London Games and the latest subject in our Power Play series, which highlights women in the sports business.
espnW: As a certified sport psychology consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee, tell us a little bit about your interactions with Olympic athletes. Do you meet with the Olympians regularly, or only when a problem arises?
Wendy Borlabi: The way that it works at the USOC is that each sport psychologist at has a portfolio [of teams and athletes]. We each have between nine and 11 teams that we work with in our portfolio. I personally work with sailing, rowing, canoe/kayak, BMX, sprint cycling, mountain cycling, road cycling, squash, badminton, table tennis, tennis, modern pentathlon and triathlon.
We offer ongoing consultations with athletes and coaches, but if something does arise, and they want a one-time consultation, we offer that service as well. However, the majority of my work since I started at the USOC has been mostly ongoing communication with athletes and coaches.
espnW: How do you establish a relationship with an athlete? Do you reach out to them or do they typically to come to you first?
WB: Both. The majority of the time, they come to me or their coach refers them to me. But a lot of times, I like to go out to practices and competitions to watch them and be a part of their team. When I'm out there, I may just start talking to the athlete, and a lot of times that leads to something else.
espnW: When did sports psychology become part of preparing U.S. athletes for high-level competition?
WB: I know Sean McCann, who is one of our sports psychologists, has been a part of the USOC for I believe about 17 years. He started as part time, so it's probably been in the last 20 years or so that it's become a regular part of preparing the athletes for competition. It's incredible to think that less than 20 years ago, it was a part-time position, and now there are six of us.
espnW: Even though the Olympics last only two weeks, how much time do you spend with an athlete preparing them for the big event?
WB: I don't know if I can quantify that in hours or days. But let's break it down to the next year and a half before the Olympics. I would say that with the athletes I do work with, on average, I'm in some type of contact with them once every other week, whether that's text or an email. It's usually just touching base to see how things are going. But everybody is different, so the amount I'm in contact with each athlete varies.
espnW: Surely every athlete has a different approach to psychological preparation, but do you find you have some advice that works well for everyone?
WB: Sure, I think it's simple things actually. One would be talking to them about staying in the moment and focusing on being able to control what they can control. If something falls outside of their circle of control, I tell them not to pay attention to it. Another one would be developing a routine. That's one of the things that most athletes have -- a pre-performance routine -- something they do the exact same way prior to every competition. It helps to keep them to stay calm and focused and get their energy level where it needs to be. Those are the three things in general that work well with most athletes.
espnW: What is the most common issue you see amongst Olympians?
WB: I think the most common thing is balancing life. These are athletes who are training for something that may last only eight seconds, but they train for four or eight years for this. Most of them have changed their whole lives for this endeavor. The ones who are in relationships are asking their spouses to take on a whole other level of stress and responsibility. So I think being able to manage the life outside the sport is one of the most common things I see.
One of the things I work on with athletes is getting them to be OK with being selfish. At some point, they need to be selfish in order to focus on their training and to achieve the goal they want to achieve. Although I think we believe it's easy to be selfish, when you really have to be selfish, it can be difficult to swallow at times.
espnW: Women's boxing will be making its debut at the London Games. When a sport makes its premiere at the Olympics, what advice do you have for athletes on how to handle the pressure of being the first Olympian in their sport?
WB: Wow. That is a great question. I think the most important thing is to remind the athlete that although this is the first time the sport will be in the Olympics, this is something that they have been doing for years. Even though this is new to everyone else, I'd want them to realize that this is something they know. They know how to box. They know how to focus. Another recommendation would be to make sure that when they arrive at the Games, they have time as a fan to go around the venue and take pictures and be a part of the experience before they get down to business. It's important to recognize that even though they are Olympians, they are also still people and sports fans.
espnW: Blatant gender-based question: Who puts more pressure on themselves to succeed -- male or female athletes?
WB: I think I see it about equal. There's really not one gender that seems to be more nervous than the other. I'm going through athletes in my head, and one gender is not jumping out as more nervous than the other.
espnW: Is one gender more open to embracing sports psychology than the other?
WB: Not in terms of gender, but the broader issue is with athletics in general. There's the stigma out there that going to a psychologist means there is something wrong with you. For [female and male] athletes that can be an issue because no one wants to think there is something wrong with them.
espnW: How do you help break that stereotype?
WB: One of the things you learn is that you can break that stigma just by hanging out with athletes and becoming a part of their environment. They're so much more willing to talk to you when they see you all the time. When I begin talking to athletes at practices or meals, I no longer become Dr. Borlabi, sports psychologist, I become Wendy. It demystifies that psychology stigma. After that, we're able to chat and move forward. Also, once you work with one or two athletes on a team, things start to change. All you need is one person to go "Oh it's not a big deal," and the next thing you know, you've got members of that team knocking on your door because that one person has completely demystified that idea of a sports psychologist.
espnW: Tell us a little bit about your background and the path took to get to the USOC.
WB: For me, my cultural background is really important, and it is something I am very proud of. I'm not originally from the United States. I was born in Ghana, and I came to the U.S. when I was about 2 years old. My dad came to the U.S. right after I was born to get his education on a student visa. When he got here, he realized there were opportunities for his family, so he sent for my mom about a year later, and then my brother and I came.
If we would have stayed in Ghana, I have no idea what my life would have been like. Not only did my dad help to bring my family, but he also brought literally hundreds of Ghanaians to the United States. Knowing that I have been a part of this family that helped people come to the U.S. is a beautiful thing. Helping others and giving back to the community and my culture is a big part of who I am. I just recently adopted my 20-year-old cousin from Ghana so he could come to the U.S. and get his degree and go to school. He wants to be able to help his siblings and his parents.
My background also plays into how I view my work with athletes. Deciding you are going to leave your family to accomplish something bigger for the betterment of your family -- I know what that's like. Reaching that goal of being an Olympian and winning a medal definitely helps them as a person, but it also helps their family. I understand that because where on earth would I be if my dad did not make that sacrifice?
espnW: What's the most exciting part of working with Olympians?
WB: Getting the privilege of being part of their journey. These Olympians are striving to accomplish something that most people will never be able to achieve. They have invited me to be a part of this process as they strive for their goals. For me, that is very exciting. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is to be working with an athlete on something, and then to hear them in conversation later on, either with me or to someone else, repeating what we have worked on. When they have put it into their words and owned it -- when they get it -- those are the moments where I think, this is why I am in this field.