The University Record, June 25, 1996

Control is key to Olympic win

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

The critical difference between the highly skilled Olympic medalist and the highly skilled "also ran" is the ability to harness anxiety and control the level of physical and psychological arousal, according to sport psychology consultant Thomas R. George of the Division of Kinesiology.

George, who counsels the women's gymnastic team and individual athletes in a range of sports, played baseball through college and spent two years in the minor leagues, so he knows whereof he speaks.

"I was good in the field but I was anxious and over-aroused at bat," he explains ruefully. "That's why I became interested in sport psychology."

To find the right level of arousal, George advises athletes to:


Recognize the anxious, counter-productive and distracting thoughts running in their heads. "Women athletes are often more attuned than men to their anxieties and to outside stressors. Unlike women, male athletes are not socialized to be as introspective so they need to be encouraged to become more self-aware and take control," George observes.


Break the negative train of thought by focusing on positive technical goals and picturing them mentally.

"A diver might remind herself, `Point your toes, point your toes,' and picture her toes in the right position while a runner might focus on `Explode out of the blocks...Explode out of the blocks' and picture himself doing so."


Avoid negative phrasing, George emphasizes. "A gymnast who has to keep straight legs should never tell herself 'Don't bend the knees,' because if she does, her internal vision is of bent knees and her body is likely to follow. Phrase the cue in a positive way such as, `Keep the legs straight,' so the mental picture is of the correct stance."

Some people benefit from simply saying "I know I can do it. I'm going to beat this guy," George adds, "but often such statements just set up an internal dialogue in the athlete's head. One voice says, 'You can do it,' and the other voice answers, `Who are you kidding?'

"When athletes focus on remembering good technique---`keep the knees straight'---no dialogue develops because the positive image fills the mental void."


Coaches should not scream or shout to fire up their players because they often are already over-aroused.

"Coaches often misread players' physical signals. If players seem lethargic and awkward, are staring blankly and yawning, the coach generally assumes they are under-aroused," George says.

"However, these behaviors are common symptoms of over-arousal. The muscles tense, we become slow and clumsy, breathing gets shallow and we yawn for more oxygen. So instead of shouting, coaches should reassure athletes and help them focus on positive techniques and strategies," George says.