MENTAL EXERCISE. Sports psychologists coach athletes to flex mind and muscle
MOTIVATION and mind games have been a part of sports for as long as anyone can remember. Locker room oratory probably dates back to ancient Olympics and beyond, and in the modern sports world, there are countless examples of coaches and players pulling the mental strings. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath once brashly predicted a major Super Bowl upset of the Baltimore Colts, then helped deliver it. Boxer Muhammad Ali was forever ``psyching out'' his opponents as well as ``psyching up'' himself with his rhetoric and ``float like a butterfly, sting like a bee'' poetry.
These and countless other cases might be considered examples of amateur psychology. But now the professionals have moved into the picture, well aware that a sense of desperation confronts some high-performance athletes.
``When you've done all you can in physical preparation and are looking for a new frontier, which will allow you to achieve new levels of performance, then what is left is the mind,'' says Prof. John Hoberman of the University of Texas.
A historian of sports psychology, Professor Hoberman doesn't perceive mental manipulation as a current danger, but one that has as much frightening potential as is associated with steroid use on the physical side of the coin.
As he sees it, the worst may lie beyond competitions populated by athletes like Ben Johnson, who was stripped of an Olympic gold medal for a positive steroid test.
``The ultimate nightmare is not when the athlete gets down in the blocks and looks at Ben Johnson's thighs and says, `I don't have a chance against that,''' Hoberman says.
``I think the ultimate nightmare is the athlete who gets down in the starting blocks and meets the eyes of the sprinter next to him or her, and looks into those eyes and sees nothing there,'' he adds.
East-bloc countries have been at the cutting edge in employing sports psychology and psychologists in attempts to improve performance. For years, of course, a comic-book type of myth has grown up around the robotlike communist athlete, who supposedly was scientifically produced and programmed. Now, however, there has been a convergence of thinking between West and East, with both attempting to cultivate ever-higher athletic achievements through applied research. As a result, what amount to mental coaches attach themselves either formally or informally to more and more national Olympic delegations.
In Calgary last February, Dr. Peter Jensen, a sports psychologist with the Canadian figure skating team, stayed in the athletes' village and marched in the opening ceremony. In Seoul, two general-assignment psychologists offered their services to the United States team at the Games.
But the Olympics, of course, aren't the only place where specialists on the mental side are plugging in. After a key victory along the way to the 1986 Super Bowl, the New England Patriots presented a game ball to Dr. Armand Nicholi, in recognition of his work as the team psychiatrist and psychologist.
Jim Johnson, a former baseball player, serves as a mental-skills instructor in the Houston Astros farm system, where he works with minor-league baseball players to help them improve their concentration, relaxation, and confidence.
And in fitting the pieces together for its new national development program, the United States Tennis Association brought sports psychologist Jim Loehr on board to work with many of the top young American players.
A variety of situations are addressed in this work, but the aim is to help athletes be as mentally primed for a top performance as they are physically.
``You've only got a certain amount you can do physiologically, and mental preparation allows you to do that,'' says Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger. ``Americans tend to think that pounding your fist, gritting your teeth, and yelling `Let's go' is mental preparation, but in actual fact that can make you perform poorly and choke.''
Pfitzinger works on feeling relaxed and flowing, and says that trying to visualize everything that might happen beforehand helps achieve this condition.
``At the elite level some people tell us athletic performance is about 90 percent mental,'' says Shane Murphy, a full-time psychologist at the US Olympic Training Center.
Older athletes have often worked out their own mental strategies and are reluctant to try new ones. Many younger ones, however, have been quick to embrace sports psychology.
JOHN SILVA, a University of North Carolina professor and head of the 400-member Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, says a great deal of public education is required to establish what his colleagues do and to dispel the notion that only so-called ``head cases'' welcome their input.
The impact of sports psychology is, at best, hard to measure. Even professionals differ on the results. When Brian Orser won a world figure skating title last year after a succession of runner-up finishes, some observers attributed his success to extensive psychological training, including imagery sessions and competition simulations.
Peter Jensen, the psychologist who worked with Orser, is not sure what factors led to the skater's championship effort. ``We never know,'' Jensen says. ``The beauty of sport is that we're dealing with humans, dealing with strengths and weaknesses.
``How do we know that Brian's buying a restaurant wasn't more important than working with me, because suddenly skating wasn't his whole life? I can't say.''
Joan Duda, an associate professor and sports psychologist at Purdue University, says that ``at this time we don't know exactly in terms of predicting, who it's going to work for and who it will not.'' If an athlete doesn't buy into the idea that there is a psychological component to skill performance, and that this can be enhanced through systematic practice, interventions are destined to failure, she explains.
The scientific aura that surrounds sports psychology may lead to an unmerited degree of acceptance, some observers say. Dr. Bill Morgan, head of the University of Wisconsin's sports psychology laboratory in Madison, says there is often insufficient hard evidence to confidently pursue psychological interventions, and little acknowledgment of the potential harmful effects.
Morgan is critical of arguments that draw a parallel with the medical profession and its attempts, in grave situations, to seek cures through trial and error. ``The physician who is operating that way will always tell the patient, `We'll try this. It's an experiment,''' he observes. ``That's a great deal different than either implicitly or explicitly suggesting to the athlete that what you're doing works, when you have no evidence.''
MOST sports psychologists counter that there is a well-established body of knowledge supporting their activity. They note that the uninitiated often expect psychology to provide a quick fix, not realizing that it may take years to refine some of what they've learned. This can lead to a certain amount of skepticism.
``Many athletes are willing to try this for two, three, or four weeks, but if they don't see some kind of dramatic results, they pooh-pooh sports psychology,'' says Rainer Martens, a longtime sports pschologist who now publishes books about the sports sciences in Champaign, Ill.
At least on the surface, sports psychology sometimes appears to be simple common sense, with a bit more sophistication. Many successful coaches are credited with instinctively employing basic psychological concepts in their work.
``The good coaches are good street-corner psychologists,'' Wisconsin's Bill Morgan says.
Some sports psychologists see their role as short-term aides-de-camp to coaches, who can't be up to speed in all the facets of athletic development. The psychologist, then, is another specialist, along with the nutritionist, exercise physiologist, and others in the support team. Abby Hoffman, who works with the Canadian Olympic movement as director general of Sport Canada, has expressed her reservations about what increased attention to psychological training means in this context.
``My concern is for the environment surrounding the athlete and whether it is in danger of becoming cluttered with the support staff,'' she told Maclean's Magazine.
``And I'm not sure that having crutches supports the capacity of the athletes.''
COMPETING ON ANOTHER LEVEL
Those were the cue words that helped one Canadian sprinter (not Ben Johnson) knock 6/100ths of a second off his starting time.
``It's the stupidest thing in the world, but he just explodes out of the blocks,'' says Dr. Sue Wilson, who helped the athlete find the winning mental cues.
The word ``fuzzy'' was chosen because it summed up the state of relaxation this athlete wanted to achieve. The word ``arm'' was originally tacked on to emphasize the need for arm movement at the start. But this took too long to say, and ``snap'' was discovered to be a quicker, more effective alternative. This worked well, except that he seemed to momentarily stop after his initial thrust. So another ``snap'' was added to help him bring his second leg through, and since then, his pace has quickened.
During 50-minute sessions in his Brookline, Mass., office, Dr. Harvey Dulberg, a private sports psychologist, works with an array of clients, from a professional baseball player to a Little Leaguer, on such things as relaxation training, visualization, and combating negative self-talk. A young woman skater was so notorious for throwing tantrums during practices and competitions that nobody wanted to work with her. Dulberg taught her to ``take her anger out on the competition by imagining that anger is a physical thing, rolling it into a ball, and throwing it out of the rink.''
Psychological training principles are also applied in team settings. When Dr. Dan Smith, now the basketball coach at the State University of New York at Brockport, was at the University of Illinois, his psychological expertise was tapped by the football and basketball teams, as well as the Chicago White Sox baseball franchise.
Smith notes that the needs of players vary by position. In football, for example, defensive linemen generally play well when very ``fired up,'' because of the added strength and explosiveness needed in rushing the passer. Quarterbacks, on the other hand, need to be more relaxed, because being too emotionally charged could lessen one's ability to concentrate on multiple tasks.
Smith met with players, by position, in nine groups in the days leading up to a game. They'd all come together in a large hotel function room for one combined pre-game session, in which the players would lie on the floor and get into the proper mental framework. This, Smith says, makes much more sense than locker room exhortations from the coach. ``If he comes in and gives a rip-roaring, fiery pep talk and appeals to everybody's pride and everybody's level of arousal, he helps his defensive linemen, but he might kill his quarterback, punter, and place kicker.''
One term frequently used by sports psychologists is ``imagery.'' It often refers to seeing an ideal athletic performance in the mind's eye.
``All athletes carry that sort of internal plan around inside them; it governs their activity,'' says Shane Murphy, psychologist at the United States Olympic Training Center. ``You have to think of an action before you take it.''
Imagery and self-hypnosis are related, but hypnosis is supposedly a deeper experience, with limited athletic applications. ``Hypnosis still gets associated with stage hypnosis, show bix, and all of that,'' says Rainer Martens, a sports psychologist in Champaign, Ill. ``Imagery, I believe, can be presented as much more of a positive psychological skill.''
And people in the field like to underline that word ``skill,'' since they argue that mental abilities must be honed the same way physical ones are, with plenty of practice.