Mental games come into play even for most elite athletes

Olympian mistakes befall athletes who think too much, sports psychologists say.

The latest examples came Wednesday in Beijing (Tuesday night ET) when the U.S. women's gymnastics team made errors that dashed its bid for a gold medal.

Meanwhile, single-minded swimmer Michael Phelps blazed his way to glory.

"The first thing is that people make mistakes," says psychologist Thomas Carr of Michigan State University in East Lansing. "But we do know for very accomplished, very practiced individuals that high-pressure situations are a very bad time for them to start thinking about their actions."

For the gymnasts, stepping out of bounds on floor exercises and a fall from the balance beam by Alicia Sacramone were among the missteps on the path to a silver medal.

Examples of star athletes botching actions they routinely perform — from booting an infield grounder to missing an extra point in football — bewilder the public and are studied by sports psychologists.

"These are elite athletes," says cognitive neuroscientist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. "The balance beam is a ridiculously hard activity. I don't even know if I could walk on one. But the big question for these athletes is: Why do they slip on actions they have performed flawlessly thousands of times in the past?"

Billions of neurons are firing in the brain to produce the exquisitely coordinated movements, Beilock says.

Performing under the high pressures of huge audiences, prestigious prizes or big money rewards, athletes may start "excessive monitoring" and examine motions they should just let flow, Beilock says.

"The very best athletes put themselves in a bubble, just focus on the moment and let their bodies do what they've trained to do without letting their minds get in the way," says sports psychiatrist Ronald Kamm of Sport Psychiatry Associates in Oakhurst, N.J. "At the very top level, that's the difference between the winners and the also-rans."

Athletes can simulate high-pressure environments to reduce the chances they will choke, Carr says.

Football teams may pump crowd noise into practices, for example, and athletes can visualize competing in front of a screaming crowd, "a form of self-hypnosis really," Kamm says.

But that can take the athlete only so far.

"I know from talking to gymnasts that nothing compares to the Olympics," Beilock says, echoing the other researchers. "You can't train for that."

Kamm adds: "Everybody's human. Sometimes things happen in sports that we can't explain. That's what makes them interesting."

READERS: What tricks have you used to stay focused during sports competitions? If you can't stay focused, what's your biggest distraction?

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