Weight-Loss Lessons from Olympians

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Well, the Olympics got me thinking about what we can learn from elite athletes — how do they overcome their moments of adversity? What I found was that almost all world-class athletes practice mental rehearsal. Haven’t you ever heard the expression “practice makes perfect”? The concept is to rehearse an upcoming event, but not on the field — in your mind. “You’re using imagery to trick your brain into having an experience you didn’t actually have,” says Shane Murphy, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and a former sports psychologist to the U.S. Olympic team.

Skiers imagine each run down the slope, perfectly executing every turn in order to “train” their bodies to do the same when they actually compete. Rumor has it that Jack Nicklaus, the great golfer, never missed a putt in his mind — he would never take a shot without using imagery prior to hitting the ball. “For an athlete, it’s like having an instant ‘preplay’ — seeing the event and practicing (including fixing mistakes), all before it happens — to avoid making the big mistakes on the field,” says Jim Afremow, Ph.D., a sports physiologist at the Athletes’ Performance Center in Tempe, Ariz.

And, mental rehearsal is not just for athletes. According to the “American Journal of Surgery,” surgeons who practice their skills using mental rehearsal perform better in the operating room.

So why not use those same techniques to show yourself what it will feel like to be free of a particular overeating shackle — such as mindlessly munching your way through an entire row of Oreos to relieve the pressure of a bad day at work?

You don’t have to physically practice standing in the buffet line at your best friend’s wedding in order to learn how to turn down fattening food. Instead, you can rehearse the scenario in your mind so that, rather than eating the triple-layer chocolate supreme cake with a scoop of ice cream on the side, you can revise the ending.

“We train athletes to anticipate their reaction to negative situations, so they are able to create a positive outcome. For instance, a skater falling in mid-session, a soccer player playing in inclement weather or a sprinter competing against a world record holder — the athlete needs to know how he is going to respond in advance. The same applies to avoiding potential diet disasters,” says Murphy.

“Athletes (and non-athletes) are faced with uncomfortable issues, and in order to break away from the anticipated fear or anxiety of an event, you need to build confidence,” says Kay Porter, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Eugene, Ore., and author of “The Mental Athlete” (Human Kinetics, 2003).

And what builds that confidence? The experience of doing it right. In that way, mental rehearsal helps athletes overcome performance anxiety. For example, maybe the holidays make you anxious. You already know what to expect next Thanksgiving, so you can mentally rehearse saying no to the stuffing, gravy and candied sweet potatoes, and see your plate filled with plain turkey and vegetables and other, less fattening, “trimmings.” As Louis Pasteur said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Here is a step-by-step guide to Mental Rehearsal:

1. Identify the occasion: Choose an eating situation you find difficult, whether it’s unconscious eating, traveling, special occasions (weddings, family dinners), dining out, a midnight snack attack, etc. Develop a rough sketch of how you’d like to change your behavior in that scenario — include the thoughts, emotions and actions you want in your “ideal” version.

2. Brainstorm: Dr. Murphy recommends brainstorming all the negative events that could occur within that situation. For instance, if you have difficulty sticking to your diet when you’re going out to dinner at your favorite restaurant, come up with all the possible complications you may encounter: the great bread, the stupendous blue cheese dressing, the fabulous creme brulee or even those pressuring comments from “food pushers.” And don’t forget to think about all the positive outcomes in which you make choices you are content with — that’s the key, reminds Murphy.

3. Add detail: Be specific. Don’t spare a thought, no matter how insignificant it might seem. Think how you would act and behave in your ideal scenario — you can even write it down to make it more concrete.

4. Create the script: Now you’re ready to come up with a step-by-step description of exactly what your ideal experience would actually be like. Be creative and thoughtful about the process. You must really understand the experience from beginning to end. Consciously visualize what it will take for you to get through this situation, and make sure to think about how you would react to all the possible negative scenarios, creating positive outcomes for each.

5. Give it life: Once you have the general script down, go back to make the experience really come alive. “Keep in mind you want to use all your senses — see, feel, hear and smell it. Make it as lifelike as possible — imagine it in 3D. If you’re a swimmer, smell the chlorine in the pool,” says Murphy. For weight control, apply the same principles, including imagining the smells of the restaurant, who you’ll be with, who your server will be and what everyone is going to say.

There are two types of mental practicing: external, in which you watch yourself in a movie, and internal, seeing the event through your own eyes. Some experts recommend the internal approach for greater success, but either will be effective, so use whichever you prefer.

6. Make it automatic: Dr. Afremow recommends that you rehearse your imagery often, including the night before the event and even just before it begins, to keep it fresh. What you’re doing through mental rehearsal is creating new “automatic” responses to replace your previous patterns — the ones that had been holding you back from your weight loss. Just think about it. If you’ve always ordered dessert at a restaurant, you do it unconsciously because it’s a habit. If you do nothing to change that pattern, you will continue to do the same thing. But if you rehearse a different outcome — for instance, ordering fruit, coffee or no dessert at all — you will have created a new “automatic” response to the dessert menu.

7. Rerun that scenario in your head whenever you find yourself about to live out the situation you’ve rehearsed. The details should be as familiar to you as the words and notes to your favorite song.

8. After the event, no matter what the outcome, revise your imagery and try to repair any mistakes or setbacks.

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