Like many of us, Cindra Kamphoff has been captivated by the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but she's more than a fan. A professor in sports psychology at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Kamphoff has worked with USA Track and Field, traveling to several USATF meets to provide mental performance support. During the Olympics, she's connected with athletes via Zoom and phone. Kamphoff, who has a doctorate in sport and performance psychology, has worked with the Minnesota Vikings, and is author of "Beyond Grit," which highlights the 10 practices used by the world's best athletes. Once a girl who dreamed of becoming an Olympian, she now helps others reach their dreams.
Q: A practical question: How have you been watching with the extreme time differences?
A: I've been getting up early and staying up late to watch, mostly on my computer. I talk with the athletes in Tokyo mostly early in the morning or late at night in the U.S.
Q: Two stories that stand out to me are that of Simone Biles and Suni Lee — both stories of perseverance and courage in different ways. Might you speak to each of them?
A: Simone displayed so much courage to withdraw from the all-around competition, given the external expectations placed on her. She has been a leader in helping us understand the importance of taking care of our mental health and reminding us that our minds are connected to our bodies. I love that Suni Lee is from the Twin Cities and she, too, displayed so much courage and grace. It took years and years of training, sacrifices and overcoming adversity to win the gold medal. I think her success also has brought more awareness of the Hmong population in the Twin Cities.
Q: It's almost a side note that both of these incredible athletes are women of color. Are we moving to a place where that will no longer be the headline of the story?
A: We might be slowly moving toward that direction, but we have so much work to do together related to race in our country.
Q: You know more than a little bit about the pressures placed on athletes of this level, both as a former track star yourself and now as a sports psychologist. What do you want to share with us about that?
A: All of the athletes I work with in Tokyo have experienced pressure in some way. Pressure comes when the outcome is important to us, the outcome is uncertain, and we feel judged by the outcome. The pressure these athletes feel can come from not wanting to let their family or coaches down, or feeling the pressure of being on one of the world's biggest stages. We work through where the pressure is coming from for each of them, and then introduce mental strategies to decrease the pressure they feel.
Q: What are other human interest stories you've been following?
A: Leading up to the Olympics, I saw a video of Quanesha Burks, a USA long-jumper, who repeated, "I am an Olympian," to herself leading up to the Olympic trials. This video shows you that what you think about yourself, you become. I also love hearing about how two competitors bring out the best in each other. Sydney McLaughlin broke the world record in the 400-meter hurdles and her USA competitor, Dalilah Muhammad, held the previous world record. They went gold and silver and pushed each other the whole race. They were happy for each other and made each other better even though they were competitors.
Q: Why are we fascinated by the Olympics? Is it simply our competitive spirit?
A: In graduate school working on my Ph.D., I taught a class on the history of the Olympics. I think at the heart of the fascination is that each "team" represents a "country." If we win the most medals, that provides evidence to some that our country might be better than others.
Q: What do we learn about good winning and good losing when we watch games of this magnitude?
A: We did a study on how elite athletes develop their grit here at Minnesota State University, Mankato a few years ago. One of the things I found most surprising from the study is all of the elite athletes had overcome significant adversity to get to the elite level. As we are watching, it's important to remember that athletes have sacrificed to make it to this level and have experienced adversity to get there. The adversity has shaped them. It's also important to recognize that the best can move on quickly when things don't go perfectly. There are plenty of athletes that have not had their expectations met at these Olympics. With time, they can learn and refocus — many times, becoming stronger in the process.
Q: I'm surprised that some people think winning a bronze, or even a silver, is a loss. What's wrong with being among the top three in the world at anything?
A: It drives me crazy that we don't celebrate every medal. As you have seen from these Olympics, the margin between getting gold, silver and bronze is very small. These athletes are still the best in the world. We should also celebrate that they made it there. It is so competitive in the United States to make the team.
Q: If you could compete at this level in any sport, what would it be?
A: Definitely track and field. I competed in the 800 meters and mile in college, so I would likely choose that. I am also fascinated by the heptathlon (seven events for women) and think it would be bad ass to compete in that.