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In mind games, always play to win

Whether an Olympian or a beginner, athletes at any level can benefit from mental techniques to improve focus.

January 09, 2006|Marianne Szegedy-Maszak | Special to The Times

ENJOYING the sheer magnitude of her success, an athlete who won a Winter Olympics medal four years ago had no question that she would be guaranteed a spot for the upcoming games in Italy.

But she wasn't.

She had been warned two years before the trials that unless she overhauled her approach to the competition and sharpened her technique, she wouldn't make the team, recalls Scott McCann, head of the sports psychology department of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The athlete still didn't believe it -- until the results came in from one of the preliminary competitions and she tanked.

One of the most accomplished athletes on the planet had lost perspective on how she was performing. "It was a giant shock for her," McCann says. "She was coasting while the rest of the world was advancing. Finally she realized that she had to get back to basics."

At that point, she began taking the coach's advice seriously, seeking suggestions about changing her approach, training more rigorously -- and managing, in the process, to be in a position to reach for the gold next month.

Most of us will never have a similar moment of reckoning about our own athletic endeavors, and not just because we don't have the benefit of Olympic coaches and trainers who are able to tease out the nuances of each performance. We tend to settle into our workout routines, satisfied to run the five miles or swim the 72 laps without bothering to analyze exactly how we are doing it.

And yet the strategies used by professionals and those competing in Torino next month can be employed by civilians, say sports psychologists, coaches and mental skills specialists. Such techniques can reinvigorate workouts that have gone stale or make more effective the ones that are still cherished.

Know what makes you tick

Taking inventory of strengths and weaknesses; engaging in self-talk during workouts; and developing not just confidence, but what trainers and sports psychologists refer to as "mental toughness" are all techniques elite athletes use, sports psychologists say.

Of course, for the average athlete, such techniques might require a radically new way of thinking.

"One of the great differences between virtuosos in any field and the rest of us is that they can tell good from bad better than anyone else," says Fran Pirozzolo, player development coach with the Houston Texans and author of several books on mental skills and golf. "Elite athletes are gifted with a bodily intelligence and awareness. They are far more in touch with the landscape of their physical abilities than the average person."

And because of that, many know how to be honest about their capacities. A scratch golfer himself, Pirozzolo has been an unofficial golf coach for professional football and baseball players.

When he played golf with baseball great Roger Clemens, he began by giving him a few strokes and still beat him by 10 strokes. But by their third game, Clemens shot 69 and beat him.

"His mental skills of focus and competitiveness were transferable from baseball to golf," says Pirozzolo. "But most important, he was really clear about his strengths, which was his great athleticism and physical strength, and his weaknesses, and he figured out how to make it all work."

Perhaps no athlete demonstrated the astonishing capacity "to make it all work" more than one-handed major league pitcher and now L.A. Angel pitching coach Jim Abbott.

Born without a right hand, Abbott nonetheless won a baseball scholarship to the University of Michigan. He became a professional baseball player after graduating and played for 10 seasons on four teams, including the N.Y. Yankees. He threw a no-hitter for the Yankees. Abbott had to hold his glove under his armpit and would switch it to his pitching hand after throwing the ball so he could field his position.

"I always went with the method that felt the most comfortable to me," Abbott writes on his website, "For example, some people said I should have hit right-handed, well, left-handed just seemed more of a natural fit to me. I always wanted to incorporate both arms as best I could."

Abbott describes an approach that most coaches and sports psychologists suggest as a first step for everyone in assessing their own capabilities: Consider what feels most comfortable, provides the most enjoyment and is gratifying.

"When we first work with clients, we ask them what they have the most fun with," says Sam Hirschberg, a former professional tennis player and chief executive of the Mental Strength Training Center, a national network of sports psychologists and trainers based in Camarillo. "If you take tennis as an example and someone says to you, 'I love hitting my serve,' then we will help the athlete turn that into their absolute strength."

Mike Bottom, a former Olympic swimmer, swimming coach at UC Berkeley and Olympic coach for more than a dozen competitors, agrees. With all athletes, he says, especially elite athletes, he focuses on strengths.

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