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
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.
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
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
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
"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.
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
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,"
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."