When speedskater J.R. Celski won his first Olympic medal with a bronze in the men's 1,500-meter short track at the Vancouver Olympics, I found his success remarkable. It answered important questions I had about Celski's recovery from the bad injury he had suffered in competition just five months ago, when a deep cut in his leg required 60 stitches. Not his physical recovery - we were sure he was good there. But we weren't sure about his confidence level - his mental recovery - before the race. I know that can make a difference in the physical ability of any athlete.
According to Michael Lardon, M.D., award-winning researcher on the neuroelectric assessment of athletic peak performance, your thoughts change your biology. Lardon is an old friend of mine from med school, and as physicians, we focus on evidence-based medicine. He's not talking about mind over matter, or chanting mantras like "I will work out, I will work out." Scientific research shows that utilizing the truth about your athletic experiences can literally change your body's ability to accomplish more.
There are three modes of thought that have proven effective in positively impacting biology in research subjects. The first mode involves modeling the behavior of somebody else. When study participants watched a person successfully perform a task, then copied her, they obtained a neurological uptick in self-confidence and performed the task more successfully themselves.
You may have put this method to use already if you've ever taken dance lessons that required you repeat steps the instructor has just performed, or tried skiing after watching a video of a skier with perfect form. Oprah Winfrey cites this technique as integral to her success. When terrified prior to her first live TV interview, she decided to imitate Barbara Walters. Winfrey talks about how doing this increased her self-confidence and improved her ability to perform on the air.
The second mode of thought that has proven effective is recalling past successes, essentially reminding yourself that you can do it. Recalling past experiences is the most effective of the three domains because it is the most data-driven. The times when you had your best run, best ride or best exercise session are what scientists call "true data points." While bad experiences are also true - and we've all had them - you focus on the best you have done because that most honestly speaks to your true capacity.
In advance of a clutch moment, Lardon recommends that athletes select their most successful experiences performing the same task. This removes any unconscious doubt that may inhibit your going for it. And when the clutch moment arrives, you can easily call up those pre-selected experiences and tell yourself with complete assurance that you can do it.
The third biological boost can be triggered by saying to yourself, "Well, he did it, and if he can do it, I can do it." An example from the life of golfer Rich Beem illustrates this perfectly. Beem had played golf in college and went pro in 1994. He eventually quit, but two friends of his continued to pursue professional golfing careers, and both went on to win on the PGA Tour.
When word of their success reached Beem, he was selling cell phones in Seattle for about $15 an hour. He thought, "Gosh, I can beat them - if they can do it, then I can do it, too."
Charged with self-confidence based on that thought, Beem gave professional golf another try and - as an unheralded rookie - won the Kemper Open in 1999. In a single month in 2002, Beem won The International in Castle Rock, Colo., and then the PGA Championship at Hazeltine National in Minnesota, where he bested none other than No. 1-ranked Tiger Woods.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.fasterbetterstronger.com)