Bad timing

The Baltimore Sun

In football, they call it icing the kicker.

It's the old coaching dodge of calling a timeout just before a kicker has to make a crucial field goal. The idea is to turn something that should come natural and be a replay of so many practice runs into an uncomfortable thought process that can cause the slightest hesitation. And hesitation can mean disaster.

On occasion, thinking can be an athlete's worst enemy.

Yogi Berra knew that.

"How can you hit and think at the same time?" was the comically framed rhetorical question commonly attributed to the legendary Yankee catcher.

And so, the more serious question is being raised about the delay that occurred before American gymnast Alicia Sacramone mounted the balance beam in what was to be the opening volley of a U.S. comeback bid in overtaking the Chinese for the team competition gold medal Tuesday night

The 20-year-old from Massachusetts was reportedly ready to get started twice with her beam mount, a move made more difficult in that she was to segue into a back-flip. It never got that far.

After the judges gave her the go-ahead, Sacramone failed to get her footing on the slender four-inch beam and had to hop down. She began again but the American comeback try was mostly over before it ever got started. Subsequent errors in floor exercise merely sealed the deal for the Chinese, who went gold, and the Americans settled for silver.

"I was just eager to do my routine and get the show on the road," Sacramone said. "The judges decided to hold me, and I guess I just let my nerves get the best of me."

American coach Marta Karolyi at first suspected mischief by Chinese organizers.

However, a published report seemed to indicate a different culprit in the interruption of the natural flow of things - television

"There was a two-minute delay, so the world feed could get Alicia's routine into the world feed," USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said to the Philadelphia Daily News. "That was unfortunate, but it is not unusual. The hold could have had an effect on Alicia."

High-level athletes are schooled in creating a psychological environment for themselves that puts them in a comfortable zone going into a performance, according to Casey Cooper, a California psychologist who specializes in sports culture issues.

Michael Phelps' pre-race iPod routine is a classic example.

"It's a consistent routine to produce consistent performance," Cooper said.

When an athlete's routine is broken, such as in Sacramone's case, athletes have ways to re-establish their concentration "whether it's deep breathing or imaging or a certain thought," Cooper said.

But sometimes, there's the complication of urgency, much like a football team with the play-clock winding down and having to break the huddle, Cooper said.

"She may have gotten out of that chemistry and didn't have time," Cooper said of Sacramone, "but you still have to do the routine."

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