A Wingate student is hooked to a biofeedback device as part of the The Wingate 5-Step Approach. (Photo: Stephanie L. Freid) The members of the Israeli delegation to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games are naturally going to be at the peak of their physical powers. But thanks to an innovative program developed by researchers at the Wingate Institute, Israel’s National Center for Physical Education and Sport, the athletes are also going to be mentally prepared.
The emergence of mind-body awareness over the past half century has stirred an awakening in the medical and scientific communities regarding the brain’s effect on physical functioning. And nobody has made that connection more acutely than Dr. Boris Blumenstein, head of Wingate’s Sport Psychology Department.
A higher learning Institute operating since 1957, Wingate is perched on 125 acres of green between Tel Aviv and Netanya. Granting degrees in physical education, rehab and sport related fields, the campus also serves as a national center for elite, athletic training, physical rehabilitation and sport seminars and congresses.
Utilizing Wingate facilities and applying decades of experience focused on competitive mental preparedness, Blumenstein created The Wingate 5-Step Approach (W5SA): a mental preparedness program which has propelled Israeli athletes to top slots in three Olympic games, six European championships and four world championships in judo, windsurfing, Tae Kwon Do and basketball. As a result, Blumenstein has been appointed ‘mental consultant’ to Israel’s 2008 Beijing Olympic delegation.
Originally from the former Soviet Union, Blumenstein discovered a need for more focused, mental preparation while working with elite athletes training for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He observed that while an athlete can be in prime, physical condition, he or she can arrive at the moment of competitive truth and ‘blank’ – much in the same way students blank during final exams.
“Stress can affect results,” Blumenstein told ISRAEL21c from his Wingate Institute office. “So I formulated a goal of building optimal conditions for athletes in achieving goals. I needed ‘killers’ – but smart ones.”
Thus began Blumenstein’s research into formulating a mental preparedness technique for athletes competing in the top tier. When he immigrated to Israel in the early 90s, he transported his research along with his belongings and began collaborating with scientists Michael Bar-Eli and Gershon Tennenbaum. The three developed what is now termed the W5SA. (Bar-Eli and Tennenbaum departed from the project soon after its introduction in 1992).
Entailing biofeedback probes and computer monitors, the method encompasses one-on-one sessions with athletes in five stages. Each stage takes about ten 60-minute sessions to absorb and the results are proof of the impact.
“The method worked for me on a few levels,” explains Arik Zeevi, three-time European Champion and 2004 Athens bronze medallist in the 100-kilo Judo class. “Judo isn’t a sport where you see results of the shape you’re in so I could get to a competition and not know where I stood. With Boris, the results were clear. I could see psychologically where I stand and that helps with competition.”
Referring to the visual cues provided by monitors receiving information from bio-feedback probes, Zeevi is verbalizing one of the method’s popular features: The subject’s ability to watch heart rate, breathing and muscle tension elevations or de-escalations in response to cues in real time and work on de-stressing as taught in the five steps. To understand how it works, a basic overview helps:
The ‘Introduction’ stage teaches athletes self-regulation via self-talk, guided imagery, breathing exercises, counting or whatever works best for the individual as a de-stressing, focus builder. Then, athletes are connected to biofeedback devices where ‘Identification’ takes place, teaching them to identify their responses to cues displayed on computer monitors indicating heart rate, breathing and other responses escalating or declining according to thoughts or external stimuli.
In the third phase, ‘Stimulation’ or simulated stress is applied to the respondent who, attached to bio-feedback monitors, views competition tapes featuring competition environment audio, key opponents and other stimuli specifically designed to induce stress; Athletes then attempt to de-compress through learned, focusing techniques.
In the fourth or ‘Transformation’ phase, the athlete goes from laboratory to field to try out the learned skills in low-level competitions. When the ‘Realization’ or final phase comes into play, the athlete is obtaining his or her optimal self-regulation in high-level competition.
Blumenstein says the relevance of a 5-Step Approach for athletes is on par with rigorous, physical training.
“If you don’t go to the weight room, your muscles shrink. It’s the same with mental preparation. Athletes must concentrate, relax and self-talk during competition. If Judo or wrestling match lasts 5 minutes, I have to know what my self-talk will be whether I win or lose because if I lose, I have to come back to the next fight. It’s not simple and for each sport it’s different,” he explains.
“But if I can’t quickly come back after a mistake, self-confidence is reduced and I can’t prepare for my next attempt.”
Ilan Goldschmidt, Tae Kwon Do World Champion in the 62 kilo and under class and a Beijing 2008 Olympics contender, concentrates on images of his family and the beach to calm himself and applies counting exercises to regulate himself during competitions.
“The 5-Step Approach has helped me immensely in focusing, calming before competition and generally in maturing as an athlete because I’ve learned techniques to slow down my processes and make clearer decisions regarding my opponent and specific competition,” he told ISRAEL21c.
Outside of Israel, professionals have taken notice of the method and since Blumenstein and his colleagues published findings in Brain and Body in Sport and Exercise (Wiley, 2002) and The Sport Psychologist Journal in 1997, Blumenstein is in demand on the lecture circuit.
He has appeared before Vancouver’s Head Coaching Association, Florida State University’s Educational Psychology Department (now employing the method with students), Poland’s Olympic Committee, China’s All China Sport Federation, and Koln University’s Psychological Institute.
Plans to fully patent and teach the method worldwide are in the making for the coming year and Blumenstein together with Wingate Director General Dr. Uri Schaefer are exploring other avenues of application.
“Tension and high pressure are characteristics existing not only in the sports scene but in life in general. Since we found a way to help athletes maximize their mental performance we are checking out the possibility of other fields of life where we can use this method to help people maximize their mental potential in ‘competitive’ situations,” Schaefer said.
Areas being explored for application of the W5SA are the military, SAT/ACT type test environments and among youth with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
And just how does it feel when mind and body cooperate? Blumenstein explains: “I had athletes in Russia who set world records. You ask them: ‘How did you feel when it was happening?’ They always say that it was comfortable. It felt natural. If they’d known it would be so easy, they would have done it ten times over. That is the perfect moment of mental and physical working in tandem.”