Innovations: Mental edge

A Wingate doctor examines the mind-body equation.

zeevi innov 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
zeevi innov 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It began as a promise to his parents. Later, it became a personal commitment to help train Olympic athletes. Today, the implications of the Wingate Five-Step Approach (W5SA) extend far beyond the world of sports to the realms of business and education. "My mother told me: 'You can participate in sports, but only if you are studying too,' and I promised her I would. My father wanted the name Blumenstein written on a book, and I promised him I would make it happen," says Dr. Boris Blumenstein as he proudly displays a shiny edition of Brain and Body in Sport and Exercise: Biofeedback Applications in Performance Enhancement, a volume on sports psychophysiology that he edited in 2002 along with Dr. Michael Bar-Eli of Ben-Gurion University and Dr. Gershon Tenenbaum of Florida State University. Dr. Blumenstein, who created the W5SA (a program to mentally prepare athletes for competition), made aliya from Moscow in 1990. Upon his arrival, he realized that the world of sports here presented a number of obstacles that he had not encountered in Russia. Accustomed to training Russian Olympic athletes, Blumenstein discovered that not only were there fewer athletes here, but their desire to train and compete was also significantly lower. "Athletes in Russia have to train hard to be the best, because they have a lot of competition to get into the top positions, so they are highly motivated and dedicated," he explains. "In Israel, they don't have to work so hard because there are fewer athletes and less competition, and Israelis don't like to train." Blumenstein knew that an adaptation of his mental preparation methodology was in order if the local athletes were to respond. In addition, the Israeli inclination to avoid being a sucker at all costs prompted him to seek new methods for improving an athlete's mental ability to respond to stress during competition. "The W5SA is useful in many ways for Israeli athletes because it allows athletes to see their progress in a tangible way, and it convinces them that mental preparation is critical," says Blumenstein. "You don't just go to the gym once to build muscles. You have to go all the time. The same is true for psychology. You don't go only when you have a problem, which is what most Israelis think." The acute influence of the brain on physical performance has been the subject of much debate in recent years, especially since the physical training and pharmacological enhancements have nearly reached their peak. "The drugs are illegal and the physical training has been optimized, so the only thing left to give an athlete an edge today is mental preparation," Blumenstein says. From his experience, an athlete who is better mentally prepared often wins even if he is not as strong physically. For decades, Blumenstein has been perfecting programs to enhance mental preparation, and through a unique combination of biofeedback response, he created the W5SA. It consists of five steps that utilize biofeedback probes, computer monitors and video screens in 60-minute, one-on-one sessions. The steps are introduction, identification, simulation, transformation and realization. The athletes start by learning basic mental relaxation techniques, such as how to control breathing and lower pulse. Then, they move to the stage that measures biofeedback, such as GSR (galvanic skin response), heart rate and EMG (electromyography), which measures muscle movement. This teaches the athletes to identify their responses to external stimuli and thoughts through the measurements of heart rate, breathing and EMG that they see on the screen in front of them. This helps them learn how to control their levels of concentration and relaxation and understand what escalating and declining stress levels feel like physically and mentally. "They learn what it feels like to truly be relaxed physically, and then I challenge them to maintain these mental states as I simulate competition," Blumenstein says. In the third phase, stressful simulations, such as competition tapes with accompanying sound and key opponents, and other stimuli designed to induce stress allow the athletes to view their biofeedback under stressful conditions. Blumenstein uses videos and sounds specific to the athlete's sport, such as judo matches with screaming crowds and skin rubbing against mats, and even talks to the athletes to try to disrupt their concentration. In the fourth stage, the athletes apply this knowledge in the field in low-level competitions, honing their individual techniques by relaxing after warm-up and before the competition. In the last stage, Blumenstein accompanies the athletes to live competitions and observes their performance in order to optimize their mental preparation by giving them tips about staying focused. "Sometimes an athlete can lose concentration if he talks to his friends just before he warms up, and it is these details that I watch and help them correct." Over the last 25 years, the field of sports psychology has grown tremendously as connections between the body and the brain were documented. The new findings and training techniques have influenced competitive ability. "Recording biofeedback is not a new technique, but what I have done is modify it for each sport based on the requirements of competition," Blumenstein explains. He points out that while a basketball player needs extreme focus in conjunction with relaxation, a judoka may need to improve self-confidence and speed. SINCE IT first competed in the Olympics in 1952, Israel has come a long way. But most of the major advances have happened over the last decade. In the past, local athletes traditionally focused on participating in the Olympic Games rather than winning them. The reasons for this vary from security problems which often require athletes to serve in the army to low budgets and cultural values. But ever since windsurfer Gal Friedman stood proudly on the top podium with a gold medal around his neck as "Hatikva" played in the summer of 2004, expectations have changed. "When I arrived in the early '90s, Israel was in the early stages of sports development, but I told my athletes that whoever wins a medal gets a portrait of honor on my wall. They thought I was crazy, but now my wall is full," says Blumenstein, pointing to the photographs that line his office in the Ribstein Center on the Wingate Institute's lush, green campus. "They thought I would retire with nothing, but my walls are filling up rapidly." Since he created the W5SA, in collaboration with Bar-Eli and Tenenbaum (both of whom left the project soon after its introduction in 1992), Blumenstein's athletes have finished in top slots in three Olympic games, six European championships and four world championships in judo, windsurfing, Tae Kwon Do and basketball. In 2008, he will accompany Israel's Olympic team to Beijing as "mental consultant." In addition to helping athletes deal with high stress levels, the program has implications for military personnel in combat situations, high school students taking their matriculation exams and those diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). "This methodology applies to anyone under high stress who needs to improve concentration - from CEOs to those taking a driving exam. We've worked with some ADHD students and seen great results," Blumenstein explains. The bottom line: reaching a state of natural relaxation and coordination between body and mind. "You have to learn how to stay calm, focused and relaxed. It takes just as much training as staying in shape physically. And the results of tandem coordination are astounding." With hard mental and physical work and a little luck, some members of the 2008 Olympic team might just take their place on one of Blumenstein's walls. For more information about the program, visit Wingate's Web site at