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Faster, Higher, Stronger

To perform like an Olympian, you have to think like one. Kinesiology professor Gabriele Wulf explains how to change your thoughts to boost your results.

Athletics  |  Jul 11, 2012  |  By Megan Downs

What if you could perfect a butterfly stroke that would rival Michael Phelps' or hurl a hammer farther than UNLV student Amanda Bingson will in the Olympics this month?

It might just take a simple mental shift.

OK, so changing your concentration might not help you sprint past Khadevis Robinson (the Rebels assistant track coach will also compete in London), but it will improve your balance, accuracy and consistency, said kinesiology professor Gabriele Wulf.

Instead of directing thoughts to your own mechanics, such as the way you flip your wrist during a basketball free throw or how hard your legs are working on your morning bicycle ride, picture the ball landing in the hoop or imagine the force you are exerting against the pedals of the bike.

Over 15 years and more than 80 studies, Wulf and other researchers have found that focusing thoughts on external results improves sports performance, rehabilitation, or any activity involving motor skills.

“Avoid thinking about anything on your body,” Wulf said. “Having an external focus of attention makes performance more automatic and speeds up the learning process, thereby enabling performers to achieve a higher skill level sooner.”

Coaches can use the same techniques to guide their athletes. Instead of saying “focus on your hand,” coaches can slightly change the wording to “focus on the racquet,” Wulf said.

An internal focus on body movements functions as “self-invoking triggers,” Wulf said. When a person focuses on their own feet or arms, this implicitly triggers self-consciousness and self-evaluation, which for many athletes could have a negative influence on performance.

Wulf has extended the concept to her work with older adults who have suffered from strokes or Parkinson’s disease. For example, Parkinson’s patients in one of Wulf’s studies improved their balance by shifting their concentration from their feet to the an inflated disk on which they were standing.

The Power of Thought

Wulf had an epiphany nearly 20 years ago when she was windsurfing and teaching herself to perform the power jibe, a complicated move in which the windsurfer changes direction and flips the sail. It requires proper timing and balance as well precise foot positioning.

When Wulf paid attention to her feet on the board or her hands on the boom, she frequently fell or failed to complete the power jibe.

So, she be began to focus on the tilt of her board and how fluidly it turned. “It seemed so simple, but I continued to succeed by changing my thought pattern,” she said.

Since then, she’s devoted her research to helping athletes, novices, and those suffering from debilitating physical ailments, understand the same concept.