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Sports psychologists discuss mental skills of peak performance
STANFORD -- Achieving top performance in sports is 90 percent practice and 10 percent competition, American and Russian psychologists agreed at a campus symposium on applied sports psychology Thursday, May 13. Peak performance in general, they said, requires practicing mental skills as well as physical ones.
Part of a four-day conference on how states of mind contribute to the performance of the world's best athletes, the sports psychologists discussed the techniques they use when working with coaches and athletes ranging from Olympics and professional competitors to college students in a wide range of individual and team sports.
Sponsored by Stanford University's Department of Intercollegiate Athletics and the Esalen Institute's Russian-American Exchange Center of San Francisco, the conference also included sessions led by coaches, sports psychology researchers and philosophers. One major purpose, according to the sponsors, was to allow those who work routinely with elite athletes in the two countries to compare notes on what they believe is responsible for the extraordinary body functioning that athletes sometimes report.
The psychologists, however, talked mostly about the basic mental skills that athletes need to perform well on a routine basis. Extraordinary experiences, such as a runner feeling his toes are connected to the ground, or that time has slowed down, can be handled better by those athletes who have developed a high degree of mental control, several said.
Keith Henschen, a "performance" psychologist on the faculty of the University of Utah, said he teaches the skills to musicians, surgeons and trial lawyers as well as athletes. "I give homework, because how are you going to develop a skill if you don't practice?" he said.
When Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz talks to himself at the free- throw line, Henschen said, Malone is saying " 'This is for (my wife) Katy and the baby.' It's a trigger to get you ready to compete."
Henschen listed five basic skills he and other sports psychologists teach: relaxation, concentration, imagery, monitoring their self-talk and developing a mental routine. "The beauty of these skills is they transfer to all parts of life," he said.
"Concentration is the most important. The demands are different for each sport and position, but I've never see a sport where concentration wasn't important," Henschen said. "Concentrations is a method to talk to your own body, and most of you can't do that," Henschen said to the audience of college athletes and others.
"Letting go" of unsatisfactory performances is a key skill for athletes to develop, said Ken Ravizza, a sports psychologist and professor at California State University-Fullerton. Letting go of mistakes involves segmenting skills into parts, he said, "whether it's taking one lap at a time in the pool or letting go of the first essay question you blew on the test."
A baseball pitcher who has made a bad pitch, for example, needs to re-focus, turn his attention to the next key task, relax by deep breathing and, finally, respond with full trust in his ability, said Ravizza who has worked with the California Angels, among other teams.
Mental control skills become more important as athletes move up in levels of competition, he said, and coaches too often assume professional athletes already have them. When a baseball player reaches the pros, "all of a sudden, there's no nerds in the batting order, and the issue becomes, 'I have to use more of the six inches in my head' " because a slightly tightened muscle can give the batter the edge.
Athletes at Olympic competition levels already have the basic sports psychology skills and need help with problems not addressed in textbooks, said Gloria Balague, a clinical psychologist on the faculty of the University of Illinois-Chicago. Balague spent two years as psychologist for the U.S. track and field team as its members prepared for the 1992 Olympics.
"At this level, I stopped talking about [how to gain] self- confidence and I started talking about faith. Faith is the capacity to believe in something you don't see, even when you don't perform well. Your coach, your family, can't give you faith."
More playfulness and pursuit of creativity in practice would probably help, she added. High-level athletes and coaches tend to get caught up in the technical details and forget why they loved the sport in the first place.
"Most athletes love to feel their body in movement, how unique their movement is," she said, adding that her husband, a world-class swimmer, "swims through the hallways of our house" just to feel the uniqueness of his body movements.
More needs to be done to help the best athletes handle success also, she said. "Everybody takes pot shots at you. You thought you were going to enjoy being on top, and it's not fun," she said some athletes find after winning a gold medal.
"They waste a lot of energy protecting what they already did instead of moving on."
Balague and several Russian sports psychologists discussed the importance of precise terminology with athletes. Because top athletes have unusual awareness of their bodies, Balague said, she learned to use their vocabulary, rather than her own. "I did not have experience with all the things they said they felt."
Yuri Hanin, a social psychologist from Leningrad University who is currently a researcher at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports in Finland, said he is developing sport-specific psychological measurement scales based on the vocabulary athletes use within each sport.
Albert Rodionov, a champion fencer and psychologist who worked with the Soviet national basketball and fencing teams, said he found that he had to vary his approach from one sport to another. Solo sport athletes "love to endure hardship," he said, while team sport players "love games. They love playing cards. They are gamblers," he said of his experience.
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