Train Your Brain 

Thinking through your workout involves the right images.

click to enlarge ED HARRINGTON

Dana Blackmer has a kind manner and comfortable chairs like any other therapist. But instead of discussing your childhood or your marriage with him, you might tell him about how you go into a shame spiral after you make a mistake on the tennis court and your whole game unravels.

Blackmer counsels athletes, with a doctorate in psychology and certification from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. His clients are as varied as high-school students who want to make the varsity and Olympians.

“The majority of people come in because they have identified something that they feel is holding them back from performing their best,” the sports psychologist says. “I help athletes of all ages and all abilities to train their brains to perform at the peak of their sport.”

It turns out that a lot of it really is in your head. “There have been surveys done with coaches,” Blackmer says, “and most coaches believe that mental factors account for between 50 to 80 percent of the outcome in a competition against an opponent of equal ability.”

Blackmer works with his clients to increase their self-awareness and identify their best mental zones. Then he teaches them the tools they can use to regulate themselves and reach those zones. “It’s individually tailored to each athlete,” he says. “The false impression you can get is that this is kind of a cookbook.”

The final step is practice. “The biggest problem with this,” Blackmer says, “is that is sounds so deceptively simple that people don’t practice. Just like the physical part of sport, you have to practice this mental part. You have to make it automated.”

I ask him for help with motivation. Blackmer’s first suggestion is goal setting. “Most people know the outcome they want,” he says, “but they neglect the steps to get them there. You can see that everyone is in the gym in January but they’re out by February.”

Breaking down what you need to do is crucial. He tells me to write down the steps, keep track of my progress and to make it public. “I tell people to stick them on the refrigerator,” he says. I know he’s onto something by the deep horror I feel at the thought of my husband’s perusing my training schedule while he pulls out the milk for his cereal.

Blackmer also suggests finding a compelling emotional reason to pursue your goal.” If you are doing it for vague reasons,” he says, “or because your doctor told you to, it will get things off the ground. But unless you are doing it for your own reasons, it’s hard to sustain.” What I come up with is that I want to feel strong and powerful in my body. He encourages me to make my own personal highlight reel of times in my life when I have felt this.

Then I do what I always do in a therapist’s office. I tell him a deep, dark secret: When I am on the treadmill in a cute running skirt with my bubble-gum, death-metal Marilyn Manson pumping into my head, I feel like a world-class athlete running a marathon. To my surprise, he says this is excellent and I should do it more. “We think it’s foolish and childish, but this stuff works,” he says. “It really does motivate you and fire you up.” For the first time, I’m allowed a delusion in a therapist’s office. Only he calls this process “imagery and mental-skills training.”

His last suggestion is to rethink my concept of an athlete.

“Can it be a person who is into health and wellness and regular physical activity to improve their life?” he asks.

“Could that really be a definition of an athlete?” I ask.

“That’s for you to decide,” he says.

Suddenly, sports psychology feels very familiar after all.


Dana Blackmer’s Tips for Imagery Training

1. Recall as many images as you can that connect you to your passion for your sport. They might include images of your best performance, an athlete you admire, or envisioning yourself as something powerful and fast.

2. Imagine every detail, using all of your senses, including what you hear, how your body feels and what you’re thinking and feeling.

3. Think of the situations in your sport when you need to fire up and get motivated. These will be the situations where you’ll use your imagery.

4. Practice running your imagery through your head three to five times, one or two times a day. This is a skill you need to build, so practice it in a quiet place.

5. Use your imagery when you start feeling tired, bored or unmotivated during your practice or workouts. When it becomes second nature during practice, you’re ready to use it in competition when you need to psych up the most.

Dana Blackmer offers tips on training and improving performance at theextragear.com or by calling 754-8439.


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