In high school, Dr. Wade Gilbert was voted “most likely to go to the Olympics.” Thirty-three years later, that fun yearbook sentiment has come to fruition.
A multi-sport athlete in his teenage years, Gilbert is now an internationally renowned coaching consultant, sport scientist and professor of sport psychology at Fresno State. His expertise has brought him all over the world and now to Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games as a coach for the third-ranked Team Canada softball team.
For the Ottawa, Canada native, representing his home country on the biggest stage in sports is an indescribable feeling.
“You never know what life has in store for you,” Gilbert said with a smile. “I have this amazing opportunity to support these world-class athletes who are competing in the Olympics, which is the pinnacle of their profession.”
Team Canada opened Olympic competition with a 4-0 win over Mexico on July 20, and will now face Team USA at 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, July 21, on NBC Sports. Team USA assistant coach Laura Berg is a former Fresno State All-American and four-time Olympian as a player. She is now head coach for Oregon State.
Gilbert departed from Fresno for Anjo, Japan nearly three weeks ago for pre-Olympic camp and training. He is among seven coaches for the Canada women’s national team. In Gilbert’s distinct role, as the mental performance coach, his goal is to help the athletes prepare for play, utilizing techniques that build their capacity to perform at the greatest level, both mentally and physically, in team and individual settings.
“Over the last two years, we’d have a lot of curriculum focused on imagery or relaxation techniques, or how to deal with pressure,” Gilbert said. “But during the Olympics, it’s about being available and reinforcing those tools within them when they have moments of doubt or anxiety. We chat and I remind them, ‘you’ve got this.’ They’re ready, and they’re one of the best teams in the world.”
Victoria Hayward, captain of Team Canada, said Gilbert has been an absolute game changer for her and her 15 teammates.
“Wade has this innate ability to connect with us,” Hayward said. “He has been instrumental in helping lead us both individually and collectively through the journey, and has stretched us to explore things we may not have ever tried like brain priming, meditation and visualization while, at the same time, reminding us that what we already have is enough to achieve our gold-medal dreams. As a high-performance athlete, I have almost no patience, and he simply told me ‘you can’t rush a river.’ That metaphor and the visualization stuck with me so much that it became something I said to myself before every at-bat.”
In addition to working with the athletes, Gilbert has also worked with the coaching staff to help build on leadership skills that enhance team and athlete development.
Gilbert’s journey with Team Canada began in 2014 when he met head coach Mark Smith, who was at a coaching convention Gilbert was speaking at. A brief chat led to an inevitable relationship, and the chance for Gilbert to help the team reach its Olympic dreams. He started off by helping the coaches exclusively and eventually, in 2019, began working with the athletes.
At the time, Gilbert was on contract with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee as lead author of its Quality Coaching Framework and as a consultant to the Coach Education Department — a role he held for six years. His independent work with coaches and sports teams transcends continents, with speaking and consulting engagements in Singapore, Japan, Finland, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand.
This years’ Games are unique. As COVID cases grew in Japan, the country declared a state of emergency, banning all spectators. During pre-Olympic training, Gilbert and Team Canada athletes and coaches remained quarantined, interacting only with each other and going from their rooms straight to the practice field and back. Now at the Olympic village, not much has changed, as the team remains under quarantine except during competition.
For a coach whose focus is on the mind, body and spirit of the athlete, this has presented an uncommon challenge for Gilbert, but he said this setting allows the athletes to truly focus on the game, clear of distractions.
When not helping athletes go for the gold, Gilbert has been a longtime professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Fresno State, where he has taught in the graduate sport psychology program for the past 21 years.
Gilbert said he looks forward to sharing his Olympic experience at the Tokyo Games with his students when he returns in the spring, and is grateful for the opportunities the University has given him to pursue his passions beyond the classroom.
Jenna Viss, a former student of Gilbert’s, said the learning gleaned from Gilbert is immeasurable.
“Dr. Gilbert’s coaching experiences with world-class coaches and athletes has been incredibly beneficial to our learning at Fresno State,” Viss said. “Over the past couple of years, my classmates and I have had numerous in-class conversations with top coaches and athletes from the collegiate, professional and Olympic levels facilitated by Dr. Gilbert. From these conversations and Dr. Gilbert’s own experiences with these elite teams, there comes a fountain of knowledge as the collision of academia (research) and elite performances are united. Not often does the application between what occurs in the sport world and academia align as impactfully as it does here.”
Gilbert is one of a handful of Fresno State alumni and faculty headed to the Games this year. In addition to alumnae Berg and Lauren Billys (equestrian, Puerto Rico), kinesiology faculty member Brig Beatie will officiate beach volleyball at the Tokyo Olympics.
When he is not officiating professional tournaments, the two-time Fresno State alumnus teaches a course on campus coincidentally called “The History of the Olympic Games.” Beatie, who will now be part of Olympic history himself, has taught a variety of courses within the department for nearly 20 years.
View the full televised softball schedule.