When the long-awaited 1996 Olympics arrived in Atlanta, O’Brien had perfected his relaxation techniques to bring him to an optimal stage of arousal for his various decathlon events with deep breathing to lower his heart rate. You have to be aggressive to make the pole vault work and yet you have to be relaxed and keep your wits about you, he said. (In other events, O’Brien used more arousal in the explosion events of long jump and shot put, but less in the discus where you need to be explosive but have to stay within boundaries when you throw to keep your posture straight.)
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He also removed much of the distress from the pole vault event by training in the Olympic Stadium well in advance of the U.S. trials which had defeated him in 1992. He was on the same runway, in the same stadium, in front of a large crowd, said Reardon, who deliberately increased O’Brien’s stress by trying to distract him while he was training. We tried to remove some of the trauma because that’s what Dan experienced in92. For trauma victims, anniversaries are always difficult; they trigger fear and anxiety.
Another key that allowed O’Brien to avoid choking in Atlanta was that he learned to block out all external forces, particularly worries that he would lose corporate sponsors and let other people down, and put all the onus on himself. If he failed again, the only person he would answer to was himself. I had to put my performance entirely on myself and be ready to blame myself and not others if I failed again. I took some of the importance out of it by saying to myself this wasn’t for the gold medal, but for my personal pride. I couldn’t care what others thought any more. I only cared about what I thought of myself. We have to learn how to deal with our egos. During his performances in Atlanta, he went into a form of task vision in which he concentrated only on the present. I took one jump, one throw, one run at a time. I tried to become each event. O’Brien went on to win the gold medal in Atlanta with an Olympic record for the decathlon of 8,824 points.
Like Dan O’Brien, golfer Greg Norman is trying to become more aware of what makes him choke in major championships. What he’s learning is that, as has been outlined by many psychologists in this blog, athletes often choke because they do not turn nervousness or anxiety into dispassionate performance response, but rather are too aware of self, the scoreboard, or opponents. Norman has blown so many leads in major tournaments (like in the 1996 Masters when he saw a six-shot lead evaporate as his approach shots kept going over the green), to choke in golf is known in some circles as pulling a Norman. What’s frustrating is he plays great the rest of the time and is the PGA tour’s all-time money winner. Greg is incredibly talented with an enormously strong drive to succeed, said sport psychologist Noel Blundell, who works with athletes in a wide range of sports from golf to tennis to windsurfing. With that extreme need to achieve, he has a tendency to get distressed. It manifests itself in a breakdown of rhythm, timing, and concentration. Norman has admitted that he may think too much during the buildup to the Masters each year.
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