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The victory within

From golf to triathlons, competitive performance can be enhanced with the right state of mind.

June 09, 2003|Marnell Jameson | Special to The Times

When Bo Arlander first met triathlon coach Paul Huddle in 1998, she was in peak physical condition. So why wasn't she reaching her potential during triathlon events? The problem, Huddle told her, wasn't physical but mental.

Like many athletes, Arlander changed her performance once she changed her mind. Since her mental breakthrough, Arlander, 39, a merchant banker from San Francisco, has taken first place in her age division in four Ironman races worldwide: Germany, 1999; South Africa, 2001; Austria, 2002; and Florida, 2002. An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile run. Her best time is 10 hours and 7 minutes.

"Coaching taught me that you need to be as serious about your mental training as you are about your physical training," said Arlander. Worrying less about the other racers and not being so hard on herself helped free her to win, she said.

"Most athletes understand the basics of endurance, strength and flexibility, but they don't get the mental component," said sports psychologist and author Alan Goldberg of Amherst, Mass. "If they spent more time training their concentration, learning to better handle pressure and redirecting negative thoughts, they would perform closer to their physical potential more consistently."

The importance of such focus has started to gain acceptance in the last 10 to 15 years as more studies have linked mental training to enhanced performance. "Ten years ago, I had to work hard to convince people that the mind really has an effect on performance. Today, people accept it as a necessary adjunct of training," Goldberg said.

As it has gained acceptance, the field of sports psychology has grown to include not just the elite athlete but the weekend athlete as well.

San Jose sports psychologist Thomas Tutko, co-author of "Sports Psyching" (J.P. Tarcher, 1980) and recently retired professor of sports psychology at San Jose State University, breaks the mental game into three steps: Relax. Concentrate. Imagine.

For starters, use deep breathing or muscle tightening and releasing methods to loosen up.

Then focus on what you need to do at that moment. "Many players get psyched out by the weather, the crowd, the politics among players and other pressures that are totally peripheral," he said. "To play your best, you should only focus on what you can control."

Finally, picture your best shot, your best race or your best dive. Remember how great that felt. Too often athletes preparing for an event recall their most embarrassing moment or worst loss. "When you picture your best, you put your whole body in the framework and attitude of doing your best," Tutko said.

These steps need to be part of an athlete's regular workout, said Tutko, considered a pioneer in the field of sports psychology.

Master them when you're not under pressure, he said, so you can call them up when you are. Here are other tips experts say make a difference:

* Practice mental toughness. Most people give up mentally long before their bodies are ready to quit, says Goldberg, whose sports psychology books include "Sports Slump Busting" (Human Kinetics, 1998) and "Playing Out of Your Mind" (Reedswain Books, 1997). They tell themselves, "I can't run more than two miles" or "I'll never break par." Such thoughts become self-fulfilling.

* Focus only on what you can control. Your opponent, past mistakes, the time are all "uncontrollables," Goldberg says. Focus on those and you undermine your confidence. When you find your mind drifting, redirect your thoughts to what you can control: your pace, effort, hydration or breathing. "Negative thoughts will cross your mind, but they won't hurt you if you don't get involved with them."

* Stay in the now. If you find yourself worrying about what the score or time will be (the future) or worrying about repeating a mistake (the past), you're time traveling, Goldberg says; your head's not where it should be. Recognize every time you drift and refocus yourself.

* Choose a logo. Tutko advises athletes to think of a simple mark to help get focused. The mark should symbolize success and be a mental anchor. For example, he once coached a swimmer who had as her symbol two crossed lines, the intersection of the X formed the perfect angle at which her body should enter the waterline. She painted the symbol on her toenails and focused on it before every dive. A golfer could paint a logo of one circle inside another on his clubs.

* Break it down. Arlander, who has done 60 triathlons, says she still can feel overwhelmed mid-race. "When I'm done with the swim and bike portion, knowing I still have to run a marathon in three hours can freak me out. The only way to mentally address that is to break it into small parts."

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