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Olympic ski racers work with sports psychologists to manage the mental pressure

11:15 AM, Feb 13, 2014   |    comments
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COLORADO SPRINGS - Ski racing. Athletes traveling at speeds topping 80 mph. No seatbelts, no roll cages. Just the skier and the hill. It's not surprising that all of them share one common thread on the slopes - crashes.

For US Olympic Team members Steven Nyman, Andrew Weibrecht, and Will Brandenburg, they know that pain all too well.

"It was wild to look down and have your foot there, and you're trying to push on your toes, and you can't even push on your toes," Nyman told 9NEWS.

Weibrecht used to think crashes were "fine," he said.

"Ultimately, I started crashing and it wasn't fine. I blew out both my shoulders and my ankles," Weibrecht said.

"A crash here, a couple bad races there and your confidence is a little back and you're not pushing as hard as you can," Brandenburg told 9NEWS.

For ski racers, it is not a matter of if they will get hurt, but when. They work hard on the mechanical techniques that will keep them safe on the slopes, but their mental state is another matter.

Keeping them focused to stay safe and perform at their best is a job for sports psychologists.

Dr. Sean McCann, Senior Sports Psychologist for the US Olympic Committee described techniques sports psychologists use with skiers.

"One key skill is imagery. Another key skill for alpine skiers is dealing with anxiety and fear and finding a focus enabling them to perform well despite the fact that they are going 80 miles per hour on ice and gravity is working them ever forward," Dr. McCann said. "If they're a little bit off in terms of their focus, that can be a really bad thing."

McCann helps skiers cope with the added pressure of the Olympics, the world's biggest stage, cameras inches from their faces as they are focusing on the most important race of their lives.

"We'll work on their thinking, their emotional state, how they breathe, just to relax their body, reduce muscle tension," McCann said. "There's many elements that can be marshaled together to get them focused on the here and now and the job they have in front of them."

Ultimately, the athletes agree. Brandenburg uses yoga and meditation to focus. Nyman understands his lack of focus likely cost him a medal in the Torino games. And, Weibrecht recognizes the value of keeping his thoughts fixed on his goal.

"The conclusion I've come to through years and years of working with a sports psychologist is that preparation is second to none in terms of getting your head right," Weibrecht said.

(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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