'Master Your Mind' by Mathieu Defosse
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Through his role with the French Paralympic Committee, Mathieu Defosse is a coach, mentor and psychological preparator. We hear how he uses techniques picked up with the French military to allow young Parasports Athletes to reach their potential.
For me the mind is fundamental in performance. In this respect, Parasport is no different to any other type of sport. I have a diploma in psychology, so I approach everything from the perspective of mentality, of how what we think affects our physical actions. If we can train our mind correctly then it can be the difference between being effective or not.
"I put a huge emphasis on consciously managing the elements which you think of as subconscious, like breathing, or thinking"
This is especially so with young athletes. They are developing, which is great because you can give them some positive patterns to follow which can help them to deal with stressful situations on an off the field of play, helping them to adjust the way they react to situations and giving them a set of techniques to assist them.
I put a huge emphasis on consciously managing the elements which you think of as subconscious, like breathing, or thinking. The thoughts you have directly affect things like cortisone levels and adrenaline release. Your rate of breathing affects the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your system. All of these things affect performance, and we have the ability to control them.
"It doesn’t make too much difference if it’s in a fighter jet or on an athletics track"
In the early part of my career I worked in the French Air Force, helping fighter pilots control their body’s responses to stress using a set of psychological techniques. I now use these techniques with the athletes that I work with. The variables are broadly the same, there is a psychological pressure which creates a stress response in the body, which affects the ability to perform. My job is to give the people I work with a toolkit to control this response, to reduce its affect. It doesn’t make too much difference if it’s in a fighter jet or on an athletics track.
In the lead up to competition and races I put a big emphasis on visualisation. People know more and more about the benefits to athletes to prepare the race in their mind first. For a track athlete this can include visualising running the race from start to finish and really try to feel everything that goes with it. I find that this technique is particularly important with Visually Impaired athletes, because you are talking to the masters of visualisation, they’re doing it all the time. So you have to respond to that and go into much more detail than you would with a non-VI athlete. You have to be prepared to break the race down into the smallest compartments going deep on what the foot strike is, what the breathing is doing etc.
At the start line I give my athletes a checklist to run through, the same as I gave my pilots on the runway before take-off. First, check your breathing. Take deep abdominal breaths that fill your lungs and calm your rate of breathing. Second, relax your muscles. Connect with your body, feel your muscles and let go of the tension that’s in them. Athletes subconsciously get very wound up before races and it transmits to the muscles, so it’s important that they recognise this. Finally, remote view yourself. Zoom out from your body and imagine you’re a bird watching from above. This is really helpful in taking the pressure out of the situation, it helps to stop the express train of thoughts going through your head just for a few seconds and give you a better perspective.
"We place a huge focus on creating a team atmosphere and ensuring that there is a collective ethic"
Of course this is only race day, we do a huge amount of work outside of competition. The group is incredibly important, especially for young athletes. We place a huge focus on creating a team atmosphere and ensuring that there is a collective ethic. Some of the youngsters compete in teams, like the Wheelchair Basketball teams, the Goalball teams and so on. Some of them are competing individually. Whatever the situation, it’s vitally important to us they feel a part of the bigger ‘Team France’, that there is a sense of belonging and responsibility towards each other.
It’s particularly important for young people competing individually, like in athletics. It’s a little unusual, but you’ll see that we bring the athletes into a huddle before the race. It’s a technique to reinforce that although they might be competing individually, they’re not alone. It gives them a feeling that there is a group around them, that they have support and that they have a feeling of comfort before the race. Otherwise, if they’re not particularly experienced, young athletes can feel isolated on the start line, which negatively affects their mood and subsequently their ability to perform.
Part of building this group is to establish a collective identity. For sure we want to create a positive vibe, to make them feel confident and have fun. But we are also here to educate them and to help them grow as people. Understanding that they have a responsibility to the group, to their teammates is a major part of this. So we put a big focus on something like punctuality. Not because we want them to be on time, but because it is something they have full control and responsibility over which affects the group. If you’re late you’re prioritising yourself over the group, if you have 5 more minutes in the bed, you’re making the group wait 5 minutes.
"Ownership is important, with anyone, but especially with younger athletes"
The team sets the rules, that’s also important. We’re here to make sure everyone is safe and coached properly. The rest is up to them. Ownership is important, with anyone, but especially with younger athletes as sometimes it’s the first time they’re confronted with being in control, and therefore fully answerable for their actions. I think the earlier this starts the better. I find the younger athletes are far more aware of the right things to do then they’re given credit for. Give them the opportunity to lead and make decisions.
Sports Psychology is much more prominent than it’s ever been. This is the case in Parasports too. For sure they are variables that you need to remember when you’re talking to athletes with a disability that don’t exist in mainstream sport. Some of the experiences these kids have had, most people can’t relate to. But this doesn’t change the process, you always have to have an individual approach, you need to know and understand the person first, everyone is different so you need to know the specific situation of the human being if you want to improve the athlete.