Even when Patrick Chan is at the top of his physical game, his mental one is a crapshoot.
"Usually when I have a good skate, I'm not quite sure how it happened," Chan mused recently. "I can't really put my finger on how or what I did to make it successful."
So for the first time in his career, the three-time world figure skating champion is exploring the psychological side of competing, enlisting the help of Dr. Scott Goldman, a sports psychologist at the University of Michigan.
It's all part of the 26-year-old's "no-stone-left-unturned" approach to what will be his final Olympic appearance next year in Pyeongchang.
He'll put his new game plan to the test at this week's ISU Four Continents championship in South Korea, a test event for next year's Olympics.
Chan has captured three Four Continents titles, including last season in Taiwan where he climbed from fifth place after the short program.
He'll face a stiff test against teen star Nathan Chen, who reeled off five quadruple jumps in his long program to win the U.S. championship, and defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
Chan has worked hard on the physical side of his skating since his return from a one-year hiatus, upping the number of quads in his free program to three. But he's been inconsistent, and believes his mental game is the culprit. He fell three times in his long program at the Grand Prix Final in December, plummeting from second place down to fifth. During the wait between the warm-up and competing, his nerves were frazzled.
"We all have our solutions, our tricks, or maybe our ways to brush the problems under the rug kind of. And that's my goal, is to be able to face these moments of mental challenge and physical challenge," Chan said. "We wouldn't be at this level if we couldn't meet the physical challenge, but to be at a higher level, the top of the top, is to master the whole brain side of it."
Chan put his work with Goldman to the test at the Canadian championships last month, at which he won his ninth national senior title. After the warm-up, he unlaced his skates and found a table to lie down on.
"I just laid on the table and got into breathing exercises, breathing visualization," Chan said.
The cerebral skater is also reading a book – Steven Kotler's The Rise of Superman – that explores the mental state of extreme athletes, and their ability to get into a "flow state" (what others refer to as "the zone").
"It's very natural, it's innate in all of us. But it's how do you get into that, how do you set yourself up for that kind of flow state?" Chan said. "They say that people who meditate, they can get into flow state through meditation. … Extreme athletes get it instantly. Same thing with drugs; it's why people take drugs, because they get into that same feeling, the dopamine release and all that stuff. Sex. Good food. All that stuff ties in together.
"It's cool, it's interesting because you become very aware, as opposed to just guessing and being like, 'Oh, I guess this feels right. Oh, I guess I'll skate well, because I feel kinda good.' Whereas now it's more scientific, it's clearer."
The Four Continents – Americas, Asia, Africa and Oceania – is a final tune-up for the world championship in late March in Helsinki.
Aside from his mental game, Chan continues to work on the physical side to keep pace with the big jumpers such as Chen and Hanyu. He said the plan for next season is to do two quads in his short program. He currently does just one.
"I'll also have to see how the results turn out at worlds and how the men skate under that kind of pressure situation," Chan said. "I think it's important to not go beyond my ability, and setting goals that are absolutely ridiculous. Because then it just becomes discouraging and I can't get anything done. So there needs to be a good balance of what I can achieve and personal gratification so that I stay motivated to being challenged."
The Four Continents begins with the short dance, pairs and women's short program on Thursday. Chan will skate the short program Friday and the free skate on Sunday.