Helping Athletes Go For the Gold

Sports psychologist Richard Suinn, Ph.D., of Colorado State University, is aman familiar with firsts: in 1972, he became the first psychologist to serve on a U.S. Olympic sports medicine team, and today he's the first Asian-American to head the American Psychological Association. Suinn recently spoke with contributing editor Robert Epstein about the mind-body connection.

PT: How has sports psychology changed over the years?

RS: In its early days, sports psychology was mostly concerned with developing assessment methods that would identify those people with the potential to become superior athletes.

Modern sports psychology, which dates from around the early 1970s, is focused on psychological training, on exercises that strengthen the mental skills that will help athletic performance. Those skills include stress management, self-regulation, visualization, goal-setting, concentration, focus, even relaxation.

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PT: Can you give us an example of how techniques are helping Olympians?

RS: I remember one case in which an Olympic boxer lost his desire to go on competing. A consultation with a sports psychologist helped him to become focused again on his goals, an approach that often provides the solution to issues of motivation.

Instead of just getting athletes "psyched up," sports psychologists prefer to help them become more definite about why they're doing what they're doing now, even though their eventual goal--say, winning a gold medal--may be a few years down the road. Goal-setting helps to bring the future a little closer by breaking it down into steps to take this week, next week, next month. That way athletes can chart their progress, keeping in mind where they're eventually going to end up. It enables those who are feeling that they want to give up to stay with the program.

In the case of the boxer, he did stick with it and he went on to compete in the Games.

PT: You've often written about a technique called "mental practice." What do you mean by that--and how does it work?

RS: Mental practice is also referred to as "visualization" or "imagery rehearsal."

We start with 20 to 30 minutes of relaxation training, followed by the visualization of some aspect of the athlete's game that needs improvement. It's the mental equivalent of physical practice.

For instance, if your golf swing is a little off and your coach shows you the proper swing, then during visualization you practice making that correct swing in your mind. It may be that your muscles start to learn through this visualizing practice the proper way of moving. There is in fact research evidence that indicates that when athletes use visualization after relaxation, their performance does improve.

There is also evidence to suggest that if you use the wrong imagery--if you imagine yourself missing the swing or losing the game--your performance will get worse.

PT: Can the techniques you use to help a thletes be applied to everyday life?

RS: Let's take stress as an example. The first thing that athletes do in dealing with their stress is to identify what triggers it. For some people it's a particular environment in which they find themselves; for others it's certain words that people use. The second step is to be aware of how they react when they're under stress. Sometimes they have a physiological reaction, such as sweaty palms or an elevated heart rate. In that case, we have them use biofeedback or relaxation training. Prevention is even better: if they know that they're going to face a stressful situation, they can engage in some relaxation procedures beforehand.

These are all tactics that people can use in their own lives. But people should be aware that many of these exercises do take some time to learn. They have to be practiced, in the same way that athletes have to practice their physical skills.

Adapted by Ph.D.

Robert Epstein is University Professor at United States International University and host of radio's nationally syndicated PSYCHOLOGY TODAY.

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