The Thomasian psychologist behind the Philippines’ first Olympic Gold medal

Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz (left) and sports psychologist Karen Katrina Trinidad (right). Photo from the University of Santo Tomas’ official website.

When Hidilyn Diaz lifted the Philippines with a golden victory in the Tokyo Olympics on July 26, she never stood alone on the ground. Behind what seemed to be a single athlete carrying the weight of Filipino triumph was an entire team to cross the journey.

In this stretch of people in Diaz’s company, one Thomasian helped her claim the Philippines’ most awaited Olympic pride once and for all.

Karen Katrina Trinidad, a registered psychologist and a doctorate degree holder of Clinical Psychology from the University, was among the team that changed Philippine history for centuries to come.

Aside from being Hidilyn Diaz’s sports psychologist, she is also a Consultant for the Philippine Sports Commission, and a faculty member of the University of Santo Tomas College of Science’s Psychology department.

Trinidad has been working with Diaz prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics. She was with her during the International Weightlifting Federation World Championships in Anaheim (2017) and Thailand (2019), as well as in the 2020 Roma Weightlifting World Cup.

For Trinidad, the preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was an indisputably challenging one as the Olympic Games are a prestigious spectacle of sporting endeavors and an arena where athletes spend years committing themselves to preparation.

A large part of Diaz’s journey is psychological, which Trinidad addressed.

“I needed to study her behavior, her personality, and what will work for her, especially with her self-talk, motivation, and mental preparation,” Trinidad said in an exclusive interview with TomasinoWeb.

Psychology as a science, especially in the discipline of sports, is an aggregate of multiple factors that define an athlete. In Diaz’s case, according to Trinidad, her resiliency, hard work, and determination were exceptional.

“She’s been through a lot but was able to bounce back. She never gave up,” she said.

Trinidad noted that among the most common mental health struggles for athletes are anxiety and depression. The stigma surrounding mental health can be especially nuanced for athletes who are perceived to be overall healthy due to their physical fitness, creating the assumption that they are immune to such problems.

A study by the Journal of Medical Internet Research has revealed that mental health risks have grew in numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. A journal article by the Lancet underpinned this situation, finding that the mental health of the general public in the advent of COVID-19 has become a major obstacle.

As such, Trinidad advises athletes and students alike to focus on what one is able to control, adopt a routine, do things one enjoys, maintain good health, stay connected to the people one values, avoid excessive exposure to news and social media, and the frequently overlooked one: humor

“It can be one of our best survival tools, so don’t forget to enjoy and laugh,” Trinidad said.

While the overall wellbeing of an athlete is the ultimate aim, sports psychologists incorporate strategies that improve mental toughness to elevate athletic achievement.

“The wellbeing of athletes should be as important as the physical,” Trinidad stated.

Given the pandemic, she would conduct regular Zoom sessions with Diaz, especially when she was stranded in Malaysia. She needed to make Diaz feel she was there for her in those instances.

A day before the competition, Trinidad sat with Diaz in front of the building facing the Philippine flag. Looking at the flag, she gave Diaz one piece of advice.

“I told her to always remember [her] reason why [she is] here in the Olympics,” Trinidad said, pointing at the Philippine flag.

Trinidad believes that cultivating pride and honor while representing one’s country is an important element that defined Diaz’s victory.

The three words that would define the moment Diaz bagged the Olympic Gold according to Trinidad were overwhelmed, disbelief, overjoyed. With these, Diaz’s pursuit of the Olympic Gold was not an easy feat.

Trinidad has been a witness to this. Olympic champions, like Diaz, are not simply made with years of training as it takes a lot more than that, Trinidad remarked.

“I cannot pinpoint one thing that helped her become successful,” Trinidad shared. “[B]ut several factors like her resiliency and incorporation of science in her sport helped her.”

As Trinidad described it, there is no single aspect that drew the fate of victory for Diaz. But before the win that reformed the image of Filipino athleticism, she told simple words to Diaz that kept her in play.

“I told her to just perform her best, get in the zone, and enjoy the moment.”

The Official Digital Media Organization of the University of Santo Tomas