Mental Game: San Mateo Sports Psychologist Fuels Olympians Through Competitions

It goes without saying the training that goes into preparation for the Olympics is extremely tough and nonstop. For many of the athletes heading to the biggest sports stage in the world, the physical training is just half the battle.

“If you’re not on your game every single time you go down, there can be some serious consequences,” said Melissa Hoar, an Olympian who competes in the skeleton.

It’s a dangerous winter sport that involves plunging head first down an icy track at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour, almost like a reverse luge. Hoar said the mental part of the game is as big, if not bigger, than the physical portion.

“The mental side of it actually comes into play a lot because every day we’re limited to two slides on the track so we can only go down twice a day,” Hoar described. “We’re also actually limited by season so we can only be on the track winter season, so six months a year we’re not able to do be on a track sliding. So it’s really important to include the mental preparation so we can maximize our time on the track when we get it.”

And that’s why Hoar said she started to see Dr. JoAnn Dahlkoetter, a sports psychologist and author of “Your Performing Edge” based in San Mateo. She specializes in helping athletes of all backgrounds, from rookies to the professionals, focus in high-pressure situations.

“Performance is 90 percent mental and just like we work out bodies, we also need to exercise the mind,” Dahlkoetter said. “Mental training is like taking the brain to the gym. We want our bodies to have many speeds and gears, the same way we need our mind to be more flexible so we can shift from more negative to positive gears.”

Especially when it comes to the Olympics.

“Years of training comes down to a single day’s performance, often times it’s just a few seconds,” Dahlkoetter added.

And sometimes those few seconds can be very dangerous, especially with winter sports like skeleton and luge. In Vancouver 2010, Nomar Kumaritashvili of Georgia, died during a training run for the luge. The 21-year-old lost control of his sleds, slamming into a steel pillar at 90 miles an hour. Dahlkoetter said one of her clients was there.

“He was the next one to go down the hill and was really traumatized by that,” she said

Dahlkoetter said she runs the athletes through a series of mental exercises to focus on the task at hand, not the results. She records personalized mp3s for her athletes, ones she encourages them to listen to routinely, including right before their performance or game.

And the mental practice includes running through not just the best case scenarios, but the best responses to the worst situations.

“Let’s imagine you fell. See yourself getting up, taking a deep breath, regrouping and going on immediately,” she said, “Once you’ve seen it in your mind several times, then your body knows how to respond when that happens.”

Hoar found out later that she was an alternate for Team Australia in the Olympics. She is studying at Palmer College in San Jose to become a chiropractor. It has taken longer with her intermittent athletic training. She said nevertheless, she’s excited to graduate in two years, with the ultimate goal of helping other athletes.

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