The warning shot had resonated in French sport. The thirty-three charms, including ten in gold, brought back from the last Olympiad in Tokyo in the summer of 2021 are not enough, it will be necessary “do a lot more” at the next Olympic Games in Paris, warned Emmanuel Macron in front of the audience of medal-winning athletes invited to the Élysée for their return to France.
Without daring to put forward a precise figure, such as the 80 medals of which his former Minister of Sports Laura Flessel spoke when the event was awarded in 2017, the Head of State wants France to rise among the five best nations. The ranking being defined by the number of gold medals, reaching this level requires an average of fifteen golden metals, a total that the Blues have not won since the Atlanta Olympics, twenty-six years ago.
Less than two years from the big rout of world sport (from July 26 to August 11, 2024), and while the qualifying campaign will begin in a year, the challenge remains daunting for the tricolor clan. Especially since he has fallen behind in one of the factors that have become key to performance: mental preparation.
“At the Olympics, all athletes will reach their physical peak, so the difference can be made in the head. But we should have already started this work since it is a question of changing our habits and our lifestyle”, alert Stéphanie Pouvreau, one of the thirty mental trainers labeled by the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep), to whom athletes turn “when they have the feeling of not evolving at their level in competition”.
Reluctance of federations
Problem: the latter are sometimes only decided a few weeks before a competition. This scenario was even observed in one out of two finalists at the Rio Olympics in 2016, according to the latest Insep barometer. Either the symptom, added to the fact that only a third of the athletes selected declared that they exercised there regularly, of a “mental readiness deficit”, points the instance in another study.
If athletes can themselves credit the “cliché that if you need to work on your mind, you’re not good enough”advances the mental coach Delphine Pichard, “the brake does not come so much from them as from their coaches, includes mental trainer Anthony Mette. The Olympic sports are very federalized and their leaders want to control everything”.
Despite his presence in the French swimming community for a decade – he who whispered in the ear of the best French people in the pools, like Florent Manaudou -, Thomas Sammut did not “never been approached directly by the federation” : “We had to wait to have a foreign coach (Dutchman Jacco Verhaeren has been leading the French teams for a year, editor’s note) to change things up and start talking. »
Like most mental coaches, the Frenchman first puts on his sports psychologist cap, the one with which he spends “90% of the time” to help the athlete “Get to know yourself better, to identify your weak points but above all your strengths, those that will make the difference on D-Day”.
In 2020, the trainer begins a collaboration with Léon Marchand, the new French phenomenon who will bring the chances of an Olympic title to Paris. The athlete had then come close to burnout at the age of 18 and had “no longer want to swim”, as he confided a posteriori to Release : ” I needed a break, to stay with my family, to redo things that I did as a child with my little brother. I called a mental trainer to work on me, to find out who I really am. I found the source of energy that I had when I was younger. »
Visualization and mindfulness
Then comes the time for the mental preparation itself, made up of exercises aimed at perfecting their technique. “You can work on visualizing a specific sporting gesture using, for example, mental imagery, quotes Stephanie Pouvreau. Cognitive science has shown that this activates the same areas of the brain as when the athlete physically performs this gesture. This accelerates its anchoring and can also be used to rehabilitate injured athletes by training them to visualize a muscle they no longer use. »
And to regulate their emotions, as enabled by mindfulness meditation, which is popular today among the most recognized athletes, from tennis player Novak Djokovic to footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. By focusing most often on his breathing, “the athlete learns to observe his thoughts to better return to the present moment”, explains Anthony Mette.
The method was used by rowers Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias, crowned at the Tokyo Olympics and titled Sunday, September 25 at the world championship in double sculls (rowing), to no longer convert the physical pain, necessarily present in an effort to endurance, in psychological suffering. Among his followers is also the French fencer Cécilia Berder, who aims to climb the podium of the Grand Palais, in Paris, a step higher than in Japan.
“Additional pressure” at home?
The framework of Games organized at home can also “create additional pressure”, predicts Delphine Pichard. The opportunity to evolve at home, in front of the French public but also his family and friends, risks inhibiting certain Blues for fear of disappointing, even if the mental coach, in support of certain tricolors in the French pole and triathlon hopefuls , BMX and sailing, recalls that the Paris Olympics are “supposed to bring them an advantage” and does not plan to work on this aspect.
Unlike the most anticipated French people, such as Léon Marchand after his two gold medals at the last world championships in Budapest in June, and Thomas Sammut counts “to prepare for the media surge that will surround it”. Lest the joy be too intense, or the failure too heavy to bear, “We must not sanctify these games”, he points out.
A way to also prepare for the post-Olympic period, by preventing episodes of post-Olympic depression – including for medalists – long buried in the locker room until the speeches after Tokyo a year ago. “This mental preparation project is linked to the question of the reasons why athletes play sports, says Thomas Sammut. To chase a medal? It is ephemeral and there will be a decompensation when it comes time to put down your suitcases on your way home. Or is it to get to know each other better? »
One in three French athletes does not prepare mentally
The mental accompaniment will be one of the key elements in the performance of French athletes at the next Olympic Games in Paris (July 26 to August 11, 2024).
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, on which the latest barometer from the National Institute for Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep) is based, 78% of French finalists (those who finished among the top eight in their discipline) and 61% of medalists said to prepare themselves mentally.
However, one in three qualified declared never to do mental preparation, even if this figure exceeds the 52% of athletes questioned in 2014 by Insep in its survey on the rhythms of life of athletes.
Main sticking point according to several coaches, the use of mental trainers takes place outside the framework of the federations concerned for 41% of tricolor athletes.