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Gold Medal Minds: The Team That Gives US Olympians the Edge

By    |   Friday, 27 July 2012 09:17 PM

In 1980, then 15-year-old Peter Haberl sat with his parents at home in the small town of Lustenau, Austria, and joyfully watched as the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union, shocking the world.

“This was really inspiring for us Europeans,” Haberl recalled for Newsmax. “We were bordering the iron curtain and the looming threat of the Soviet Union, and having played hockey myself, knowing how powerful the Soviet team was, it was amazing to see the youthful spirit of those young American college kids, that belief in what is possible. It impacted the world.”

In a fitting turnabout Haberl now cultivates in current American Olympic athletes the same heart, belief, and unity that he witnessed in that U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team more than 30 years ago. He is one of six members of the United States Olympic Committee’s (USOC) Psychology Professional Team, a little known squad that gives Team USA a mental edge heading into the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

Through mental skills seminars, workshops, and individual sessions, Team USA’s sports psychologists work directly with coaches and players on dozens of different Olympic teams to put them in a positive frame of mind — the mental edge that will allow the likes of Michael Phelps to successfully defend the titles he won in Beijing; or U.S. Equestrian Team member Karen O’Connor, 54, to finally win, in this her fifth and final Games, that elusive gold; or any American Olympian to record a new personal best.

The USOC formed its sports psychology team in the 1980s, as explained to Newsmax by team leader Sean McCann, who has worked for the USOC for nearly 20 years and has traveled with the last nine Olympic teams.

“Back then there were a lot of researchers in the U.S. based in universities,” McCann said, “but in terms of application of the mental side, the old Soviet Union was much further down the line. In the beginning we were playing catch-up.”

Of course, the Cold War and other geopolitical currents have long been a part of the Olympics. “The tricky part of sports is when you get into international competition,” Dr. Allen Fox, a sports psychologist who represented the United States on several Davis Cup tennis teams and is the author of "Tennis: Winning the Mental Match," told Newsmax.

In the first round of the 1963 Davis Cup, Fox and the U.S. team played the Iranian side in Tehran. “The Iranians were respectful of us,” he recalled. “We were allies then.”

Even in what is for the American competitors a relatively comfortable foreign venue like London, the stakes will be high. London is now the first city to host the Summer Olympic Games three times. The U.S. has played host to the Summer Games four times, the last in 1996, in Atlanta.

“The Olympics is different than any other event,” Karen Cogan, a former UCLA gymnast and another member of the USOC psychology team, said. “More media, more hype. Many athletes can use that to their advantage. Others are overwhelmed by it. When they get over anxious they tend not to perform their best.”

Dr. Robert Weinberg, who has written widely on sports psychology and teaches the subject at Miami University of Ohio, spoke to Newsmax about the “directional aspect” of anxiety. Can the athlete channel the pressure so that it has a positive effect, or will it be debilitative? “Research shows that what you do with anxiety seems to be more important than how much anxiety you have.”

He recalled the lesson of Dan O’Brien, the decathlon world champion in 1992 who was favored to win gold at the Barcelona Games, and had his image glorified on Wheaties cereal boxes, but failed to even make it through the U.S. team trials. “One time an athlete told me he looked up at the jumbo screen and saw his name up there with USA next to it and it just hit him in the face,” McCann recalled.

Successful athletes know how to shut out distractions, stay positive, stay relaxed, and put themselves in a zone. The great ones are able to do this even in the most crucial, pressure-packed moments.

Fox recalled instances during Davis Cup matches when he heard the announcer declare “advantage USA” instead of advantage Allen Fox. Playing for the country “raises little goose bumps. To me it felt great. I found it exciting and positive.”

“There’s a huge amount of national pride for these athletes,” added Ms. Cogan, who works with Team USA’s combat sport competitors, among others. Both she and McCann mentioned the way the U.S. team rose to the occasion at the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City  in 2002, several months after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

“What is remarkable about the American athlete is the inherited sense of belief that we’re going to be successful,” Haberl said. “Other nations are aware of that. The Americans have this can-do spirit, can-do attitude.”

Indeed, over the years the country has been remarkably consistent at the Summer Olympics, winning on average around 35 to 40 gold medals and 100 medals overall at each of the last six Olympiads.

Asked for his predictions for Team USA in London this summer, McCann paused. “Boy, I grew up in New England as a Red Sox fan. I think it’s good to temper expectations. Despite myself I’m cautiously optimistic.”

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