Sport psychologist to assist mogul ski team at Winter Olympics in Torino

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Many Americans can only dream of attending an Olympic games in person and seeing sports history made as an athlete wins a medal.

But in 2002, when Travis Mayer and Shannon Bahrke became the American silver medallists in men's and women 's freestyle mogul at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Karen Cogan was right at the start gate of the mogul course.

And next month, Cogan, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Texas, will attend her second Winter Olympics when she travels to Torino, Italy, with the U.S. Freestyle Mogul Team as one of several sport psychologists on hand to provide support to the athletes and coaches.

"I've watched the Olympics on television for years, but there's nothing like being in the Olympic atmosphere and seeing the whole event unfold in person," she says.

Cogan, a staff member with both the UNT Center for Sport Psychology and Performance and Excellence and the UNT Counseling and Testing Center, counsels athletes about returning to the sport after injuries, gaining speed during competition and shaking off any stress that would lead to less-than-ideal performances.

She also works with the coaches, whom she said are away from their families for much of the year during competition and training camps.

"By the time of the Olympics, they have been on the road for about three months, and being away from their families wears on them," she said. "I also spent time with the coaches because, in some ways, what happens during competition is out of their control, and they struggle to cope with that."

Cogan has been working with the team since November 1999, after previously working with the

U.S. Alpine Women's Development Team, a rank below the Olympic team.

In mogul skiing, introduced at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France, athletes race down a 27-degree hill that is between 755 and 885 feet high. Trying for the fastest time down the hill, the competitors ski over large uniform bumps called mogul, which are up to 4 feet high. To receive good scores, the competitors must not only come down the hill quickly, but must also make high-quality, aggressive turns while remaining in the fall line -- an imaginary line that combines the steepest pitch and the most direct line, from top to bottom, of any hill.

While skiing down the hill, a mogul skier performs aerial maneuvers, such as the helicopter, daffy, back flip or off-axis flips, by hitting two large jumps. Cogan said that since the Salt Lake City Olympics, mogul skiers are now allowed to perform upside-down moves.

"The sport has changed quite a bit in terms of the tricks that skiers do in the air. Most of what they do is inverted," she said.

Mogul ski competitions, like all competitions of teams in the U.S. Ski Association, begin in November and end in March. Unlike athletes in other sports, mogul skiers cannot practice for hours on the course during the rest of the year, which is often stressful for them, Cogan said.

"They have to make special arrangements to go where there is snow, and hope that there is enough snow for training. They're lucky if they get 40 days on the snow during the training camps in a year," she said, noting that the team went to Chile in September to train because it was winter in South America.

Cogan attends many of the team's training camps and competitions to help the athletes mentally visualize their best performance and stay focused on their goals. She also helps them create routines on competition days that prepare them for good performances.

Two members of the U.S. Olympic freestyle mogul team have already been selected -- World Cup champions Jeremy Bloom and Hannah Kearney, who received automatic spots on the team by winning the U.S. Ski Team Freestyle Olympic Trials in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in December.

Other members of the team won't be selected until after a World Cup event at Lake Placid, N.Y., Jan. 20-22 -- just three weeks before the start of the mogul competition in Torino on Feb. 11.

Cogan said that because of the short timetable, the athletes "face the stress of the unknown, wondering if they can pull out a win at the last minute to be able to make the team."

"Once they make the team, their families may be asking them about how to get tickets to the Olympics, and they may have a tremendous amount of pressure from media attention," she said.

She believes that the U.S. Olympic Freestyle Mogul Team should match or exceed its performance at Salt Lake City four years ago.

"Last year on the World Cup circuit, our men dominated the whole field, so many could medal," she said. "The women aren't as dominating as much as the men, but I would expect them to come away with some medals, too."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108