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Train your brain

5/30/2012
In throwing events, a strong mind can be just as important as a strong body and sound technique. The ability to visualize success and trust in the training is paramount. Jeff Gorski

First, a tip ’o the cap to Glenn Thompson, founder of Long & Strong Throwers Club/Journal and shot/disc coach extraordinaire, for the title. It's been his magazine's catchphrase for years and perfectly suited to this blog entry.

With championship season in full swing, there are some things that can help you throw farther without one more rep in the ring/runway or an additional kilo lifted in the gym. The mental or psychological aspects of sport are a huge resource that is often poorly tapped into, if at all, by many athletes. The potential for dramatic improvement, or equally dramatic failure, hangs in the balance.

Even with our most talented athletes -- Olympians, national champions, record holders – these are skills that are not often targeted and developed. I hope that my experiences in this area as a coach and athlete can help some of you find a way to minimize stress and improve performance. Those two things usually go hand in hand.

There has to be a real connection between the physical training and the mental preparation for competition: You develop that mindset by having faith and confidence in your training program, throwing technique, support, surroundings, etc. All of these things are connected and related, so it's best to work early on to find the balance and connection between them all. There has to be a real connection between the physical/technical aspects of training and the internal feedback and confidence that what you're doing will help you perform better when you need to.

One of the reasons you develop a warm-up routine that you use for training and competition is to give you a Pavlovian-type response. This routine helps you get ready to throw well. You learn and master the routine in training and carry it over to competition, so you can relax. The routine sets you up to go on auto pilot and then blast PRs.

I found that visualization, “mental movies,” or whatever term you like, is helpful in calming the waters of stressful elite sport. You can develop the ability to “see” yourself throwing with flawless technique and passion. This gives your central nervous system reps and carries over into the actual throwing. At the time I was doing this I would, literally, be sore and sweating after a 45-minute visualization session. That’s how intense it is. Any thrower has to realize that this kind of focus and discipline is hard. I kept it up for about two and a half years before “real life” challenges of career and family cut into mental training time. Even as I continued the physical training, without the time to adequately prepare my mind it became very difficult to improve. Perhaps I lost my trust as well.

Visualization can be a tremendous tool. Start by finding your “zone” during warm-ups and let things flow from there. Consistency is a key. I used the same music for my mental movie sessions that I listened to during warm ups. Pavlovian response, remember?

I have read recent discussions about German discus champion Robert Harting, who has been on fire with big throws the last couple weeks. It seems another German discus athlete made a comment about Harting doing some “hypnotic exercises,” which many think refers to some sort of self-hypnosis. Regardless of the term you choose, this is a variation of the visualization described above.

Mom or Dad always said “You can't do two things at a time and do either of them well...” True enough. This is especially true in sport and a complicated activity like throwing. The more you think about during the throw the more you are likely to screw things up. My guess is that Harting is doing to get his mind to focus on a single thing, so much so that he's oblivious to anything else and insulated from any distraction.

I have used this technique successfully over many years as a coach and it’s especially helpful in athletes with some level of performance anxiety, the athlete who gets so stressed about throwing in competition they just can’t replicate their great practice throws. I recently helped a young thrower win a state championship by employing a little trick. She had lots of long throws in training, 10 to 15 feet farther than her best in a meet. She'd start to worry at meets and began to develop an expectation that she would perform poorly in meets. So, rather than allow her to feed that failure mentality I gave her a real image/feeling to focus on and work for in the meet: "Stop left shoulder and block." In the qualifying round she improved her distance each throw, equaling her life best on her third attempt. In the finals, she tried to hammer a big throw and flubbed the fourth and fifth throws well out of bounds. (A few girls improved during finals but her lead was never topped). On her last throw I reminded her of her focal point and she finished her high school career with a nice eight-foot PR on her final attempt. She will throw in college and is really looking forward to meets and training as a result of this new found mental game we devised. The biggest thing was that she trusted in herself and in the concept we worked on.

The mental aspects of throwing are also applicable to dealing with stresses and anxieties outside of sport. They tend to follow the same course of thinking. Set things up well. Have faith/trust that it's right. Relax and let it happen. Sounds so simple, huh? But that little word “trust” is the big one. I think there is a big difference between understanding and really buying in to something intellectually and trusting in it at the high levels of sport you are involved in. I think you really have to believe in what you are doing, right down to a cellular level, so the devil of doubt can't affect you.

In training athletes I always make comments on good technical throws. “Remember how that felt.” “Didn't that one feel easy?” “Do it again, even easier.” Always try to make the connection between good physical actions and positive concept and focus without stress or bad pressure. One of my bumper sticker phrases is “Do it right, it will go far.”

“Right” refers to technique, good rhythm and positions. Also, relaxed yet aggressive and fearless, trusting ability and training. And it also includes the ability to find your focal point or zone, to give that single point of attention so all else is blocked out.

There are a couple of older but very good books that I read years ago that helped me understand the mental aspects of training tremendously. I strongly suggest picking up a copy for your library.

The first is “Maximum Performance” by Laurence Morehouse and Leonard Gross. I was drawn to this because one of the authors (Morehouse) wrote the textbooks I had for anatomy and physiology in college, so I trusted the source. It’s a great book with lots of practical experiments to help you learn and understand the physical/mental connections to human movement and activity. Roughly 70 to 75 percent of what I know about coaching comes from this book.

Another good one is “The Psychic Side of Sport” by Michael Murphy and Rhea White. This is another wonderful read with lots of stories of elite, famous (and not so famous) athletes and coaches talking about the connection between the mind and the body in sport. It also delves into the old Soviet era sports science studies that were far ahead of the West in terms of mental/psychological preparation of athletes for high level competitions. Remember (or maybe your parents do) how we looked at the Russian or East German athletes calmly setting records and winning medals, so much so that we called them “robots?” There is a story in the book about a Russian weight lifter who described the feeling after winning a title and setting a world record. He said it was like floating in space, where everything was bright and glowing. He called it “the white moment,” and said it was so pleasurable he would do anything to return to it.

Here's to you finding your “white moment” and being able to return to it at will.