Olympic Sports Psychology Has Much to Offer Most of Us

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

In Olympic competitions, physical excellence alone doesn't set apart winners from non-winners.  All things being equal, those who have the greater mental strength and mastery of their emotions win.   Varghas, an Olympic boxing contestant says, "Boxing is 99% mental strength."         
In recognition of the role that the mind plays, "Performance-Enhancement Education," a branch of sports psychology, has come in great demand.  At the 1994 Olympic winter games in Lillehamer, the three most requested services by athletes were, coaching, massage, and sports psychology.  More than twenty sports psychologists are working with athletes at the '96 Summer Olympics.   

 There is a strong connection between our mental state and our performance.  Training in mind over matter, intense concentration, mental strength, mood management, public performance confidence, and crisis management can help athletes to perform at their highest potential.  Since we all need these qualities, I wish to highlight a few of the basic principles of performance enhancement:               

1.  When you perform a task, bring your mind completely into focus.  Do the task with intense concentration.  When mentally trained athletes are about to perform, they are a picture of intense concentration.  

2.  Focus on task-details rather than on possible failures and slip-ups.  For example, if you're going to sail, focus on the wind, the waves, and the course you're going to take rather than on failures such as, mechanical breakdown, getting lost, loss of communication with the ground, etc.

3.  Focus on your best moves, your power moves, rather than on outcomes such as, "Would I be number one or number two or will I be in the list of "also ran?"  Contrary to popular belief, focusing even on the  victory during the actual performance can seriously interfere with one's ability to perform.  Top performers constantly focus on their power moves rather than on the outcome.  This concentrates their powers for excellent performance.   The experience of "flow," a state of perfect mind-body unison during performance, results from intense concentration on the task at hand and suspension of both fear (of failure) and desire (for success).         

4.  Override all distractions and focus on the techniques and procedures you need to employ.  Whenever distractions, from outside or inside arise, refocus yourself on what you are doing.    

5.  Manage your emotions and your mood state.  Anger, worries, doubts, depression, and other negative emotions interfere with performance.  With regard to life crises, handle them rather than letting crises handle you.  Life is beset with conflicts, arguments, disappointments, failures, and losses.  If you don't bounce back swiftly from such events, you will probably spend a lot of time nursing your wounds  rather than nourishing yourself.                     

6.  Do not become fixated on only one function or one aspect of the task at hand.  We tend to be fixated on the ones that we like most or feel most comfortable with.  Focus on all the essential aspects and functions of the task at hand.  

7.  Reduce your general level of stress.  Learn deep breathing, controlled breathing, and muscle relaxation exercises.  You probably have noticed athletes doing just that as they wait for their turn to compete.  

8.  Utilize the task-related specific stress to get yourself fired up.  For example, some of the most accomplished public speakers and stage performers were once extremely anxious; but they learned to utilize "butterflies" and "knots" of their abdomen for a most forceful and energized performance.  It is said that the greater the fear of a task, the greater the potential for excellence of performance in that task.  

9.  Prepare for the task by doing both "mental practice" and actual practice.   Mental practice consists of visualizing a perfect performance in detail.   When you combine the two type of practices in the preparatory period, you can attain a greater mastery of the task.  

10.  Picture the whole sequence of actions in your mind, before you start.  Master sculptors visualize a statue, from head to toe, in their mind's eve before they pick up a chisel.  Mentally trained athletes visualize the whole sequence of their intended feat before they actually perform it.    

11.  Instead of dwelling on your fear, focus on the actions that will keep you out of danger or will bail you out, if you do step into the danger zone.  Example:  A kayaker was obsessed that she may not be able to maneuver out of some rough rapids.  She was taught to visualize a sequence of paddle strokes that would guide her boat between the rough rapids.  Once she learned to visualize that instead of focusing on being caught in the rapids, she did great.  Moral: "When caught in fire, don't stare at the fire, look for the exit."   

If you follow these principles, you too can become unstoppable. 

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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