x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Sports psychologist puts athletes in a proper frame of mind

Dubai Sports Council has employed the first sports psychologist in the country, to encourage more female participation.

Dr Caren Diehl is a licensed sports psychologist at the Up and Running clinic in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National
Dr Caren Diehl is a licensed sports psychologist at the Up and Running clinic in Dubai. Sarah Dea / The National

As the country aims to raise its sporting standards, the Dubai Sports Council has taken on the country's first licensed sports psychologist to encourage more Emirati women to be involved in sports.

Dr Caren Diehl is based at the Up and Running clinic in Dubai and is already working with some of the emirate's aspiring and recreational athletes.

While earning her doctorate, she studied a football team in Ghana. She says cultural similarities between that country and the UAE, including a devoutly religious population, will stand her in good stead here.

"Sport for women isn't huge in Ghana, either," she says. "It's a minority like here so it'll be interesting to see how things go here. I'd really like to help increase the participation of women."

She could soon be working with the likes of the UAE's first female Olympic weightlifter, Khadija Mohammed, 17, who competed in this year's London Games.

The psychology of non-team sports is challenging the world over, she says. "Individual sports will always be harder."

One client who will vouch for this is the 34-year-old athlete Maria Conceicao, who has been seeing Diehl as she prepares to climb Mount Everest next year.

"After the 777 challenge in 2011 [seven marathons in seven days across the seven Emirates], I was in a bit of a state," Conceicao says. "It was an extremely demanding challenge, which I hadn't exactly trained sufficiently for. All that mattered at the time was that Rosa, my training partner, and I completed what we set out to do and we did. However, I underestimated the toll on my body and, surprisingly, my mind."

Two months after the event she was experiencing a mind and body block. "I had no inclination or ability to even bend over to pick up something I may have dropped. It was suggested I see a sports psychologist, which was something new for me, and this is when Caren first worked her magic on me." That was in February. "The very next day after my consultation I was back doing a physical training session," Conceicao says.

Two months later she was able to complete her unsupported two-week trek to the North Pole, which she attributes to the mental support of her coach.

"I am completely aware these days how crucial mind control is to such challenges," she says. "I don't talk much outwardly about the risks of Everest but they are never far from my mind. I need to harness any subconscious concerns so I can focus on training and Caren helps me with this."

At a recent beach football tournament, when the UAE team played Brazil, Diehl saw just how much benefit teams could reap from performance coaching.

"You could see the UAE team was struggling with the pressure," she says. Not being used to big crowds and intense games are weaknesses of even the best players. "It's getting them to prepare for these kinds of things: the pressure, the stress, the crowds," Diehl says. She teaches them relaxation techniques and methods to build confidence.

Although Diehl is not a clinical psychologist who would deal with issues such as depression, she says her profession still has a negative stigma in sports and in the region. "I call myself a mental skills coach or performance enhancement consultant. It's not just here but everywhere. More teams in the US have psychologists than in Europe but it's growing at least at the international level."

Grant Goes, the founder of the information platform www.fitnesslink.ae, says bringing in a sports psychologist is a big step forward for UAE sport.

"Sports psychologists are very important as they can be the difference between winning and losing - and not just in a sporting sense... "It will take some time for the general public here to catch on to why a sports psychologist is important, but as football is so important to so many here, I imagine it will be the football clubs that will be taking on a sports psychologist to help give them the winning edge."