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Psychology: Olympics Unleashed

What does it take to be an Olympian? As former Olympic rower, Tom Laurich told our Year 10 Psychology students on Friday, it takes years of training and determination with no guarantees!

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During the Olympic Games, we see the world’s fastest men and women running at a speed that seems barely possible. We see gymnasts pirouetting in the air and pole vaulters catapulting high above the ground with immaculate grace. It’s all so magnificent that it’s easy to forget that only a handful of the 11,000-plus athletes who compete at the Olympics will make a final, let alone take home a medal.

As part of their Psychology studies, our Year 10 students have been learning about the psychology of sport. What better way to understand the physical and mental preparation necessary to excel in a sport than by talking to an Olympian!

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Tom Laurich represented Australia in rowing at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. As he explained to our Year 10 students, it took many years of training to build his skills and expertise before he was ready to trial for his first Olympics. Along the way, he had to draw upon deep reserves of energy and determination to deal with the setbacks, challenges and failures that are an inevitable part of life as a professional athlete.

In 1993, Tom gathered at Circular Quay with his family to find out if Sydney’s Olympic bid had been successful. He remembers the euphoria of the crowd when they heard the words, “And the winner is… Sydney!” These five words lit the flame of Tom’s sporting ambition and changed the course of his life.

When he was 13, Tom saw an advertisement on the front page of the Manly Daily. It read: ‘Do you want to be an Olympian?’ It was all part of a recruitment drive by Rowing NSW to attract young athletes to the sport. Tom didn’t know anything about rowing, but he knew he wanted to be an Olympian. He was one of 20 boys and 20 girls to be selected. There are just certain exercises that when done to intensity make you want to throw up. They are typically the sort of exercises that take every bit of your body’s focus, muscle power, and energy. Rowing is one of those exercises. For the next decade of his life, Tom would be training six mornings a week, as well as weekends.

Tom had to undergo a steep learning curve to master the sport. But he was determined to be selected for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, so he trained hard. He didn’t have a burning passion for rowing at first, his focus was just to stay afloat. But slowly he began to improve, until at the age of 16, he was selected for the NSWIS Rowing Squad, where he trained alongside Olympic rowers. At first, he could barely keep up with them, but slowly he began to improve.

At the age of 20, more than six years after starting his journey as a rower, Tom trialled for the Sydney Olympics at Lucerne in Switzerland. Dubbed the ‘Regatta of Death’, Tom needed a top two finish to make selection. He made the final, but after a nail-bitingly close race, culminating in a photo finish, Tom’s fate was sealed. He didn’t make the cut by 0.04 seconds. Tom then faced the agonising decision whether to continue rowing or retire. He decided to continue.

In 2024, Tom was part of the Australian foursome team that was selected for the Athens Olympics. He spent six months in the lead up to the Olympics, training with a coach named ‘El Diablo’ because of his brutal training methods. By the time the foursome made the Olympic final in Athens, they were ready.

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The 2000m rowing race is one of the most physically demanding in the world of sport. Tom and his teammates rowed a fantastic race to the best of their capabilities. They’d trained for four years to prepare for this one competition and they’d left nothing to chance. They came fourth. All their years of mental and physical preparation wasn’t enough to bring home a medal.

While the team were disappointed to walk away from the Athens Olympics empty handed, Tom knew they couldn’t have done any more to prepare for the race and is extremely proud of their performance. He went on to compete in the Beijing Olympics before retiring from the sport.

It was fascinating for our students to hear about the years of solid training and hard work, the pressure and expectations, the disappointment and the sacrifices, and the mental toughness that is necessary to make it at the top level of sport. As Tom demonstrated in describing his own Olympic journey, mental toughness is essentially a combination of mental skills, including self-belief, resiliency, motivation, focus and the ability to perform under pressure, as well as to manage physical and emotional pain.

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A huge thank you to Tom for sharing his journey with our students. And to our Psychology Teachers, Ms Wenlock and Ms Oakley for organising this talk. Fascinating stuff!