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Mind plays a big role in athletic training

January 4, 2000


No longer is natural ability or the mastery of physical skills adequate for an athlete -- at any level -- to be successful.

Now sports psychology uses behavioral strategies to enhance such aspects of performance as injury prevention, skill development, rehabilitation, endurance training, mental focus, relaxation, confidence, self-esteem and pleasure. By putting the mind to work, undesirable or unhealthy traits can be minimized or eliminated and desirable qualities enhanced.

There are a number of psychological skills that the athlete needs to learn to improve performance.

The first is arousal regulation, better known as "psyching up." This can be accomplished by using a routine of physical movements or mind images, often accompanied by music. Also important to psyching up is short-term goal setting, which involves changing tasks during the sports activity. Sometimes your basketball team needs you to rebound or play defense. Other times it needs you to hit the open jumper or sink free throws. Being mentally prepared helps relieve the pressure to perform.

At the other end of the spectrum are relaxation techniques. These include relaxing one's overall posture, accompanied by slow deep breathing, music and mental focus. Techniques such as yoga, tai chi, transcendental meditation, progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback can help one learn how to induce relaxation.

To establish self-confidence, an athlete must learn proper goal setting. Different types are long-range goals and performance goals that are realistic and positive. Setting a goal to always win a game or match often is out of one's control. Athletes must learn to be satisfied with performing to the best of their abilities by setting challenging but attainable goals.

Proper self-talk skills are essential. Negative self-talk characterizes poor performance and predisposes the athlete to injury and slow healing. Positive self-talk scripts should be designed and rehearsed. The most important issue to master is the immediate elimination of negative thoughts.

Another area of sports psychology is concentration. This involves focusing and imaging techniques. Focusing consists of staying in the present and giving up guilt or worry about past and future performances. An athlete needs to recognize early anxiety signs, accept them and refocus on the present. This may require the athlete to employ relaxation techniques to clear the mind.

Focusing requires commitment and practice; successful practitioners report it feels like time is slowing down.

Imaging entails forming a picture of yourself performing successfully. It also requires practice, and imagery should use all five senses. Athletes who have achieved their ultimate physical performance or been "in the zone" report an increased focus, the feeling that time has slowed down and a sense of detachment.

Finally, when preparing for a big game or tournament, it's natural for athletes to begin to focus on the contest. But being too serious for too long interferes with peak performance. Athletes should try to learn from their experience, make adjustments and integrate them for the future.

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