"the score is 40:30. You are standing at the base line, serving for the set. The air is very still and hot and the sun's glare is in your eyes. Your mouth feels dry, and your hands clammy. Sweat trickles down your back and beads up on your forehead. You nerves. Now you toss the ball once, twice, to calm your nerves. Now you toss the ball into the air, bring your racquet back. . . ."
She is not a tennis player herself nor an athlete of any remarkable skill or inclination, but when Barbara kolonay is working VMBR (Visual Motor Behavior Rehearsal) on you, she takes you to the moment.
VMBR is the sports psychologist's antidote to an athlete's fear of flying.
It is a weapon for the athlete who clutches, mentally blocks at key moments, gets psyched out,loses concentration or experiences other emotional and psychological handicaps when competing or playing.
Kolonay, a New York psychologist who makes pilgrimages to Washington to run VMBR classes, uses breathing, concentration and relaxation exercises plus imagery (mental rehearsal) to help your mind help your body be more effective at your sport.
At an VMBR session at the Metroplitan Tennis Club in Northern Virginia, Kolonay put 14 next day she worked with 20 tennis players and golfers.
She started off with a discussion of the emotional and mental aspects of sport performance, and how, if talent is equal, it's the mental attitude that spells the difference between winning and losing.
"i didn't come here to teach playing skills," she told the group. "Skills are not the issue anymore. It's how well you think things through mentally."
Then she had her disciples, dressed in jeans or tennis clothes, lie down, relax and learn slow-breathing exercises.
"what breathing does," Kolonay told them, "is help alleviate the feeling of choking, which is breathing too quickly. If you learn to breathe slowly you can comand yourself to do it when you need it."
Kolonay then moved on to a concentration exercise in which tennis players were told to think about a tennis ball and nothing but a tennis ball.
"how long did you go until other thoughts intruded?" she asked the group.
Most reported a success rate of four to five seconds. Dolonay told them to try it again and, at home, to keep at it fo two or three minutes until they could extend their concentration by several more seconds.
"what this does," she explained, "is train you to eliminate stray thoughts. Concentration keeps your mind closed to everything else, especially things that would lower your self-esteem.You have to clear your mind and keep it clear when you're playing at or competing in a sport."
Then it was on to Jacobsen relaxation exercises, a series of tensing and tightening muscles to relax them. She started her group off with toes, telling everyone to put toew together pigeon-toe style and to tighten the muscles, tense them, then "let it go." She moved on to thighs, buttocks, abdomen, arms, face, eyes, telling participants to tense, tense, tense the muscles then relax and let it explode out.
The relaxation plays akey role in VMBR:" "When a person's body is relaxed, he doesn't experience anxiety. This is part of transcendental meditation: If your mind is relaxed, your body is relaxed. Jocobsen exercises relax the body and that in turn relaxes the mind and alleviates anxiety." Kolonay says.
With everyone relaxed, she moved into imagery. Each player was told to think about a stroke or other area that needed improvement and then to imagine him or herself in slow motion performing that stroke correctly.
"can you see yourself hitting that ground stroke or serve? Do it again and make sure you are doing it correctly. Now, speed it up and perform that stroke at regular speed," Kolonay told them.
Then she moved into the heart of things. "Now think of yourself performing that stroke during a tournament. Set the stage for it -- your hands are clammy, the day is hot. Now go ahead and hit the ball."
One participant, a teaching tennis pro trying to make it on the Satelite tournament circuit, said he could feel the muscles in his arm tense during his imagined tournament. "What happens during a big match," he told the group and Kolonay, "is that my forehand suddenly gets weak. I can't hit it well anymore."
Kolonay suggested that he use his relaxation exercises during mental rehearsals to keep his arm muscles more relaxed. "If you find your arm is getting too tense, stop do the relaxation and breathing exercises, then start over with the tournament setting until you can do it right and without anxiety."
Although VMBR was developed in part to deal with phobias, its most universal application as practiced by Kolonay is a improving basic skills. Studies done in 1935 showed that when a person imagines performing a task, the muscles involved in that task are actlivited albeit subtly and minutely.
"you are actually practicing but one thing you can do in imagery is never miss. Those muscles you use are being used in proper positions and the proper amount.If you mentally rehearse and mentally rehearse, then it's perfect practice makes perfect. That's why the technique works," Kolonay said.
Kolonay spent several years collecting the data to prove her thesis. In 1977 she experimented with eight college basketball teams and used, as a measuring stick, their percentages at foul shooting. Two teams (A) were given the full VMBR treatment; two (B) were given relaxation exercises only; and two (D) went about business as usual.The two A teams improved their foul shooting by 6 percent; the Bs, Cs and Ds by 2 percent.
If VMBR can improve skills, can it make a Tracy Austin out of a beginner with two left feet?
Not exactly. "If you do not have the skills and you use the imagery technique, you can decrease your performance. Your goal has to be within the reach of your skills," Kolohay answers.
The VMBR course takes three hours -- Kolonay leaves plenty of time for individual attention and discussion of how aspects of VMBR can be used to help each player with his or her problem -- and participants are given an exercise sheet so that they can do 20 minutes of VMBR routines every day by themselves.
Kolonay predicts that players who practice 20 minutes of VMBR a day for four weeks will see great improvements: "Once you have your basic skills, you have to learn to use mental and psychic energies to push yourself to be a step better than others with the same skills as yours."