Helping Athletes Go For the Gold

Interviews Richard Suinn, a psychologist at the Colorado State University. Background of the Suinn; His achievements; His view on the sports psychology; Examples on how psychological techniques help participants in the Olympic Games.

By Robert Epstein, published on May 1, 1999 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015

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.

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.