Kylie Wilson

Mastering the heat - mentally

Performance Psychology / Heat Chamber

Heat chamber training has developed mental as well as physical resilience for New Zealand athletes in their preparations for the Tokyo Olympic Games explains High Performance Sport New Zealand Head of Performance Psychology Kylie Wilson.

With the Tokyo Games expected to be the hottest on record, the athletes who adapt best to the anticipated heat and humidity are more likely to prosper.

“For those athletes who have used the heat chamber, it has been a good opportunity to refine their mental skills,” explains Kylie.

“Training and performing in the heat is uncomfortable. It brings out vulnerabilities in thinking processes. Pushing to the limit in hot temperatures can bring about self-doubt and negativity. What we have done is work with the physiology team so the athletes training in the heat chamber apply their psych work.”

Kylie explains that the athletes have been encouraged to practise a range of down regulation techniques (deliberately practising shifting your nervous system from a fight or flight mode to a rest and digest state) to help calm the body under the high stress situation of running in the heat.

This includes strategies like breathing, relaxation and mindfulness.

Kylie has also measured the impact of athletes training in the heat chamber by implementing reaction-time and decision-making challenges.

Various scenarios have been thrown at the athletes in the heat, including complex cognitive problem solving and imagery tasks which stress the brain.

“We hope this will build their mental capacity under extreme stress,” adds Kylie. “Physically athletes work hard in most sports but there is also a decision-making element to sport. Simply training in a heat chamber does not really replicate performance. So, to reflect the Tokyo performance environment more accurately, we added a decision-making element to their work in the heat chamber.”

For example, one athlete Kylie has worked with was asked to watch a race on video and was later asked to do the same task following a heat chamber workout. More errors were picked up after the workout. After the person undertook the challenge on several occasions, they made progress adjusting to the heat and reduced errors.

According to Kylie the heat chamber training has played a vital role in preparing athletes mentally to handle the Tokyo heat.

Kylie admits she has huge admiration for the athletes who put themselves under extreme stress both physically and mentally when training in the heat chamber.

Working in such a demanding environment exposes great vulnerabilities but also reveals the athletes’ determination to self-improve.

“It is tough to put yourself in that situation and embrace learning,” she admits. “It can expose weaknesses and gaps but that’s what athletes in high performance sport do. They hunt down the chance to make gains even if it opens up learnings about themselves which are not always positive.”

The ride may have been challenging at times, but Kylie is confident the impact of the psychology work in the heat chamber will allow the athletes competing in Tokyo to feel as prepared as possible.

“I hope the athletes are ready and are able to trust in the work that they have done,” she adds. “If that is the case, then the outcome will take care of itself.”