Watching the Olympic men’s gymnastics trials this past weekend, I noticed one of the athletes getting ready for his pommel horse routine. His eyes were closed, and his hands were moving in the air in front of him as he went through the routine in his mind. When he approached the pommel, you could see that he was relaxed and totally focused, and he went on to do a great routine.
A guest essay in Saturday’s Democrat and Chronicle entitled “Clearing Mental Hurdles” explores the importance of mental preparation. SUNY Brockport professor Dana Voelker says, “It is no surprise that to win gold, athletes must be in peak physical condition and possess superior technical skills. But when some of the world’s best athletes crack under pressure, we are reminded that elite athletic performance isn’t all physical – it’s mental, too.” Coping with stress, goal-setting, a keen ability to focus, imagery techniques – these are all part of their strategy.
This isn’t just for athletes: musicians can also use these techniques. It may take many hours of practicing until your fingers have the muscle memory to form the notes and you get the sound you’re looking for. But there’s also a certain amount of mental preparation to stay focused and not get stage fright or lose your place in the music.
Violinist Fritz Kreisler said, “To rely on muscular habit, which so many do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.”
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being in the sound booth as WXXI Music Director Julia Figueras interviewed Van Cliburn Award-winning pianist Alexander Kobrin. She asked him what he did right before he went on stage, and he said he just kept going over the music in his head, which helped him stay calm and focused.
According to an article in Making Music magazine, “Improve Your Playing By Letting Go” by Aaron Pelc: “When you imagine yourself performing perfectly, you are physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had already physically performed the action. The clearer you can visualize it, the better.”
One of the most famous examples of visualization is this story about Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe. On his way to the 1912 Stockholm games on board an ocean liner, instead of actual physical training, he spent much of his time just sitting on the deck, visualizing himself winning the long jump. He went on to win the gold medal in the pentathalon and decathalon.
This sounds a little like something from a fantasy or sci-fi novel, but I can attest to the power of visualization. I sing and play folk music on ukulele and mountain dulcimer. Right before a performance, I try to slow things down and just think about the music, going over in my head the parts that are likely to be the most challenging, reminding myself of the structure or shape of the song. This helps me to feel prepared so once I go on stage, I can relax and enjoy making music.
The Olympic athletes right now are in the world’s spotlight, and as we are seeing in event after event, they are competing not only with the players from other countries; they are also competing with themselves, their weaknesses, their doubts. As swimmer Rebecca Soni said after her gold medal-winning 200m race yesterday: “I need to keep my mind in my own lane and focus on myself.”
In my mind, the winners are those who can stay focused amidst all the noise and media attention, and who also are clearly enjoying what they do. Just look at that big smile on Gabby Douglas’ face when she won the gold medal in the all-around gymnastics competition!