China’s drive for gold weighs on its athletes

Times Staff Writer

Air rifle athlete Du Li was considered a shoo-in to win China’s first gold medal in the Beijing Olympics on Saturday. Buckling under the pressure of 1.3 billion expectant Chinese, she choked.

The mostly Chinese crowd gasped after Du failed to get near the bull’s-eye in the first shot of the final round. After her fifth-place finish, Du fled through a crowd of reporters, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I wasn’t fully prepared for the pressure of competing at home,” she said.

Determined to squeeze every last gold medal out of the Beijing Olympics in hopes of knocking the U.S. off the top shelf, China has ramped up spending on sports psychology. (The exact figure is a state secret.) But psychologists say the Games are so integrally linked with national glory and pride that athletes can feel overwhelmed.


Later Saturday, shooting coach Wang Yifu told Chinese reporters that team leaders wanted an emergency meeting of athletes to help ease the psychological pressure, before adding that it was also to “improve results and get more gold medals for the nation.”

In recent months, China’s elite sports system has set up counseling websites, introduced online therapy and promoted computer-aided relaxation techniques. The Communist state is promoting yoga and offering special music, meditation, hypnosis, uplifting stories and films deemed psychologically soothing, including “Forrest Gump.”

But old habits die hard. Coaching in China has traditionally been rough, tough and, some critics say, borderline abusive with an emphasis on relentless martial training.

Slogans on the walls of training camps tell the story: “The Motherland Is Above Everything; Strike for Gold in the Olympics,” reads one for the shooting team, according to the blog “> . “Pressure each other. Pressure yourself,” reads another for the gymnastics team. “There will be no champion if one does not go through the ultimate pressure.”

“The coaches can be very dictatorial, issuing orders to athletes without explaining why,” said Chu Yuede, a professor of sports psychology at the Beijing Sports University who is working with the shooting team. “Some also get angry with us and say we’re meddling, that athletes should just follow their orders.”

Some of their colleagues share the blame, psychologists concede, by focusing on the athletes and not the coaches in their eagerness to work with the sports celebrities.


One of the biggest challenges for psychologists this year has been pre-competition anxiety. The phrase, “You’ll disappoint 1.3 billion people,” has been commonly heard in the lead-up to the Games. And some athletes view even a silver medal as a failure.

China was warned. At a test meet in the capital this year, gymnasts fell short, making mistakes they probably wouldn’t have made if they were competing overseas in relative anonymity instead of in front of parents and friends, state sports official Cui Dalin told the China Daily.

Zhang Liwei, a professor at Beijing Sports University and author of several sports psychology textbooks, said, “They need to calm down, not see this as the beginning or end of their life but a step along the way.”

Changing that attitude means grappling with a system that often has plucked talented athletes from their families at a young age, sacrificed their academic development and inculcated a belief that they must win top honors to pay back the state for its generosity.

“Western athletes enjoy it more,” said Shi Yan, deputy dean of Shanxi University’s sports college. “The Chinese are too serious. They think the sky will collapse if they lose.”

Although duty and moderate stress are important motivators in China and much of East Asia, psychologists say, too much pressure is counterproductive, and their job is often to dial it back.


“My training was very bitter,” said Zhang Guozheng, a weightlifter who won gold in Athens. “I always missed my family. But my coach brought me up and we were closer than he was with his own children.”

Because many young athletes don’t have much opportunity to develop educationally and emotionally, given the extreme training schedules, they often have nothing but sports.

“They don’t have a life,” said Jin Wang, a psychology professor at Georgia-based Kennesaw State University who is advising several Chinese teams. Wang said some of the athletes he has worked with can’t read beyond a fourth-grade level. “We need to do more, to consider them an overall human being,” he said.

Psychologists say they also are trying to encourage coaches to praise athletes and listen more in a culture in which mothers often chide their children when they get “only” 99% right on a math test.

During the Mao Tse-tung years, psychology was discredited, with many of its practitioners persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. When athletes fell short in those days, it was often seen as a political rather than psychological problem, said Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, who trained in China as a heptathlon athlete in the 1980s.

The answer often was to study Communist thought and to sing more inspirational socialist songs. “Psychology was seen as fake science,” Shi said.


Despite growing demand for sports psychologists, the Chinese Sports Psychology Assn. has licensed only 22 such professionals to work with Olympic teams. An additional 50 to 60 psychologists without the top certification also help. But China has 600 athletes in 20 major programs and 200 smaller programs.

Among the offerings on an Olympic sports psychology website set up this spring -- protected by passwords and the sort of encryption used in financial institutions -- are instructions on pre-competition insomnia and on “somato-sensory music regulation,” a type of acoustic therapy.

Athletes can get counseling online or make reservations for specific psychologists by phone. And psychologists sometimes prescribe rest on special music-playing vibrating beds.

“Not many go to the Internet for counseling,” Zhang said. “Most still prefer face-to-face counseling.”


Gao Wenhuan in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.