Being Positive: Sports Psychology

January 9, 2006
In mind games, always play to win
Whether an Olympian or a beginner, athletes at any level can benefit from mental techniques to improve focus.

By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, Special to The Times

ENJOYING the sheer magnitude of her success, an athlete who won a Winter Olympics medal four years ago had no question that she would be guaranteed a spot for the upcoming games in Italy.

But she wasn’t.

She had been warned two years before the trials that unless she overhauled her approach to the competition and sharpened her technique, she wouldn’t make the team, recalls Scott McCann, head of the sports psychology department of the U.S. Olympic Committee. The athlete still didn’t believe it — until the results came in from one of the preliminary competitions and she tanked.

One of the most accomplished athletes on the planet had lost perspective on how she was performing. “It was a giant shock for her,” McCann says. “She was coasting while the rest of the world was advancing. Finally she realized that she had to get back to basics.”

At that point, she began taking the coach’s advice seriously, seeking suggestions about changing her approach, training more rigorously — and managing, in the process, to be in a position to reach for the gold next month.

Most of us will never have a similar moment of reckoning about our own athletic endeavors, and not just because we don’t have the benefit of Olympic coaches and trainers who are able to tease out the nuances of each performance. We tend to settle into our workout routines, satisfied to run the five miles or swim the 72 laps without bothering to analyze exactly how we are doing it.

And yet the strategies used by professionals and those competing in Torino next month can be employed by civilians, say sports psychologists, coaches and mental skills specialists. Such techniques can reinvigorate workouts that have gone stale or make more effective the ones that are still cherished.

Know what makes you tick

Taking inventory of strengths and weaknesses; engaging in self-talk during workouts; and developing not just confidence, but what trainers and sports psychologists refer to as “mental toughness” are all techniques elite athletes use, sports psychologists say.

Of course, for the average athlete, such techniques might require a radically new way of thinking.

“One of the great differences between virtuosos in any field and the rest of us is that they can tell good from bad better than anyone else,” says Fran Pirozzolo, player development coach with the Houston Texans and author of several books on mental skills and golf. “Elite athletes are gifted with a bodily intelligence and awareness. They are far more in touch with the landscape of their physical abilities than the average person.”

And because of that, many know how to be honest about their capacities. A scratch golfer himself, Pirozzolo has been an unofficial golf coach for professional football and baseball players.

When he played golf with baseball great Roger Clemens, he began by giving him a few strokes and still beat him by 10 strokes. But by their third game, Clemens shot 69 and beat him.

“His mental skills of focus and competitiveness were transferable from baseball to golf,” says Pirozzolo. “But most important, he was really clear about his strengths, which was his great athleticism and physical strength, and his weaknesses, and he figured out how to make it all work.”

Perhaps no athlete demonstrated the astonishing capacity “to make it all work” more than one-handed major league pitcher and now L.A. Angel pitching coach Jim Abbott.

Born without a right hand, Abbott nonetheless won a baseball scholarship to the University of Michigan. He became a professional baseball player after graduating and played for 10 seasons on four teams, including the N.Y. Yankees. He threw a no-hitter for the Yankees. Abbott had to hold his glove under his armpit and would switch it to his pitching hand after throwing the ball so he could field his position.

“I always went with the method that felt the most comfortable to me,” Abbott writes on his website, . “For example, some people said I should have hit right-handed, well, left-handed just seemed more of a natural fit to me. I always wanted to incorporate both arms as best I could.”

Abbott describes an approach that most coaches and sports psychologists suggest as a first step for everyone in assessing their own capabilities: Consider what feels most comfortable, provides the most enjoyment and is gratifying.

“When we first work with clients, we ask them what they have the most fun with,” says Sam Hirschberg, a former professional tennis player and chief executive of the Mental Strength Training Center, a national network of sports psychologists and trainers based in Camarillo. “If you take tennis as an example and someone says to you, ‘I love hitting my serve,’ then we will help the athlete turn that into their absolute strength.”

Mike Bottom, a former Olympic swimmer, swimming coach at UC Berkeley and Olympic coach for more than a dozen competitors, agrees. With all athletes, he says, especially elite athletes, he focuses on strengths.

One swimmer from Spain that he coached was, at 5 feet 10 inches, six inches shorter than most competitive swimmers at that level. Still, he had strengths that he used to compensate for his height. Bottom filmed him swimming and zeroed in on his strength, form and the way he fit in the water.

But the approach that he takes with his swimmers, he says, could work for everyone.

“Take an inventory of what you like to do and what works for you,” he says. “No workout can be sustained if there aren’t really enjoyable things about it.”

Bottom insists that positive messages are essential for performance.

Keep an eye on confidence

One of the biggest battles for athletes involves losing focus or self-confidence. For every great three-hour practice session that an athlete has, if 15 minutes were less than perfect many elite athletes will fixate on that period and lose confidence.

Avoiding that loss of confidence, says the Olympic Committee’s McCann, is a fundamental challenge for athletes and the rest of us. He says that in order to have consistently strong performances, athletes need to acquire offensive mental skills and defensive mental skills.

The offensive mental skills are the ones “that let an athlete dominate a competition,” such as drive, competitive desire, visualization skills, comfort with risk and confidence. Every time Lance Armstrong passes competitors on an incline in the Alps, he is demonstrating his offensive mental skill.

Defensive mental skills, on the other hand, “help athletes succeed consistently and in all conditions.” Defensive mental skills help athletes control competitive anxiety, manage their energy, their anger and frustration, and help them recover from performance setbacks.

McCann points to American speed skater Eric Heiden’s ability to quickly recover from the effort of the last race, which helped him win a record five individual medals at Lake Placid in 1980, and Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie’s capacity to adapt and respond to surges and fades by other runners in 10,000-meter races.

Balancing these two sets of skills, and integrating them, requires discipline and training, but at least one element can be relatively easy to adopt.

Sports psychologists refer to it as “self-talk,” positive words and phrases that athletes silently repeat as they train and compete. Hirschberg says each athlete is given 10 to 15 powerful self-talk phrases to repeat to himself.

Bottom also employs this technique with his swimmers at Berkeley and in the Olympics. In the past, he says, he thought the best way to handle a race was to clear your mind and just swim.

Now he tells his swimmers to take 10 deep breaths before each race, with each breath “representing a word or action that I want to accomplish. Basically it is a program to let the conscious mind control the subconscious mind, the one that is filled with doubts and negativity. And this can be done by everyone.”

A 2005 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine looked at the content of athlete’s self-talk and tried to examine its different functions in practices and competitions. The study found that most athletes used self-talk in competition far more than in practices and individual athletes used self-talk more than team sport athletes.

In the end, no matter what the level, there is always room to improve, and improvement yields enormous payoffs, not only in a more effective workout, but also in self-esteem.

“We see incredible things and the message is that the brain is very plastic and the potential for growth and improvement in performance is not an illusion,” Pirozzolo says. “People can get involved in sports and enhance their lives by discovering the limits and the range of their talents and abilities.”

Just like an Olympic athlete.

Getting inside your head

The various psychological strategies employed by coaches, sports psychologists and athletes can be divided into offensive mental skills and defensive mental skills, says sports psychologist Scott McCann, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s sports psychology department.

“If you really want to be great at anything — academics, sports, business … — you need to have both the drive that pushes you forward, and the mental toughness to bounce back when things don’t go perfectly,” he says.

He sees drive as one of the offensive mental skills and resilience as one of the defensive skills. Here is the way he describes each category:

Offensive mental skills and their effect on performance:

• Competitive desire — Helps to motivate, improve skills and battle for the win in a tight contest

• Visualization skills — Shows a path to success and keeps thoughts simple during competition

• Self-talk skills — Can be adjusted to keep athletes positive and action-oriented

• Competition planning — Helps with decisions before competition so that the event is focused on performance

• Ability to commit — Allows athletes to give 100% during competition and to stay with new training approaches long enough to see the benefit (such as changing technique)

• Comfort with risk — A winning approach sometimes requires a willingness to lose

• Confidence — Makes it easier to set high goals and execute good competition plans

Defensive skills and their effect on performance:

• Desire for excellence in training — Helps athletes train the way they compete, practically and efficiently

• Controlling competitive anxiety — Keeps athletes calm, especially critical as events become more important

• Controlling anger and frustration — Saves energy for competition and helps athletes stay on task even if problems should emerge

• Energy management (raising intensity) — Allows athletes to “ramp up” energy as needed

• Energy management (recovery between efforts) — Allows athletes to use recovery time available so they have needed energy to finish

• Recovery from setbacks — Encourages a rapid return from mistakes, defeats or bad luck while maintaining positive and useful thoughts

• Being flexible when environment changes — Enables a quick adaptation to change, tolerate disruptions to routine and see opportunities

• Focus despite distractions — Keeps athletes on task, with senses oriented on useful signals

• Mental maintenance — Keeps athletes self-aware, noting changes and variations, making needed adjustments

— Marianne Szegedy-Maszak