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Head games: How elite athletes keep their focus

By Damin Esper

You're 10 years old again, playing in the backyard, pretending to be at the Olympics. As you crouch down on the hot pavement for your lap around the pool against your brothers, you narrate the scene with all the gravitas of a Bud Greenspan production.

"Montreal. 1976. The runners prepare for the 400-meter final, a brutal test of both physical and mental toughness. A pure sprint that must be maintained for one agonizing lap." One of you fires off an imaginary cap gun and you go sprinting around the pool. With talent, determination—and a well-timed shove of your brother into the water—you emerge victorious, humming the Olympic march at the dinner table that night.

So why is it that you never made it to the games? What sets elite athletes apart mentally from the rest of us? How are they able to go past the limits that stop us mere mortals?

Part of the answer is that they're able to picture that scene again and again.

Dr. Jim Taylor, a San Francisco-based sports psychologist who has worked with many professional and Olympic athletes, said mental imagery is one of the tools he uses to help athletes reach their pschological potential. Mastering all the mental factors is just as important as mastering the various physical abilities for an elite athlete.

"There are five mental factors," he said. "Motivation, confidence, ability to handle stress, focus, and emotion. The best athletes can harness those five areas."

Dr. Taylor said the factors build upon each other. But one stands out as the most important.

"Where confidence comes from is motivation because motivation ensures preparation and preparation becomes confidence," he said. "The single most imp psychological factor is confidence. You might have all the ability in the world to succeed but if you dont believe in that ability, you're not going to succeed."

Confidence was never a problem for Olympic decathlete Chris Huffins. The UC Berkeley graduate, who is now head track and field coach at his alma mater, said he never believed that there were any limits to what he could do.

"I think the key to that premise is never letting yourself believe there's a limit," Huffins said. "I think it's innate. If an athlete does buy in to the fact that there are limitations, it's probably close to the end for them." Huffins' confidence never wavered. He came of age in the shadow of former world record holder Dan O'Brien, finishing second to O'Brien at the 1995 U.S. Championships. After O'Brien's retirement, Huffins won two U.S. titles of his own, in 1998 and 1999.

Even with his success, Huffins struggled in the biggest events—failing to medal at his first two World Championships and finishing 10th at the 1996 Olympics. He pushed on and finished the 1999 and 2000 seasons with his biggest triumphs—bronze medals at the World Championships and Olympics, respectively.

The bronze in the Olympics was the crowning achievement of his career. He set a personal-best in the 1,500 meters by 13 seconds to take the medal. After the competition, he told the media that, "For me to win an Olympic medal based on my 1,500 means more to me than you'll ever be able to write about. That's the event that has been my Waterloo for so many times in my career. And for it to come down to that, for me to dig deep inside my soul and come up with that kind of performance, that is my Olympic moment now and forever."

Huffins said as a coach, he tries to fight the mental game for his athletes early.

"In order to get kids to do superhuman efforts, you've got to get them to believe," he said. "I believe everything is impossible until it's done. Everybody is extraordinary.

"When kids let self-doubt come in, you've got to immediately nip that in the bud. What you want kids to do is compete with greatness."

Dr. Taylor works hard to that self-doubt. In one extreme case, he worked with a swimmer in the weeks before the World Championships when she had an emotional meltdown.

"She had based her entire life on winning a gold medal," Dr. Taylor said. "We met every day leading up to her departure. To put things in perspective. I gave her some tools she could use to keep settled down. I gave her new ways of looking at it. And she went on to win a gold medal."

That kind of time frame isn't reasonable, however.

"I get calls from many athletes and their parents a week before a big event and they ask, 'Can you fix my child?'" he said. "And it's just not possible."