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Sports Psychology Olympics at Sochi: Inside the Mind of an Olympian -- Mental Training to Perform Your Best

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How do Olympic athletes work with sports psychologists behind the scenes so they can perform their best? How do they use mental training and visualization to overcome their fears and stay focused? Did you know, can you use the same techniques as the Olympians?

I interviewed Olympian Melissa Hoar, who placed 12th in the sport of Skeleton in the Vancouver Olympics, and who is now training for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. This kind of mental preparation can be used by anyone, whether you are looking to lose weight or to get faster in your sport.

Melissa, I know you placed 12th in the sport of Skeleton in the Vancouver Olympics, and you are now training for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

Yes, I competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in the sport of Skeleton, and I was junior champion in 2006. I'm now in training for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

I know in the sport of Skeleton you're hurling down an icy hill, head-first, going 90 miles an hour, on a tiny sled with virtually no protection. With this kind of speed there's a lot of potential danger. Melissa, how important is the mental component in your sport?

Yeah, like you said, we are going 90 miles an hour, and our chin is just a couple of inches off the ice. We have to keep our chin as close as we can possibly keep it to the track. We're experiencing up to five-and-a-half G-forces on our body (more than most fighter pilot feel). So this really limits the amount of time we can spend on the ice for our training.

So we actually have to spend a lot of time off the ice preparing mentally for those particular slides that we take on each day. There's a limit on how many times you can go down each run because of the G-forces and the danger.

We spend a lot of time preparing mentally for every slide that we are taking, trying to maximize the potential on the ice. So when we're just sitting, waiting, there is time to do mental training.

Yes, it's exciting to watch you improve and to get even more focused as we go toward the Sochi Olympics. Melissa, I wonder if you could tell us about one of your toughest challenges, maybe one of your training or racing experiences. What was your biggest challenge that you had to meet and how did you get through it?

Well, that's a tough one, as every single day there's some type of challenge. Well, I can tell you about Whistler, which was the venue for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. That is the fastest track in the world. You pull the most G-forces on that track in the world, and every single time I stand at the top of the track I question my sanity before I go down. I ask myself, "Why am I doing this again?"

When I did a race there recently, just being able to break it down into each section of the track that I had to focus on. With the visualizations, it really enables you to approach it in a different way. It's not so daunting. It's like, well now I'm thinking about the start, and now I'm thinking about curve one and two, and now I'm thinking about curve 3, and 4, and 5. Just being able to link it together and think about it in a different way. This makes it not seem like it's the scariest thing you ever done.

As a sports psychologist and performance coach, I know we've worked together with visualization techniques and creating customized MP3 mental training audios for you that you're playing on your IPOD to prepare for the Sochi Olympics.

With the mental preparation work for your Skeleton, can you talk about the things that you think this mental training has helped you with?

Our mental training is really helping me to maximize my performance on the ice. Obviously I've always been using mental preparation, but you really helped me to maximize the way I was using it to get the most out of my time in my Skeleton races and to really prepare myself. Actually it helps to prepare for each particular course.

With the mental preparation visualization audios that we made, you were really specific in telling me about each curve and going into each entrance and each exit of the curve. I felt like I was right there with you as you're describing going down the hill. It's amazing how quickly your mind has to work right to deal with the quick changes and to react to everything that you doing because you're going 90 mph?

Oh yes, absolutely, you have to know it like the back of the hand, even better than you know in the back of your hand, when you get on that sled. You really have to know what's coming.

I guess before I spoke with you I never really thought about it in such great detail. Like those really fine aspects that you had me explore, when we were chatting about the entrances and the exits and the profiles that what I needed to execute in each curve. I never really approached it with such detail as when we spoke.

I know that we talked about dealing with negative thoughts and self-doubts. When you train, are you able to change negative ideas to more positive thoughts as they go through your mind?

Yes, it's just kind of cleaning up my brain a little bit so to speak, just keeping everything really positive and not thinking about the doubts. If there's a curve that's really difficult, now I'm not thinking, "Oh no here comes this curve," but saying to myself, "Here I come." This training changed my perception, and how I think about my performance.

I think at first you mentioned that you were thinking too much about the results and not enough about the execution and what you need to do right now. And it seems like you've really improved in this aspect, so that you're now thinking more about what's going on -- right here, right now. You're saying to yourself, "Just this run, just this curve."

Yes, it's been a really tough Olympic season to not think about the end result that you want to achieve. It's really difficult to stay in the here and now and have that present focus.

So I was actually really struggling with that in the first half this season and then when we started talking during the second half of the season I really was able to change my mindset and my focus to staying in the present moment, and really focusing on the execution of each race and not the final result at the end of the season.

I think most people probably wonder what drew you into this sport and what attracted you to it? As you say, sometimes you question your sanity. People watching the Skeleton may say, this is crazy.

Well actually, I got talent identified in Australia. I was a sprinter and they looked for athletes they thought would be good at Skeleton. Because I was a sprinter, I had that fast start ability. Basically that was all they could look for in a potential athlete for Skeleton. So they took that top 12 fastest girls that trialed over to Canada put us on sleds sent us down the track, and said good luck!

With no training?

Well, we were given some "point-of-view" videos to look at. But at the time I was I just finishing University in Australia and I was competing in a different sport in life-saving, called Beach Flags, and I just finished competing at World Championships in that. I basically came straight over into the sport of Skeleton, and yes I didn't have much time to prepare mentally for that first time now the track. It was such an adrenalin a rush!

I know that you are training at Palmer College in San Jose, California, to become a Doctor of Chiropractic. Do you think that this whole experience as a champion athlete and being an Olympian can help your practice as a chiropractor to you be able to help other people?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I can take so much from my experience as an athlete into practice with me. I have a vast knowledge of a lot of injuries. The dedication it takes to be an elite athlete, I can bring that into practice with me. I think it'll be really valuable tool and hopefully help to put me one step ahead and be able to give the best service to my patients that I possibly can.

I think you have everything it takes to be a great chiropractor and a great Olympic athlete. And I would like to come to you as your chiropractic patient when you open your practice.

Great, signed up, patient #1.

It's great talking with you, Melissa, and good luck with the Olympics. You've got you got all the right ingredients. You have the mind and the body components all working together to continue your work as a champion!

JoAnn Dahlkoetter, Ph.D., Olympic keynote speaker and leading sports psychologist, is the founder of Performing Edge Coaching International Association, offering coach certification training, and the editorial director of www.DrJoAnn.com as well as #1 bestselling author of Your Performing Edge.

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