InterviewsNewsInterview With Jon Hammermeister, U.S. Ski Team Sport Psychologist

FasterSkier FasterSkierNovember 26, 2003

The U.S. national team coaching staff tells the athletes they have to define
success for themselves. Every race, domestically and internationally, they define
who the U.S. ski team is and what American skiing stands for. Working with the
national team from the mid-nineties on, you’ve had time to see trends,
form impressions. Where do you see American skiing headed?


I started working with the U.S. ski team in 1997. It was a pretty funky group
back then, a kind of disorganized whipping boy for the USSA. The 7 years I’ve
been working with the team the level of professionalism in American skiing has
improved dramatically- from the support staff, coaches, medical – everything.
They’ve got phd.’s in nutrition, sport science, biomechanics and professional
coaches to consult with. The whole attitude these people bring to the table
trickles down to a more professional athlete. Now we see a consistent improvement
in results. We no longer are toasting a top thirty result; no national team
athlete is happy with a race inside the top fifty. In every aspect professionalism
has been raised.


Pete Vordenberg went on to say the "U.S. ski team is looking at being
one of the biggest medal threats at the 2006 Olympic Games, that they’ll
continue to surprise people. Do you believe this?


Yes, I believe. For sure. It’s not so very hard to convince yourself of
this, especially looking at the linear progression of the last couple years.
The last data point, the 2003 World Championships, was fantastic for the team.
Taking a simple x-y regression analysis you can say, yes, medals are in the
picture. But they are no guarantees, especially in sports. There are many things
that could derail this. But I firmly believe it’s not just hopeful, but
likely for the U.S. to medal.


 


Looking at another sport like track and field, we have had so much success
at the sprints and hurdles and, over the last twenty-five years, perhaps a handful
of mid-distance and distance runners at international standard. We have the
best facilities, locales with climate suited to year-round training for sprint
and distance training. We have the best 400meters and 400m hurdles, yet
name the last great American 800 meter runner?


The last great American 800 meter runner, that’d have to be Dave Wottle.


Wottle’s golden day came in Munich in ’72. Thirty years is some
time ago. What I mean is that the demands put on a 400H and 800-meter runner
are very similar yet there’s a competitive disconnect between these events
for American athletes.


 


I see your point. Glamour and image play a part, for sure. The hundred meters,
two-hundred, four-hundred are the glamour events, the ones people read about
in Sports Illustrated. These are the athletes with bulging legs, muscles busting
from their shoulders and neck. The mid-distance or skinny distance guy doesn’t
fit the image of what kids are looking for. People don’t have a desire
to look like a distance runner. The sprint events they have the big muscles
and are a gateway to the real glamour sports – baseball, football, basketball
– where big money and big status lies.


With something tangible like results from the 2002 Olympics, 2003 World
Championships, a U-23 world championship, World Junior podium finishes, Johnny
Spillane’s world championship title do you see growing confidence in America’s
athletes?


For sure. Talking with the national team, we keep coming back to what one needs
to be confident. The trick with confidence is to have something tangible to
be confident in. An obvious thing is results. It’s pretty easy to grasp
onto these tangible things.


It takes more than just saying "I’m confident" to actually be
confident. It has to be proven in your own mind. Being an athlete is like being
a naïve lawyer. Through training and competition you present cases, then
counter argue these with the evidence of experience.


The vicarious effect can also greatly impact an individual’s confidence.
People saw what Carl, Johnny and Kris did and many of the American athletes
that didn’t reach the podium don’t view themselves as slower than
those that did. Some even think they are better. "If Spillane can do it,
I defiantly can too," is how vicarious experience works. And for those
who have won medals it’s a huge accomplishment to hang their hat on. They
have presented some real, not circumstantial, evidence that it can be done.
This helps everybody.


Some athletes look at this vicarious experience a little different way, from
a negative view point. "I’m just as good, but I’m not getting
the results" they say to themselves. They begin questioning everything
from their talent to preparations instead of staying on the right path, knowing
that better results will come later. Timing plays such a role in performance.
Just because its somebody’s day or year doesn’t mean it won’t
be yours later down the road. Rather great results from a teammate should be
seen as a confirmation that they are on track.


I see where you’re going – results will come when the time is right.
No use trying to force something that’ll happen on its accord so long as
you keep on driving after it. Now talking about the changing guard in international
skiing where do you believe American athletes stand to make the biggest gains?


I don’t have a good answer. Three years ago, self confidence. The athletes
were lacking this, and for good reason. Now it’s a different era and better
setup. Today, I don’t have a blanket answer. One thing I do know is that
everyone on the national team can improve through mental training, just in different
areas for each athlete. Some are working on controlling emotions. Others have
problems with concentration. Some struggle with over motivation issues. And
others could better cope with adversity. The path to becoming the most mentally
tough athlete is very case dependant.


Mental toughness, huh? What does it mean to you to be a mentally tough competitor?


The really mentally tough athlete has control of not only his physical condition,
but also their mental and emotional states. A mentally tough athletes rarely
chokes. Everyone chokes, but these guys do it a lot less. Because of their great
command over their emotional state, and are smart about their physical state
they consistently perform right up to the boundaries of their god given potential.
The mentally tough athlete’s results don’t bounce around all over
the place. If I had to boil it down to one thing I’d have to say the best
athletes, they love to fight.


And you know the worst guys to compete against? The ones that just loves to
fight. You can’t intimidate them. They won’t fold under pressure.
They are in their element competing. You might beat them but it’s going
to be hard and they’re going to make you hurt. The mentally tough competitor
is always ready for a throw down. And at the most meaningful times there are
really ready to go toe-to-toe. This has nothing to do with loving to
win, hating to lose. Everybody hates to lose, loves to win. The best love being
in that brawl. Their calm and relaxed, very determined SOB’s…


Kris Freeman says when stepping into the starting gate he’s ‘somewhere
between mad and pissed off,’ that the other competitors are out there trying
to take away what he believes is already his — they are trying to steal
his win. Is this a unique perspective to take to the starting line?


Not really. One has to understand there’s no cookbook way to go about
competing. Everyone is their own case study. When most people talk about their
flow experiences, those handful of great races, it’s usually related as
an extremely positive state. But in sport emotion it’s the key thing. Kris
may not be in flow in the moments leading up to the start but once he gets out
on the course he probably starts to flow. In the starting gate he’s trying
to access all the pockets of energy he can and anger is a very potent source
of energy for people.


I know more than a few athletes that perform well when driven by the negative.
That competition is probably not a ‘ten,’ but I have no doubt one
can get to a ‘nine’ on negative emotion. And Kris at a nine is pretty
damn impressive.


In the big races you have to fight like crazy. Not every day is going to be
a ‘ten’ and you have to find a way to bring out those ‘nine’
performances.


In 1997 not knowing anything specific about Wendy Wagner’s motor, you
said she would soon be America’s best cross-country skier after talking
with her. Some ski coaches were skeptical with how much talent you saw there.
What did you see in Wendy’s that made you think, ‘hey, here’s
someone who can play at the highest levels of her genetic potential?’


I won’t tell you much but I’ll tell you one thing, Wendy loves to
fight. You wouldn’t know it off the hill as she’s one of the sweetest
people you’ll ever meet but Wendy just loves a good bar fight. She’s
down when it’s not a good fight, even when if she might win by two or three
minutes. For her winning doesn’t discriminate performance. That’s
somebody that really has the right stuff, really has the right things.


Doping and anti-doping efforts must have a psychological factor to performance.
If an athlete goes to a starting line and thinks the playing field is not level,
that must be a difficult state for one to have their peak experiences come from.
How does the clean athlete turn the tables on the dopers, making them come to
the starting line, looking over their shoulder, at a mental disadvantage?


First thing, I see things getting better. The playing field is probably getting
more level. As American athletes, we race clean. I’ve had some pretty intimate
conversations with team members and we play fair. The fact that they are people
who choose to cheat identifies them as mentally weak. That’s the chink
in their armor. They simply are not as tough as we are. If we are the mentally
toughest racers we can more than make up the physical decrement we have. You
have to see those cheaters as the weak personalities that they are, and eventually
we’re going to whoop those guys.


Professional ski racers have a lot of stress to deal with, way before wondering
"Oh my gosh, what if I got caught doping?" As American skiers, we
don’t have to think like that. That’s one huge stressor we don’t
have to deal with. Some of the most shamed athletes on the planet were those
who cheated. The humiliation and shame Muehlegg must feel- that must be a truly
horrible life to now live.


 


 


In 1982 Bob Goldman did a study that asked 200 athletes "if you could
take a pill that would guarantee you would win every event for five years and
never test positive but then would cause you to die, would you take it?"
Over 50% said yes. Is this one study really representative of the contemporary
international sporting environment?


I can only speak from personal experience. I’ve only worked with American
athletes. My experience is that this percentage is too high. There would be
some who would be for it. Most would not. Honor and fair play are very important
to most of the athletes I’ve worked with. They are not interested with
how good they can be residing within an artificial environment. The athletes
I’ve met are curious to find where their potential lies- and you can’t
answer that question while manipulating the results with drugs.


 


Being from Eastern Washington it seems an appreciation for baseball comes
with the territory. Any particular players stand out?


Hank Aaron really stands out in my mind. He’s someone my sport psych students
(at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Wa) look at every semester.


Aaron was very sophisticated with how he approached the game twenty years ago,
when sport psychology wasn’t in vogue. Back then there was a stigma against
those who believed in imagery and refocusing routines, whereas today it’s
as normal as ice in the team training room. Before every game and again before
every at bat Aaron would use imagery to see the pitcher he would face. His imagery
skills got so good he could recreate just about every pitch on every pitcher
he’d faced, right down to the rotation of the seams. Because of this, Aaron
went to the plate calm and relaxed. His MLB home run record may never be beaten,
even as baseball changes. He had it all dialed in- the physical, emotional and
the mental. He had the whole package.


 


One common thread seems to run through every endurance sport — pain.
How have some notable performers dealt with pain?


In endurance sports managing pain is what it’s all about, is what determines
how well you’re going to perform. I’ve heard many ways to conceptualize
pain. There’s a unique theme that runs amongst the champions of champions
of various endurance sports. The legends view pain paradoxically. Gold medalist
swimmer (1964 and 1968) Don Schullander said he didn’t have cleaner technique
or better conditioning than his Olympic competitors. Rather he could uniquely
handle pain. Whereas as most people hit a pain threshold, bounce around it for
a while, then ease off the pace, Schulander would punch through the pain barrier
into the ‘realm of sheer agony.’ And in that room Schulander believed
he could live longer than anyone else.


Mark Allen viewed pain not as necessarily bad, but with curiosity. He looked
at pain from an analytical point of view. "Here I am, fifteen miles still
to run in the Hawaii Ironman. This is really painful. But what would happen
if I ratcheted the pace up a little more? Is this pain linear? Would one more
unit of effort equal one more unit of pain? Or could I go up two units of effort
without anymore pain units?" As we say in psych babble, Mark Allen was
cognitive restructuring. He took pain and began looking at in from other angles.
He didn’t say the only way to make the hurt go away was to stop! At the
really high levels of sports there’s many paradox’s. If you’re
thinking the most logical way, well, it’s probably not the best way. Getting
tight and tense in the batter’s box Hank Aaron had to do the opposite and
get relaxed. Start using; start looking for paradoxes in sports. The really
great athletes do the exact opposite thing their body tells them to do.


Jon, thanks for you time and insight.


 


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