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Olympian mind games the everyday exerciser can play

  • An athlete trains at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center on February 17, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV)

NEW YORK: For everyday athletes hoping to glean more than vague inspiration from watching the elite compete at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, fitness experts say let the mind games begin.

With imaging techniques, meditation and biofeedback, sports psychologists, athletes and coaches say Olympians and top performers train as intensely mentally as they do physically.

Lauren Sesselmann, whose Canadian Olympic football team captured a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London, said while the physical prowess had to be there, a healthy mindset might play an even bigger part in success.

“We do a lot of mental training,” Sesselmann said. “You have to push yourself and to put goals before yourself every day.”

Motivation was never a problem for Sesselmann, 30. The creator of “Fit As a Pro” workout DVDs said she always relished hitting the field, playing against the boys and even driving two hours to play against the best high school in her state.

“I’ve always been a really competitive person, even if I’m playing a video game,” she said.

But Sesselmann credits the mental strategies learned in the team’s so-called “mind room” with helping her counter inevitable Olympic stressors, from a bad practice day to a truncated personal life to being far away from family and friends.

“In one program, called Brain Paint, you put yourself into a state of relaxation and imagined yourself doing well for 20 minutes while a psychologist watched your brain waves,” she explained.

Another, called Heart Math, focused on breathing techniques. Sesselmann, who is in Vancouver preparing for the 2015 World Cup, said she meditates before game time.

Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist with Children’s Hospital Boston who has worked with Olympian skiers, hockey players and figure skaters, said along with talent, determination and commitment, the elite athlete exhibited a high tolerance for frustration and challenge.

They’re just better at overcoming discomfort, she said.

“Whenever I go to the gym with my fiance, who is a former Olympian bobsledder, I work out 20 percent harder than I do on my own,” Chirban said.

For people who excel, she explained, there’s always a bit more to do.

“They teach the average person that no one gets there without a lot of hard work,” she said. “Everyone’s looking for the magic bullet but there’s no short road.”

Gregory Chertok, a sports psychology coach and mental skills trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine, finds that elite athletes eagerly embrace the mental game, happily honing practice tools such as visualization and relaxation techniques to manage anxiety.

“They’ll dedicate as much as 30 minutes every day to writing down goals or imagery or taking time to be mindful,” said Chertok, who has a hockey client at the Sochi games.

He added that sports psychology borrowed much from the eastern philosophy of mindfulness and, although it has become mainstream in the past 30 years, is still in infancy compared to other branches of exercise science, such as strength training.

“It’s not about Buddha sitting cross-legged but about putting oneself in a relaxed position and training to be in the now,” he said. “The elite athlete will have this shelf of mental images that they can call on in times of boredom or laziness to keep moving forward.”

Chertok said he once asked a group of female cross-country runners what motivates them when they’re nearing the finish line with nothing left in the tank.

“One girl yelled, ‘Pasta!’ It was her favorite meal and her reward, but only if she gives all in her event. That one vivid mental picture affected her breathing and her muscular level, and helped her perform better.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2014, on page 13.
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Summary

For everyday athletes hoping to glean more than vague inspiration from watching the elite compete at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, fitness experts say let the mind games begin.

The creator of "Fit As a Pro" workout DVDs said she always relished hitting the field, playing against the boys and even driving two hours to play against the best high school in her state.

Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist with Children's Hospital Boston who has worked with Olympian skiers, hockey players and figure skaters, said along with talent, determination and commitment, the elite athlete exhibited a high tolerance for frustration and challenge.

Gregory Chertok, a sports psychology coach and mental skills trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine, finds that elite athletes eagerly embrace the mental game, happily honing practice tools such as visualization and relaxation techniques to manage anxiety.


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