Playing Mind Games : Increasing Role of Psychology in Sports May Make Couches Health Clubs of the '90s

Times Staff Writer

Earlier this football season, a Moorpark High assistant coach, apparently convinced that the Musketeers needed more inspiration than just another pep talk by Coach Bob Noel, handed out pills to players. These were no ordinary pills, the players thought. These had mystical powers. Take them, and we will block and tackle like crazed hyenas.

Upon learning what the volunteer assistant had done, local authorities assumed that the pills were amphetamines, known on the street as uppers, bennies or speed--stimulants that work on the brain and create a pre-psychotic state of rage, aggression, paranoia and indifference to pain. In other words, the ideal mental attitude for football.

In analyzing the pills, however, it was discovered that they were nothing more insidious than salt tablets. Police said that the assistant had given the players placebos, hoping that the power of suggestion would work just as effectively as the real thing. It didn't, but at least the players were able to survive another loss without worrying about muscle cramps.

The assistant coach was fired for his behavior despite his psychological insight. In sports, like most endeavors, positive thinking can have an impact on performance. Until 1954, when Roger Bannister disproved the theory, a sub-4-minute mile was thought to be beyond human capabilities. But after Bannister broke the so-called barrier, dozens of other runners followed suit.

Psychology has always played a role in sports, although most successful coaches probably pull the right strings intuitively, without any help from Freud and Jung--Knute Rockne didn't have to take a course in transactional analysis to deliver a moving halftime speech.

Today, almost all professional teams and world-class athletes use psychological tools to enhance performance. The Soviets, especially, are pioneering and developing techniques in psychology to produce superathletes.

But psychology is also being taken more seriously by weekend athletes. According to the Wall Street Journal, more and more people are going to sports psychologists in hopes of improving their game or dealing with the depressing knowledge that they'll never be Greg Norman. Supposedly, sports psychology is becoming a growing field, although in the Valley area, only Tim Wilcox of Burbank was regarded as a specialist in sports psychology, and he recently moved to North Dakota.

There is a dispute within the professional ranks on what it takes to be a sports psychologist. At least three national groups are trying to set up certification standards.

"Just because a person has a Ph. D. and studied psychology doesn't mean he's qualified to be a sports psychologist," said Kurt Krueger, founder of the Institute of Sports Psychology in Mar Vista. Nor should the absence of a psychology degree eliminate a layman from being a sports psychologist, says Krueger, who has a master's only in education.

Not everybody is flipping out over sports psychology. Critics feel that people who seek the help of a shrink are probably taking sports too seriously. And not everyone agrees on the feasibility of sitting on a couch at $80 an hour to cure a slice or serve like John McEnroe.

"Things like a backswing are not possible to improve just with counseling," Krueger said. What sports psychologists can offer are ways to teach a weekend athlete to develop his potential. Although limited by his physical makeup, a person, through extensive mind training, may be able to exceed even his wildest expectations, goals he thought were unattainable.

"That's not a fantasy," said Krueger, an All-American swimmer at Valley College in 1966.

Techniques available to the weekend athlete include visualization, relaxation, stress management, concentration and mental rehearsal. Subliminal audio tapes are designed to induce confidence. Videotapes on relaxation--pink is the soothing background motif--are hitting the market. Knees shake on the tee? Deep breathing can cure the wobblies. Hypnotic suggestion can quicken the relaxation process.

But doesn't all this sound vaguely familiar? Psychology as applied to sports is an updated version of the self-help fads of the '70s. Visualization, in which you focus your mind on what you want to happen and then manifest it, is an offshoot of psycho-cybernetics. Deep breathing has origins in ancient Eastern religions that practice yoga and meditation to relax and unlock the inner self. Thousands of years ago, "The Greeks knew that mind and body were one," said Dr. Maurice I. Zeitlin, medical director of PMG, a Tarzana psychiatric center.

What makes today's sports psychology different, however, is the increasing emphasis on training the mind, as opposed to concentrating mainly on the body. The psychiatrist's office may just become the health club of the '90s as psychological advances intended to help the elite athlete begin to trickle down to the average person like automotive breakthroughs at the Indianapolis 500.

For instance, the Soviets, benefitting from a ratio of 10 athletes to one psychologist, physiologist and nutritionist, have done most of ground-breaking work on training the mind, including visualization. Today there is hardly a high school volleyball player who doesn't make mental pictures of a perfect spike before taking the court.

"The Russians did a research study on their ski team," said Jeff Gero, Ph. D., mental health director at PMG. "They broke them into four groups. The first group skied 100% of the time. The second skied 75% and did visualization the other 25%. It was 50-50 for the third group. The last group visualized 75% and practiced 25%.

"What they found was that the group showing the most improvement did 75% visualization."

In studying great athletes, scientists have found certain constants: Without any training, most all have the ability to focus their concentration, recall complex moves instinctively and relax--it's tension that inhibits performances. Ted Williams, the last .400 hitter in baseball, said he had the power to slow down the pitched ball. Psychologists feel that the same potential exists in everybody. The key is to bring it out.

"There's a place within every person," said Bruce D. Rubenstein, Ph. D., a clinical psychologist in Woodland Hills. "If people can access that place at the exact time of an event, they can increase their own capacity. Great athletes have that ability, but most people don't know it's there."

Now, however, the weekend athlete has a chance to find it. "There are no simple answers to help performance," Zeitlin said, "but there are a myriad of tools that when used together can optimize potential."

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