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30 juni 2012

Good enough for gold?

Last month may not have been good for Dutch sports, but with the Olympic Games on the horizon there is a chance to regain some glory. JOEP DERKSEN looks at the factors that might make Dutch athletes choke or rise to the top.

Higher! Faster! Stronger! These three words are what the Olympic Games are all about. Forget the old slogan: "Participation is more important than winning." That attitude is a thing of the past. Nowadays, athletes can only participate when they have met the required standards imposed by the Dutch Olympic Committee (Nederlands Olympisch Comité, NOC). By now, it is clear which Dutch athletes are allowed to join the Olympic Games in London, but will they fail or succeed? Only the best will win a gold medal and Olympic champions must be in top shape, both physically and mentally.

The Dutch athletes have been prepared by psychologists, so as not to crack at the decisive moment. But how do the experts prevent athletes from "choking" at the all important moment? Two sport psychologists give an insight in the minds of the athletes: "A lot of times, the focus is not good enough, when it comes to performing at the right moment," Edith Rozendaal, sport psychologist VSPN from Sportgek, which provides mental training for athletes, explains.

Everything an athlete does in the months before the Olympic Games final should be related to their sport. The minor problems of daily life should not interfere with preparation; an athlete should eat, drink and sleep and solely focus on upcoming achievements. "Like Maarten van der Weijden did in 2008 with his oxygen tent," Rozendaal elaborates, "And for some it is important to also focus on other  domains of life, like Kim Clijsters does when she spends time with her daughter during a tournament." Athletes also suffer from negative emotions such as the fear to lose, anger and frustration because of an injury. Most athletes think that these emotions should be avoided as much as possible. "However; that is impossible," Rozendaal comments, "I train athletes to accept these emotions and nevertheless perform in the best way possible."

The latest development in psychology is the use of eastern and Buddhist influences, such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness. Is it still possible for an athlete to go for gold without mental training? Rozendaal explains that it does  happen, but not so much anymore. There exists hardly any taboo about using a psychologist. "Coping with your fears and emotions has nothing to do with fighting a mental illness; it is all about performing in the best way possible," says Rozendaal, "To achieve that, you have to be better concentrated and motivated than your competitors."

Psychologist Rico Schuijers has been helping Dutch athletes to prepare for the Olympic Games over the past months. He sees it from a somewhat different point of view: "Of course athletes can win without psychological assistance." Schuijers considers that athletes can actively influence their state of mind. "A successful top athlete is able to do the right thing, in the right way, at the right moment," he claims, "But, it is true that most successful top athletes have had mental training at some point in their career."

There is, however, one major pitfall that athletes can be confronted with. "We call that the future thinking or result thinking," Schuijers explains, "Athletes then put too much pressure on themselves to achieve a certain result. During the mental training we teach them to focus their attention on their techniques and tactics." He explains that the athlete must focus on "me and my task." The important things are what the athlete must focus on (the opponents or the ball, for instance), the decisions that must be made and executing movements. Failure is the result of  poorly executing one (or more) of these basics. By eliminating all distractions, the psychologist assists in improving the motivation and concentration of the athlete. In addition the self confidence of the athlete and their ability to deal with tension increases.

From 27 July, we will all be able to see how well our athletes will perform at the Olympic Games. Who will choke under pressure, just as Jana Novotna did in her 1993 Wimbledon final? She was leading 4–1 and 40–15 against Steffi Graf in the decisive set and still lost; no athlete wants to be remembered for such a feat. It is now up to our Olympic athletes and we all hope that they will do much better than the Dutch soccer team at the European Championships.

(Published in: The Holland Times, July edition).