A survey of 1,200 track and field athletes, qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic trials in 43 events, was conducted by psychologists Stephen Ungerleider and Jacqueline Golding. Of the 633 who responded, 83 percent said they practiced some form of imagery, visualization or mental practice prior to a big event. The survey found that older and better-educated athletes tended to use mental practice more.
Visualization has been used for decades, but it’s only recently that athletes in North America have broadened it to include other senses, and now the emotions, although it’s been practiced for decades in nations of the former Eastern Bloc. Grigori Raiport, past president of the Russian Success Method Training Center, suggested in an issue of The Sports Psychologist that while the body has its limits, the mind’s potential is vast. He said: Russians analyzed the nature of athletic inspiration and discovered that it consists of three components: physical, emotion, and mental thoughts. The Russian method is designed to train athletes to reproduce those thoughts and feelings at will, using auto-conditioning. This technique allows athletes to choose their optimal mood for a competition, be it joy, happiness, or anger. Even such a negative emotion as sorrow can be used constructively. It’s both positive thinking and positive feeling, he added.
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Steve Backley of England, who won gold medals in the javelin in the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships, hears the music’ of his feet during imagery sessions. In practice, a video-tape was made of his javelin throws and a beeping noise was inserted every time his foot made contact with the ground as he made his approach to throw the javelin. He watched and listened to the tape over and over again, then, just prior to competition, he would recreate the beeping noise in his mind to visualize himself making the throw. This is the music I need to re-enact such a performance, said Backley, author of The Winning Mind. I know this series of beeps like I know my favorite pop record.
Psychologist Maxwell Maltz, PhD, revealed that lower parts of the brain and central nervous system cannot distinguish between something that has been vividly imagined and something that actually has happened. Maltz found that when an athlete did such visualization of a routine, all of the nerves involved in making the muscle move are also electrically stimulated, although at a lower level than normal. If athletes accept this, they can rehearse their competition under semi- realistic conditions before they compete. It makes the athlete feel more comfortable under the pressure of actual competition because he has the feeling he’s already been there.
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