Before two-time Olympic figure skater Randy Gardner could nail the throw triple Salchow with his partner, Tai Babilonia, he had to see this complicated jump and landing in his mind.
"It worked almost instantaneously," the world pair champion, U.S. National pair champion and Los Angeles-based coach and choreographer tells WebMD. "Once you see it in your head, you can do it."
Gardner and other elite athletes — including those now competing in the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy — often use visualization, goal setting, and refocusing to help them mentally prepare for important events. Some of these same techniques can also help weekend warriors improve their tennis game and help a person slim down, experts tell WebMD.
Though physical training and conditioning are obviously important to performance, emotional conditioning or mental-skills training can often help athletes stand out.
"Emotional conditioning is crucial because once you get to any level in sport — whether high school, Division I collegiate, the nationals, the Olympics, or even as a weekend warrior — everyone is pretty equal physically. It's those who can handle noise, stress, pressure, and distraction who are the ones that win," says Jenny Susser, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in the Women's Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
"Emotional conditioning is the watchword of the universe," says Steven Ungerleider, Ph.D., author of "Mental Training for Peak Performance: Top Athletes Reveal the Mind Exercises They Use to Excel." "It's just as important as physical training," says Ungerleider, who is also a psychologist based in Eugene, Ore.
"Each athlete is unique in the way that they go about mental preparation," explains Mark Hogue, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and sports psychologist at Northshore Psychological Associates in Erie, Pa. "Athletes certainly do a great deal of physical preparation. And to reach an elite status in sport, they must do a great deal with mental preparation as well."
"Athletes that participate in mental preparation, rehearsal, and skills training tend to achieve a higher level of the elite status," Hogue says.
Tricks of the Trade
The visualization technique that Gardner describes is a staple in most emotional conditioning programs. But it's also important to learn how to pick up on the correct cues, says Dan G. Tripps, Ph.D. Tripps is director of the Master's in Sports Administration and Leadership program at the Center for the Study of Sport at Seattle University in Washington.
"In a figure-skating event, you need to concentrate on your partner and not pay attention to the crowd or the behavior of the judges," he says. "It's about narrowing your focus."
Anxiety, worry, doubts, fears, or butterflies can be reduced with this technique, he says.
Mental training also helps eliminate the element of surprise, he explains.
"It can throw you when your opponent does something that you don't expect or when your body has an unusual reaction. But if you mentally plan for surprises — and execute them in, visualization exercises — then you are not flustered or confused by something that happens that's out of character," he says. For example, "if you fall in a preliminary skating run, you can remain poised, then refocus and perform better during the next important round," Tripps says.
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