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Sochi Olympics and Sports Psychology for Athletes

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The Sochi Olympics are here. Sports psychology techniques are being used to mental prepare Olympians to perform their best around the world. I'm working closely with my Olympic athletes, who are headed for Sochi to compete on the world's biggest stage. I can let you in on what goes on behind the scenes and how you can apply these same strategies.

Being their sports psychologist and performance coach, I'm using leading edge mental training techniques and customized sports visualization training audios to help them be more confident, relaxed, and focused so they can be at at heir best under pressure when the world is watching. Did you know that using these mental training tips, you can actually do the same thing? You can do what I call "Olympic Thinking" -- have the mindset and performance of a Olympian. In this series of blogs I'll show you exactly how to do this.

What Can You Do With Your Imagination?

Even if you are not yet accomplished in visualization techniques, it is reassuring to know that everyone has an imagination, and everyone can improve with practice. You can develop positive images and utilize the experiences and feelings that serve you best. You can take the best you have been and the best you can possibly be, incorporate that into your mind's eye, and then transform those visions into reality.

You can use visualization for virtually any goal or problem that you need to work on. Imagery can be used for reducing stress, focusing attention, energizing, problem solving, or skill learning.

I was working with one athlete recently just before the Olympic Trials in speed skating. She talked about how imagery has helped her uncover her true potential in the 1,500 meters. During visualization, she incorporates all of her senses into the experience. She feels her forefoot pushing off the track, she hears her skating splits, and she sees herself surging ahead of the competition.

She experiences all of the elements of her race in explicit detail before executing her performance. At the Olympic Trials, she went on to set a new American record using mental training techniques on a regular basis. It appears generally true that athletes who are most successful have developed the psychological foundation for their performances well in advance of the actual event.

What Can You Use Imagery For?

You can also use imagery for controlling emotional states, for dealing with unexpected contingencies, for centering, or for blocking distractions. Andy Palmer, Ph.D., coach, sports psychologist, and former 2:16 marathoner tells athletes to consider using imagery as a way to deal with specific weaknesses in their workouts and races. He states: "For instance if you tend to go out too fast in the beginning of races, try imagining that situation and mentally rehearse what you would do at the moment you know you're in trouble. You'll realize that you can be in control of the situation."

You may also use visualization to set appropriate goals, to motivate yourself, to mentally rehearse your workouts, or to manage pain during a race.

In my interview with world champion miler Marty Liquori, he noted: "I have always believed, if you want to be a champion, you will have to win every race in your mind 100 times before you win it in real life that last time."

So visualization in your mind's eye is a powerful tool. It can help improve everything you want to do. You can gain greater control over your body, mind, and emotions, and integrate them to maximize the quality of your workouts and your life. By changing the inner attitude of the mind, you can transform the outer elements of your athletic training, and your life.

How does Visualization Work for Sports?

There are two primary theories that explain why visualization may have an impact on sports performance. First, images may be an efficient way of coding or representing instructions for movement. As described earlier, forming an image of a correct swim stroke provides a simpler, more complete description of the motion than is possible with words.

Secondly, when you imagine yourself performing an action, you are transmitting electrical impulses to the muscles involved in executing the action. When I do a computerized biofeedback assessment with a runner, for instance, I can place EMG electrodes on the quadriceps muscles, and we can see that those muscles are being activated as he or she visualizes running a race.

During imagery, these neuromuscular impulses have the same pattern as the impulses generated when the athlete is actually running. Of course, these changes are somewhat less than those that occur when you actually perform the activity. You can't simply visualize your way to a great 10k, but the internal changes may be strengthening the neural pathways involved when these movements are performed.

Why Should You Use Your Senses?

Now let's talk about a variety of imagery categories and see how visualization incorporates the senses. After you become familiar with the various options, you can then select a particular type of imagery that matches your own perception style.

Most experts agree that for maximum effectiveness, mental images should be positive and vivid, and evoke as many senses as possible. Why should imagery be a sensory experience?

Events can be felt and remembered most vividly through the senses. When the senses are brought into an experience it makes you pay better attention to the details of how you complete an action or skill. You can integrate your emotions and senses into the preparation for each type of action.

So the goal is to fully experience everything you need to do to be successful in your performances -- your training form, pacing, balance, range of motion, even your state of mind and energy level.

You may be able to see yourself bounding up a steep hill, or hear the sound of the crowd cheering you toward the finish line, or feel the speed in your legs as you surge around the curve on a track. For some athletes mental images may not be as visual but rather more kinesthetic responses. For instance, swimmers often need to have a feel for the water in order to excel in their sport.

So if you want to make a real change in your performance you need to incorporate as many senses as possible into your imagery.

This week, as you go for your workout, try using all five of your senses. Then let me know if this is helpful, and what questions you have for me,

Stay tuned for my next blog, where I'll show you more mental training tips to think like an Olympian!

 
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