When Margaret Dupee thinks about her days as a competitive figure skater, she knows there were times when anxiety got the better of her.
“At the higher levels of competition, winning seemed less about being technically superior than about who kept it together mentally,” she says. “You’re so close technically that it seems to be the psychological skills that give you the mental edge.”
“When I could stay in the moment and focus on each task, I enhanced my performance. But I couldn’t do that consistently, or on demand.”
Today, Dupee is spearheading graduate research at the University of Ottawa that is helping Olympic athletes capture and keep their mental edge through state-of-the-art anxiety-management training. As stress zaps energy, athletes need to keep their body's stress response under control to deliver a top-notch performance when it’s needed.
“If you’re at the Olympics and aren’t slotted to compete until the end of the games, you can easily become stressed-out or over-activated. Athletes have to be able to manage that, to self-regulate.” Dupee says.
Working in the Training Centre for Consultation in Sport, Physical Activity and Health, Dupee uses bio and neurofeedback to ease the learning of self-regulation. She measures breathing, heart rate, muscle tension, sweating response and body temperature, as well as brainwaves, to determine how stressed a person is. With the feedback displayed on a computer, athletes can clearly see when they're relaxed and when they're stressed. Over time, they learn that breathing and tension in the body affect what’s happening in their brains.
“Sometimes people think they’re relaxed, but when we hook them up, all their levels say otherwise, and working on breathing is one of the key things to address that,” says Dupee. “Slowing the breathing down to about six breaths a minute really puts the body into a coherent state—it’s about them taking control.”
Although biofeedback has been used before with athletes, as has neurofeedback in medical contexts, combining the two technologies into a holistic approach for athletes is new. “We can put numbers to all the things we were only able to talk about before,” Dupee says.
Working with supervisor Penny Werthner, and with a grant from Own the Podium Vancouver 2010, Dupee is among those leading the way in developing an anxiety-management training system for athletes.
The potential to work with professors like Werthner is what drew Dupee to the University two years ago when she took a sports psychology course. With an undergraduate degree in human kinetics, Dupee had always been interested in how to optimize body–mind “collaboration,” and having a professor working with athletes in the Torino Olympics sealed that interest.
“The professors were doing applied research in the field, at an elite level, so what they were teaching, they were using and giving us real-life examples,” Dupee says. “I saw that you could make real-world change – and that was very cool.”
“You feel like you’re learning from the best. And I find that inspiring.”