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Mind Games: How Skate Canada champ Kaetlyn Osmond became one of the best figure skaters in the world

Kaetlyn Osmond had to stop aiming for perfection for her fortunes to soar.

The 2018 Olympic podium contender came to this conclusion last year when she realized that perfection doesn’t exist, and striving for it was an unattainable goal.

That shift in mindset took Canada’s figure skating queen to the top — almost — with a silver medal win at the World Championships earlier this year. Before that, her best result at Worlds was an eighth-place finish back in 2013.

Osmond is quick to credit sessions with sports psychologist Susan Cockle as a major factor in her recent success. She began working with Cockle in August 2016.

“I found that was a big part of my improvement last year, so that is something I won’t be giving up any time soon,” said Osmond, now building towards the Olympic Winter Games in February.

“If something is in my head and I can’t let it go, I can talk to her about it. Even speaking will get it out of my head and make training a lot easier the next day. But there’s also a lot of meditation, focusing work that has helped me a lot, not just at competitions but in everyday practice to make the practice feel like competition.

“So when I go to competition, I feel happy to be there, ready to be there. I feel capable of doing that competition. Mentally, I need to be in there also, and she (Cockle) has been amazing at that.”


The Competitive Edge

This past weekend at Skate Canada, the second stop on the ISU Grand Prix circuit, Osmond proved to be in a league of her own. She won the event with a score almost 30 points higher than chief rival Ashley Wagner of the United States, who finished third. A subpar short program left the three-time U.S. champion back in seventh, although she rallied in the free skate to grab bronze.

Unlike Osmond, Wagner is not an adherent to sports psychology.

“My military upbringing, my dad (a U.S. army lieutenant colonel) always taught me to be tough, and it’s worked well thus far,” said Wagner who often describes herself as a “military brat.”

After winning world silver in 2016, Wagner had a lackluster finish last season. She slumped to seventh in the world. Looking back, she attributes her performance to lack of motivation.

At 26, Wagner is gearing up for her second — and perhaps final — run at the Olympic podium.

“For me, I don’t like to think too much on the ice, I like to just skate and do my job. I found when I have worked with sports psychologists in the past it, put too much into my head. I prefer to just do my own thing.”

Wagner notes there are two totally opposite schools of thought on this topic.

“Some people feel when they need to grow, to progress in sport, they turn to sports psychology. That’s great if it works for you, amazing, but I never felt like I wanted it.”

Russian coach Nikolai Morozov is in Wagner’s camp. Working with a sports psychologist is not common for skaters in Russia, he reported, and, personally, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Morozov, who now coaches in the U.S., feels that competitors should rely on inner fortitude.


Finding Strength in Vulnerability

Osmond, 21, had worked with a sports psychologist as a teenager before the 2014 Sochi Games but, similar to Wagner’s experience, it didn’t go well.

Her coach Ravi Walia had to press the point — repeatedly, he said — to convince Osmond to try again when her superb performances in practice were not transferring to the competition arena.

He gave Osmond the names of two mental coaches to consider. In the end, the skater herself needed to be in control of this at-times trying process.

“I just had to find the right person, but it also had to be my decision. I had to feel right about going to see someone. It’s a really vulnerable situation putting yourself in sport psychology because you’re talking about your fears and feelings and working all those things into how you can focus best in a competition. So, you need to feel comfortable who you’re talking to, and sometimes it takes a while for that,” said Osmond, who won silver in the team event at the 2014 Sochi Games but finished 13th in the singles contest.

She meets with Cockle every week to talk about her training and whatever else is going on in her life.  Together they create techniques that help her focus and block out distractions. They’ve developed strategies to deal with the unexpected.

[More from Excelle Sports: Two-time figure skating world champ reveals how her diet changed her life]

Canadian Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir also enlisted a professional to hone their mental game when they returned to competition last season, intent on winning a second gold at the Games.

Virtue said they have had similar help throughout their career, but with performance psychology specialist Jean Francois Menard they focus on performance and mental preparation. Menard even travels to competitions with the virtuoso ice dancers.

“It’s neat to have those chapters accumulate and have things come together with JF. He’s been phenomenal to work with,” said Virtue, who has gone undefeated with Moir since returning to competition last year.

[More from Excelle Sports: 12 figure skaters to watch this Olympic season]

Virtue and Moir, who won their seventh Skate Canada title this past weekend, have a team of about 12 people — coaches, choreographers, an osteopath and nutritionist — in whom they can confide their feelings, thoughts and fears.

Closer to the Olympics, the team will help them retreat into their bubble to avoid distraction from the end goal.


“A Learned Skill”

Sports psychology is also on the agenda at coach Marina Zoueva’s training center in Canton, Mich., where world class competitors Maia and Alex Shibutani, Patrick Chan and Gracie Gold train. (Gold recently stepped away to seek professional treatment for anxiety, depression and an eating disorder.)

“All of my students work with a sports psychologist,” said Zoueva, also a former coach of Virtue and Moir. “It’s part of the training and practice process in preparation for competition.

“It’s very personal so everyone has to choose the person who they trust. All my skaters have different sports psychologists.”

Canadian figure skating’s high performance director said many athletes now use sports psychologists year-round, not just when a crisis hits.

“It becomes a learned skill,” explained Mike Slipchuk. “As athletes get older, I think they tend to use those services more. The sport is a lot different when you’re 15 versus when you’re in your twenties. You often have life challenges combined with sport challenges. You have a lot of things to work through.”

Osmond is a perfect example of how a skater’s mindset evolves with age.

“Everything has changed for me in the last four years,” she said. “Thinking about where I was leading into the last Olympic year, I was definitely in a different space. I was still unsure of my own capabilities as a skater. The last Olympics was a learning experience more than anything.”

Now, with the 2018 Pyeongchang Games looming, she’s mentally prepared for the competition ahead.

“I’m expecting a lot of people to be at their absolute best. For me to be able to compete against that, it doesn’t mean that I dwell on what they’re doing. It means I push to do the best I can do… and see if that can measure up.”


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