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About Cognitive Distortion and Taking 20 Years to Race 100 Metres

Chantal Petitclerc

Chantal Petitclerc

This weekend I spoke Montreal at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Dietitians of Canada. The closing presentation of the conference was given by Chantal Petitclerc, Canada’s elite Paralympic wheel chair racing champion.

In a moving presentation, Chantal spoke about how, after losing the use of her legs in a farm accident at age 13, she eventually discovered wheel chair racing, which set her off on a ride of Olympic proportions. Since winning her first bronze medals in Barcelona in 1992, she officially ended her Paralympic racing career with winning golden medals in all five wheel chair racing distances at the Beijing Paralympics in 2008.

Of all her twentyone Paralympic medals, the one she is particularly proud of, is the one she got for beating her two closest Chinese competitors by covering 100 metres in around 16 seconds for a spectacular finish in front of 91 thousand cheering spectators at Beijing’s Olympic stadium.

But while the actual race may have taken just a few seconds, Chantal cleverly notes that it actually took her 20 years of hard work and perseverance to win that race – years of training, four hours daily, six days a week, 11 months a year, with all the ups and downs, highs and lows, wins and losses.

Clearly, Chantal is also a world champion in cognitive restructuring. Not only did she have to restructure her thoughts after her accident to realise that her life was not over but also had to constantly overcome all the psychological barriers inherent in a career as an elite athlete.

Certainly, there was no place for any “all or nothing thinking”, “shoulds and musts”, “excuses and rationalisations” or “catastrophising”, typical mistakes we often make that stop us from persevering with our goals and quickly recovering from setbacks.

Learning how to avoid and restructure negative thoughts is critical for long-term behaviour change and should therefore be a key element of any evidence-based weight management program.

If Chantal had given up after blowing a training day, had not constantly changed and adapted her training strategy to deal with changing circumstances, had made excuses for or rationalised her setbacks, had given in to thoughts that any race lost was the end of her career, she would not have ended up where she did.

Thinking you blew your “diet” because you took a bite of the “wrong” food, thinking you “should” or “must” reach a certain weight, always blaming your setbacks on others, or thinking that any pound regained is just the first step to gaining it all back again, are all surefire ways to failure.

Fortunately, with professional help, negative thinking and thought distortions can be overcome. As Chantal pointed out, she would probably not have won her 100 m Gold metal in Beijing had she not regularly Skyped with her sport psychologist.

Successfully maintaing weight loss is like training for the olympics – one day at a time!

Edmonton, Alberta

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Hay PP, Bacaltchuk J, Stefano S, & Kashyap P (2009). Psychological treatments for bulimia nervosa and binging. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (4) PMID: 19821271


  1. I attended several Weight Wise sessions recently and found the attitude of the “professional” dietitians and nurses leading those sessions not in tune with the problems of obesity.

    First of all they all trot out that obesity chart.

    I know i am obese: I don’t need to look at a chart to tell me what i know. In fact, that chart is wrong for me because if i was ten feet tall my weight would be ideal or perhaps underweight.

    Also all the dietitians weigh nearly 90 pounds and they preach weight wise solutions to a class of 300 plus pound persons.

    In addition, the dietitians and nurses at those sessions do not have a clue about compulsive overeating and how to stop compulsive overeating. They offer to ideas because they have never had that problem. It’s similar to a person teaching how to fight a fire but has never done that job.

    Those sessions should be reviewed by the good doctor AMS and those professionals should be given training from him on how to deal with the problems of obesity and over eating.

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  2. This is an excellent post. Time should not be a motivating factor in weight loss.

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  3. I’m a little late, but I want to respond to Walter’s comment. I’ve been attending the Weight Wise sessions also, and I tend to get quite frustrated with the very basic information provided there (i.e., what is a calorie, eat lots of vegetables, walking is good exercise, etc.). But what we have to keep in mind is the real variety of people attending these sessions. I can see that to some of the people attending, a BMI or obesity chart really would be new information to them. The goal is to ensure we all have the basics covered by the time we get to the adult weight management clinic. Also, I’ve had 2 or 3 module instructors who have themselves dealt with excess weight, and while it gave them more credibility, they still had to share the same basic information with the group on the assumption that some people don’t know that you can’t drink a litre of sugary soda pop every day.

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  4. Walter: I agree with your comments. As a RD myself (who is not 90 pounds but at least 30 pounds over where my BMI ‘should’ be AND also a person who eats healthy 80% of the time and is active as often as I can be) , my dietitian training never gave me the tools to actually help people with behavioral or emotional eating issues. It was frustrating to me and the client to want to help with change and improving emotional eating and not feel like I could offer the client anything but ‘follow the food guide/eat less’ etc.

    Then I came across the Craving Change program which was developed by a Registered Psychologist and a Registered Dietitian out of Calgary. Craving Change has helped me help people with out intensive emotional or behavioral/psychological issues to help themselves overcome emotional eating. (Of course a psychologist/psychiatrist is needed for people with complex issues)

    I would highly recommend that you share the Craving Change Program website with your Weight Wise facilitators and ask them to incorporate the techniques into the program. My clients are seeing very good results as am I.

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