Athletes have long known that the mental edge is often the factor that separates winners from losers. But only recently have large numbers of athletes abandoned the idea that obtaining psychological help is an admission of weakness.
Therapists who specialize in treating athletes are finding a growing demand from high schools, colleges, Olympic teams and professional sports franchises concerned with keeping million-dollar stars healthy in mind and body.
ports psychology is fast becoming as familiar in training regimens as weight lifting, wind sprints and sit-ups.
``A certain level of public acceptance has been reached where it makes intuitive sense that an athlete can say, `Why can't I work on my mental conditioning the same as on my physical conditioning?' '' said Dr. Frank Gardner, a psychologist for the New York Knicks and the New York Raners.
Although many are still unwilling to tell the world about it, athletes in various fields have sought psychological advice to help them compete at their best:
- Elizabeth Manley, a Canadian figure skater with a history of faltering in crucial competitions, used mental imaging techniques she learned from her psychologist and captured a silver medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
- After 45 years of losing playoff series to Montreal, the Boston Bruins used videotapes and other programs devised by their psychologist to prepare last year. For the first time, they won.
- A race car driver who could never seem to finish better than fourth or fifth discovered after sessions with a psychologist that he needed to be less affable on competition days, especially while driving. The psychologists suggested that he view his opponents as ``the enemy'' rather than his peers, an attitude that improved his performance.
- Dr. Allan Lans, a psychiatrist on the New York Mets staff, not only monitors the drug rehabilitation of Dwight Gooden, the pitcher, but also mediates disputes between players.
- Many teams consult psychologists in the draft selection process. Gardner, who began his association with the Knicks and the Rangers in this way, said psychological tests are given to identify players who are most coachable, disciplined, team-oriented and in control of their emotions.
``Besides looking for young talent, they were looking for chemistry,'' he said.
``We've come to recognize that at the top the difference is so minute between a gold, silver or bronze medal, or nothing at all,'' said Robert H. Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, ``and as athletes and coaches have looked for any way to shave off that fraction of a second, it's become apparent that the ability to be mentally prepared can be the factor that makes the difference. …