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Professional and even amateur sportsmen need not only coaches, trainers and massage therapists to prepare them physically for a competition. Increasing numbers are hiring experts in sport psychology to help them gear up mentally. The role that mental fortitude plays in sports was made clear by Lance Armstrong, the 35-year-old retired American professional bicyclist, who won the gruelling Tour de France seven times in a row. Hell-bent on winning even after recovering from testicular cancer that had metastasized to his brain and lungs, Armstrong received psychological help in fighting for the crown.
It would be surprising if our own tennis champion, Shahar Pe'er - with her killer instinct on the court - and our various Olympics medalists don't have sport psychologists advising them.
An interesting session on sports psychology was presented at the recent 23rd International Jerusalem Symposium on Sports Medicine, held at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha. The lecturers were sports/medical psychologists Oren Lahak of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Dr. Gil Goldzweig and Barak Slutzker of Meir Medical Center in Kfar Sava.
"Psychology is an important element in sports," said Goldzweig. "Look at Lance Armstrong. Sports activities can be viewed as competitive athletics - a source of diversion, recreation and physical activity engaged in for play."
While this psychological specialty is less known in Israel, he added, "sports psychology has existed for a century. The first studies were by Norman Triplett in 1898 on the effects of an audience on competitive bicycling."
TWO DECADES later, Coleman Griffith - regarded as the father of US sport psychology when he worked at the University of Illinois - wrote many scientific articles. In 1938, he was hired by P.K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, to improve the team's performance. Griffith filmed and measured the playersâ€š trying to create a scientific training program, but many of the players and managers claimed he was "interfering" and tried to undermine his work. Griffith nevertheless wrote over 600 pages about his work with the team between 1938 and 1940, despite the fact that his project failed. He also worked with basketball and football players.
Finally, the First International Congress of Sports Psychology was held in Rome in 1965. Goldzweig noted that after this conference, the idea of preparing for competitions using psychology became more widespread. In 1986, the first Journal of Applied Sport Psychology was published, and seven years later the first edition of a handbook on the subject was published.
Since then, the speciality has become an established one, with graduates more easily finding jobs with teams and individuals.
GOLDZWEIG SAID sportsmen who don't think they're good enough are less likely to follow strict diets and exercise properly. However, if they think they will perform well, they are more likely to follow instructions. Sports performance is not only affected by depression, but physical activity is recommended for treating depression, so it's a two-way street.
Between ages 12 and 16, there is a 30 percent dropout rate in various sports activities because of competing social demands. Sport psychology, he added, can help those who are really keen to stick to their hobby by building up their self confidence, helping them cope with pressure, preventing the development of eating disorders (for which sportsmen, and especially women in some fields are notorious) and teaching them to cope with the almost inevitable injuries.
Psychologists in this specialty work both with groups of sportsmen - especially teams - and with individuals. They can also identify young people with a great potential to excel - "they have stars in their eyes when they think of their sport." Sport psychologists, said Goldzweig, use their knowledge about the psyche combined with expertise they learn from sports medicine colleagues in biology, physiology and exercise programs. Among the techniques are mental training, relaxation, mental rehearsal and concentration
"Some sportsmen," concluded Goldzweig, "claim to reach a peak-of-performance phenomenon and have the feeling that they can do anything. They say they go into a trance and don't even feel pain. If this is true, such a state might be reachable by meditation."
Lahak, a medical psychologist who treats patients at the Kfar Saba hospital, said he focuses on the interaction between sport and mental state. "Sportsmen have innate contradictions between external and internal motivations. For example, winners may feel guilty for winning because they are taught to be aggressive in sports, but at home they have to be flexible and gentle." There is an optimal level of anxiety and excitement, said Lahak. "But often coaches so want team members to excel that sportsmen get too excited. This works against them. In some sports, the player has to be less excited to succeed."
He always finds it interesting during one-on-one sessions with young sportsmen to ask why they want to win. "Many don't know how to answer. Some admit they do it so as not to disappoint their parents, who invested a lot of money in their training. Some reveal that they lack self confidence; winning repairs their broken egos. Others merely want to impress girlfriends. Athlete-coach-parent relationships are very delicate."
Most sportsmen need guidance to manage stress and prepare mentally for competitions, as well as setting priorities for the demands of their daily life versus the demands of their sport. Young people generally spend a great deal of time on training, but too much time is as bad is too little. Excess can be harmful, because they don't have a normal life, with no girlfriends or boyfriends. They have to enjoy life and not breathe only sport, Lahak stressed.
"We also use tools such as simulators to give them the feeling that they are on the field, as well as guided imagery. There is, of course, a fear of failure, but some even fear success." But for some, using simulation and having anxiety in virtual situations is more scary than if they receive psychological assistance on the field.
SLUTZKER FOCUSED on tennis players, who are individualists rather than team players. "Tennis is a very mental sport, as one player is pitted head-to-head against another. I advise tennis players to first set mental goals and then practise techniques and principles."
Players are encouraged to ignore all catcalls, shouts, noise and the presence of parents, trainers and friends; they must push lack of sleep, sore feet or a stomachache out of their consciousness. Slutzker hands printed guidelines to players on the court that list four stages of mental preparation. As the heart begins to pump faster and the muscles contract during warmup, players should "concentrate, listen to their bodies and bind themselves to the internal and physical processes. This is the time for using guided imagery, such as being an animal or a vehicle."
In the next stage, the tennis player is encouraged with every jump or stretch to think of himself/herself as being lighter in weight. "We remove all the extra baggage, the pressures, tensions, expectations and thoughts. Next, concentrate on boosting the characteristics, such as power and aggression, needed to win, and negate those that are not suitable, such as consideration and compromise. Focus and think what is right for playing the game, without questions, complaints or problems. Save mental energy and forget anything that is irrelevant to your success. This is what you have, and with this you will play! At this stage, you can feel the adrenalin spreading in your body, which is stretched like a rubber band and ready for action."
Finally, the guidelines advise, just before walking onto the tennis court, players are given a last chance to filter out superfluous thoughts. Think positive and do your best. Venting any anger and frustration you have toward your opponent is a good way to rev up. At the bottom of the page, players are encouraged to write in other important things to remember, and after a game they are asked to grade themselves.
Sometimes, said Slutzker, sportsmen going onto the field are visibly stiff due to stress. So you work with them on simple techniques to give him a light step and make him feel lighter. Before your eyes, you see the effect. During a game, if a player loses round after round and begins to lose hope and become angry at himself, a psychologist can help him release frustration and anger and start to relax. "You have to learn to forgive yourself. I know that isn't easy, because sportsmen are usually perfectionists. When helped to realize that failures happen to everybody, they may find it easier to cope."
Slutzker offered the example of a young tennis player he worked with who said he "hears voices" insisting that he will lose. He helped him to understand that the "voices" were his own innermost thoughts. I told him that people can't always be positive in their thoughts, and gave him examples of others and what happened to them. Negative thoughts should be only background music. A psychologist can help turn negative thoughts into positive ones."
In tennis, if you lose a point during a game, there is a feeling of mourning, he noted. "Players have to release these feelings of mourning in a few seconds. Zoom out. Get a broader view. I tell them that even if they lose and eventually stop playing tennis, they will still have a life. This reduces stress," he concludes.
Good advice even for those not gripping a tennis racket.