Sport Psychology at the Winter Olympic Games – Vancouver 2010

From the Field: Questions from Jeff Brusven of Swarm.com for NBC Sports

by Dr. Stephen Walker, CC-AASP, USOC Registry of Sport Psychologists

1)    So most of the athletes I’ve spoken too all use visualization before there races or runs down the snowboard half pipe.   Can you comment on this?   For example 2002 Olympic Gold Medalist Kelly Clark visualizes her run before dropping in. So does Shaun White.

Visualization is a common technique and a very important mental conditioning skill for athletes who are involved in most every sport.  Highly technical sports that involve very sophisticated movements like gymnastics, diving and half-pipe competitions like these two – must use visualization and at a level that is quite demanding.  The use of functional MRI’s has shown that visualization stimulates the parts of the brain that control both gross and fine motor coordination.  These athletes are not only likely to see their routines in their minds eye – they are also likely to engage in PETTLEP.  This is an acronym for the elements incorporated in the most effective visualization techniques:  Physical, Environmental, Task, Timing, Learning, Emotion, and Perspective.

P= Visualization at this level will likely be employed in the both the physical elements competition is likely to take place…but it will stimulate the neuro-physiological sensations of muscle motor movement and memory.  So practiced are these moves that there is a noteworthy kinesthetic or physical sensations experienced in BOTH the actual execution and the visualization of the routines.

E= Environmental refers back to performing the visualization in the location the event is held – but also – incorporating additional environmental elements in visualizing the performance that will take into account crowd noise, snow conditions etc.

T= Task focus incorporates tremendous detail in visualizing the actual execution of the drop-in, the angle of attack, the approach, body weight shifts, etc… up through and including the execution of every move from the beginning to the end of the run.  Like musicians, this can involve focusing on specific parts of the run…rehearsing in more detail some parts vs. others.  But every aspect of the task is taken into consideration.

T= Timing – Visualization will incorporate tempo, music, and internal time clock so that the time on task spent visualizing each move (after much practice) will eventually approximate the time on task during the event.  The tempo in the first run through a routine might take well over an hour…but by the time an athlete is ready for competition – the time on task will closely approximate the length of time in an actual run.

L= Learning – Each pass through the visualization incorporates some new lesson or detail that gains some emphasis after reviewing performances.  In short, it’s a dynamic process and is always being modified to the specs of each athlete.

E= Emotion – There is an emotional component to visualization.  The emotions include managing the stress at the top of the hill, and the thrill of executing each move effectively.  Since, emotions are a big part of both inspiration and execution it is important to include it in the process, as well.

P= Perspective – Sometimes refers to the athlete’s visualization as they experience the run from the inside out.  As the see the drop in, as they feel the speed, as they approach the lift…etc.  It literally incorporates a 1st person experience of the run.  However, because video is used so much – and – because it enables an athlete to “see an objective perspective” in execution…visualization will sometimes involve the transfer of an image as seen by the camera – toward – that experienced kinesthetically and visually in the 1st person by the athlete.

For people who want to explore the research behind PETTLEP imagery they can follow a five part series of articles authored by David Smith, PhD – senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University.  This research has been published by Smith in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, and the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Here is the link to the first article in the series:

https://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/pettlep-imagery-%E2%80%93-a-new-frontier-in-mental-conditioning/

2)  To add extra motivation while training in the past few months, Kelly Clark has been wearing her Olympic ring to remind her of the big picture and what she is going for. Can you comment on the psychology behind this?

This is one of those personal things that can really help an athlete keep their mind on the task at hand – and why they are doing it.  You can’t begin to estimate the sheer number of distractions athletes at this level find themselves trying to cope with. Drama in their lives oftentimes finds itself on the front page – the topic of everyone’s conversation – and much of the time this kind of publicity runs counter to an athletes focus and preparation.  The ring is what Kelly uses – to remind her – to bring her back home from the hoopla – and – it can be used to provide that extra oomph when one needs it.  Not only do these folks train hard, they have aches and pains and strains to deal with – and – they can little afford to be reminded of their vulnerability…because the mind set needed to perform your best is a mind set that is free from clutter.  Confidence is another part of the equation.  Why does Tiger Woods where a red shirt on the final day of a golf tournament?  These things help and every little thing can contribute to that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that WE all would like to see turn out SUCCESSFUL.

3)  Louie Vito says that when he went on Dancing with the Stars it was so nerve racking and difficult to perform in front of millions of viewers. But he said it helped give him confidence with his snowboard contests. He now feels he can handle the pressure of millions of viewers watching him and that he hopes the psychological preparation will help him at the Olympics. Can you comment?

What Louie Vito experienced in preparing for his “performances” on Dancing with the Stars is very important.  First off, the venue is very different from what he was accustomed to.  Dropping into a run is quite a bit different than a dance performance (in a sport he’s new to – and one that was very high profile.)  The thing that probably helped him the most was a psychological principle called “systematic desensitization.”  By performing every week, learning new material, being exposed to repetitive performances on such a venue…..actually conditioned him to “performing” outside of his element on the snow.  He probably used visualization skills repeatedly, and I’m guessing he employed several different kinds of breathing techniques to reduce his arousal level and get him “centered” before each performance.   These things could only help him prior to ‘dropping in’ to the half-pipe.

For a quick review of one of these breathing techniques visit:

https://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/controlling-arousal-the-centering-breath/

4) Louie Vito and Shaun White both claim to be “very competitive”. Louie says anything from “Monopoly to Ping Pong.  Anything where there is a chance to compete.”  I’m looking for some professional insight into this competitive drive. How it could relate to snowboarding?  Basically, any additional reading or comments on the Psychology of champions.

This is a very common experience amongst athletes.  It requires them to push the envelope of whatever level of competition in whatever endeavor they deem interesting enough to pursue.  It’s an attitude, and it makes them both “razor sharp” when it comes to performing.  There are different schools of thought on this – from those who view competition as ‘war’ and only one survives – to those who like the word competitor rather than opponent.

Dr. Jerry Lynch, author of “Way of the Champion” speaks to this phenomena in a very enlightened way in his book.  Jerry says that competitor comes from the latin word competere – which means “to seek together”.  So when you look at your competitor you see your partner – who will help you “bring out the best in you.”  Jerry, who is a masters level track athlete feels that this conceptualization of his running “with” vs “against” others helps him neutralize his own anxiety regardless of his own sense of confidence.

To hear a Podcast Interview with Jerry Lynch, click here: https://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/the-way-of-the-champion/

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