By Steven Ungerleider, PhD

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    In the 1980s, social psychologist Jacqueline Golding, PhD, and I began in-depth studies of athletes. First, we studied masters track and field athletes who had competed in the 1984 and 1987 US Championships. In 1987, we initiated our survey of 1,200 Olympic track and field athletes, the largest one ever conducted in the United States. These athletes, qualifiers for the Olympic Trials in 43 track and field events, were sent 16- page, 240-item questionnaires that covered physical and mental training strategies, injuries, mood, motivation, and social support. We surveyed them in April 1988 before the trials and again in November 1988 after the Games; 633 athletes responded to the initial survey and 450 responded to the follow-up survey.
    We found that almost all athletes had heard of imagery, visualization, or mental practice and understood the concept, and 83 percent reported practicing some form of it. Equal numbers of men and women reported using mental practice techniques, regardless of whether or not they had a coach.
    We also found that older and better-educated athletes tended to use mental practice. Eighty-eight percent of college graduates used mental training, as did 86 percent of those with graduate degrees and 57 percent of those with a high school education or less. It's possible that older may mean wiser and that more widely read individuals are more likely to discover mental training-or college coaches may steer athletes to mental training.
    When did athletes use mental practice? Ninety-nine percent said they practiced before competition in bed before sleep, right before race day or a gradual buildup to the biggest event in their lives. Almost a third practiced during the event, and one in five practiced afterward.
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    Here's the breakdown on how often these elite athletes used mental practice.

    We also found that those who trained the longest hours reported more mental training. The extra hours of training, however, could be mental training rather than physical. And, of course, the more committed athletes are more likely to train more hours, both physically and mentally, and to seek out ways to enhance their performances-such as mental practice.
    Athletes who had visited a sports medicine specialist were more likely to use mental practice than athletes who had not. I found this most puz- zling. After further thought and investigation, I came up with a potential explanation. A visit to a sports physician suggests an athletic injury, and some injured athletes use mental practice because they can't practice physically. It is also possible that athletes who seek out this kind of specialist for medical treatment are the same ones who seek out special cog- nitive techniques, both representing commitment to state-of-the-art training.
    It really does work!!
    More reports coming from my colleagues around the world note that imagery and visualization skills are really being used. We knew they worked, but now we have convinced the coaches and athletes. My colleague, Jean Williams, PhD, noted in her outstanding book, Applied Sport Psychology, that 99 percent of the 235 Canadian Olympians who went to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics used imagery. Forty elite gymnasts reported extensive use of imagery skill for preparation, and in 1988 some 86 percent of our US consultants used mental training strategies with our US Olympians going into the Seoul games. We know from Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Nagano (1998), Sydney (2000), Salt Lake City (2002), and Athens (2004). I attended all of those great competition venues-that we had more psychologists working with more athletes than ever before. I would say that we are finally catching up to the Eastern bloc countries on the mental training and visualization skill learning curve.



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