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For many Vancouver Olympics athletes, sports psychology is key

Think what you will, but many Vancouver Olympics athletes now rely heavily on sports psychologists to help them focus and perform at their best.

By Christa CaseStaff writer / February 22, 2010

Comedian Stephen Colbert, right, attended the Olympics as faux Assistant Sports Psychologist. Here he interviews US speed skater Mitchell Whitmore, left, prior to the men's 1,000 meter speed skating race.

Peter Dejong/AP

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Whistler, British Columbia

German biathlete Magdalena Neuner came into the Vancouver Olympics with six world championship titles in her pocket – but a history of wildly inconsistent shooting that has also left her with some poor results.

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So when the young stand-out won her first of three medals so far at these Olympics – including two of Germany’s six gold medals – she had a simple answer for how she had become so much more consistent this year.

“I worked very hard, especially in the mental training,” she said, a concept she elaborated on later. “One has to understand that physical fitness alone isn't sufficient. My mental training is very complex and it makes me believe in myself…. To control your mind is more difficult than to control your body.”

As individual athletes increasingly come into the Olympic Games with huge expectations on their shoulders – not just for veterans, but for rising stars who have been hyped at home by eager advertisers and Olympic committees looking to cash in on sponsorships – sports psychology has become more mainstream than ever. Athletes from Neuner to Canadian gold medalist Alex Bilodeau to luge athlete and five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette have all talked about the mental techniques they use to achieve top success when it matters most.

“In the 1990s, a lot of coaches saw sports psychology as – well, if an athlete really has trouble or is a choker, then he/she needs to see a sports psychologist,” says Sean McCann, senior sports psychologist with the US Olympic Committee, who says that now “100 percent” of US athletes are using at least some of the mental skills he and his team teach. Those skills include visualization, breathing, body control, energy management, and the use of key words to help an athlete perform at his or her best – which is the key challenge of an event that is more media-intensive than most other competitions.

“At the Olympics it’s not about getting to a new level. The challenge of the Olympics is executing. All these tools are in service of executing your skill. That’s really hard to do at Games,” says Dr. McCann. “There are so many questions, so many thoughts – thoughts like, ‘If I don’t throw my long program [in figure skating], it will be worth millions of dollars to me.' ”

'Mumbo-jumbo talk'?

For better or worse, sports psychology has become tightly woven into the fabric of the Games. In Scandinavia, that’s set off a controversy, with Swedes ridiculing their Norwegian neighbors for bringing four full-time sports psychologists to these Games.

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