Members of the Cal State Northridge volleyball team are playing the game of their lives.
On offense, Lady Matador hitters take turns banking kills off the foreheads of their opponents. On defense, shots are either smothered at the net or picked off by back-row defenders.
Everyone is communicating. Each player accepts her role with a smile--even the bench-warmers. It is a perfect performance.
If only it was real.
The site of this game is not a gym. The opponent is not a real team. The game is played only in the minds of the Northridge players.
Twice a week, the volleyball team breaks from digging, hitting and passing drills and adjourns to a classroom. They sit or lie in the dark and visualize positive images while listening to mellow music. A match is played in their minds--from the warmup through the postgame handshake.
The theory: If players envision themselves in a positive manner they are more likely to experience success.
Ann Stutts, a coach and instructor at Northridge for 22 years, says visualization training can help players focus their concentration, accept their role on the team and deal with adverse conditions or a bad play.
"Mental habits are no different than physical habits," said Coach Walt Ker, whose teams have won two Division II national titles. "If a student comes in without the proper technique, my job is to correct it.
"The same applies to the mental aspect. You can't just tell a player 'You're selfish and pouting and not working hard enough.' You have to show them how not to do those things and that's the kind of thing that visualization does."
Stutts is in her second season working with the Northridge volleyball team. She also helps the women's basketball and softball teams as well as individual athletes from other CSUN programs.
Franci Bowman, a two-year starter for the volleyball team, said Stutts teaches concepts that help keep the team steady mentally. "She helps you concentrate on your game and not let yourself dwell on mistakes," Bowman said.
Stutts is not paid for her work with the teams. "Her reward is seeing athletes at a high mental level," Ker said.
She is not a psychiatrist. Stutts refers to herself as a "mental educator who teaches fundamentals of sports performance." She calls on her background in art and athletics to create an image in an athlete's mind.
Stutts played college tennis in Idaho and was an art major before turning to physical education. She often was prevented from practicing tennis in the winter because of snow but managed to improve her performance by reading "how-to" books and imagining how she would play.
"She really helps athletes focus because she has them picture what they have to do," said Gary Torgeson, coach of CSUN's Division II national champion softball team.
Debbie Dickman, an All-American pitcher on CSUN's 1986 team, worked with Stutts throughout the national championship tournament. A freshman last season, Dickman was having problems concentrating.
"Debbie has a tendency to wander," Torgeson said. "She needed to block out what was going on outside."
With Stutts' help, she was successful--and so was Northridge. Dickman pitched a no-hitter in the title game. Afterward, she attributed her performance to mental toughness.
"Dr. Stutts taught me mind control," Dickman said. "She taught me mind and body balance--how to make the mind and the body work in harmony and not let outside things affect you."
Torgeson said sports psychology has played a major role in the success of his teams.
"It gets the student-athlete to focus on the task at hand," he said. "We've been working with Ann for about four years and it's really helped, especially at the end of the season when the pressure is really, really great."
The mind also can help the body heal.
Tara Flanagan, captain of the 1986 Northridge women's basketball team, worked with Stutts after tearing ankle ligaments, which forced her to sit out her junior year.
Flanagan was told she would never play again, but instead of mourning the end of her career, she went to Stutts.
"I actually saw myself healing," Flanagan said. "Then I'd visualize myself playing, running, jumping and feeling pain-free."
A month-and-a-half after surgery, Flanagan started playing basketball again. She says the visualization process contributed 90% to her healing.
"It puts your body and your head in the same place," Flanagan said. "It does take concentration and time, though."
Stutts says that mental visualization is not a new training method, but Northridge coaches laud her for bringing to it certain techniques that make Northridge unique among California Collegiate Athletic Assn. schools.
Ker, whose team has lost in the national championship game three consecutive seasons, says mental training will play a key role in his team's success this year.
"The number of problems and severity of the problems have been reduced because of Dr. Stutts," Ker said. "There's also a higher expectation level from player to player and coach to player, and we're raising the norm.
"Now I have a great combination because there's the mental training and I've got the biggest team I've ever had. It's a very physical team with good size and good strength."
And it has mind to match the matter.