Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Science of Excellence

The Science of Excellence
by Dr. Randy Borum
First Published in Black Belt Magazine, August, 2008

Sport psychology is only one of the sport science disciplines to advance remarkably over the past 25 years. Mental skills training can improve any martial artist’s performance, whether for a beginner or an experienced practitioner. But the competitive “edge” is usually most significant at the elite levels of competition where fractions of a second and fractions of a point determine the winners.

Elite athletes are generally defined as those who compete professionally or on National and International teams. This designation suggests the individual has acquired a high level of expertise in his or her sport. Sport expertise is a topic of great interest to sport psychologists. But what creates “expertise”? Research shows that some of the key factors are: Lots of deliberate practice, high-level coaching, ongoing 360-degree view of the athlete, and a supportive yet challenging training environment.

Deliberate practice: Training and practice only facilitate expertise when certain conditions are met. It is true that expert martial artists probably practice more, than novices, but achieving optimal results from training time requires quality, not just quantity. For practice to produce maximum benefit, the martial artist first must be motivated to attend to the task and also be working actively to improve performance. It is also critical that the practitioner receive specific and immediate feedback about her or his performance and that the same or similar performance tasks be repeated frequently. Practice may not count when you are just bouncing with a beat, singing along, running through the day’s “to-do” list in your head. Deliberate practice requires that you maintain focus, monitor and modify your behaviors, and really work to improve your skill.

High-level coaching: Martial artists who seek to be the best often seek out the best possible instructors and coaching. Expert coaches tend to have higher levels of domain-specific knowledge in their art, and tend to plan and structure practice sessions more carefully. With regard to martial art knowledge, coaches at the elite level have in-depth knowledge of the tactical, technical and general aspects of the art and can adjust the type of instruction to the practitioner’s needs and skill level. With athletes who are more advanced, they tend to spend a greater proportion of time discussing tactical instruction, rather than reviewing fine points of the fundamentals. As for structuring practice, Joseph Baker and his colleagues from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada conclude that: “Meticulous planning of practice is one hallmark of coaching expertise. Voss (and colleagues) found that expert coaches spent more time planning practices and were more precise in their goals and objectives for the practice session than their non-expert counterparts.”

360-Degree athlete monitoring: It typically takes much more than desire to build an elite-level martial artist. It requires a systematic and ongoing assessment of all key domains of human performance and the resources to meet the needs. The sport of mixed martial arts, for example, is generating more and more professional fighters, but many of these athletes and their schools are not prepared to support elite-level training. Consider the US Olympic Training Center or the Australian Institute of Sports – these institutions have created an infrastructure to nurture excellence with the best knowledge and resources that the sport sciences have to offer. Their services include sports medicine, physical therapies, strength and conditioning, sport/performance psychology, nutrition, biomechanics, and physiological testing. Each athlete is assessed in each domain. Their status is monitored, and their training plan is modified accordingly within a long-range plan to prepare them to perform optimally during competition. Someone has to be looking at the “big picture” for every athlete all the time and have access to specialized resources to respond to specific needs. Life also overlaps with training, so that changes in family relationships, school, work, finances, or health can substantially affect an elite martial artist’s competitive performance. Hence, the need for 360-degree monitoring – viewing simultaneously all aspect of the athlete’s life, capacity, status, and behavior.

Optimal training environment: Constant surveillance over all aspects of the athlete’s training, life and status - with unrelenting pressure to perform - can be extremely stressful. Managing that pressure is one of the skills elite-level athletes must acquire. But coaches and others responsible for training also must be mindful and thoughtful about the culture or climate of the training environment. Studies indicate that athletes believe the coach is the primary force in creating the motivational climate of training. Research has also shown that elite-level athletes tend to prefer and respond best to a motivational climate that emphasizes mastery (learning, improving, gaining competence) over performance (outcomes, winning, gaining superiority). Elite athletes should be surrounded by others who are supporting their efforts to excel and who share their commitment to high-level learning. They want to be challenged, but they also want support. They want to get better, not just to be “broken.” Of course, consistent with the 360-degree view, elite level competitors must also be confident that their basic needs (and those of their families) will be met. It is difficult to focus fully on training when one is uncertain about the stability of her or his housing situation, financial preparedness, or pressing medical bills.

Wrestling, boxing, judo, taekwondo, and karate are all recognized Olympic sports with National team martial art practitioners competing at elite levels. Mixed martial arts is growing quickly as a professional sport, but often without the infrastructure or resources available to our Olympic athletes. Excellence is a team effort. Coaches and athletes must recognize and use the skills and expertise of sport science professionals to support, motivate, and nurture the next generation of elite martial artists.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Cogratulations Team USA Medalists!!

Deontay Wilder - Heavyweight - BRONZE

Henry Cejudo- Freestyle - GOLD

Randi Miller - Women's Freestyle - BRONZE

Adam Wheeler - Greco-Roman-BRONZE

Ronda Rousey - BRONZE

Mark Lopez - SILVER

Diana Lopez - BRONZE

Steven Lopez - BRONZE

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ronda Rousey Makes Judo Olympic History

America's Vegan MMA Judo Sweetheart

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 14, 2008; Page E09

A few minutes after Ronda Rousey became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in judo, she was asked what she would do next.

"What am I gonna do?" she repeated. "As of right now I am a vegan. I put that off until after I was done with this tournament."

Some athletes go to Disney World; Ronda Rousey gives up dairy products.

"And then I'm gonna go home and I'm probably gonna take over the loan on my step-dad's Prius and I'm gonna drive a clean car," the bronze medalist continued. "And I'm gonna get a surfboard and learn how to surf, teach myself. I made up this long list of stuff that I couldn't do while I was training that normal people do. It's kind of too late to go to prom, but you know, I'll find something to make up for it."

Rousey's history-making day in the 70 kg competition was marked by a thoroughly odd mix of drama and comedy. At one point she dissolved in tears after losing a meeting with 2005 Dutch world champion Edith Bosch. A reporter later asked her how she recovered from that disappointment to rally in the loser's bracket; "I drank an iced tea," she said.

After her win by yuko in the bronze-medal match, she handed out enthusiastic hugs to every coach on her team; she was later asked to describe her winning throw.

"Don't ask me about terminology, I'm horrible," she said. "You're supposed to learn all that stuff to get promoted, but I never did."

She talked happily about her plans to go out in Beijing tonight, and then ran off to get the flag that was placed on her father's coffin after he committed suicide while battling a blood disorder 13 years ago this week.

None of her quirks are exactly hidden, thanks to her blog, where she has revealed that she sleeps with a stuffed ewe, is turned off when she can beat up a guy easily, looks like Julia Styles Stiles, dances naked in her living room every morning and eats imitation crab meat like string cheese. Her mom--a former U.S. world champion judo player with a PhD in education psychology--has a blog too.

"We're kind of a geeky tech family," AnnMaria De Mars said. "When I married Ronda's dad, instead of an engagement ring he got me an engagement Macintosh."

And then there's the vegan MMA thing. A reporter asked De Mars how a vegan lifestyle would squared with a violent sport like judo; "I mean, we're tough but we don't kill our opponents and eat them," she pointed out.

Rousey, 21, plans to take a year off from competition to try out college, at either Southern Cal, Pepperdine or Loyola Marymount. She said she still might try to return for the 2012 Olympics. Of course, several of Rousey's close friends from the competitive judo world have gone into mixed martial arts--Manny Gamburyan and Roman Mitichyan, for example--and they've asked her to try that as well. She's thinking about it.

"I might learn how to throw a punch, but I'm not making any promises," she said. She was asked whether she'd have the guts for that brand of fighting; "look at my face, does it look like I can take a good hit right now?" she replied, pointing to her red and battered cheeks.

De Mars, though, still needs some convincing.

"She's really smart, see that's the thing," she said. "I think if you're really really smart and you could maybe discover a new drug that cures AIDS or something you should go and do that, and let other people punch each other in the face."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lopez Family Kicking for Taekwondo History

Diana Lopez - BRONZE
Steven Lopez  - BRONZE

After suffering his first-ever defeat in three Olympic Games, and first loss in six years, welterweight Steven Lopez (Sugar Land, Texas) rebounded to win a bronze medal Friday night at the Beijing University of Science and Technology Gymnasium.

Italy's Mauro Sarmiento, the eventual silver medalist, defeated Lopez in sudden-death overtime in the quarterfinal round. When Sarmiento advanced to the finals, Lopez was entered into the repechage for one of two bronze medals. Lopez defeated Sebastien Konan from the Ivory Coast, 3-0, and then defeated Azerbaijan's Rashad Ahmadov for the bronze medal, 3-2.

The bronze medal gives the Lopez siblings three medals at the Beijing Games. Diana Lopez captured bronze in the women's featherweight division and Mark Lopez was the silver medalist in the men's featherweight class.

Source:  USA Taekwondo

By ERIC TALMADGE - USOC via AP August 8, 2008

BEIJING (AP) Since about as long as she can remember, Diana Lopez has been fighting with her three brothers. Not just little skirmishes or disagreements over bathroom rights, but the all-out, kick-and-punch kind of fighting.

Her parents encouraged it. In fact, it was their dad's idea. And it all seems to be working out pretty well.

The fighting Lopez family - Diana and her older brothers Mark and Steven, with eldest sibling Jean as their coach - are the first trio from the same family to represent the United States at the Olympics since 1904.

They made history when they each won their weight class at the 2005 world taekwondo championships - a feat no three siblings had ever accomplished in the same sport in the same year. Now, having all made the U.S. team, they are making their first appearance together in the Olympics and are ready to make history again.

The last U.S. Olympic trio - Edward, Richard and William Tritschler - failed to medal, in gymnastics.

But the Lopezes are all gold medal contenders.

"I feel like it is almost unfair," said Steven, who at 29 already has two Olympic golds and four world championship titles. "It's like when we go into the ring, it's four to one."

Coach Jean, himself a silver medalist at the 1995 world championships, said fighting comes naturally in his family.

"We have a combative nature," he said. "Taekwondo is just man-against-man, or woman-against-woman, and I think that is what captivated us."

Jean said the family found taekwondo, a Korean martial art that is focused on fast, high kicking, by chance.

His father, Julio, had always liked kung fu movies, and there was a martial arts school just down the street from their house.

"It just happened to be taekwondo," he said.

Jean was soon hooked, and the others were enrolled by their parents not so much as a sporting activity but to instill in them discipline, respect and confidence.

Now, they have helped put taekwondo on the U.S. sports horizon. Steven, for example, was named one of People magazine's hottest bachelors for 2004 - not a common honor for an athlete from an event many Americans still can't pronounce.

By the time they were teens, sparring was a part of life. But fighting in the ring, when it's a family matter, has some different rules.

"My brothers take it easy on their baby sister," said Diana, who will compete in the under 57-kilogram division on Aug. 21. "But I can kick as hard as I want."

"Sometimes she'll graze my face, and I'll think, 'Hey, I just got kicked by my sister,'" said Mark, who also fights on Aug. 21, in the under 68-kilogram class. "It reminds me to try to kick faster."

To train for the games, the Lopez family - along with Charlotte Craig, the fourth member of the U.S. team - spent 10 days in Singapore getting acclimatized and, more importantly, getting used to being away from their home in Sugar Land, Texas, where Jean runs the Elite Taekwondo school.

To save money, Diana and Mark shared a room.

"That was kind of weird," Diana said.

"There are times when I may feel I need to get away," she said. "But if I'm not getting along with Mark, I'll hang out with Steve, and if I'm not getting along with him, there's Jean."

Though Steven has cause to be confident - he hasn't lost a bout since 2002 - the road to gold for Diana and Mark will tough. Both will be fighting against South Korean opponents, and South Korea has never failed to get at least a bronze out of the eight competitors it has sent since taekwondo joined the Olympic roster in 2000.

"The Korean team is a very strong team," Diana said. "Korea is very good at being technical and efficient. But Mark and I make it a fight. We are very confident, and we know our job."

No Koreans are in Steven's weight category, the under 80-kilogram class. Instead, he said that he expects his toughest competition to come from Turkey and Iran.

But he isn't especially worried - for himself or for Mark and Diana.

"The goals, our expectations, are to go out there and win gold medals," he said. "In my opinion, they are ready. This Olympics is very special to us because we will be walking into the opening ceremony as a family."

Mark, 26, was even more confident.

"We are here to make a statement," he said. "We are the best in the world."

Taekwondo begins on Aug. 20 and concludes Aug. 23.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Peoria (IL) Journal Star Editor's note: Sports psychologist Dr. John Murray is providing Journal Star readers daily updates from the Olympics. The former tennis pro and Florida resident is working with judo competitor Adler Volmar. The goal is to offer insight into the mental and psychological aspect of sports, right up to Volmar's matches and immediately following them. The doctor will add some Beijing observations both inside and outside the sports venues. You can read the blog on working with Volmar HERE.

Murray's full work and profile can be found on his own Web site:

Monday, August 11, 2008

Boxer Joyce Praises Sport Psychologist, Gerry Hussey

Boxing: Joyce praises sports psychologist

A jubilant John Joe Joyce heaped praise on sports psychologist Gerry Hussey (shown left) after he showed his mental toughness in overcoming Hungary's Gyula Kate, a long-time foe of his.

Yesterday's Olympic first round clash was the fourth championship bout between the light welterweight rivals, with Kate winning the previous three.

But Joyce, 20, showed marvellous composure and used a clever attack plan to claim a deserved 9-5 win and progress through to the last 16, where he will face Felix Diaz of the Dominican Republic.

Hussey, a former amateur boxer who has been the Irish High Performance boxing team's psychologist for the past three years, certainly has a fan in Joyce.

'When Gerry is around, I always do well. I lack self belief sometimes but he looks after all that side of my performance,' said the Mullingar youngster.

'He could not get in here to be with me (today), but he has been working with me in the training camp and the Olympic Village and that preparation really paid off.

'I showed in the ring I was believing in myself and, once I believe in myself, I will perform to my potential and then I can do anything.'

No stone has been left unturned with Hussey, who runs Alpha 1 boxing gym in Galway, even showing the Irish fighters a walk-through DVD of the Olympic Village before their arrival in Beijing.

The Glenamaddy native has helped the Irish team develop psychology systems and techniques in many areas, from building self esteem and self belief to developing communication and relaxation techniques.

And Joyce warned anyone standing in his way of a Beijing medal that with his so-called 'bogey man' out of the way, he will only get better.

'I know the longer a tournament goes on the better I get, and that's why I was hoping for a good draw.

'I didn't get it, I got the toughest draw I could have got really because of the respect I have for Kate.

'To have finally beaten this guy will help my confidence. He has been my bogey man in the past. I hope that's the end of him.

'I'm not looking beyond the next fight right now and as a team we're just delighted that we've the two wins from two with Kenny (Egan) winning on Saturday as well.'

Story from RTÉ Sport:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Should You Wear RED Shorts?

This "clip" comes from our friends at

Many sports teams select their uniforms based on the mascot, city or country they are representing and not on a referee’s preference or bias but a new study has found that choosing the color red for a uniform in competitive sports can actually affect the referee’s split-second decision-making ability and even promote a scoring bias.

Psychologists Norbert Hagemann, Bernd Strauss and Jan Leiβing from the University of Münster specifically found that referees tended to assign more points to TaeKwon Do competitors dressed in red than those dressed in blue. The researchers presented 42 experienced tae kwon do referees with videos of blue- and red-clad competitors sparring. The two sets of clips were identical except that the colors were reversed in the second set, making the red athlete appear to be wearing blue and vice versa. The referees were then asked to score the performance of each competitor, red or blue, after each video.

The psychologists found that when the competitors appeared to be wearing red, they were awarded an average of 13% more points than the blue competitors, even though every athlete was presented in both colors at some point. What’s more, points awarded seemed to increase after the blue athlete was digitally transformed into a red athlete and decrease when the red competitor changed to blue.

The findings, which appear in the August 2008 issue of Psychological Science, suggest that referees may hold a split-second bias toward red-clad athletes when the competitors are evenly matched in skill: “Referees’ decisions will ‘tip the scales’ when athletes are relatively well-matched but have relatively small influence when one is clearly superior,” wrote the authors.

“Although there is a need for further research, including research on the effects of different colors, our results suggest a need to change the rules or support referees by providing electronic decision-making aids in those sports in which this color bias may be a problem,” they concluded.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

University of North Texas Psychologist to Support U.S. Taekwondo Team

University of North Texas Psychologist to Support U.S. Taekwondo Team

From a UNT News Service press release

Many Americans only dream of attending an Olympic games in person.

But Karen Cogan, an assistant professor of psychology at UNT, has been invited to the Olympics three times to support U.S. athletes.

As a sport psychologist with the U.S. Olympic Taekwondo Team this year, Cogan will provide a listening ear and helpful advice to team members competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. She traveled with team members and their coaches to Beijing for an Olympic test event after attending a qualifying event to select the team members last year.

Cogan already has witnessed sport history made at two Winter Olympics – Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino, Italy, in 2006. As a sport psychologist with the U.S. Freestyle Mogul Team, she helped to provide support to the coaches and athletes - including silver medalists Travis Mayer and Shannon Bahrke in 2002 and bronze medalist Toby Dawson in 2006.

"One of the administrators with the mogul team is now an administrator with the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and he recommended me to the team because I had done good work with the mogul team," Cogan says, adding that she accepted the job as sport psychologist in the 2008 Olympics even though she knew nothing about taekwondo, a Korean martial art and combat sport.

"I asked a lot of questions and learned the terminology. Just by watching, I picked up a lot of things," she says.

Taekwondo is famed for its use of kicking techniques, which distinguishes it from martial arts such as karate or southern styles of kung fu. Under Olympic rules, sparring takes place between two competitors in an area measuring 10 meters square. Each match or bout consists of three nonstop rounds of contact with rest between rounds. Points are awarded for permitted, accurate and powerful techniques to the legal scoring areas; light contact to a scoring area does not score any points.

Cogan says mental preparation and training for taekwondo athletes is, in some respects, very similar to that of other athletes, including the mogul skiers she's counseled.

"Personal issues and anxiety can get in the way of best performances. There's also pressure from well-meaning family members and friends who want to get tickets to competitions and have other requests, and the ability to handle media attention," she says.

Cogan works with athletes on:
  • relaxation
  • management of anxiety
  • positive thinking
  • goal setting
"I help them devise some sort of plan or routine leading into the competition that becomes more personal for each athlete," she says.

With the mogul team, Cogan helped competitors who were frustrated with lack of practice time on a course. She pointed out that the team had to make special arrangements before the competition season to go someplace where there is snow, and hope that there is enough snow for training.

"They're lucky if they get 40 days on the snow during the training camps in a year," she says.

Instead of worrying about training conditions, taekwondo athletes may feel anxiety over their opponents, having to anticipate the others' techniques, and over scoring. Unlike mogul skiing - in which athletes compete for the fastest speed down a 27-degree hill that is between 755 and 885 feet high - taekwondo is "a very subjective sport" for scoring, Cogan says.

"Even if you have one of the best fights of your life, you can still lose based on the scoring. And coaches have believed there has been some bias against the U.S. by judges in the past, so it's hard for an athlete or coach to stay focused when he or she doesn't believe a fair call has been made," she says. "The competitions are also single elimination, so if the judging isn't fair, the athlete doesn't have a second chance."

Cogan says her biggest challenge with the taekwondo team, which has not had a formal sport psychology program in the past, is building strong enough relationships with the coaches and athletes so that they feel comfortable to talk to her, but not be intrusive. She has already conducted several interventions with team members.

"I have provided them with a firm foundation of mental skills, and now we are down to maintenance as they go into the Olympics," she says.

UNT News Service press release
Nancy Kolsti can be reached at