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Top of your game
How do you reach your peak performance? Professionals share 
their expertise on maintaining that mental edge

By CATHY BREITENBUCHER

January 23, 2008

Jeff Baker at be fitness and wellness center in Delafield.


After 15 years as a professional soccer player, Marcelo Fontana has figured out a lot more than just how to kick the ball into the net.

"If you set a goal," says the Milwaukee Wave midfielder, "you have to do everything you can to achieve it. If you donít reach it, at least you did all you could.

"If at the first obstacle you quit, itís never going to work for you. You have to keep pushing."

Itís that kind of mental toughness that traditionally separates elite athletes from everyone else.

Coaches have preached it for generations. But is it measurable ó or even definable?

"We donít know a lot about emotional intelligence in sports yet," says Barbara Meyer, an associate professor in UW-Milwaukeeís College of Health Sciences. "We have no relevant research to suggest it even is important in sports."

Meyer and others are studying how athletes achieve and maintain peak performance. She defines emotional intelligence in a hierarchy ó first perceiving oneís emotions, then understanding them. Next comes utilizing emotions, and finally managing them.

"I ask an elite athlete and they say itís 90 to 95 percent mental versus physical," adds Meyer. "If youíre spending 10 hours a day training, are you spending nine hours on mental? Athletes then admit they are spending so little time on it. Itís the Ďahaí moment."

In addition to doing research and teaching at UW-Milwaukee, Meyer also serves as athletic performance manager for Australiaís ski and snowboard team. She worked closely with Aussie aerial skier Alisa Camplin, who has won two Olympic medals, but also has had to overcome two serious knee injuries.

"When someone cannot train because they are ill, injured or traveling, we step up their mental training," explains Meyer.

Matthew Krug, an assistant professor of psychology at Wisconsin Lutheran College, agrees with Meyer that when training and talent are equal, mental preparation is the key to top performance. He is president of the Midwest Institute of Performance in Brookfield, and works with major league baseball players, PGA Tour golfers and athletes at other levels.

The experts also agree on the importance of patience. "A great athlete is not developed overnight," says Heather Haviland, a professional triathlete from Waukesha.

Krugís resume includes a year at the IMG Academies in Florida, where tennis and golf phenoms go to work on their game. "If I think someone is going too quick and itís detrimental to their possible future results, Iíd give an athlete a great deal of credit to be able to step back," he says.

Meyer, meanwhile, points to golfer Tiger Woodsí success. "Heís incredible, but what he does mentally is trainable, things like controlling his intensity, and focusing," she explains. "Heís taken golf to a new place with fitness and training. Heís delayed gratification by taking his swing apart. We can teach this to people."

One skill commonly taught to athletes is imagery or visualization.

"We have an athlete visualize as many of the same variables as possible," says Krug. "These would include visual, auditory and kinesthetic variables."

Olympic speed skater Elli Ochowicz, who grew up in Waukesha, employs imagery in her workouts and competitions ó an important factor in a highly precise sport where fractions of a second are critical.

"I do visualization of my technique," she explains. "Usually before every race, I picture my start and how I want to enter the corners."

Jeffrey Baker, who is a performance specialist and assistant fitness director at be fitness and wellness center in Delafield, says triathletes can benefit by visualizing even the areas that are used to transition between events during a race. "Itís so thereís no surprises and youíll experience a high level of comfort," he says. Such imagery also has a practical side ó if you visualize worst-case scenarios and how you ideally would react to them, youíre more likely to come prepared with extra shoelaces, for instance.

Krug also believes athletes need to develop routines for pre-competition, in the heat of battle, and post-game.

Consistency before competition includes what to eat and when to warm up. During a game, Krug explains, athletes need to guard against overreacting, such as a pitcher who gets mad at himself after giving up a hit. He says emotions also run high immediately after a game, so itís better instead to postpone a detailed evaluation of your performance until the next practice.

Persistence also is a key to refocusing an athlete who has a reputation as a "head case," according to Krug.

"In my perspective, those are the athletes who havenít had a chance to develop mental skills," he says. "It takes time and it takes patience ó on the very stage where people may be booing you."

According to Krug, many athletes respond better when the surroundings are familiar ó just look at the Milwaukee Brewersí home record the last two seasons.

"Coaches can make the practice environment as close to the performance environment as possible, like how they pumped in noise for Brett Favre to practice in to be ready to play at the Metrodome," notes Krug.

Meyer says she wants elite athletes to treat a "big game" no differently from a practice. "I tell hockey players, ĎI donít care if youíre playing for a sippy cup, a Dixie cup or the Stanley Cup, itís still ice and a puck,í" she says.

Is that kind of mind game possible? Fontana and Ochowicz say it is.

"I love it when we get into the playoffs. Itís a motivation, but you try to calm down and enjoy it, because it doesnít last forever. I donít want these moments to take over," the 34-year-old Wave player says. "I think every game is important, but of course some games mean more than others. We should play like itís any other game."

Adds Ochowicz, who has skated in two Olympics, "Thereís always butterflies when itís the Olympics, just because youíve been preparing four years for a 38-second race. I just try to forget everything and let my body do the work."

But what about the benefits of a rousing speech? Given that a team is comprised of many different personalities, "Letís win one for the Gipper" doesnít work with everyone.

"Sometimes you yell at a guy and he goes into a hole," says Milwaukee Bucks guard-forward Charlie Bell. "Some guys donít need to be yelled at ó theyíre self-motivated."

Coaches learn to be selective with halftime speeches, according to David Schultz, who directs Carroll Collegeís menís basketball team. "Maybe once or twice a year that can be effective," he says. "You overdo it and it loses its luster. Besides, on the college level you have guys play for you for four years and they end up hearing the same thing for a hundred games."

Haviland says athletes can become more successful by improving their goal-setting and planning skills. A goal "keeps you coming back," she says.

"Itís the idea of how do you execute to get to your goal," Haviland adds. "If your goal is to have $1,000 saved by the end of the year, you have to have a plan and stick to it."

Recreational athletes often find their motivation in life-altering events, according to Haviland. "Maybe someone close to them died, or they had cancer, or they want to lose weight or control their weight," she explains. "These things empower people."

"When you feel good and healthy, and youíre tactically prepared," says Fontana, "you get into the game and itís time to shine."

Our experts: How to be on top of your game

ēSet a goal that you can reach, given the demands of family and work. "The key is incorporating a realistic training program into your lifestyle." -Heather Haviland

ēDonít confuse intensity with stress. "Intensity is a good thing, but feeling nervous is not." -Barbara Meyer

ēGet "locked in" on competition day. "Use key words and breathing techniques you learned during training." -Matthew Krug

ēBe tuned in to your teammatesí slumps. "Collectively, a team has to pat a guy on the back and keep his spirits up. If thereís one weak link, the other team will try to expose it." -Charlie Bell

ēHave a passion for your sport. "If you love it, the setbacks that will happen wonít crush you. Thatís something I canít teach." -Barbara Meyer

ēHave balance in your life. "You have to be good with yourself, your spirit, your family and God." -Marcelo Fontana

Whoís tough

Michael Redd. "You never really see him upset," says Bucks teammate Charlie Bell. "If he misses a couple shots, he always has a positive mentality. He always believes the next oneís going in. Some guys put their heads down and go into it."

Whoís tough

Joey Cheek. According to Olympic teammate Elli Ochowicz, Cheek "almost had a smirk, he was so relaxed and ready" for his gold-medal race in 2006. "There was a calmness when he went to the starting line. He trusted himself and had a lot of confidence in the training heíd done. Heíd say that when he woke up in the morning, he could picture himself on the podium."

 

 


This article was featured in the January 2008 issue of