For athletes, mental training as important as the physical

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Mental, physical training go hand in hand for athletes In a few weeks, millions of us will be glued to our TV sets, watching the best athletes in the world ski, skate and slide their way into Olympic history in Turin, Italy.

We will be dazzled, as always, by the sheer physical skill of these folks who have pushed their bodies so hard for so many hours a day, year after year.

But just as important as physical training, say those who study elite athletes, is the mental training that goes into a peak performance.

If two athletes are equally fit, the edge often goes to the one with better emotional skills -- not a do-or-die focus on winning, but a set of habits that all of us can learn, including positive "self talk."

Its package includes maintaining an energy level that is neither too excited nor too relaxed, and (perhaps most important) a Buddhist-like ability to focus on the moment at hand, on this particular breath, stroke, turn.

So useful are these techniques that sport psychologists say their coaching is increasingly sought by surgeons, trial lawyers, musicians, public speakers, business people and others who need to perform at their best in high-stress situations.

Partly because of this increased demand, the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, the major professional organization in the field, has grown from a few hundred 20 years ago to 1,300 today, according to the group's president, Craig Wrisberg, a sport psychology professor and mental training consultant at the University of Tennessee.

Nowhere has the teaching of mental skills become a finer art than at West Point, where Nate Zinsser, director of the performance enhancement program, runs a sophisticated lab that is the envy of sports teams around the country.

He's building better athletes (Army must beat Navy), but also better soldiers who have imagined every possible thing that might go wrong with a military operation. "You don't want to experience anything for the first time in combat," Zinsser says.

Among other aids, Zinsser has what he describes as a set of "very cool" ergonomically designed chairs. Sitting in the chairs, cadets work with biofeedback techniques such monitoring heart rate. They learn to relax and ignore potential distractions -- such as crowd noise -- that is piped in through speakers.

"The process of training and learning to compete competently is a much more valuable lifetime lesson than simply the accomplishment of having won something on a given day," Zinsser says. The key for Olympic athletes as well as weekend warriors is to learn to juggle two conflicting disciplines. "You have to be almost an obsessive-compulsive workaholic to get yourself ready to be good. But then you have to be this relaxed, Buddha-like Zen master, which allows all the stuff you have been training to come out," Zinsser says.

In other words, you train your body, especially your nervous system, so that you can automatically do your best on every step, jump, start or landing. Then you get your mind and its anxious chatter out of the way, go on "autopilot" and let your body "fly itself," said Jim Bauman, a sport psychologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee who has been working this year with the men's alpine ski team.

Naturally, you can't will yourself into the zone. But you can set the stage for it in an athletic event, public speaking or any potentially stressful performance. Here's how:

Self talk. If you find that you are talking to yourself -- as opposed to being in a state of total, wordless absorption in the moment -- make it positive "self talk," says Jean Williams, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona and editor of Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance.

Positive messages such as "good job" or "keep going" correlate with better performance, according to a series of studies on wrestlers, field hockey players, golfers, cross-country skiers, divers, tennis players and other athletes since the early 1990s.

Wayland triathlete Flo Chretien, 31, a 2008 summer Olympics hopeful, says it is also helpful to mentally recast the event positively, not as a stressor, but "a reward for all your training."

Imagery. A number of studies have shown that people who are taught to imagine themselves performing perfectly do better than those who don't get the imagery training. The most successful athletes, studies have shown, use imagery more extensively and systematically than less successful ones.

Recovery after mistakes. "The people who win gold medals are not those with no mistakes, but those who are best at handling mistakes," said Charlie Brown, a sport psychologist in Charlotte, N.C. And like everything else in sports or high-stress performance situations, the key is practice. Specifically, practice what you will do to handle every imaginable kind of mistake, says Brown.

Stay in the present and focus on process, not the outcome. In stressful situations, most people focus on the end result, says Aimee Kimball, director of mental training at the Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It works better, she said, "not to focus on the outcome, but to focus on the process."

In a brochure he gives to athletes, the Olympic Committee's Bauman put it this way: "Competing is about right now, and that is where our thoughts belong. Right here and right now."

In other words, whether you are racing for the gold, giving a speech or just running around your neighborhood, follow the advice of Boston triathlete Dede Griesbauer, 35, who placed 17th last fall in the Ironman in Hawaii:

"Break things down into small pieces -- literally one step at a time."

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