- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ever shuffle onto a tennis court or ball field just to discover your strokes or pitches didn’t come with you? Well, it happens even to the best athletes: a sudden loss of good form whether on the baseball field, tennis court or golf course. (Think Major League Baseball player and Golden Glove winner Chuck Knoblauch, who, while playing second base for the New York Yankees in the late 1990s, suddenly couldn’t throw accurately.)

In fact, sometimes your pitch, stroke or swing is so off it doesn’t even feel as if it’s your own arm performing the motion.

Is this sudden lack of good form - which sometimes, unfortunately, is permanent - mental, physical or maybe both?

“The most common reason is physiological,” says Charlie Brown, a sports psychologist in Charlotte, N.C. (www.fps-performance.com).

“You simply haven’t given your body the fuel it needs,” Mr. Brown says, adding: “A Ferrari is a great car, but if you don’t give it the right fuel, it will drive like a go-kart.”

In other words, you need to make sure you’ve eaten well the day before and the day of your game. Other common physiological factors to consider are sleep deprivation and dehydration.

Many a golfer, for example, complains that his game completely falls apart over the last nine holes. It seems to be a mystery, but after a question or two about their drinking habits on the golf course, it becomes quite clear why their game falls apart, Mr. Brown says.

They’re simply dehydrated.

“If you’re out there in the heat for four hours without drinking a drop of water, there is no doubt it will affect your game,” he says.

So, muscle memory - or lack thereof - has nothing to do with one’s game completely falling apart?

Not likely. Particularly not if the athlete is an intermediate or advanced player and has perfected his or her technique through countless hours of repetitive training, says Dr. George C. Branche III, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine.

In fact, muscle memory often is what kicks in and helps when one’s game is falling apart, he says. (A beginner might succumb to muscle-memory loss, but that’s only because there’s not much memory there anyway.)

“You rely on muscle memory so that the heat of the moment doesn’t get to you,” says Dr. Branche, who is affiliated with the Anderson Orthopaedic Clinic, which has locations in Arlington and Alexandria.

Mr. Brown agrees.

“If the physiology is OK, so is the muscle memory,” Mr. Brown says. “The right brain [which is associated with movement] knows what it’s doing.”

That brings us to the mental part.

The right brain knows what it’s doing if the training and preparation are in place. So, the often-interfering left brain - the analytical part - has no place on the course, court or field, Mr. Brown says.

“Don’t involve the left brain - ‘the coach’ - if you have a glitch in your performance. It will deteriorate your game,” Mr. Brown says.

The left brain will try to analyze and analyze and analyze ad nauseam, creating a kind of chatter that only stands in the way of a player getting his or her game back. In other words, thinking too much is the enemy of any good game.

“When we’re performing our best athletically is when we don’t think,” Mr. Brown says.

In fact, self-talk should be limited to easy cues such as “racquet back early” in tennis or “catch as much water as possible as fast as possible” in swimming.

“This mental part has only recently become mainstream,” Dr. Branche says, “but we now know how important it is.”

The “mental part” includes learning to be in the moment and narrowing the focus to the point at hand, he says.

“That’s what people mean when they say they were in the zone,” Dr. Branche says.

When you’re in the zone, time seems to slow down - there’s no stress or cognitive chatter.

If you’re losing, on the other hand, the body and mind usually are flooded with adrenaline and what seems like a zillion thoughts. The effects usually are catastrophic. The only antidote at that point is relaxation.

“Learning to relax will counter the impact of the adrenaline,” Mr. Brown says. “And once you relax, you can start to regroup mentally.”

That means you can start narrowing your focus and give your body helpful, but sparse, cues to get back on track.

That’s not what happened to Mr. Knoblauch, the All-Star player whose loss of form was as permanent as it was sudden. The reasons behind it are a mystery, but Mr. Brown suspects it had something to do with left-brain interference.

On that note, stop talking and start playing.

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