Mind Games

HOW ATHLETES GET PSYCHED UP OR PSYCHED OUT

34aEarlier this year, the Indianapolis Colts finished the regular season with the best record in football, the NFL’s second-highest-scoring offense, and home-field advantage assured throughout the playoffs. Yet in their first playoff game against the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers, they found themselves down 21-3 before mounting a late comeback attempt that ultimately fell short.

Why do bad things happen to good teams and good athletes? It’s all about mental preparation, says Jim Hilyer, Ed.D., M.P.H., the former coach who led UAB’s football team to winning records in each of its first four seasons of existence. “I can recall many football games when teams that were supposed to win, and certainly had the most talent, were not mentally prepared to play at their best and lost,” he says. “And there have been lots of individual athletes—track athletes, swimmers, and so forth—who’ve reached the finals of their competitions but haven’t lived up to expectations. Usually, if there are no physical causes such as injuries or fatigue, you pretty much have to attribute those disappointments to some lack of mental preparation.”

The most common problem with psychological preparation, Hilyer says, is not focusing on the here and now. “Take a basketball player who’s shooting a critical free throw, for example. The moment that player starts thinking, ‘What if I miss? What’s the crowd going to say? What is my coach going to say? What are my teammates going to say?’ he’s not keeping his mind on the process of shooting the free throw. He’s letting his mind wander to outcomes. Or he’s thinking, ‘I was in this same situation last year and missed it.’ He’s not staying where he needs to stay, which is in the moment.”

Hilyer, who has worked with the American athletes who went to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, as well as those bound for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, guides athletes with mental exercises such as utilization and repetition of key words that help them relax, maintain focus, and stay in that critical moment. These exercises aren’t especially complicated, he says, but they do require time and consistent practice. “Many athletes wait until they need these skills rather than developing them before they need them,” he says. “But you don’t wait until you’re under pressure to learn how to relax. You have to learn these skills just like you learn to shoot a basketball; you practice keeping your focus when things around you are trying to distract you. I emphasize that these are skills that have to be developed over a period of time.”

These skills, Hilyer says, are the “basic building blocks” of an Olympic athlete’s preparation, but they can also be utilized in high-pressure professions such as surgery or law. In fact, they have useful applications in just about any kind of environment.

“Anybody can benefit from this kind of psychological training,” he says. “We’re all better off if we have some control over what we think so that we won’t head down those roads that lead us to failure—instead, we can use everything we’ve got within us to move ourselves toward the goals we’re trying to reach.”

—Doug Gillett

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