The Olympic stadium was silent. The spectators held their collective breath. The 100-meter finalists, crouched against their starting blocks, raised their backs as the starter raised his pistol and announced, "Set...!" Each powerful sprinter, poised to explode when the gun went off, was keenly aware of what hung in the balance. They had trained to exhaustion every day for years to prepare their bodies for this one race.
But had they disciplined their minds? The runner who would break the tape would need more than strong muscles, heart and lungs. He would need concentration, control, confidence--and an unerring eye on the finish line. At this tensemoment, one mistimed twitch could cause a false start and cost him the race. But if he eased off in any way, his first steps would lag behind those of his competitors, guaranteeing a loss. "Bang!"
Sports psychology is a booming business. Part of the reason is because elite athletes in many sports are getting closer and closer to one another in terms of physical prowess and talents, leaving thoughts and feelings as the x-factor that brings victory. Many top athletes now find mental training indispensable--and not just for performing on race or game day but for getting the most out of daily workouts. Many seek help from psychologists, but others go elsewhere: Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong receives regular psychological exercises as well as a daily physical training plan from his personal coach, Chris Carmichael. Formula One auto-racing ace Michael Schumacher has a personal cook, Balbir Singh, who is rumored to double as his spiritual adviser. Others simply rely on personal rituals to focus their tennis serve or home-run swing.
Often there is little scientific basis for athletes' mental gymnastics, and the placebo effect cannot be completely ruled out, yet the practices seem to provide a tailwind. Studies show that athletes may profit most by building up psychological strength through three techniques: visualization, confidence and self-talk. The same exercises can work for recreational athletes, too.
Although sports psychologists have supported athletes for more than 30 years, the profession was largely informal until 1983, when the U.S. Olympic Committee established a sports psychology registry. In 1986 the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology was founded to promote related science and practices. Since then, the profession has grown briskly: for its 2004 conference, the association received 450 potential presentations.
The practice of visualizing an athletic movement in order to perfect it became popular in the 1970s. Tennis players were among the early adopters. A player standing quietly on the court with his eyes closed would imagine himself hitting the ball, thinking to himself something like: "My racket is an extension of my arm. My entire body is tingling with excitement, but I am utterly relaxed. I am enjoying every ball that comes flying toward me. I am absolutely sure that with my next stroke I can place the ball in any corner of my opponent's court. The court is enormously wide." Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, now at Claremont Graduate University, coined the term "flow" in 1975 to describe this kind of feeling: complete confidence in one's own actions, blocking out distractions, reveling in the experience.
To put herself into such an ideal performance state, an athlete seeks a healthy balance of strain and relaxation. She must become completely immersed in her own movements. A high jumper must see in her mind exactly each step of her run-up and takeoff and then watch her body glide over the bar. In most visualization training, this focus is achieved by learning to see and subsequently control each concrete component of a movement. In tennis, for example, each stroke consists of "swing, hit, follow-through." With practice, a tennis player can see the ideal motion with the mind's eye.
Visualization can benefit training, too, by helping to transform complex motor procedures into automatic movements. The effects on the body of visualization were demonstrated more than a century ago. In the late 1800s English physiologist William Carpenter discovered that imagining movements could elicit reactions in muscles. When we see a soccer player strike a ball toward the goal, our own leg muscles may contract, imperceptibly if not noticeably. This "ideomotor" (or Carpenter) effect, with repeated visualization, can make the real motion easier to perform.
More recently, brain researchers have studied this phenomenon with imaging technologies. Stephen M. Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard University, discovered that imagining a movement activates the same motor regions of the cerebral cortex that light up during the actual movement. Most researchers theorize that repeatedly visualizing the movement strengthens or adds synaptic connections among relevant neurons. Some basketball players and coaches, for example, claim that repeatedly visualizing the ideal arm and hand motions for a free throw from the foul line improves players success rates in actual games: bend the knees, flex the elbow, cock the wrist, then let the ball roll off the fingertips.
And yet some studies indicate that breaking a motion down into parts and concentrating on them in succession can hinder fluid coordination. The alternative is to imagine the outcome--not the motion but its result, such as the ball dropping through the net. Golfer Tiger Woods reports that it is easier for him to sink putts when he imagines the rattle of the ball in the cup.
Automating one's movements frees up the brain to concentrate on other aspects of an athletic challenge. But even more mind control is needed. Witness the so-called training champions, who perform outstandingly in workouts but falter or choke when the pressure is on during a real race or game. This perplexing situation is familiar to anyone who has smoothly practiced a joke or magic trick over and over but then stumbles when performing it before an audience. It can be difficult for an athlete facing high stakes, championships and sold-out stadiums to keep calm.
Confidence is the antidote, and it comes from a combination of courage, tolerance and attitude. The success of Ukrainian pole-vaulter Sergei Bubka, who won six world championships in the 1980s and 1990s, showed just how important courage can be. Bubka did not dominate his event because of extraordinary physical talent. In this physically and technically demanding sport, every vaulter's knees tremble just before he starts his approach to the bar. But not Bubka's. After hoisting his pole, he would run toward the pit like a crazy man, as if he had no fear at all.
Most champion athletes are usually in good psychological shape; if they werent, they would not have reached such a high level of achievement. Various studies have found that top athletes have a greater ability to concentrate and a stronger will to perform than ordinary mortals. These athletes brim with self-confidence during competitions. Part of this surety is an attitude that is purposely exuded to intimidate competitors. Mostly, however, confidence stems from an athlete's faith in himself. That faith is built by regularly setting high but achievable goals in training and in competition. Attaining these goals and then subsequent ones builds motivation and leads to volition--imagining and achieving any goal desired. With full confidence, individuals can overcome enormous challenges.
For endurance athletes, a large part of their confidence comes from knowing how to tolerate pain, how to push their bodies right up to the pain barrier--and then go beyond it. When the 2004 Tour de France races reached the critical point where the leaders would finally break away from the head pack, Jan Ullrich's German teammate Udo Bolts would yell at him: "Torture yourself, you bastard!"
Professional as well as weekend athletes can develop the ability to shut out pain or fear by training hard. They must also expose themselves to the extreme demands of an actual event repeatedly until the ability to tolerate the intensity becomes routine. Furthermore, to rebound from the physical and psychic stress that these experiences impose, muscular and mental relaxation techniques may be in order. One way to reduce anxiety is autogenic training, which teaches athletes to repeat autosuggestive formulas such as "I am completely calm." Physical relief can come from practices such as progressive muscle relaxation, which involves alternating contractions and relaxations of individual body parts--say, a thigh or shoulder.
Learning to deal with stress and strain is a cornerstone of mental training--one that ideally begins well before a crisis. The possible consequences of constant pressure to perform--experienced today by almost every top athlete--are readily apparent. Fear of failure, inadequate recovery time and unending media harassment are fatiguing, especially for younger, less experienced competitors. When it appears these athletes are at the breaking point, that of course is usually when coaches call in a psychologist. But often it is too late. Many coaches call for expert help only when a situation is already critical. Studies indicate that more than two thirds of all interventions by sports psychologists are done during times of acute problems and crises. Instead of putting out fires, coaches should consider ongoing care, so mental problems can be caught and treated early, before performance suffers.
Nevertheless, some anxiety is unavoidable, and that may not be bad. Coaches often tell their players that a little nervousness is good because it keeps them on their toes. Too much anxiety limits performance, however. Self-talk is a leading method for reducing doubt and anxiety. Boxer Muhammad Ali, who strutted around before every match loudly proclaiming, "I am the greatest!" is probably the most famous practitioner of this technique. Such directed speaking increases one's will to endure.
The need for self-encouragement is highest in sports where winning is determined by subjective judges, such as gymnastics or figure skating. There is no clear order of finish like that in a 100-meter dash or a cycling race. Success in team sports is measured by "softer" criteria, too. Individuals can play well, and the team can still lose. The team needs a strong sense of collective identity. A soccer team, for example, must consist not of 11 individuals but of 11 friends.
A recreational athlete can exploit the same mental tricks that the pros use, whether it is talking to oneself for motivation, believing in one's abilities to induce command of the game, or visualizing one's movements to optimize flow. And more and more amateurs are indeed resorting to mental gymnastics to help them push their own limits. Of course, the fitness industry is quite happy to jump on this bandwagon. Many dubious figures now bill themselves as mental coaches or "motivational trainers," even though neither title is based on any kind of recognized certification or degree.
A qualified mental coach will begin a serious sports psychology workup with a diagnosis of the current situation. On what level is the athlete competing? What are her problems, wishes, goals? Only then can appropriate methods be found to improve concentration, coordination or endurance. Through it all, however, athletes must keep one hard fact in mind: physical fitness and mastery of technique and tactics are the overwhelming determinants of success in any sport. No one has ever won a marathon through mental training alone.