Elite Athletes Use Sports Psychology
We hear a lot about the tricks and techniques developed by sports psychologists to help athletes break through mental barriers in order to achieve better performance. Professional athletes have been on the forefront of popularizing these techniques by discussing them in their media interviews.
Here we will focus on the tried and true tools of mental imagery, focused yoga-like breathing and positive thinking that help athletes to visualize their success, to act out their physical movements, to calm their nerves in the heat of the moment, to practice quick responses to various hypothetical scenarios, to motivate themselves by reliving a successful moment, to reduce negative thoughts, and even to maintain positive spirits during the recovery period after a brutal injury.
As you can see, these extremely effective mental exercises are one of sports psychology’s greatest gifts to athletes, from amateur to elite. Using these tools can help athletes navigate an incredible array of mental, emotional and even physical obstacles.
Here are just 5 professional athletes who have found success with sports psychology techniques.
1) Emily Cook – U.S. Freestyle Aerials Skier
During her training for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Emily Cook practiced the psychological technique of mental imagery.
The United States Olympic ski team brought in 5 sports psychologists to help with training. Cook’s sports psychologist, Nicole Detling, began working with Cook in January 2002. While training for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Cook crashed during a practice run. She fractured and dislocated the bones of her left foot and tore ligaments in both feet. Cook had to miss the Olympics that season after her doctors told her she may never walk again.
Soon after, Detling worked with Cook on imagery, a sports psychology technique that’s often called “visualization.” But as Cook pointed out to The New York Times, visualization is somewhat of a passé term. What is truly needed is not just a visual imagination, but a full sensory experience. The athlete must place themselves in the moment to feel, hear, smell, see and even taste every moment of their imagined performance. That is why sports psychologists now use the word “mental imagery” to encompass all of the senses.
For the injured Cook, this imagery necessarily began with the healing process. Cook and Detling worked on imagining the bones slowly fusing and healing. Within 2 years, doctors cleared Cook for heavy training for the 2006 Olympics. From there, Cook’s imagery changed.
Together with Detling, Cook wrote detailed imagery scripts that took her from the moment she stepped out to the edge of hill to the finale landing and the cheers of the crowd. She wrote down how her perfect run would be performed, complete with sensory details, like the crisp wind blowing on her neck. She described which muscles would have to be engaged, at what point she would begin to turn, and how she would land. Cook recorded herself reading the script and played it back as part of a self-guided imagery experience.
Cook credits this mental exercise with helping her to mentally and physically prepare for her return to aerial skiing after a nearly career-ending injury. She also believes imagery helped her break the cycle of negative thoughts.
Whenever Cook caught herself thinking negatively about her ability, her injury or her prospects, she imagined a red balloon. In her mind, she would pop the balloon with a pin, imagining the action and sound involved. The quick, loud popping noise would help her break out of the slump and refocus her thoughts in a positive light.
Cook has also praised the effect of acting out her imageries. Sometimes this included standing in place with eyes closed and rowing her arms to simulate the descent down the hill. The physical movements, she believes, really put an athlete in the moment.
2) Ronaldinho – Brazilian Soccer Player
The 2004 and 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year winner Ronaldinho is known as one of the most skillful and quick-footed soccer players in the world.
In 2006, Ronaldinho told The New York Times about his imagery training. Every day, he said, he imagines the various plays that can happen and how he would respond. He goes through an imagined scenario in his head and practices deciding where the ball will go based on the teammates he imagines around him and their particular strengths. He knows which foot on each player is stronger, which players prefer the ball to be received in front versus at his feet, and which players are especially good with their heads.
By imagining as many scenarios as possible and training his mind to make rapid decisions, Ronaldinho uses imagery to improve his intellectual reaction time. He tries to place multiple scenarios back-to-back in rapid fire to simulate the real time decision making on the field.
“That’s my job,” he said. “I imagine the game.”
3. Jonny Wilkinson – English Rugby Fly-Half
Before competing in the 2003 World Cup Final, rugby player Jonny Wilkinson began a detailed, ritualistic imagery program. Like skier Emily Cook, Wilkinson wrote and recorded scripts with his coach. After completing his “pre-match ritual” of a quick shave and shower, Wilkinson sits down and listens to the entire 20 minute CD.
In the recording, Wilkinson’s coach walks him through a guided imagery experience. Using past real life experiences and made-up (but likely) scenarios, the recording helps him picture himself on the field. The imagery also portrays the expected successful outcome in each imagined situation.
Unlike Ronaldinho, Wilkinson sought out realism over the every-possible-scenario approach.
“If you have realistically imagined situations, you feel better prepared and less fearful of the unexpected,” he said.
Wilkinson’s imagery is calm and focused, serving to help him relax and get in the zone. The reliving of past experiences helps him see potential mistakes from a new point of view. His coach’s contribution to the script helps him guide Wilkinson to a better mental and technical technique.
4. Lindsey Vonn – U.S. Olympic Downhill Skier
Lindsey Vonn is known for her seemingly bizarre behavior before she runs a course. She puts 100% into her visualization and yoga-like techniques learned from her sports psychologists over the years.
Before a race, Vonn spends at least an hour visualizing her performance. When she reaches the gate, she switches to a relaxed breathing technique to calm her nervous excitement. Vonn told the web magazine MindBodyGreen that she runs the course in her imagination 100 times, picturing every twist and turn.
But Von’s imagery doesn’t stop there, and it’s not always easy for her to control. After suffering an injury to her ACL a few months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Vonn began visualizing her upcoming races as she settled into bed at night. Sometimes, just as she began to drift to sleep, the image would turn nightmarish. In a quasi-dream state, she would imagine herself crashing. The fall would jolt her awake, and she’d restart the visualization process over again with a focus on a successful ending. Over time, the nightmarish endings faded.
Luckily for her, Vonn tells Sports Illustrated that once she’s run a course, she never forgets it. During workouts, her trainer, Oliver Saringer, provides guided imagery for specific courses. As she listens to his descriptions, Vonn closes her eyes, and gets in position. She shifts her weight as if she were truly skiing. She breathes aerobically, simulating the deep, forceful breaths that she has to take during the race. She even finishes the simulation by throwing herself on the ground, just as she would after a hard-fought win.
5. Jack Nicklaus – U.S. Golf Pro
With 18 wins at some of the toughest major championship tournaments, Jack Nicklaus is known as one of the most accomplished golfers of all time.
Nicklaus, too, uses complex mental imagery to help him focus on a desired outcome. He goes through this routine before every swing, even during practice sessions. Nicklaus’ technique is clearly successful, although he brings a unique reversal to the normal process.
First, Nicklaus describes, he pictures the gleaming white ball contrasting against the bright green turf exactly where he wants his ball to land. Stepping backwards in time, he imagines the ball’s exact trajectory and even the way the ball bounces and rolls on the green. Then he rewinds again to visualize the exact path of his swing that will result in the goal he has visualized. After what he calls his “private Hollywood spectacular,” Nicklaus selects his club, readies himself, and steps up to the ball.
At this moment, nervousness can set in, even for a seasoned pro. But Nicklaus knows that rather than combating his natural feelings of anxiety, he must accept the experience. He even describes his nervousness as an “important, positive event,” stating that nerves give you the energy to do great things, as long as you control your mind instead of letting your mind control you.
It Doesn’t Take a Pro
While these professional and Olympic athletes have had years of practice with techniques learned from some of the best sports psychologists in the world, all athletes can experience benefits in the same areas.
From increased confidence and reduced anxiety to improved focus and elimination of negative thoughts, sports psychology offers an invaluable opportunity for athletes to work on their mental and emotional training alongside their physical training.
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