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Swimmer mentally prepared for races

Visualization helps athletes perform

12:33 AM, Sep. 3, 2011

Maureen McCotter can smile about it now that she's a nationally ranked swimmer at Princeton University.

But when she was 14, feeling "kind of chunky" and losing almost every race with the Jersey Wahoos in Mount Laurel, the thought of always being second-best ate at her and eroded her confidence.

"I would think a lot about how other people were swimming," said McCotter, a Cherry Hill resident and former state champion at Bishop Eustace Prep. "I let my mind wander and think about all these crazy scenarios.

"I would be swimming in the pool and thinking, `That girl is so far ahead of me; she's so fast. Why am I going so slow?'

"My mind would run crazy and I had to start ignoring what other girls were doing and swim my own race."

The fourth-highest-scoring freshman at last year's Ivy League swim championships, McCotter credits imagery and visualization techniques provided by longtime Wahoos mentor Frank Vizard for her ability to overcome dips in self-confidence.

According to Joel Fish, a licensed psychologist who has worked with amateur and professional athletes for more than 20 years as the director of The Center For Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, imagery and visualization first became popular in the 1970s, when professional athletes began using mental preparation as part of their daily routines.

Today, it remains one of the foundations of sports psychology.

"When you picture yourself perform in a certain way, when you're in that situation you feel like you've been there before," Fish said. "And whenever you feel like you've been there before, when you're in that situation it helps you to feel more confident and more optimistic.

"It doesn't cause you to perform a certain way, but your talent and natural ability are more likely to come out."

Under the direction of Vizard, McCotter began using visualization techniques at 14 and now routinely uses many of those same strategies before each collegiate race.

First, she tightens all of her muscles, then relaxes them one by one. She then visualizes everything from the temperature of the water to the feeling of stroking her way through the pool.

"By the time I was finished, it was almost like I had already gone through the race," she said.

Brad Bowser, a 33-year-old former state swimming champion at Shawnee High School, has coached the Jersey Wahoos for the past 11 years and picked up where Vizard left off.

A standout at North Carolina State, Bowser qualified for the 2000 Olympic Trials but shoulder and knee problems prevented him from competing. As a coach, he now employs much of the same mental preparation he used more than a decade ago.

Bowser takes his swimmers into a quiet room, has them lie on the floor and verbally takes them through their races.

"I run through everything they might need to think about while they are in the pool," he said. "Where are the pains and agonies throughout their race? If they can visualize it and know it's coming, they won't forget about it while they're racing."

McCotter said visualization did not make her swim any faster on its own, but it allowed her to improve her times without placing too much emphasis on winning. Now entering her sophomore season at Princeton, McCotter said she struggled mentally with the fact she couldn't beat swimmers who were physically more developed than she at the age of 14.

Bowser said the greatest challenge for swim coaches occurs when swimmers reach puberty between the ages of 12 and 14. During that time, he said, it's not uncommon to have a 4-foot-9 12-year-old swimming against someone a year older and a foot taller.

"Girls start picking up some weight at that age and their times might peak at 13 years old," Bowser explained. "They might not be able to hit those times again until they're 17. You have to tell them they might have to accept a loss knowing that eventually everything will equal out."

Ron Parragio of Washington Township remembers playing sports at a time when little or no emphasis was placed on the mental side of training. Now he says it's one of the biggest keys to his daughter's success as a tennis player at Washington Township High School.

"When I was younger, you'd show up at practice, do what the coach said and go home. From the mental side it was less than nothing."

Aviana Parragio uses visualization for most, if not all, of her tennis matches because of its individualistic nature.

"When you do something wrong the key is to pick yourself back up," she said. "If you hit the ball into the net, you can focus on that instead of focusing on your next serve, especially in singles, because you have no one there to pick you up when you're down.

"The point's over and there's not anything you can do about it. Just try to get the next point."

Fish said he begins his visualization sessions by introducing key phrases for athletes:

"Today is your day."

"You feel like a champion."

"You're moving swiftly, you're thinking clearly, you're communicating crisply."

"You have the power, you have the ability."

Then he introduces real scenarios that can happen in a game. To illustrate, he used the example of walking Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels through a series of visualization techniques.

"For instance, I'd like Cole Hamels to visualize throwing a strike on his first pitch. Visualize how he looks, how he feels and getting off to a good start."

Secondly, Fish would introduce a game occurrence that challenges an athlete.

"If you just walked someone, watch yourself let it go. Watch yourself learn from what happened and improve on what happened. Watch yourself commit yourself to the next pitch. Watch yourself take control of your emotions."

Finally, Fish would take an athlete to the final stages of his or her performance.

"You're tired but it's a good fatigue because you're giving 100 percent," he said. "Thank your body because it's been your friend today. Thank your mind because it's been your friend today. Watch yourself close out strong, with purpose, with commitment, with determination.

"Does it cause you to strike out the last batter? No. Does it cause you to make the big free throw? No. Does it cause you to make the great save? No. But when you've been in that situation in your mind's eye and you really do believe you've been there before, it helps your confidence and that's the foundation of mental skills."

But what about young athletes who are confronted with failure? What about the 15-year-old wide receiver who drops a pass in the end zone and is forced to come back to the huddle to face his teammates, or walk the halls the next day and face his classmates?

"I've had athletes feel like their watching a bad movie," Fish said. "They're trying to visualize positively but a negative experience enters their mind.

"In some cases l ask them to rewind the tape. Let's create a new script. I'll have them watch that same play and have them perform it successfully. "

David A. Feigley, an associate psychology professor and department chairman at Rutgers University, has spent more than 30 years working with athletes in high-risk sports such as gymnastics and cliff diving. He also employs what he calls "what if" imagery.

"If I trip before a balance beam or overshoot my goal, how do I compensate?" said Feigley, who earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers in psychobiology. "I have the gymnast practice corrections as well as perfect landings."

"It's not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, "it's a question of getting them to fly in formation."

Fish said he often reminds athletes that while visualization is a helpful mental skill that needs to be practiced, there is no substitute for hard work in the gym and at practice. He encourages athletes to spend at least 3-5 minutes once or twice a week on upcoming performances.

"There's a connection between the mind and the body, but the mind can't cause the body to do everything. I can visualize Joel Fish dunking a basketball, but as much as I try, I can't dunk a basketball."

Still, McCotter believes the time she spends alone with her thoughts is just as valuable as the hours she spends in the pool, perhaps even more.

"I can do all the laps I want, but I know that if I'm not mentally prepared I won't do well. When I'm all worked up, my body gets tense and my stroke is completely different and my splits aren't as fast. It's kind of interesting how if I'm not prepared mentally, I go a lot slower.

"It proves to me what we hear all the time — that sports is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical."