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Olympics: Science of the Sporting Life
Posted 26 JANUARY 2006 (Expanded 2006 based on 1996 story)


blue-suited speed skater racesDo you mind your body?
Once upon a time, mind and body were considered separate. Psychologists studied one, physicians studied the other. In the past couple of decades, scientists have discovered fiendishly complex linkages between mind and body. Social support influences cancer survival. Nutrition affects concentration. Attitude affects susceptibility to disease. You can document this with cold, impersonal numbers.

Mid-bounce, a girl in a navy swim suit extends her arms, ready to complete her dive.To pull off a good dive, it helps to pause for a moment of concentration. Photo: Navy

For our purposes, what matters is that attitude and alertness affect athletic performance. This fact explains that inward look while a speed-skater psychs herself up for a race, the pause for concentration you see when a diver composes herself on the board.

What's going on in these moments of supreme concentration, as the athlete prepares for a performance that could bag an Olympic medal -- even a major endorsement deal? Concentration, mental mapping of the upcoming event, and relaxation; in sum, mental training.

Richard Gordin, a professor of health, physical education and recreation at Utah State University, told us in 1996 that it wasn't just Olympic-caliber athletes who stand to benefit from mental training. The discipline "could apply to recreational athletes as well," Gordin says.

Gordin thinks sports psychology should be called "performance psychology," since its tenets are equally applicable to any endeavor requiring extreme concentration and effort. Gordin says he's taught this five-step plan, developed by Canadian sports psychologist Terry Orlick, to gymnasts and fencers, and surgeons and actors:

Mental Readiness: a feeling of preparation, an ability to foresee what will occur during the event.

Full focus: placing all energy -- mental and physical -- on the upcoming event.

Distraction control: tuning out distractions, like crowds and Olympic razzle-dazzle; and internal distractions, like messages of hope or fear that only increase tension.

Positive imagery: imagining yourself doing the event flawlessly, which seems to train the mind to control the body more effectively.

Constructive evaluation: the ability to learn from the recent event. Instead of saying "it was really dumb to let my guard down like that," a fencer might, for example, think, "My opponent likes to strike high. I've got to be ready to parry."

'If every competition were a life-or-death situation, you'd be dead a lot.'Gordin notes that many athletes learn these skills by the seat of their pants, and don't need much instruction, but athletes can have problem areas. For instance, many elite athletes have difficulty with constructive evaluation. "There are some athletes who are highly perfectionistic, to the point where it's a fault. Perfectionism will take you a long way, but then it can take you down."

An athlete who is focused on winning can be devastated at a loss -- even while setting a personal best in an event, Gordin says. "These people almost define themselves by the outcome, whether they win or lose."

On the other hand, he finds many athletes have a constructive approach to competition. After a swimming final in Barcelona in 1992, a reporter asked the new silver medalist at poolside if she was "devastated at being 3/100 seconds off the gold."Man in large curly wig sits at desk faintly smiling.

Instead, she answered, "I won a silver medal. I'm second in the world. I'm happy."

The philosophical schism between mind and body traces to the ancient Greeks, but French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) helped popularize the notion. Modern psychology and physiology are reuniting mind and body, which has changed athletic training. Image: NASA

The win-at-all-costs attitude is even more prevalent among coaches than athletes, Gordin says. "They're often so totally involved in the athlete that results become all-important. But as one coach said, 'if every competition were a life-or-death situation, you'd be dead a lot.'"

In sports psychology, as in the rest of life, moderation and balance are the key, Gordin concludes. "It's a fine line. You want to win, and that can push you all the way, but it can also destroy you if you let it."

Time destroyed this stadium of the ancient Olympics. Archeology restored it.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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