The world of sport psychology has changed substantially since the time that Robert Schinke rose to prominence as a member of the Canadian equestrian team, competing internationally in three day eventing in and around the 1980s.
To coin a phrase that the Laurentian University professor, born in Montreal but raised largely in Ottawa favours, the bandwidth of sport psychology has expanded, somewhat exponentially.
As he returns from another set of Olympics, having helped the Canadian boxing delegation to a pair of top five finishes despite the fact that none of the five fighters who donned the maple leaf had thrown a punch in a legitimate bout in nearly 18 months, Schinke is very much in his element discussing the entire gamut of his profession.
“What gets me really amped is the bandwidth, the fact that I have a lot to draw on,” noted the 50ish two-term chair of the Canadian Research Council in Multicultural Sport and Physical Activity who is also currently the President for the International Society of Sport Psychology.
“I can take a mental skill and contextualize it. I can take a cultural skill and contextualize it. I can work with a foreigner; I can work with a domestic athlete; I can work with an athlete with a crisis of identity.”
Such is the spectrum in which Robert Schinke will run, one that is very much on a global level.
“I have a pretty good knowledge of not only what is transpiring in Canada, but also what is trending in Eastern Europe versus Western Europe, in Australia and South America.” In fact, beyond just working closely with the Canadian boxers in Tokyo (2021 Summer Olympics), Schinke also aided a handful of athletes from other countries (albeit in sports other than boxing).
He maintains regular contact with sport psychology practitioners in several different countries. Where some struggle to marry academia and research with real life passion, Schinke excels. He can effortlessly carry on a conversation that covers a multitude of interesting topics, yet doing so at a level that could easily engage the average Sudbury sports fan.
His start in the field was anything but average, a combination of self-observation from the sport that he enjoyed, but with a definite inclination towards folks who could combine sport and school at a truly elite level.
“I was a very good performer, at times, beating some world champions, but at times, I was also very inconsistent,” said the silver medal winner from the 1987 Pan American Games. “This led in part to my discovery of sport psychology.”
All of which came about a decade or so after the man who first left his mark on Schinke.
“Ken Dryden was my icon,” he said. “Here he was, a lawyer and one of the greats of hockey, so transferable in his skills.” So even as he pursued a masters at the University of Ottawa, a doctorate at the University of Alberta and a post-doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, Schinke regularly intermingled his pursuit of elite level equestrianism.
“I never had both feet planted as a high performance athlete,” he explained. “I was fully aware that I was transitioning to a viable career.”
His is a viable career that is as diverse in its foundation as the interest of the man himself. From working at the Canadian High Performance Centre for Figure Skating to consulting with the Glen Sather (Sports Medicine) Clinic, from working with amateur Olympians to spending a decade alongside some of the top professional boxers in the world, Schinke has seen it all.
Though he clearly enjoys direct involvement in the field, the father of two is hardly one to shy away from the painstaking requirement of academic data collection and study.
“Over the course of the past 20 years, I’ve had a barrage of research here at Laurentian all informed based on my work with national team athletes and professional athletes: indigenous, immigrants, people who were marginalized based on their identity.”
“There’s a lot more to sport psychology than just the mental skills component: visualization, goal setting, concentration, competition planning,” Schinke noted. “The realm of sport psychology is a lot wider than it was 20 or 30 years ago when I first entered my graduate studies.”
“There’s a lot that goes into sport psychology and a lot that goes into the materialization of a high performance athlete that doesn’t meet the eye. Often times, the (sport) organization needs to be sophisticated enough not to squander the talent that they have.”
The niches along the spectrum of sport psychology that have captivated Schinke remain many. They form the backbone of the bandwidth which gives way to so much of his work. One particular area of affinity has been the notion of the various transitions that athletes encounter, not just limited to when they ultimately leave their sport completely (at least as a competitor).
“I’ve done a lot of career transition work, helping athletes transitioning from junior ranks to senior ranks, from senior ranks to professional ranks,” he said. “There’s the technical/tactical game across sports and there’s the psychological piece, but there’s also the identity piece to ensure that the athlete’s mental health is intact to withstand the pressures of their career.”
“An athlete’s identity needs to be broad enough and well developed enough so that the athlete component, which is important, does not stop them from understanding that they are more than the athletic performance itself.”
“I think we are getting better at this over the past ten years, doing more career management, making sure athletes are educated.”
The Tokyo experience, for its part, was understandably unique. The landscape that is a global pandemic would put Schinke and those of his ilk to the test. “We used some very innovative contextualized mental skills, along with simulated sparring and profiling of opponents,” he explained.
“We were doing a lot of mental skills that were profile specific to opponents they were going to encounter. Even the access to sparring was limited – they (the boxers) had little to work with but the innovative support of their coaches and me.”
Both Caroline Veyre and Tammara Thibeault emerged with victories prior to being ousted in quarter-final action in Japan last month. Back in Sudbury, Schinke is sure to waste little time pursuing his next adventure in the wonderful world of sport psychology.
“All of these discussions permit me to draw on the vast exposures I have and align what I do in relation to people I have in front of me.”
It’s the bountiful bonanza of bandwidth in which he operates, and Robert Schinke wouldn’t have it any other way.