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Utah sports psychologist helps athletes go the distance

Keith  Henschen
Keith Henschen
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

VANCOUVER — Athletes talk often of mental toughness, not over-thinking an athletic competition, and about the ability of the mind to push the body past traditional limits.

The difficulty is that pushing the body is much easier than mastering the mind.

"An athlete has got to have some mental skill to perform well," said Utah sports psychologist Keith Henschen, who has worked with Utah Jazz players for 22 years, at the University of Utah for 39 years and with athletes from seven Olympic Games. "For years the mentality was 'Do anything you want with my body, but don't mess with my mind.' Now, with the competition so fierce, everyone is looking for every advantage. And the mental side is an edge."

The U.S. alpine ski team was looking for that edge when it approached Henschen four years ago. At the time, he'd been working with U.S. speedskating athletes.

The sports may be different and the personalities unique, he said, but the principles of managing stress and finding confidence are universal.

"We have the whole gamut," said Henschen of the topics he's discussed with the skiers. "They've gone through a four-year training program with most of them."

The program has apparently been a huge success, as the alpine team is enjoying its best Olympic performance ever with eight medals and three events left to ski.

Henschen was in Vancouver last week working with athletes and seeing some of the progress they've made. He said the goal isn't to see them dominate; it's to see them evolve as competitors and people.

"We want to help them grow and develop to their potential," he said. "Each person is unique."

This year, one of the issues coaches and Henschen dealt with was burnout before the Games. The Olympics occur with just two weeks left in the alpine season and, with the amount of travel, training and intense competition involved, it can be a grueling effort to maintain any kind of edge and passion.

When asked how he felt about the surprising performance of the U.S. alpine skiers at the Games thus far, he said he's as happy as any of the fans.

"I'm very satisfied," he said. "It's awesome. … I hope they can continue what we've been doing."

But more than medals, he's thrilled to see the personal development of the athletes he's worked with for four years.

"You can see some of the guys growing and maturing," he said. "When athletes trust you, whether they're older or young, you can help them make some changes."

Park City's Ted Ligety said Henschen has a lot of credibility with the athletes, which creates trust.

"It's cool having him around," Ligety said after he finished ninth in Tuesday's giant slalom. "It's definitely good to have someone work with you, mental-wise, that you can believe in. I'm a big Jazz fan and he works with the Utah Jazz. Otherwise, if a sports psychologist talked to me, I'd kind of brush them off."

Ligety said he handles pressure well most of the time, but it is helpful to work through certain situations.

Pressure can come from any number of sources, and in the case of many Canadian athletes in these Olympics, it's come from the very program that was meant to support them — "Own the Podium." The Canadian government spent $117 million over five years in hopes of helping the country's athletes become capable of dominating the world's most prestigious competition.

However, some athletes have found the program has as many disadvantages as it does advantages.

"I think 'Own the Podium' is a great initiative," said Canadian alpine skier Erik Guay. "It got the fans fired up about the Games. But it does create some pressure for athletes. … It doesn't take just four years to create a great team. It takes years and years."

He said the way fans and the media have criticized athletes who've failed to medal in the Games has been disheartening.

"The good thing is that Canadians aren't happy anymore with fourth, fifth or sixth place," he said. "But (the criticism) does wear on you. You can't help but think about it."

And while the U.S. Ski Team has had a motto of "Best in the World" for many years, it was perceived as an arrogant battle cry in 2006 by some athletes.

But U.S. Ski and Snowboard chief executive Bill Marolt said the goal has never been to win a specific number of medals, it was simply to be the best in the world.

"Our goal is to win as many as we can," Marolt said in a pre-Olympic press conference. "We're not going to worry about one specific country. We're going to worry about having success."

And that, said Henschen, comes down to individuals reaching their potential.

"Performance is performance," Henschen said. "And you have to have some psychological skill to succeed."