Regimens: Mental Training Routines Tailored to Your... "Issue"

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Regimens: Mental Training Routines Tailored to Your... "Issue"
Mark Jannot

Virtually all of the athletes who consult with Nate Zinsser, sports psychologist for the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point, fall into one of three categories, depending on the "issue" they need to work on (Zinsser, ever the positive thinker, refuses to call them problems). He labels these the confidence set, the concentration set, and the stress set. While all of us probably have sports-psyche inadequacies in each of these areas, Zinsser finds that most athletes fall distinctly into one of the three camps. Here then is a menu of routines to address your particular brand of mental condition.

Make a mental highlight film. At the end of each training session, whether it's a run or a stint in the weight room, Zinsser recommends spending five minutes deliberately focusing on two or three things you did well. "Even if the practice as a whole was a bummer, ask yourself, What did I do well today?" he says. "We ask our athletes to imagine a room full of video screens, replaying that one good move or that one good rep or that hellacious 5.9 squeeze chimney that they got up today."

Memorize the course. What exactly do elite racers-whether they be kayakers, mountain bikers, or alpine skiers-mean when they say they've memorized a course? According to Zinsser, they've practiced an elite kind of visualization. "Walk or ride the course and pay close attention to what you see, filing it away in your sense data bank: Where's this bump? How soft is it here? What's this turn like?" he says. "That night, replay the video in your mind's eye."

Tighten your focus. "The best way to block out distractions during competition is to find something very small to focus on," Zinsser says. "The human nervous system reacts better to a small target." But your particular target depends on your sport. "For the kayaker, it could be the sound of the paddle in the water," Zinsser says. "For the golfer, it's not a golf ball, but a particular dimple. For the climber, it's the delicate change in sensation under her fingertips. Find that one little thing and then train your mind to stay on it."

Watch the watch. Every day, when you're not working out, practice focusing by gazing at the tip of the sweep second-hand of a clock, without allowing your internal voice to interrupt your concentration. "The idea is to stop your mind and totally tune your eyes and ears to that one tiny thing," Zinsser says. "Do this for 15 seconds at first, then rest for 15 seconds, and repeat that a few times. Work your way slowly, over time, to practice as long as you can."

Play catch and release. Another everyday exercise to increase concentration involves focusing briefly on discrete distractions, paying absolute attention to them, and then moving on. Don't let them spin you off into a long chain of free associations. "Walk through the city, listening carefully, and snap your fingers every time a sound distracts you," Zinsser says. "Instead of thinking, 'I wonder which bus honked,' just hear the honk and snap. If a pay phone rings, snap." This trains your mind to follow a single line of thought, teaching you to focus on the task at hand.

Ritualize rest. "Stress is good for you," Zinsser says, "provided you follow it with rest, allowing your body to rebuild." To that end, he recommends developing a ritual through which you take a mental break not just after competition, but also before and during it. Focus on controlling a series of deep, sighing breaths, he says. Deflect the stress of performing by instead paying acute attention to one particular moment or task, such as the way you lace up your running shoes. "Watch the best tennis players in the world," Zinsser says. "When the ball is out of play, they focus on their racquets and fiddle with them. What they're doing is limiting their gaze to their racquet and deliberately releasing tension."

Embrace the rush. Don't relax too much. An adrenaline rush shouldn't make you panic. "When your heart is pounding, your stomach is full of butterflies, and your palms are clammy, you've got to say, 'OK, this is good, my body's making itself hyperaroused, and that's going to help me,' " Zinsser says. "The quickest way to screw yourself up is to say, 'Why doesn't my body feel normal?' Your body doesn't feel normal because you're pushing yourself beyond the normal. Trust the rush as a sign that your body's ready."

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