- Associated Press - Sunday, August 5, 2012

NEW YORK — Now that you’ve been watching the world’s top athletes compete in London, you may be inspired to go out and pursue your own sport at, um, less than an Olympic level. But even without their talent or practice regimens, you can take a lesson from what Olympians know: The mental game matters, too.

Experts say even weekend warriors can benefit from the kinds of mental strategies elite athletes follow, things like following a routine or adopting a mantra to guide you through crucial movements.

Megan Rapinoe has a routine at the Olympics. The midfielder on the American soccer team says she gets “into the zone” on the way to the stadium by putting on headphones and listening to Florence and the Machine, Kings of Leon and a little Katy Perry.

Make sense? Actually, most people don’t have much of a clue about what goes into the mental side of sports, says Daniel Gould, a professor of applied sports psychology at Michigan State University.

They probably wouldn’t think of singing to themselves as they step up to make a free throw. But if the game is on the line, it may not be a bad idea, says a researcher who studies one of the most unpleasant experiences in sports — choking under pressure.

Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the U.S. soccer team playing in the Olympics, bounces a ball with her head during a training session. She has a pre-game ritual that involves listening to music on her headphones. (Associated Press)
Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the U.S. soccer team playing in the ... more >

That’s “when we have the ability to perform at a high level, and we just can’t pull it out when it matters the most, whether it’s in the Olympics or when you’re playing with your buddies for a six-pack,” says Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist. “When all eyes are on us, when there’s something on the line, we often don’t … put our best foot forward.”

That’s certainly what appeared to happen at the Olympics last week when U.S. gymnast Danell Leyva spun out of control on the pommel horse. Then it was teammate John Orozco’s turn, as his rear end suddenly dropped onto the horse in the middle of his routine.

Why do athletes choke? They start worrying about the consequences of failure, what’s on the line, and what others will think of them.

That’s the word from Ms. Beilock, who has studied the topic for a decade and written a book called “Choke.”

When the big moment arrives, the athlete tries to take control by thinking about the mechanics of how to toss that basketball, make that putt, or swing that racquet.

“That’s the worst thing you can do in the moment,” Ms. Beilock says. “What messes you up is not the worries, but the overattention to detail.”

Or as Yogi Berra once put it, “How can you hit and think at the same time?”

So how do you keep your skill on autopilot, so it works the best?

Take your mind off the details of your movement. Sing to yourself or count backward by threes as you step up to the crucial shot, advises Ms. Beilock, who used the song trick while playing lacrosse in college. Maybe you can just say “smooth” or “straight” to yourself as a mantra as you act.

Another trick is to get used to pressure situations by practicing under the gaze of an observer or a video camera. Still another is to write down your worries before a big event. It’s “almost like downloading them” from your mind so “they’re less likely to pop up and distract you in the moment,” says Ms. Beilock. She reported in Science magazine last year that this strategy helped students score better on high-stakes exams, and she figures it would probably work for athletes too.

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