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Mind games as tough as Olympic games

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
The Australians mock their trash-talking competitor by playing air guitar at the 2000 summer Olympics.
The Australians mock their trash-talking competitor by playing air guitar at the 2000 summer Olympics.
  • Psych-out tactics: Sit close to a competitor, stare, or try to shake his or her hand
  • Sport psychologist: "The laws of the jungle apply -- show weakness and risk being eaten."
  • Athletes can psych themselves out and must use techniques to avoid that

(CNN) -- Annoyed by a French competitor's bragging, U.S. Olympic swimmer Don Schollander stalked him into the men's bathroom, then planted himself inches behind his rival -- at the urinal.

Within earshot of his competitors, seven-time gold medalist Mark Spitz reportedly once complained to his coach that he felt tight when he wasn't hurting at all. Famously mustachioed, the American swimmer said his facial hair helped wick water, enabling him to swim faster. Soon after, the Russians grew mustaches.

Favored in many events, skier Lindsey Vonn announced before the 2010 games that a shin injury might keep her off the snow. Some sports journalists wondered whether she was exaggerating to lower expectations.

To compete at the Olympic games, an athlete must be ready to face fierce mind games, too.

"The laws of the jungle apply -- show weakness and risk being eaten," said Nicole Detling Miller, the U.S. speed skating team's psychologist. Her job is to help racers maintain their mental focus and combat rivals' dirty little tricks.

They can be simple but menacing:

In a room full of empty chairs, take a seat right next to your biggest threat, or walk up and offer a handshake.

Spark paranoia by saying: "Oh, hey, that's a wild new move you have there. Never seen that," when you've not noticed anything unusual at all.

Do something that makes competitors question your sanity.

"You know what was an incredible move? I would throw in a surge [fast sprinting] early in the race because everyone knows you never want to do that at mile 15 in a 26.2-mile race," said Bill Rodgers, who ran the 1976 Olympic marathon.

The eight-time winner of the Boston and New York City marathons also liked to fire questions at the runner keeping his pace to gauge how much that person was suffering.

"Every athlete does what they can for an edge," he said. "It's part of the fun."

Fun can come a bit frostier on the ice. Skaters sometimes refuse to move out of the way of a rival, forcing the approaching skater to maneuver around, Detling Miller said. Others will stand in the entry gate and take their sweet time removing their blade guards so that no one else can get on the ice.

"If you've got a lot of guts, you can get behind a rival and draft off them," she said. "Ooh, that takes a lot of confidence."

For the athlete who prefers a minimalist, classic psych out, there's always The Stare.

"I knew that I could physically not beat her, but mentally I could. I pulled out all the stops. I glared at her so hard. I stared and kept staring," six-time Olympic gold swimmer Amy Van Dyken told CNN, recalling her infamous showdown at the 1996 Olympics with Le Jingyi of China, who was then a world-record holder.

Van Dyken took it further. "[I] put pool water in my mouth and spat it out in her lane. And then I would slap my arms and grunt," she said.

It's against the rules to have unnecessary noise on the starting blocks. Van Dyken reasoned that body functions didn't fall into that category. "I had phlegm because I'm asthmatic," she said. "I found that to be an appropriate time to clear my throat as loudly as I could.

"When she [Jingyi] looked down, I knew I had won."

Van Dyken did take the gold; Jingyi had to settle for silver in that race.

In the 2000 games, Van Dyken tried the tactic again and spat into Inge de Bruijn's lane and then insulted the Dutch swimmer by saying she could beat de Bruijn if "I were a man."

The swimmer took a heap of criticism for her actions, and made Sports Illustrated's list of most unsportsmanlike conduct at the Olympics.

"People can say that it's unsportsmanlike, but I shook her hand after the race," Van Dyken said. "[Competitors] aren't my friends. You're not swimming for yourself or your swim club anymore. You're competing for the entire country. If I don't do my best at the Olympics I have to wait four years. That's a lot of pressure."

Pressure aside, Detling Miller and most sports psychologists say they don't encourage their athletes to spend energy trying to psych each other out. Besides making an athlete look ugly, it can very easily distract from a competitor's own performance.

It can also backfire by making an athlete seem insecure or fueling a competitor's drive to win.

Consider American swimmer Gary Hall Jr., who trash-blogged during the 2000 summer Olympics that his team would "smash" the Australians "like guitars." Aussie Ian Thorpe finished a body's length ahead of Hall in the 4x100 freestyle relay, inspiring Thorpe's teammates to play air guitar on the pool deck.

"Trash talking is the least subtle, often least effective way to assert your presence on any field," said Shane Murphy, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sport Psychology Department from 1987 to 1994. He has worked with athletes of all levels for 25 years, teaching them breathing and meditation techniques that keep them calm and remain "in the zone."

Most of the time, he said, a competitor will psych himself out.

"When I begin working with an athlete, I want to know what their fears are, what is going to make them hesitate," he said. "We'll start out with me saying, 'Let's think of something that might go wrong.'"

The 2010 Olympics have been dubbed the Glitch Games. The weather has been bad and, especially anxiety-inducing, skating events had to be delayed for more than an hour because resurfacing machines were not working. Those mishaps pale, of course, in comparison to the death of a Georgian luger the first day of the games.

"A lot of athletes will say, 'I'm scared of crashing,'" said Murphy. "I say, 'OK, let's imagine that there's a terrible crash on the course.'"

Visualization techniques or guided imagery begins by controlling breathing and having the athletes imagine the inner workings of their muscles. Murphy will ask an athlete to make a fist and release it while saying a phrase that's personally meaningful, such as "Now it's time to let it go," or "This is my time to make it happen."

Before the super-G event last week, cameras captured Vonn at the top of the mountain with her eyes closed, mumbling something while making a swooping motion with her hand as if she were mentally going over the course from start to finish. Vonn took a bronze in the event.

Sometimes the best way to get a self-doubting athlete to believe they can win is to make them feel bad ... about feeling bad, Murphy said.

Murphy was coaching a competitor in the modern pentathlon -- running, swimming, shooting, horseback riding and fencing. The athlete was incredibly talented but performed poorly in fencing. It took Murphy a while to figure out why. Then it dawned on him. Fencing was the only sport that involved a face-to-face encounter.

"My guy would always say, 'Oh, he wants it more than I do. I'll let him have it.'" said Murphy, frustrated that the athlete was giving up mentally.

That was the athlete's attitude," said Murphy. "Finally, I said, 'You're really cheating your opponents in fencing.'"

This deeply bothered the athlete. How, he asked?

"'I don't think you're giving them your best performance,'" Murphy recalled replying. "'They are not ever going to know how good they are unless they can test themselves against you when you're at your best.'

"A light went on and he started doing much better."

Olympic snowboarder Louie Vito saves the trickery for the half-pipe and listens to hard-driving hip hop on his iPod to stay focused. "If I have a bad contest -- I fall or something -- I'm not going to listen to that same song ever again," said Vito, who failed to medal at the games.

Snowboarders don't spit at each other, fake injuries or block each other at the top of the pipe. But, all boarders know a story about one of them, he said. Vito won't name the guy, but said he was known for saying to competitors about to drop: "Make sure you don't fall on that first hit right there."

"Whatever, that's one guy," said Vito. "You can only control yourself. I don't feel like I need to play mind games with anyone. It's just a contest, man. It's just a contest."