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How Weekend Athletes Get Olympic Edge

Mental tricks used by Olympians can improve your athletic performance.

Tricks of the Trade

The visualization technique that Gardner describes is a staple in most emotional conditioning programs. But it's also important to learn how to pick up on the correct cues, says Dan G. Tripps, PhD. Tripps is director of the Master's in Sports Administration and Leadership program at the Center for the Study of Sport at Seattle University in Washington.

"In a figure skating event, you need to concentrate on your partner and not pay attention to the crowd or the behavior of the judges," he says. "It's about narrowing your focus."

Anxiety, worry, doubts, fears, or butterflies can be reduced with this technique, he says.

Mental training also helps eliminate the element of surprise, he explains.

"It can throw you when your opponent does something that you don't expect or when your body has an unusual reaction. But if you mentally plan for surprises -- and execute them in visualization exercises -- then you are not flustered or confused by something that happens that's out of character," he says. For example, "if you fall in a preliminary skating run, you can remain poised -- then refocus and perform better during the next important round," Tripps says.

Strengthening the 'Focus Muscle'

"You need to work to strengthen your 'focus muscle' and figure out what is distracting you," Susser says. Some distractions are positive, she adds, but an athlete needs to determine what distracts him or her negatively and come up with a way to combat it -- whether by tying their focus to their breathing or to somebody else on the team.How can a person strengthen his focus muscle?

"If an athlete gets sidetracked by the crowd, I would work with the athlete on how to tune out the crowd and change their focus to the skates or the ice," she says. The goal is to "switch it to something that will improve your performance instead of distract you and decrease your performance."

Setting Goals

Goal setting is key, whether you are Michelle Kwan or just want to play some golf over the weekend, Susser says. "The No. 1 thing is to have a good, realistic goal," Susser tells WebMD. "You want it to be S-M-A-R-T." That stands for specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic (but challenging) and time-sensitive. "A goal is a road map. It's also a slam dunk in setting yourself up for success," she says. "For the weekend warrior, goal setting and feedback-reward mechanisms that maintain motivation are important," Tripps agrees.

"Focus on process goals such as what you need to do to be proficient or what you need to do to have the desired outcome," he says. For example, "don't worry about wearing a size 12 instead of a size 16. Instead think about what you would need to do to wear a size 12," he says. That's a process goal.

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