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Gaining that mental edge

When the best athletes from across the globe gather in Berlin on Saturday to begin the IAAF Track and Field World Championships many of the athletes did more than just train their bodies.

They trained their attitudes.

And while I will never run like Sanya Richards, there are things I can learn from elite athletes as they take to the track this weekend and next week.

Lessons of mental preparation from the Olympians are applicable to all of us -- from age group competitors to 5K shufflers to fitness athletes to those of us just trying to make the most of our daily lives.

"I've helped athletes get ready for Berlin and in the past three Olympics," said sports psychologist Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, who wrote the book "Your Performing Edge: The Complete Mind-Body Program for Excellence in Sports, Business and Life." An accomplished marathoner and triathlete in her own right, she also offers training tips on her website, www.DrJoAnn.com.

"These are things the average person can use in getting fit or if they're out trying to perform their best in a race or whatever event they're in. When I wrote the book, initially I was just thinking about athletes but now I find that people in all walks of life are looking to be more positive and productive."

One of the techniques Dahlkoetter teaches is what she refers to as "The Three Ps" -- positive images, power words and present focus.

Positive images are standard visualization techniques. It's about taking the time to see yourself performing and achieving your goals. Dahlkoetter recommends practicing this for five minutes before you go to sleep.

"See yourself doing it right," she said. "What's powerful is that what we think about before we go to sleep at night tends to be what we dream about, so why watch a horror movie on TV? The mind-body connection is very powerful. If we take five minutes before bed and think about what we want to be doing and feeling the way we want, we connect the feeling to actions and our subconscious gets to work on it for the next eight hours."

When it comes to power words, it's about developing key words and phrases but it's also about changing negative chatter in your brain to positive chatter.

This comes not just from powerful, positive words but in changing the way in which we ask ourselves questions.

"There is so much negative chatter inside," Dahlkoetter said. "We tell ourselves that we're too slow or too fat or too old. Even the top athletes who will be in Berlin are dealing with negative chatter. They might say that even though I trained all this time, I can't do it in a real event when it counts. No matter what level you're at, the connection between your mind and body will affect your performance."

So instead of asking yourself "why" questions, she encourages people to ask "what" and "how" questions.

"Why" questions, you see, lead to negative answers. Why does this always happen to me? Why can't I get faster? Why does it always rain on the day of my event?

Your brain will work on those questions and usually lead you to negative responses.

"What" and "how" questions, however, tend to lead you to positive action responses. What can I learn from this? What is good about this situation? How can I use this situation to my advantage?

When you're in a better mental place, it follows that your performance will be better, too.

Finally, Dahlkoetter speaks about present focus, being in the moment rather than thinking about the past or worried about the future. In a marathon, at Mile 18, you might start to get tired and think about all the miles you've already run and all the miles you have left to go when, truly, the only mile that matters is the one you're running at that moment.

"I teach people a centering technique," Dahlkoetter said. "It's a deep breathing exercise where you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth and focus on the center behind your belly button. Relax and do that for 30 seconds or a minute before working out or an event and it will help you stay present and centered."

And what if after all the hard work, all the mental practice, an athlete at Berlin still comes in second? Still fails to reach his or her goal?

That's when it's time to continue to ask the positive questions about what you can learn and how you can get better.

And it's about keeping perspective.

"When you have a loss or a disappointment you learn things about yourself that you can't learn in any other way," Dahlkoetter said. "This isn't a life or death situation. It has nothing to do with your well-being or your image as a person. It's just something that happened on one day. It gives you a chance to set new goals."

--- Amy Moritz
Follow me on Twitter: www.twitter.com/amymoritz

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