World Mental Health Day: Team USA psychologist Peter Haberl shares his secrets about how athletes' minds work

How do the doubts of Rafael Nadal help other Olympians manage their anxiety? How can watching the Olympics help spectators conquer their fear of the unknown? What lessons did Team USA's psychologists learn from Tokyo 2020? On World Mental Health Day, Peter Haberl answered these questions and many more in an exclusive interview with 

By Marina Dmukhovskaya

While the mental wellbeing of athletes has always been important in sport, Simone Biles’ experiences at Tokyo 2020 made the topic a global conversation. Previously in the Team behind the team series, we got a sneak peek into how athletes are preparing their bodies and equipment for their big moment at the upcoming Olympics in Beijing.

But how do they prepare their minds? spoke to Team USA Psychologist Peter Haberl about the importance of mental health and the mastering of athletes’ mindsets.

From hockey player to sports psychologist

Haberl’s story began in Austria where he had a career as a hockey player. “There were differences between when I played well and when I didn’t play very well. I noticed it had a lot to do with how I worked with my mind. I had a desire to learn more about that.”

That desire led Haberl to sign up for a graduate programme in sports psychology at Boston University. While studying, he got a lucky break when he was hired as an intern for a local ice hockey team. When the team’s coach Ben Smith was promoted to lead USA Women’s Hockey, he brought the newly-qualified psychologist Haberl along with him to prepare the team for the Olympic Games in Nagano. After the team won a historic Olympic gold medal, Haberl was hired to join a team of psychologists in Colorado Springs.

If you ever happen to attend a Team USA World Cup or Olympics training session, you may spot a man standing next to a pool or ice rink, analysing the body language of athletes as they respond to making a mistake. That man would be Peter Haberl, who now travels with the team all over the globe.

“Whether it’s World Championships, World Cups or the Olympic Games, I might go to training with them in the morning and be around. I listen and I see what’s going on. I have individual sessions with the athletes as well as team sessions where we do some mindfulness work or team building activities.”

However, Haberl emphasised that he is not leading the conversation:

“It’s not me talking at the athletes. It’s me providing an environment where they can talk with each other, since I work more with team sports rather than individual sports.”

Water Polo three-time Olympic Champions Maggie Steffens and Melissa Seideman with USOPC staff in Tokyo
Picture by Jeff Cable Photography USA Water Polo

Correcting mistakes from Tokyo

Haberl admits that his job now is different to the role he undertook prior to Tokyo 2020. Today, it is all about analysing and reassessing the team’s goals, and the main focus is the mind of the athlete.

“I help athletes understand how their mind works, so that they can work with it in competition. It works as a thought and emotion-producing factory. However, the mind comes with a built-in thief. The thief steals something precious from the athletes. Athletes say that it steals their confidence. To me, it steals something even more important: attention and ability to focus.”

Haberl also explained that there were many lessons to be learned from the experiences of USA Gymnastics in Tokyo:

“The key takeaway from this is that an athlete is a human. They are not superheroes, they have a mind like you and I. Together with your body you can train your mind. I am a big proponent of training the mind as you go into an Olympic Games. With this process, you will be less surprised about the challenges you might encounter.”

And as much as physical preparation is important to athletes, it is also vital that they train their minds ahead of any big event.

“We are in a place with sports development where we understand the physical component very well. Most athletes undergo the physical preparation very well. But it’s less clear about the psychological preparation. What really makes the difference at the Games is the quality of mental preparation.”

The mental challenge of winter sports

With Tokyo 2020 having come to a close in August and Beijing 2022 just around the corner, Haberl was eager to speak about the different challenges posed by summer and winter sports.

“So many winter sports are dependent on the weather, so there is an extra level of uncertainty. Some of them are very dangerous. The ability to focus and maintain this focus is particularly important.”

And Haberl was at pains to explain that the mental struggles athletes deal with in individual sports are similar to those encountered in team sports such as hockey or curling.

“It can be easier to work with an individual athlete. When things don’t go their way, they cannot blame anyone else. This makes them very responsible. But even individual sports athletes are also a part of the team. They deal with team dynamics that can impact their experience.”

Rafael Nadal as a role model

As a psychologist focused on the mind, Haberl likes to use the example of Rafael Nadal. During training sessions, he often brings up a Nadal quote from the French Open where the Spanish tennis player said: “In all the years I played here, I had doubts every time”. Nevertheless, the tennis legend has won the tournament on 13 occasions.

“When they hear these examples, they experience a sense of relief. They think, ‘I am not the only one. Perhaps I can work with it too, not by changing my thoughts but by taking charge of my attention.’ Attention is the currency of performance, not the thoughts or feelings.”

“He [Nadal] is very honest, real, authentic and vulnerable. He doesn’t mind talking about his constant doubts. He understands how his mind works. Athletes can relate to someone as successful as Nadal.”

For some athletes, their greatest mental battle may not take place in Beijing. It may even begin on the journey to the Olympics when a teammate becomes a competitor for their place at the Games.

“Olympic trials are a zero-sum game where not everybody will get to go to the Olympics. At times it is heartbreaking for some athletes. It’s all about how we define the competition. The hardest battle is against yourself. Competition allows us to bring out the best in us. But for that to happen, we need to have the best competition at the same level that allows us to elevate. Competition allows us to reach new heights in the presence of fellow competitors.”

“Let’s embrace the uncertainty”

Of course, it is not only athletes who undergo mental health challenges. However, Haberl believes there are many lessons spectators in Beijing will be able to take from watching the Games.

“The main reason we watch sports is because the outcome is uncertain. This is what pulls us in. A lesson the athletes teach is that we can be very good with this uncertainty.

“We crave the certainty, we want to know what happens next. But the truth is, we never know what will happen. We can be very good at being comfortable with this uncertainty. This is what makes us alive. So let’s embrace the uncertainty rather than grasp the certainty.”