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Mind Over Body in Sports

by Lidia Wasowicz - UPI Science Writer

For the Olympian and for the Little Leaguer, the adage, "Strong minds make strong bodies,'' has never been truer, according to sports psychologists.

In a presentation at the 51st Annual Convention of the California Psychological Association in Pasadena, Calif., those in the know say reaching peak athletic performance requires not only physical strength and control but also sharp mental skills, such as concentration, stress management and visualization.

Richard Suinn of Colorado State University notes the influx of sports psychology into training programs of U.S. National Team members in such sports as track and field.

For peak performance, he recommends seven mind skills: relaxation, stress management, thought control, self-regulation, visualization, concentration and programming for competition.

Relaxation has been linked to injury prevention since injuries are more likely to occur where there is muscle tension, he points out. For endurance events, the ability to relax can conserve energy -- and bring in that trophy.

A typical relaxation technique is called Jacobsen deep muscle relaxation. It involves tensing, then relaxing each of several muscle groups. This 45-minute routine is done daily for a week. The technique can be enhanced with deep breathing, repeated several times after the last muscle group is relaxed.

The athlete is thus conditioned to use the deep breath as a trigger for the body to relax at a future sporting event.

There is also a breathing technique aimed at ``centering.'' In centering, the athlete stands, eyes closed, then inhales and exhales using the stomach wall.  Says Suinn, ``Athletes should routinely use the deep breath or the centering during training before their events.''

Suinn recommends that athletes keep logs of stress situations, such as during warmups or following a poor first throw. The log should include such reactions as muscle tightness or feeling ``irritated.''

Stress can be relieved with anxiety management training, in which the athlete is taught relaxation, then confronted with a stressful situation, such as waiting for the starting gun. The athlete relaxes, visualizes a scene down to the minutest detail, and permits the stress reaction to build. While still in the scene, the athlete relaxes through the deep breath or centered breathing.

While all athletes experience negative thoughts, Suinn says, ``the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is in what the athlete does with these thoughts.''

The winner uses the negative thoughts as information on how to adjust his performance; the loser is more likely to wallow in the negativity.  Self-regulation means recognizing the level of body activation needed for peak performance.

Says Suinn, ``Being too activated will mean being jumpy, and smooth timing can be affected. Being underactivated will mean not being up to par.''

The athlete should use the logs to identify the optimal arousal level. One way is to measure the heart rate. Another is to rate one's self subjectively: ``On a scale of 0-100, where do I stand?''

Visualization is probably the best known technique. Athletes such as golfer Jack Nicklaus, skier Jean-Claude Killy, jumper Dwight Stones and tennis player Chris Evert-Lloyd all use imagery as part of their preparation.

Says Suinn, ``The major difference in our program is the systematic nature of the training and applications of visualization.''

In addition to enhancing physical performance, visualization can be used to practice all the other psychological skills.  In learning to concentrate, an athlete needs anchors. For example, a discus thrower who gets distracted might focus his attention by first thoroughly feeling the texture of the discus with his fingertips.

Once these psychological skills are learned and strengthened, Suinn says, they need to be incorporated into the overall program of preparing for competition.

(Written by UPI Science Writer Lidia Wasowicz in San Francisco)PASADENA, Calif., March 26 (UPI)

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