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Exercising Mind Control : Olympians Have to Be Physically Able--and Mentally Tough

July 18, 1996|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

It's the final of the 100 meters, and you're in the starting block.

You can envision your dream finally becoming reality. You can just see that gold medal draped around your neck. . . .

Hold it. In actuality, if you or I were in an Olympic event, we'd probably faint or hyperventilate from the anxiety of performing at our very best before millions of people.

Just how do these top-notch athletes do it? Especially ones like decathlete Dan O'Brien or runner Mary Slaney, who have to conquer their nerves and overcome the memories of previous, devastating disappointments?

Most Olympic athletes have spent considerable time training mentally for the stress of the Games. But when it comes down to who takes the gold and who finishes last, it will probably be the athlete who achieved the perfect frame of mind at the moment of performance, experts say.

"It requires practice and discipline for a thrower to step into the circle at the Olympic games and be able to clear his mind and avoid saying to himself, 'If I don't do well, all my years of work, all my dreams, are gone,' " says James P. Reardon, a sports psychologist assigned to the U.S. Olympic track and field team.

Spectators often marvel at the physical prowess of these athletes, but the mental abilities of the top performers are just as awe-inspiring, says James Loehr, a sports psychologist with LGE Sports Science Inc. in Orlando, Fla.

"It's a special situation at the Olympics because they can train for eight years, and the difference between achieving their dream or not achieving it comes down to fractions of seconds, in some cases," Loehr says. "It's easy to let nerves short-circuit everything. But when they do well, it's an enormous testament to their mental and emotional powers."

Athletes need to prepare mentally for the days preceding a big event because this is a time when they are backing off heavy physical work and have more time to do nothing but think.

" 'What do you do with yourself when there is nothing more to do' is probably one of the major issues that separates successful big-meet performers from less successful ones," says Reardon, who works with trauma victims at the Columbus Traumatic Stress Center when not counseling athletes.

Loehr, whose "mentally tough" training program helped speed skater Dan Jansen finally attain a gold medal in 1994, teaches athletes to begin a stress-reduction ritual in the hours before performing.

"We've found rituals are an integral part of mobilizing the mind, body and spirit in a particular way," he says, adding that the routine can include everything from the timing of meals to dressing sequences to time alone to visualize.

"Everything becomes very automatic," Loehr says. "They are not thinking about the crowd or gold medal. They have done it so many thousands of times that as soon as they go into that routine everything else becomes very distant."

Reardon also trains athletes to visualize their performances and practice relaxation exercises to control tension, conserve energy and filter distractions in the days before the event.

But the critical moments occur in the minutes before the event begins, experts agree. The content of the athlete's thoughts can make or break the performance.

"We all have conversations or dialogue with ourselves about what we are doing and what we are about to do. The content of that dialogue is so important to performance," says sports psychologist Thomas R. George of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Many athletes control their nerves successfully by focusing on the technical aspects of their event. For example, runners might be telling themselves, "explode out of the block" and visualize that, he says.

But athletes should picture what they want, not what they want to avoid doing, Reardon says. Self-talk such as "Don't bend your knees" should be avoided because the athlete will probably visualize bending her knees at the same time and her body is likely to imitate the picture in her mind, George says.

Some athletes perform well by telling themselves, "I can do this! I am the best!" in the moments before performance. For example, in her heyday, tennis player Jennifer Capriati--who won the women's singles gold medal in the 1992 Olympics--would post notes around her hotel room with such messages.

But a cheerleading angel over your shoulder doesn't work for everyone.

"My experience with athletes," George says, "is that there is that little devil sitting on your other shoulder who pops up and says, 'That's a bunch of bull.' There is this internal volleying going on in your mind: 'Yes, I can. No, I can't.' "

None of these mental skills comes naturally to many athletes, however. In fact, the most natural thing to think about in the starting block or perched on the high dive is "Will I win?"

The result is the last thing athletes should be mulling over.

"Ultimately, you are recognized or not recognized depending on the final outcome," George says. "So it's a distraction."

Reardon calls this the most common mistake athletes make.

"The temptation is to be too focused on the outcome and not focused enough on the process," he says.

"The ideal performance state is what I call 'no think,' " Reardon says. "It's a state of mind in which you are so immersed in what you are doing that you aren't thinking about much of anything. You are operating on automatic pilot."

This "no think" state is a rare phenomenon except among elite athletes, Reardon says.

"This goes against a lot of our training; our training teaches us to be more conscious about what we are doing rather than less conscious."

But, he says: "When I talk with a lot of track and field athletes who have set world records, many times what I hear over and over is 'Gosh, I really don't remember it that well. Everything just sort of fell into place.' They are so immersed, that they transcend self-consciousness and self-observation."

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