Fresh out of Vilnius, our cousin took us on a genealogical adventure retracing the steps of our great-grandparents to where her sister now lives, in a tiny hamlet just outside the village of Svir in northern Belarus. We paused there for a few days to take in the atmosphere of a forest cottage where the wild boars roam and where the only way in is by foot. Between laznia evenings and storytelling nights, we finally got a glimpse a little further up — and across — our family tree.
… buuut after a few days’ rest and we were back on the road again, with one night in the capital where, one speedy sleep and one hasty marshrutka ride later, on October 10th I met with Nino Petriashvili at her office at the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture.
Nino was born and raised in Georgia to a Belarusian mother and Georgian father, fleeing with her family to Belarus during Georgia’s bloody civil wars 25 years ago. She vividly remembers, “I know what war is, and it’s awful, it’s really awful, when the war machines are on the street… when people with armour are on the streets and it’s kind of normal for you.”
She really hit her stride in academia as she grew up. Nino’s first education was foreign languages, learning Russian, German, and English on top of her native Georgian, but now all these are more hobbies — she hadn’t practised English for 15 years before our interview. She completed graduate studies in psychology and then in pedagogy, accepting a post as senior instructor at her university where she has been working for almost ten years now and where she’s already written one manual, Fundamentals of Psychology and Pedagogy. Her current project is developing interactive games and workshops to teach sport psychology, most recently on the topic of anti-doping.
Nino differentiates between athletes for whom sport is a profession and usually even a job, and those practising “physical culture” or “fitness for your usual life” solely for pleasure… reminding me of both Lina’s distinction between an athlete and an “exerciser” and Dace and Irina’s emphasis on the work element being attained before a physical activity is deemed a sport.
This intensity/work factor has been mentioned often enough that I’m realizing the term “athlete” and “sport” is not something attained lightly, and that I should keep it in mind as I continue to formulate this definition. At the same time I feel I may be missing the forest for the trees with all my focus on solidly tying this meaning down.
Sport psychology in Belarus
With the definition above in mind, it’s very clear that Belarusian athletes are serious about their work — and it is work for them. Many of the students at this university are world-calibre competitors — and even champions — at the height of their careers. Indeed, the ice rink on campus was used for the world hockey championships a few years ago. In line with professional standards, the country pays for high results, with top athletes making a living from their performance. However, similar to Canada, the more popular sports get rewarded, well, more. “It’s more convenient to be a hockey player,” chuckles Nino with a sigh.
Despite performance being key, sport psychology still hasn’t quite taken a hold in the country. Most coaches do not want to employ a figure who they fear may undermine their authority, and the stereotype of psychological training only being for the sick is still very strong. Because of this, it is very difficult for Nino’s graduates to find work, generally settling for fitness club or school posts and only rarely for positions with professional teams. Paradoxically, many athletes are slowly opening up to psychological training and even support for their sport, but only in training cycles and not during competition. Because of this lack of a framework in a particularly rigid system, end-of-sport transitions are very difficult. “It’s a trauma,” notes Nino, “a kind of finish of their life. They have nothing to live for.” However the same can very aptly be applied to probably most countries in the world. It is only in recent years that we have started caring for our heroes beyond their medals.
Because I didn’t have much more time with Nino we had to wrap up the interview here, with a promise of my returning in the future and stopping by again to continue the conversation. She did, however, have time to recommend two authors. First was the sport psychologist, pedagogue, and 13-year FEPSAC Managing Council member, Gennadi Dmitrievich Gorbunov, who became known for his applied work with the Soviet national swimming and cycling teams. His acclaimed work, Psychopedagogy of sports (Психопедагогика спорта, 1986), immediately came to Nino’s mind as a solid basic resource. Second was the psychiatrist Anatoly Vasilievich Alexeev, famous for his work with the Soviet national weightlifting and shooting teams. He wrote Overcome Yourself! (Преодолей себя!, 1978) where he outlined how to find and then enter the “optimal psychophysical competitive state” (reminiscent of Hanin’s IZOF model). He also developed the AGIM system (Система АГИМ) where he encourages the coach to:
“… see his athletes’ mistakes and not be irritated by them, but to look into their brains if he wants to achieve the result desired by all. After all, it is in the depths of the psychic apparatus that both the origins of mistakes as well as the means of overcoming them lie. Modern trainers simply have to completely operate with the mental capabilities of their students; not shouting at them, but calmly and soberly analyzing the reasons for their failures and successes.”
This rational, seasoned approach is a refreshing offset to the Cold War-era images of my youth. Perhaps it is not a surprise, then, than both men are generally considered top-ten minds in Russian sport psychology today.
Wrapping up, Nino shared her life philosophy of the boomerang: “Everything you do, comes to you again. It is not specific to sport psychology, but I think that it works!” Then she herded me into her classroom for a brief Q&A with her sport psych students, perhaps to underline that our field is certainly growing very fast.
A fraction of the interview is presented below, but like with the Baltic interviews prior, it too was garbled up so only the clear, important bits made it through the editing process: