Fifty-one weeks a year, Mike Lardon is a psychiatrist, a man who has worked, many years to reach a point where people will pay him good money to listen to their problems.
For the past several years, Lardon has worked one week a year for free in a job that has taken every bit of his considerable knowledge of the human psyche: He has caddied at the PGA Tour Qualifying School finals for his younger brother, Brad.
"Some vacation," he joked last December during the six-day event at PGA West "I get home from this thing and just collapse."
Last year, Mike and Brad Lardon had even more reason than usual to feel completely drained when Q-School was over. Brad had readied the finals for the fifth time. Once before, in 1990, he had survived. He went into the last day in 1993 knowing he almost certainly needed a round in the 60s to get his playing privileges back.
Grinding away all day, he came to the l8th hole at The Jack Nicklaus Resort Course at six-under par for the tournament. It was late in the day and the word around was that six-under was going to be the magic number. Everyone at six or better would celebrate; five or worse would Wait 'Till Next Year.
The PGA Tour almost always selects a course for the finals with an 18th hole that has water on it. At PGA West, water is all the way down the right side of the fairway and in front of the green on the last hole.
The pin on the final day was set, naturally, on the front right so that a player in need of a birdie had to risk playing directly over the water to get close to the flag. Lardon didn't need a birdie. "Don't even think about playing near the water, brother Mike told him, "Let's just get the ball on the middle of the green, make par, and get out of here."
He spoke casually, not wanting Brad to even think about how big the green was and how two-putting from certain spots might be difficult. Make it sound easy and it will be easy
Brad Lardon took his brothers' advice, played safely left of the pin and the danger, and got his ball on the green - 45 feet away. Neither brother said anything, but both knew that a two-putt was no lock.
Brad's first putt came up about five feet short. Mike Lardon felt slightly queasy. His brother now had a five-foot putt that would decide where he would spend the next 12 months of his life. They looked it over carefully, Brad lined it up, hit the put firmly and watched it hit the cup, bounce into the air and.drop in
Their knees buckled almost simultaneously. "Six days of grinding and it all comes down to this." Brad Lardon said. He looked exhausted. So did his brother. "I just hope." he said, "this is the last Q-School I get to see."
A worthy goal. Unfortunately, Brad's luck in 1994 on Tour wasn't quite as good as his luck during that final-round 69 at PGA West. For the year, he earned $21,429 and finished 223d on the money list. In all likelihood, Mike Lardon's 1994 vacation will be spent in Greenlefe, Florida.
School will be back in session.
Aired June 17, 2003
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Talking about depression now. Such a widespread problem in the U.S. that "The Journal of the American Medical Association" is devoting this week's entire issue to it. Now, while women are still the most vulnerable, you hear more and more about men who suffer from depression.
You may remember Jim Shea Jr. from the 2002 Winter Olympics. He was the third generation Olympian. His grandfather died in a car accident just a month before his grandson competed. Jim Shea Jr. went on to win the gold in men's skeleton, a luge type event, but while he was beating the competition, he was also fighting a silent enemy. CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has his story.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a nation that richly rewards being number one, Jimmy Shea proved he was up to the task, winning a gold medal and becoming an instant hero. His story? The stuff of folklore. The third Shea in as many generations to be an Olympian. His entire life now public, except for one thing.
JIM SHEA JR., OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST: A lot of people don't know that I suffered from depression, you know, just about my entire life. And, you know, looking back, I won the world championships, I did all these things, and I was just never happy.
GUPTA: He had been on top of the world and also in a deep valley of depression. Shea was living proof that this disease does not discriminate, gold medal or not.
SHEA: I think like 12 through like 25, there were some really dark times, you know? There was thoughts of suicide. There was thought of a lot of different things, and it was just difficult. There was a lot of real lows that I just couldn't get out of.
GUPTA: But he did climb out of that, and today, Shea, with financial support from a pharmaceutical company, is putting his Olympian dedication towards getting out the word.
SHEA: You can actually go and you can see somebody and you can get treatment for this.
GUPTA (on camera): Jimmy Shea is not alone. Best estimates are that one in six Americans suffer from depression. And while things are starting to change, it is still stunning that so many suffer in silence.
DR. MICHAEL LARDON, PSYCHIATRIST, U.S. OLYMPIC TRAINING CENTER: It's not a case of, you know, pulling up your bootstraps and so you'll be better. But it's really a medical illness like diabetes.
GUPTA: And like diabetes, it is treatable. If you had to choose now, after all you've been through, you've got the gold medal, you've also overcome depression, if you had to choose one of those two things?
SHEA: If I had to choose between winning a gold medal and overcoming my fear of going and getting treatment for my depression, absolutely. I would say, you know, my treatment. It's just a medal. It's just a race. Being able to live the rest of my life and being happy, that's priceless.
GUPTA: And priceless is worth more than gold.
GUPTA: I'll tell you, it's interesting, because more and more people are actually going out there and getting treatment. But as you mentioned, the JAMA, "Journal of the American Medical Association," devoted an entire week looking at some of the specific issues, and found that while people are getting treated, only 21 percent of people, or about that, are actually getting treated adequately. One in six people they say now have depression, women twice as likely as men, so about one in four women, one in eight men out there with depression.
COOPER: And there are so many treatment options these days, it's a shame that more people aren't seeking the treatment that they need.
GUPTA: They say the best option, talk therapy plus the combination of drugs is probably going to be your best option.
COOPER: All right, Dr. Gupta, thanks.
L. Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated Magazine
September 8, 2003
Mental illness still carries a powerful stigma in pro sports, but there are signs that teams are finally facing the problem and trying to help troubled athletes
He came roaring down the mountain at nearly 85 miles an hour, a blur in an aerodynamic Lycra suit. Headfirst on a sled barely bigger than a cafeteria tray, Jim Shea was inches from rock-hard ice, handling serpentine turns without the benefit of either brakes or a steering wheel. The running joke is that Shea's exhilarating sport, skeleton, got its name for a good reason: One imprecise maneuver and he could be turned into a bag of broken bones. It was the winter of 1999, and when Shea rounded the final curve on his last heat .57 of a second ahead of the next-fastest guy, he was suddenly a world champion.
When coaches and teammates mobbed him on that cold afternoon in Altenberg, Germany, it was as clear as the mountain air that Shea, after thousands of hours spent training and traveling, had reached the pinnacle of his sport. His spot on the U.S. 2002 Winter Olympic team was all but guaranteed. And Shea felt ... nothing. "It was total emptiness, like I didn't even care," he recalls. "The joy of winning? I could have broken a world record and won the lottery on the same day and not been happy about it."
The clinical term for this, he later learned, is anhedonia, and Shea relies on weather analogies - "fog," "dark clouds" and persistent "gloom" - to describe the feeling. Still, at the time, Shea found nothing unusual about his lack of emotion in the face of what was, by any measure, a triumph worthy of unbridled joy. Shea's grandfather Jack was a speed skating pioneer who won two gold medals at the 1932 Olympics. His father, Jim Sr., competed in the 1964 Games in Nordic combined and cross-country. The men in the Shea family were quiet, tough, bootstrapping types who lived by a Spartan code of stoicism and self-reliance. Emotions were best left bottled up. An uncle's suicide, for instance, was not on the table for discussion. Since Jim had been in elementary school, he'd known there was something preventing him from experiencing emotional crests, an immovable force that kept him mired in lows longer than any of his friends. "But I figured those were the cards I was dealt," he says. "For me it was normal."
A U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist at the training center near San Diego thought otherwise and referred Shea to a local psychiatrist, Michael Lardon, who had worked with dozens of elite athletes. After one session Lardon ran through a checklist of symptoms - persistent sadness, feelings of emptiness, the inability to extract joy from pursuits that should be pleasurable, irregular appetite and sleep patterns, decreased energy - and noted how many applied to Shea. "Jim, listen," the doctor said, "I think you suffer from depression." Shea's reaction was typical of people like him. Me? Depressed? How could that be? I'm an athlete.
It is an invisible incubus that will haunt 19 million Americans this year. One in six people will be affected by it in their lifetimes. It accounts for countless sick days and costs U.S. industry $ 44 billion annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. Depression is an equal-opportunity affliction, not discriminating according to class or social standing. Among the millions affected: Barbara Bush, Halle Berry and Winston Churchill, who called his depression "my black dog," a companion that seldom left his side.
The list of athletes who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder or social anxiety disorder - three of the most common forms of mental illness - would make for a hell of a table at a charity dinner. Ricky Williams, the NFL's 2002 rushing leader, suffered such overwhelming social anxiety that he couldn't bring himself to leave his house to mail a letter. Terry Bradshaw, the star quarterback and irrepressible NFL broadcaster, was once so depressed that he would go to bed crying. On the eve of last January's Super Bowl, Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins neglected to take medication to treat his bipolar disorder, went on a Tijuana drinking jag, considered committing suicide and was in a hospital during what should have been the biggest game of his career. Mike Tyson was in the clutches of depression long before he turned into a pitiable sideshow.
And those are among the few who have come to the public's attention. Innumerable other athletes are familiar with the Via Dolorosa traveled by the PGA golfer who contemplated suicide last summer after failing to make the cut at the Greater Hartford Open. Or the top pick in a recent major league draft whose deep melancholy has forced him to take an indefinite leave from baseball. Or the former NBA All-Star whose decline is widely attributed to alcoholism but who actually suffers from crippling depression. "An amazing number of athletes have these illnesses," says Lardon. "It's way more than you'd ever guess. I mean way more."
But in a culture suffused with testosterone and seldom characterized as either sensitive or progressive, mental illness remains largely stigmatized - and, not surprisingly, largely undiagnosed. "Blow out your knee, get into trouble with the law, fail a drug test, and the team will help you back," says Russ Johnson, a former Tampa Bay Devil Rays infielder whose depression was diagnosed last year and who now plays for the Mets' Triple A affiliate. "Suffer a mental or emotional injury, and it's a big mark against you."
In the U.S. more than twice as many women as men suffer from depression. Since there is little evidence that brain chemistry is markedly different between genders, many believe that women are simply more attuned to their emotions and more likely to seek treatment. Anecdotally - no statistics are kept on how many athletes suffer from or seek treatment for depression - the sports world seems to mirror society at large. Though the majority of professional athletes are men, some of the most high-profile jocks to speak openly about their struggles with depression have been women. Julie Krone, the Hall of Fame jockey, was so up-front about her battle with depression that she landed an endorsement deal with Pfizer, the maker of Zoloft. In her autobiography, Picabo: Nothing to Hide, gold medal skier Picabo Street wrote about the depression she endured while rehabbing from a gruesome knee injury. Los Angeles Sparks point guard Nikki Teasley, the MVP of this summer's WNBA All-Star Game, says of her depression, "It's part of who I am."
But for half a century, since baseball player Jimmy Piersall achieved notoriety after suffering a nervous breakdown, the sports world has remained largely in the dark on matters of mental health. "If you go into a locker room, there's no faster way to alienate yourself than by saying the word psychology," says John Murray, a Miami-based clinical psychologist who treats athletes. "It's definitely a taboo, and we can only speculate why."
Perhaps it's because males in general (and alpha males in particular) are much less likely than women to acknowledge their mental illness. Perhaps it's because of the enduring misconception that mental illness somehow indicates inner weakness - a sentiment that, according to the National Mental Health Association, is particularly common in the African-American community, from which a disproportionate number of athletes hail. Or perhaps it's because mental illness, unlike a broken bone or a torn rotator cuff, doesn't readily appear on an X-ray or an MRI.
The abiding irony is that athletes - our indestructible gladiators, our iron-clad warriors - might be more prone to mental illness than the population at large. "Athletes are so paradoxical because physically they are so much healthier than the average person," says Murray, "but from the clinical side of things, they are very much an at-risk population." Among the reasons why:
• STRESS • After heredity, the biggest risk factor for depression is stress. Performing in front of thousands of fans, having your work scrutinized and judged regularly, laboring in a field where success and failure are so clear-cut - all that can exact a huge psychic toll. There's also the stress of knowing that your career, and thus the window of opportunity to make millions, is narrow. The stress can be equally intense in the less prominent sports. An athlete such as Shea might not perform nightly in front of multitudes, but he spent four years preparing for a single event. "I knew, one mistake and it was over," he says. "That's a lot to bear." Not for nothing does the USOC have a phalanx of full-time psychologists on staff.
• LIFESTYLE • Social stability and a solid home life improve mental health. And athletes, regardless of the sport, live out of a suitcase for months on end.
• CHILDHOOD TRAUMA • Researchers know that exposure to trauma at a young age can lead to an increased likelihood of depression and mental illness later in life. (Studies have also shown that growing up in a single-parent household can increase the risk.) The sports world is awash with athletes who have endured circumstances that are deeply abject. "Think of how many athletes you read about who grew up in terrible poverty, or had relatives who were murdered, or don't know their dads," says Joe Schrank, a former practice-squad defensive tackle at USC who is pursuing a master's degree in social work with an emphasis on clinical issues associated with athletes. "It's off the charts." For instance, Leon Smith, a former Chicago hoops star, was raised in a world inconceivable to most of us. A ward of the state, he was shuttled among group homes, and he talks of having slept in cars. In 1999, after he was drafted out of high school by the San Antonio Spurs and immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks, he suffered a breakdown that doctors say was caused by depression. After slathering green paint on his face, he threw a rock at a car, then swallowed 250 aspirins in an apparent suicide attempt. Smith never played for Dallas and most recently appeared in the L.A. Pro Summer League, more than a long jump shot from the NBA.
• HEAD INJURIES • Athletes are at a far greater risk than the general population to suffer cranial injuries, which can alter brain chemistry. Studies show that someone who has endured multiple concussions is up to four times more likely to suffer depression. Not surprisingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that depression is common in hockey, a sport in which there are nearly as many concussions as dislodged teeth. This off-season alone, two professional players have committed suicide. Pat LaFontaine, the former NHL All-Star, suffered a nasty concussion in 1996, and virtually overnight, hockey lost all significance to him. Team doctors puzzled over his lack of passion. Only after a trip to the Mayo Clinic was his condition diagnosed as depression, the result of postconcussion syndrome.
What about the notion that the incidence of mental illness in sports should be lower because the weak have been winnowed out? Wouldn't anyone battling an incapacitating case of depression simply fail to make it to an elite level? Not necessarily. "Depression often doesn't kick in till someone hits his early or mid-20s," says Dennis Charney, chief of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health. "So you could grow up fine, then have your [onset] once you've made it to the pros."
Take Bradshaw, who led four Pittsburgh Steelers teams to Super Bowl titles and won the NFL's MVP Award in 1978. He was the picture of calm on the field, but when the game ended, he would hemorrhage sweat and dissolve into tears. "People say, 'You couldn't have been depressed - I saw you throw for all those touchdowns,'" says Bradshaw. "Shoot, the football was the easy part. I could concentrate for three hours, and the games were an escape. It was the rest of my life that was going to hell in a handbasket." Despite a jovial public persona that splinters the stereotype of how someone who's depressed acts, Bradshaw grew more melancholy after retiring from football. Finally he sought help. After going to counseling and taking Paxil (an antidepressant he is now paid to endorse), he stopped experiencing the inexplicable lows. "And the rest," he says, commencing his familiar cackle, "is history, baby."
Although it's commonly thought that physical activity and the pursuit of goals have a salutary effect on mental health, those alone don't necessarily reduce athletes' risks. While exercise in conjunction with therapy and medication can help elevate mood, alone it is no match for depression. "Anyone who has had depression will tell you, it's not the kind of thing where you can go for a run and suddenly feel all better," says Charney. "That's a big misconception."
Athletes also have at their disposal a raft of handlers, apologists and other sycophants who help excuse behavior that would otherwise seem pathological. Consider Ricky Williams, who struggled for years with social anxiety disorder before finally seeking successful treatment. When he was a high school football star in San Diego, he sensed that he was "wired differently" from classmates. He would recoil from social situations, even from speaking in class. He believes that because he was a football star, his extreme introversion was shrugged off as behavior typical of a coddled athlete. "It was always, 'Oh, Ricky's just aloof,' or 'Ricky's moody,' or 'Ricky's arrogant,' when it was really so much more," he says.
As Williams developed a national profile at the University of Texas, he turned further inward. As his anxiety worsened, he enlisted what he wryly calls "a support system" to run interference. "If I didn't want to honor an obligation," he says, "I knew someone would cover me. If I didn't want to do something, they said, 'Don't do it.'" Boosters, for example, would be waiting to meet Williams only to have an athletic department flack explain that Williams's car had broken down, or that he was sick, or that his mom was sick. "A lot of people made it easy for me to hide," he says.
By the time he had won the 1998 Heisman Trophy and been drafted by the New Orleans Saints, Williams's social anxiety had intensified to the point that he would conduct interviews without removing his helmet. He would seldom make eye contact - much less speak - with teammates unless absolutely necessary. He would quickly leave practice and head to the Burger King drive-through, only to realize that he'd have to interact with someone to place an order. So he'd head home and spend the rest of the day in seclusion. "At practice my teammates would be like, 'Hey, what did you do last night?'" he says. "I'm thinking, I went from the living room to the office to the bedroom."
During a disappointing second NFL season - exacerbated by a risible performance-based contract - Williams broke his ankle. His recovery was treated by the team as a matter of vital importance. Trainers and rehab specialists oversaw his every move and asked for near-daily updates on his condition. Williams marveled that while his bum ankle was getting all the attention, his wounded psyche was going unnoticed. "There's a physical prejudice in sports," he says. "When it's a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's O.K. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness."
Finally Williams decided to get help. He tooled around the Internet trying to diagnose his symptoms and confided in the mother of a childhood friend. Together, they concluded that he suffered from social phobia, or social anxiety disorder. He went to see a therapist, who confirmed the diagnosis. Williams approached the Saints' coach, Jim Haslett, to explain that he was seeking treatment for a psychological issue. Williams says that Haslett used profanity to tell him, in so many words, "to stop being a baby and just play football." (Haslett did not respond to SI's questions about the incident.)
Williams's story nevertheless took a happy turn. With the help of psychotherapy sessions (which included going to malls and other crowded public spaces) and a daily dose of Paxil, he grew increasingly comfortable in social situations, so much so that he agreed to be a spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Paxil. In the 2002 off-season Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins, and the new environment is serving him well. With no funny looks from teammates and with a franchise that has more than a passing familiarity with mental illness - in 1999, Dolphins defensive tackle Dimitrius Underwood, affected by bipolar disorder, took a knife to his neck - Williams has thrived. Quite apart from his status as an elite running back, he cuts a genial, confident figure. "Just going into a mall or walking through the airport now and not worrying about it, I can't describe how good that feels," he says. "It's like I got my old self back."
New Orleans fans would be within their rights to wonder if the league's top rusher wouldn't still be in the Saints' backfield had the team been more enlightened about Williams's social phobia. But the Saints' reaction was hardly atypical. "That's how it is in football," says Bradshaw. "We're supposed to be big, tough guys. 'You have depression? Shoot, that's not depression. That's weakness.' That's how the thinking goes."
Take the case of Robbins, who got scant sympathy from his teammates after he missed the Super Bowl. The memorable postgame quote from Robbins's linemate Mo Collins spoke volumes: "Whatever rock he came up from, he can stay there as far as I'm concerned." Even after Robbins's circumstances came more sharply into focus and the team was given a crash course in mental illness, players' statements of support seemed forced at best. "I've heard his teammates saying things like, 'The ball's in his court,'" says Bradshaw. "The ball's in his court? The guy's brain chemistry needed to be regulated. Can you imagine if a diabetic had suffered from insulin shock and the response was 'Hey, the ball's in his court'?"
Robbins is uncomfortable talking about both his Super Bowl weekend episode and his bipolar disorder. During the off-season he turned down numerous opportunities to speak publicly about his condition. When groups sought his services in campaigns to raise awareness and even when pharmaceutical firms offered endorsement deals, he politely demurred. Profusely apologetic, Robbins declined a request to be interviewed one-on-one for this story. "I just want to move on," he said through his agent, Drew Pittman.
Not that insensitivity toward mental illness is confined to football. When pitcher Pete Harnisch, then with the New York Mets, suffered what he later learned was a depressive episode around Opening Day 1997, he discovered just how clueless teams can be. First he told Mets manager Bobby Valentine that he had not slept in five days, and Valentine responded, "Good April Fools' [joke]." Harnisch then complained to other team personnel, and according to multiple sources, a trainer offered him Benadryl, a drug usually administered to counteract allergies, to help him get some rest. The Mets then speculated that Harnisch was experiencing severe tobacco withdrawal and then Lyme disease before concluding that he suffered from depression, an illness that figured prominently in his family history. Later in the season Harnisch accused Valentine of, in effect, calling him "gutless" in front of the team and says he angrily confronted the manager in the lobby of the team hotel. (Valentine denies having talked about Harnisch in front of the team.) Valentine told reporters he was instructed not to address Harnisch's situation because "I was told by Dr. [Allan] Lans [the Mets' team psychiatrist at the time] that he might be suicidal." Several days later Harnisch was traded. (Harnisch was released by the Cincinnati Reds this season.)
The media are not always helpful in burying stereotypes, either. When Shayne Corson, an enforcer for the Toronto Maple Leafs, suffered panic attacks last spring that caused him to leave the team - and surrender millions of dollars of his salary - midway through a playoff series, members of the press unsheathed their daggers. PRIDE HAS BIG PRICE TAG: SHAYNE CORSON'S WALKOUT WILL COST HIM DEARLY, AND HE KNOWS IT screamed the headline of one column. Likewise, a thoughtful article on Robbins that recently ran in the San Jose Mercury News was accompanied by an online poll asking readers how they would handle him. One of the four choices presented: Robbins "should be tied up and stoned."
Even teams and leagues with the best intentions often fall short in their efforts to help athletes. Though sports psychologists are now in vogue, there's a world of difference between glorified performance coaches who help athletes "enter the zone" and "reach peak performance," and psychiatrists or clinical psychologists trained to diagnose and treat mental illness. While the players' associations in all four major sports have programs to aid athletes with mental health issues, those, too, can be inadequate. When he played for the Seattle SuperSonics, forward Vin Baker was perpetually melancholy and took the brave step of acknowledging his depression. He contacted the NBA Players Association for guidance, and it arranged for counseling sessions not with a mental health professional but with former players Dirk Minnifield and Cliff Robinson.
Apart from simply doing the right thing, teams would benefit financially if they were more attentive to players' mental health. Just ask the NFL franchise that recently lavished millions on a high-profile quarterback without, a team source says, giving him a basic psychiatric evaluation. When the player acted erratically - behavior subsequently attributed to untreated bipolar disorder - he was released, and the team swallowed the bulk of his contract. "We're not nearly as thorough [as we should be] about mental history," says the general manager of a team in the NBA's Eastern Conference. "We - and I think we're like most teams - interview guys and give a personality test [which is not intended or able to diagnose depression or anxiety disorders], but we're probably not comprehensive enough. Maybe if we get burned, that will change."
The wheels of change do turn in sports, however slowly. In interviews, nine mental health experts who treat athletes unanimously asserted that disorders of the mind are gradually shedding their stigma in sports. In some cases the shift in attitude is merely a matter of semantics. When Murray was doing his doctoral work, he approached the soccer coach at one university and asked if he could consult the team on matters of sports psychology. "He wouldn't even listen to me - I had said the magic word, psychology," says Murray. "Then I came back a while later and called what I was doing 'mental coaching,' and he got all excited." Similarly, Lardon stresses to his athlete-patients that depression is "an imbalance in brain chemistry," so it is less abstract and subjective. When appropriate, he shows patients their brain scans, giving them tangible evidence of a problem, not unlike an X-ray revealing a cracked rib.
When Lardon diagnosed Shea's depression, the athlete went on the defensive. "Prove to me that I'm depressed," Shea snapped. But it was a facade. He was relieved to hear what Lardon told him. Lardon said that in three out of four cases, depression is treatable with medication. After some trial and error, they settled on Effexor XR, which inhibits the reuptake of serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters that affect mood. "Right away," says Shea, "I noticed a big change in achieving general day-to-day happiness."
The big test came in January 2002. The Salt Lake City Games were less than three weeks away, and Shea was trying to treat a nagging injury to his left leg. Late one night he received word that his 91-year-old grandfather had been killed by a drunken driver. Lardon knew that such news could plunge Shea back into depression. He and Shea spoke often in the days before the Games and were able, as Lardon puts it, "to integrate Granddad's death in a positive way instead of catastrophizing it." Which is to say, Shea put a photo of his grandfather in his helmet. During the Olympics, Jack Shea wouldn't be in the stands, as the family had planned, but he could ride down the mountain with his grandson.
The rest became the stuff of Olympic lore. Shea was chosen by his U.S. teammates to take the Athletes' Oath at the opening ceremony, just as Jack had done 70 years earlier, and Jim went on to win the gold by .05 of a second. In one of the enduring images of the 2002 Games, Shea's first reaction after looking at his winning time was to pluck Jack's photo from his helmet and, obscured by falling snow, wave it tearfully. It was as if all the joy and emotion that he had missed in his first 33 years of life had suddenly flooded him.
Basking in the afterglow of Olympic victory, Shea figured he had also defeated his depression, so he stopped taking his Effexor XR. Literally overnight, his feelings of despondency came screaming back. He promptly went back on his medication, and now, before going to bed every night, he pops a small beige capsule.
As Shea prepares for the 2006 Games, he marvels at how different the experience is this time around. Part of it is his status as the defending gold medalist. But that pales in comparison to the change in his mental health. The fog that enshrouded him? It's lifted. The jock culture that had long considered depression an earmark of weakness? "Listen, unless you've been there, you have no idea," Shea says. "Winning a gold medal is the ultimate. But I wouldn't trade happiness for it. Not in a million years."
"Winning a gold medal is the ultimate," Shea says. "But I wouldn't trade happiness for it. Not in a million years."
"In sports," Williams says, "when it's a broken bone, teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's O.K. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness."
"Football was the easy part," Bradshaw says. "I could concentrate for three hours, and the games were an escape. It was the rest of my life that was going to hell."
Robbins engendered scant sympathy from his teammates after he missed the Super Bowl. "Whatever rock he came up from," one said, "he can stay there."
Jim Shea Jr.
True Stories of Hope and Inspiration
December 31, 2004
The Evel Knievel of sledding. That was my image. The cold midwinter day I hurtled down that iced mountain track in Altenberg, Germany, people said I was going so fast, I was no more than a blur. Eighty-five miles an hour, headfirst on a sled the size of a laptop computer, no brakes, no steering. Nada. I had been sliding four years before that race - the 1999 World Championship in skeleton, a daredevil Olympic sport. I roared through the final turn, winning by half a second - the first American ever to take the world title. It was without a doubt the biggest moment of my life so far. And there I stood in the snow, feeling nothing. Empty. I forced a smile. I was an expert at that - and at pushing the envelope as far as it would go. Pulling crazy stunts - moonlight waterskiing, snowmobile jumping at high speeds, diving from a 90-foot cliff into Lake Placid in pitch-black darkness - anything so that I could feel alive. If only for a split second.
That was as long as the feeling ever lasted. Even that day at the world championships. Zooming down the skeleton track gave me a huge rush. In less than 60 seconds I crossed the finish line and the darkness descended again, like a fog bank that settled and wouldn't go away. I'd had those dark-cloud feelings since I was seven. I just never told anyone. The men in my family were strong, silent types who toughed things out. Even my uncle Pat, who took his own life when I was very little. I could tell everyone was sad, but no one talked about it. Uncle Pat. Maybe he hadn't been as strong as we thought.
I thought gloom was normal. Something that ran in the family, like our talent for winter sports. My dad, Jim, Sr., competed in the 1964 Olympics in cross-country skiing and Nordic combined, and coached the 1972 U.S. Olympic biathlon team. My mom, Judy, was an alternate on the 1964 ski team. My grandfather, Jack Shea, won two gold medals in speed skating in the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Gramp was my hero. I'd make him tell me stories about the Games when we visited him. "You've got the genes for success, Jimmy," he'd say.
Not at school I didn't. I couldn't even learn to read. Dyslexia. But no one diagnosed it at the time. The school just put me, at age seven, into special ed. My self-esteem plummeted. That's when I first felt the fog settle over me. It followed me through high school. Even after I was "mainstreamed" back into regular classes. Once in a while I'd confide my troubles to Gramp.
"Don't get down on yourself," he said. "God gives each of us our own special gift. You're a wonderful athlete. You're going to go far. Just trust God, Jimmy."
Well, Gramp was right about sports. I was a ferocious competitor. In West Hartford, Connecticut, hockey was bigger than football. I made the Junior Olympic team. My parents moved us to Lake Placid, another big hockey town. They thought being closer to Gramp - and his strong faith - would help me. By then, though, I was numb to everything. Even hockey lost its thrill. I quit playing.
I graduated high school, but what kind of a future was there for a guy who could barely read? So much for God giving me a gift that would take me far.
I started hanging out with other thrill-seekers. We did some pretty crazy things. I knew I was pushing the limits. I just wanted to feel something - pain, joy, fear, whatever. Anything that would make me think, I'm alive.
One day, in my early twenties, I went to the bobsled track with my mom. I couldn't believe it - there was a lunatic careening down the run on what looked like a lunch tray. "What is that?" I asked.
Mom said, "It's called skeleton. And don't you ever try it."
Naturally, I made my first run the next day. The rush I got from racing down the mountain facefirst was unlike anything I'd known. For those few minutes on the sled, the fog lifted.
I threw myself into the sport, and in 1995, at age 27, made the U.S. National Team. At the time, that didn't mean a whole lot. The best sledders in the world - the Europeans - competed at an entirely different level. I felt like an amateur playing among pros. But I was learning. And, there on the racetrack, I felt alive.
I made a decision: I would go for it all, go for the Olympics, just like my mom, dad and Gramp. The rest of the American team returned home after the 1997 European season. I stayed in Germany. I wanted to train with the best.
I stuffed my clothes into an old hockey bag and hitchhiked from one track to another. Some nights I slept in bobsled sheds. I ate when I could. I didn't really care much about food. The Europeans thought I was crazy. It didn't matter to me. I had a goal.
The day of the 1999 World Championship race, I was totally focused. I remembered Gramp telling me he'd say a prayer before my heat. Lord, I asked, show me the fastest way down.
I found it. I won. I did what no American had ever done before. I was all but assured of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But standing there on the winner's podium, waiting for the medal to be draped around my neck, all I felt was, Yeah, well, whatever.
I returned to the States, moved to Salt Lake City. That's where the next Olympics would be held. Phil Thompson, an old family friend, let me stay in his cabin. He took me under his wing, bought me dinner when I couldn't afford it, took me to church. Even though Phil was as close a friend as I ever had, I didn't let him know about my problems. He must have sensed something was wrong, because he confronted me one night.
"I'm worried about you," Phil said. "I think you should see a sports psychologist."
With most people, I would have blown off the suggestion. But Phil was like family, so I made an appointment with Dr. Michael Lardon. He asked me a string of questions: Was I often overcome by sadness? By a feeling of emptiness? Was I unable to take joy from what should have been happy moments? Did I suffer from irregular appetite, restless sleep, decreased energy?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. It freaked me out how he knew what I'd been feeling.
"Jimmy," Dr. Lardon said. "I believe you're suffering from clinical depression."
"Olympic athletes can't show any sign of weakness," I said, defensively.
"Depression isn't a weakness," Dr. Lardon said. "It's a disease." He wanted to put me on medication.
"Fine, I'll take the pills," I said. "When they don't work, it'll prove you're wrong." I swallowed a pill every night. Astonishingly, the fog began to lift. One morning I walked to the track before practice. Just hearing the ice crunch under my spikes sent a tingle of anticipation through me. I couldn't remember feeling this good - about something I did every day, no less. Wow. Lord, now I understand. Skeleton is my gift. I've just been too sick to see it. I made the 2002 Olympic team. I bought Gramp and the family tickets to Salt Lake City right away. They couldn't wait to be in the stands, cheering me on. I felt relaxed, confident. Then, three weeks before the Games, my dad called.
"Gramp's dead," he said. "He was killed by a drunk driver."
More than anything in my life, I'd wanted Gramp to see me win the gold, to go as far as he'd always believed I could. I could feel depression creeping back. Lord, I'm turning to you now, just as Gramp would have. Help me go on without him. Help me where even medicine can't.
I phoned Dr. Lardon for advice. "Your grandfather can still be with you," he said. At Dr. Lardon's suggestion, I found an old photo of Gramp and, the day of my race, stuck it inside my helmet. Gramp, I thought, you'll be with me all the way.
That was my belief as I took off down the Olympic track for my final run. Less than a minute later I'd won the gold. I pulled Gramp's picture from my helmet and waved it in the air. It was as if all the joy that had been bottled up inside of me for 33 years came rushing out. For the first time in my life, I was happy. Do you know what that's like? I didn't. I felt joy. Pure joy.
Medication has kept my depression in check. Each day, I give thanks. Even more than Gramp, God has been with me, leading me out of darkness. I used to think winning a gold medal was the ultimate. Not anymore. Happiness, simple happiness, beats it every time
L. Jon Wertheim
Sports Illustrated Magazine
June 21, 2004
She has a thunderous serve, exquisite ground strokes and a thoroughly delightful personality. The reason you may know little about Améie Mauresmo is that she is in the neurological equivalent of Chapter 11. When Wimbledon begins on Monday, Mauresmo, a 24-year-old French femme, will be one of the top seeds. If form holds, however, she will steal defeat from the jaws of victory, collapsing like a bad souffléi. On the matter of slaying her mental demons, she concedes, "I still have work to do."
Which puts her in good company. Just consider the recent French Open. In the first round Slovakia's Lubomira Kurhajcova squandered a 6-0,5-0 advantage, and in the final round, Argentina's Guillermo Coria held a 2-0 set lead over countryman Gaston Gaudio before wilting under the weight of the occasion and losing 8-6 in an adrenaline-addled fifth set. "To see that my body let me down and my nerves let me down," said Coria, "I wanted to come out of this...." Then he dissolved into tears.
For all the talk of how physically rigorous professional tennis has become, the truth is that it has never been more mentally taxing. "It's gotten brutal," says Jim Loehr, a prominent sports psychologist. "There is so much parity that even the best players know they can't come out flat or they'll lose. Every mental lapse is punished severely." So, as unpredictably as die Wimbledon draw may unfold, here's a sure bet at Ladbrokes: There will be no shortage of epic meltdowns.
The failure to perform under pressure, choking, to use the dirtiest word in the sports lexicon, afflicts all athletes, but tennis players are particularly susceptible. There are no teammates to help absorb the stress or the blame. There's no clock to run out. No shifting to cruise control or laying up on a par-5. Start to play conservatively, and your opponent will cram the ball down your throat. "The thing about tennis," says John McEnroe, "is that no matter what happens, you have to win the last point."
And it's not just the pros who face choking hazards. Affixing telemetry monitors to recreational players, Loehr noticed that even hackers undergo massive physiological changes between deuce and ad-in. Loehr recalls one 52-year-old developing a full atrial flutter when the match tightened. Pressure triggers the release of Cortisol, a stress hormone that speeds up the heart and increases the rate of breathing. When this occurs, muscles are deprived of oxygen, causing them to tighten. Suddenly, the most routine shots miss their targets, which only intensifies pressure and, in turn, the biochemical changes, a "downward performance cycle," the psychologists call it. "It's called choking for a reason," says McEnroe. "Sometimes you really feel like you can barely breathe."
While there's no cure, there are treatments. Many players meditate before and during matches, one star practices low-grade self-hypnosis, visualizing his negative thoughts as falling leaves that land in a stream and then drift away. When tennis's legion of "performance coaches" tell their charges to "stay in the here and now," they are not just trafficking in Dr. Phil psychobabble. "Anxiety stems from worrying about the past or worrying about the future," says Michael Lardon, a San Diego-based sports shrink. "You don't want your mind to drift." The other key is to let instinct take over and resist overthinking. A recent study in the American Journal of Neuroradiology revealed that the golfers who hit the most accurate shots had the least brain activity. "Self-consciousness," says Lardon, "leads to compromised performance."
Jana Novotna, the grand dame of choking, came within five points of winning Wimbledon in 1993 before her inner circuitry simply blew. With the championship on her racket, she couldn't keep the ball in the court. She fell to the unflappable Steffi Graf and was so distraught that, unforgettably, she cried on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder at the trophy presentation. While Novotna never mastered the self-Heimlich, she did suppress her gag reflexes long enough to win Wimbledon in 1998. When the tension is ratcheted highest these next two weeks, Mauresmo and her jangly-nerved colleagues ought to recall Novotna's triumph on the same courts and take a deep, cleansing breath.
By Tod Leonard
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 9, 2008
AUGUSTA, Ga. The scene is Wednesday of the 2006 PGA Championship at Medinah Country Club outside Chicago. Dr. Michael Lardon, a San Diego-based sports psychologist, is hanging out on the putting green with a client, Rich Beem. Next to them, Tiger Woods is working, head down, hitting putt after putt.
Beem, the 2002 PGA champ, can't roll more than a few balls without offering some off-beat commentary or having something else catch his attention. That's the Beemer, life of the party.
A few feet away, Woods goes about his business as if he's practicing on a deserted island.
Lardon goes to lunch. When he comes back, Woods is in the same spot, doing the same drill.
Tiger was in this trance state. I know from years of being in psychiatry he was in another consciousness, Lardon says. The guy was in an interminable bubble.
This was the day before the tournament began. When the competition rolled around, it wasn't a fair fight. Playing conservatively, Woods toyed with Medinah and the field, winning his 12th major by five shots.
He kicked some royal butt. It was phenomenal, Lardon said.
For the first time, Lardon had experienced first-hand what he already knew: Woods has no peer when it comes to having the ability to match his extraordinary physical talents with unparalleled mental preparation and toughness.
All of the greats found that zone. You could see it in the eyes of Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo, Payne Stewart. There were shots they pulled off, putts they made that seemed the stuff of will and destiny.
But with all of them, it happened in spurts. In a game in which confidence can be shattered with a single bad shot, and focus can wane over an eight-hour workday, Woods has shown that on the grandest stages he can live in the moment, better and longer, than anybody.
He's crazy-good under pressure, Johnny Miller said. Without a doubt, he's the greatest pressure player who's ever lived.
The vise doesn't squeeze the melon any more than it does in weeks like these. Woods enters the Masters tomorrow with 13 major victories to his credit, four green jackets already in his closet, and the considerable weight of his own expectations. It was Woods who said at the year's outset that winning the season Grand Slam was easily within reason, and this is major No. 1.
Pleased with his game, though never satisfied, and seemingly content in every aspect of his life, Woods reckons he is playing his best golf ever. He has won eight of the last 10 times he has teed it up in an official event, and though the raves come in waves for Woods, it still seems like there isn't a deep enough appreciation of how hard that is to do, to stay in the zone for that long.
It's pretty scary, said John Cook, one of Woods' closer friends on the PGA Tour. He loves to learn, he's trying to get better, he's at a place he's very comfortable with. Everything is right in line. This allows him to focus on what he wants to do and that's win every time he plays.
Woods had won five straight tour events before placing fifth in the WGC-CA Championship three weeks ago. In the PGA Tour's first three months, he produced all sorts of magical moments.
He's remarkable, veteran Fred Funk said. And it's not even his physical game. It's his mental game that's the difference between him and everybody else. Everybody knows it and he knows it.
Dr. Jay Brunza sees and hears it all, and quietly enjoys it.
I just see a fruition, from start to finish, Brunza said.
Few in Tiger's circle know his mind better than Brunza. A retired Navy captain and clinical psychologist who now works with individual athletes and college teams, Brunza began playing golf with Earl and Tiger Woods after a mutual friend from the Navy introduced them. He would become a trusted family friend and caddie for Woods during five of his USGA amateur championships and his first Masters in 1994.
Brunza laughingly remembers a young Tiger during their weekend rounds at the Navy Course in Los Alamitos, hurrying down the fairway to crane his neck to see if he'd outdriven the adults.
He was just so competitive, said Brunza.
Earl asked Brunza to work with his son on his mental game when Tiger was 13. Dad had laid the groundwork by using various psychological tricks and tactics to toughen Tiger.
Woods said Brunza helped him hone his creativity at a young age.
Obviously, I like to create shots, and I have no idea what people say about 'seeing' the shot. I've never 'seen' the shot. Because of my creativeness, I see the (ball) going all over the place, Woods recalled. I used feel and my hands. That's one of the things Jay really helped me with, was to understand that and harness that.
Brunza, who works out of his San Diego home and rarely gives interviews regarding Woods, recalled last week the joys of helping mold a young Tiger.
Whatever your spiritual framework is, he was given this marvelous gift to be this elite athlete, Brunza said. God creates a Leonardo da Vinci or Beethoven in how many years?
He was just a joyful child to be around. He was a balanced child, not a robo-golfer. He was highly intelligent and had this great ability to learn things.
When I talk to some kids now, I tell them that I can't zap them on the forehead to make them better. Tiger always understood that. He worked at it, and I could tell he worked at it when I saw him play.
In the '80s, Brunza recognized how the Eastern bloc athletes were using trancelike states to excel in the Olympics, and he regularly worked with Tiger on achieving such a state. He said those sessions, working in Tiger's room at the family's modest house in Cypress, are among his fondest memories.
Comically, even Woods' German shepherd Boom Boom got into the program.
Booms was always right there with Tiger. And Booms would go into a trance, too, Brunza recalled with a laugh. I'd be bringing Tiger out after about 20 minutes, and Booms was coming out, too.
Other sports psychologists look at Woods' training, given at a time when there was still a stigma attached to using a shrink, and marvel at the wisdom of it.
Most people learn how to play golf, and when they reach a plateau, then they seek out sports psychology, said Dr. Morris Pickens, a featured psychologist on golfersmd.com, whose clients include defending Masters champion Zach Johnson. It's always an add-on. Tiger integrated them early. It's like trying to learn a foreign language when you're 30 years old. It comes a lot more naturally when you're 3 or 4 years old.
Lardon, whose book Finding Your Zone will be released in June, studied the brain waves of elite athletes at UCSD in the early '90s and found that they have the ability to reach a higher level of consciousness in their task.
It's the concept of absorption, Lardon said. Like the ability to get lost in a movie or a sunset. Tiger has the ability, when it's time, to be completely absorbed in the process.
Dr. Deborah Graham, who has worked with more than 350 male and female pro golfers over three decades, developed through her studies a list of eight traits she believes are the foundation for success of a champion. They include emotional stability, tough-mindedness, confidence and the ability to make your own decisions.
Though she has never tested Woods, Graham ranks him at the top in nearly every category.
He's got to be one of the top five athletes in the world, Graham said.
She believes Woods got an exceptional upbringing, with his father's military toughness and sharing and caring philosophy meshing with his Thai mother's goal-oriented culture and the self-awareness provided by her Buddhist faith.
The combination is awesome, Graham said. He really got the best of both worlds.
Woods has said that the unconditional love he felt at home always gave him the ability to try and fail.
I guess I learn from experiences, he said recently. I'm not afraid to look at both the negative and the positive. You've got to keep a balance. You can't be afraid to tell the truth on yourself. People have a hard time with that, being completely honest with themselves and admitting they hit a bad shot. I don't have a problem with that.
Everyone else can speculate and pontificate. It comes down to a simple summation for Woods.
I've just always enjoyed competing, he said. I enjoy winning. I enjoy the fight of it, of getting mixed up with the guys and trying to beat them when they are trying to beat me.
Please note you can find this article via the following link: http://www.signonsandiego.com/sports/golf/20080409-9999-1s9tiger.html
By Mark Herrmann
As a counselor to PGA Tour pros, Michael Lardon has talked major champions through the agony of ruining a whole week with one double bogey. As a golfer who grew up in Huntington, Lardon plays with a buddy who can shoot 79 at Sunken Meadow one day and 106 the next.
And as an author of a new book, Lardon tells how some of the best lessons a golfer can get are the ones that deal with the mind game.
"One of the first things to understand is that this is not as big an enigma as you think," said Lardon, a psychiatrist who now lives in San Diego when he is not on Tour with a client.
His advice to a pro is the same as to his lifelong pal at Sunken Meadow: Prepare diligently; focus on the process, not on the final score; be mindful only of the next shot; and no matter what happens, it's not the end of the world. That is his advice to the pro on the double bogey and the buddy whose score can fluctuate so wildly.
Lardon even suggests that golfers use two scorecards, one with the actual number of strokes you took on each hole, the other keeping track of how many shots on which you executed the best you could. The key to lowering the former is raising the latter, and you can do that if you have the right mindset. A lot of that revolves around not over-thinking. "Anxiety is the gap between the here-and-now and worrying about the past or future," he said.
That is the crux of the book that will be released June 3, Finding Your Zone: Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life.
"When you're loose and not worried about your score," he said, "that's when you have a great score."
The book, of course, goes into more detail. It is based on a lifetime of study about getting in what athletes call "the zone." Lardon became fascinated with it when he was a Long Island teenager good enough in table tennis to train for eight weeks with a champion team in Japan. His interest grew when he got to know his pre-med chemistry lab partner at Stanford, Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden.
Then he started caddying on the PGA Tour for his brother, Brad, who is now director of golf at a posh club in Texas. "People ask me how I got this job as a shrink on the Tour and I say you need to caddie for your brother," Lardon said. "I sort of grew up organically with so many of the players because of my brother."
All the mental coaching in the world can't turn Brad Lardon into Tiger Woods. What Lardon suggests to his clients, including former PGA champion Rich Beem, who is quoted in the book, is that they work with the physical and psychological tools that they have, and not let other stuff get in the way.
He writes about an amateur trying to break 90 for the first time getting tense down the stretch until he realizes he will shoot in the 90s that day, then relaxes and starts hitting the ball well again. He tells of a pro at the Las Vegas tour stop, distraught that his wife was on a shopping spree, buying $400 jeans. Lardon reminded the golfer, a $3 million winner the previous season, that it had nothing to do with his round that day.
"He went out and birdied seven holes on the front nine," said the doctor/author, who insists the game is a lot more fun once a golfer finds his or her own "zone," and that they can find the "zone" by having more fun.
Copyright © 2008, Newsday Inc.
Please note you can find this article via the following link: http://www.newsday.com/
By Jon Wertheim
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Michael Lardon figures it was serendipity. A top table tennis player growing up in New York, he had always been fascinated with the mental component of competition. "Who gets in 'The Zone?' How do they get in 'The Zone?' And most important, How do they stay there?" He enrolled at Stanford, took a pre-med science course and was paired with Olympic speedskater Eric Heiden as a lab partner.
Flash forward 25 years: Dr. Michael Lardon is among the country's most prominent sports psychiatrists, working mostly with Olympic athletes and PGA players. He's also an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and UCSD. In his new book, Finding Your Zone, (Penguin 2008) he draws on his work and research and offers a road map for finding the zone.
I recently caught up with him to talk about finding the zone...
Jon Wertheim: You offer lessons for achieving this state of peak performance. But how much of the it is simply hard-wired?
Michael Lardon: There's certainly a hard-wired component. How do you disassociate: You're looking at the baseball and blocking out the "no batter, no batter?" Most people have some ability to do it. Elite athletes obviously have more. They rate very high on the "ability to go into a trance." Heiden, for instance, was easily hypnotized. At the elite level, many PGA Tour golfers can shoot 60. But why can some guys do it on Sunday? That's not about their physical being; that's mental. As for the weekend-warrior guys, I have friends I grew up with who shoot like 110 and then one day they can shoot 79. They're still physically the same person. What happened?
JW: You write about athletes you've treated, but also about athletes you've simply observed up close. Any stick out?
ML: Sure. Tiger [Woods] is fascinating. He was [recently] paired against a kid, a rookie, who had shot low on Thursday and Friday. The kid had a six-shot lead. At the press tent, they asked Tiger when the last time he was paired with a player he'd never heard of, on the weekend. He said he couldn't remember. Then they asked how it felt, that they'd almost handed the kid the trophy already. Tiger looked the guy dead in the eye and said, "In golf, they don't hand the trophy out on Friday." That's a simple line. But it's a template for beautiful mental hygiene. Tiger doesn't get ahead of himself. He's not thinking about how many British Opens this will make; he's thinking about keeping the ball low.
JW: You also write about Heiden...
ML: I don't know if it was synchronicity or what, but in 1981 Eric had just won five gold medals and was my lab partner. I was always fascinated. He and I would take the same test. I might know more material but he would make a higher grade because, whether it was on the med school test or the Tour de France - he switched to cycling in college - he just innately knew how to perform ... You just can't get that guy excited or anxious.
JW: Then how do you explain someone else in your book, John McEnroe?
ML: He's an exception. But Borg? From my view, Roger Federer was very reactive when he was young. What made him the player is today is that he has a better handle.
JW: But I always think Federer of is an anti-Tiger. Tiger is a killer. Federer is a beautiful player, but I don't think he's robotic. I don't think he's mentally weak, but he's human, You say, "Hey batter!" and he turns around.
ML: I think his gift and talent is wild. He may still go down in the annals as the greatest player. But if he had [Tiger's peak-performance skills] he would be even at the next level. But this points out the heterogeneity ... I remember someone mouthed off the Tiger in the World Match Play and Tiger beat him eight and nine. Basically didn't let him win a hole. Normal tour guys would have someone that far down and they would have sympathy; they let up. I think Federer is gentler that way, too.
JW: Tiger's pretty much at the peak of peak performance?
ML: Tiger's very unusual, just the way he was raised, just the way the passion that was kindled. It was, "Do your homework and you get to play golf." The way he was taught proactively, made him great too. When most of the players of his level get famous or win a Major, they take a large step back. There's an onslaught of attention. With Tiger, he was ready.
JW: Are you sensing that sports psychology/psychiatry is losing stigma and we're past the point of "head cases."
ML: I think people are becoming more sophisticated. I remember reading someone saying, "Ben Hogan would never have had a sports psychologist." I disagree. Back then, they didn't have them. But Hogan, who meticulously studied everything? Why wouldn't he want to know the best way to quiet his mind, keep relaxed. I think more people are more educated to the mind and the neuroscience makes it clearer - we're not crazy; this is part of human physiology. I think, yeah, the stigma starts to dissipate.
JW: How much do the mental challenges vary sport to sport? Is McEnroe going through the same drill as Duval?
ML: It's interesting, each sport has its own demands. Golf, think of the downtime. If you're weak in the mind it gets exposed. Bubba Watson, who hits it so far, [well] If he had a little Tiger in his mind, he'd be a real force to reckon with week-in, week-out. But think about Olympic athletes: They have one opportunity every four years. That pressure to build your performance, to peak around one performance, that's a different challenge but clearly a mental challenge.
JW: What's the relationship between raw talent and mental strength, a natural versus a grinder?
ML: I use the example of a Lee Jantzen or a Jeff Sluman, guys who are really great in their heads and then you go to range and they're not as impressive as some of the other guys. When you have the whole package, you have it together it's a rarity. But at the Olympic Center they can all pole vault some ridiculous height. But what makes a guy, on U.S. Olympic team trial day, be a performer? That's the question. It's a bell-shaped curved. For most it's a mix. Only, a small percentage have a 10-out-of-10 in both [physical and mental] and that's a guy like Vijay Singh.
JW: And Tiger?
ML: That's a whole different level.
Please note you can find this article via the following link: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2008/writers/jon_wertheim/05/21/lardon/index.html
By James Achenbach
August 12, 2006
Okay, don't look into my eyes and, no, you aren't getting sleepy.
Hypnosis is beginning to make an impact among competitive golfers, although these hypnotic states have no resemblance whatsoever to stereotyped images of individuals doing things against their will.
"Hypnosis is not something people do to you," says Dr. Denise Silbert, who practices hypnotherapy in San Diego. "It is something you do. I can't do it to you, but I can teach you how to put yourself in a trance-like state."
"You trust yourself enough to go into this state. We're doing this all the time, anyway - you drive somewhere and suddenly you realize you don't know how you got there."
Why subject yourself to hypnosis?
"It offers a way to d=focus, quiet your mind and visualize the shot that you want," says Beth Pry, a hypnotherapist in Orlando, Fla. "It can allow you to let go of all outside distractions, to be in the moment and see exactly where you want the ball to go."
"Basically, your body is not all tensed up. Everything can flow - your energy, your muscles."
Silbert and Pry are among the hypnotherapists who actively seek golfers as clients. Private sessions are held in an office or sometimes on a golf course.
"They play, I watch," Pry says. "We talk about what is happening in their mind, what they are thinking. We talk about the use of the subconscious mind, where all the decisions are coming from."
In one sense, hypnosis is not that different from meditation, yoga or sports psychology. It's all about using the mind effectively."
In the end, it's psychology," say Silbert, who carries a single-digit handicap. "It's what you're telling yourself. Hypnosis helps you get to the zone more often, but you have to keep practicing."
San Diego psychiatrist Lawrence Jaffe, a friend of Silbert, call hypnosis "a great way to improve focus and concentration on the golf course. It has helped me feel confident about the shot I'm
about to hit versus thinking about technique."
Regardless, there are skeptics of hypnosis.
Dr. Gio Valiante is a professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. He also is a high profile sports psychologist who work with clients such as Chris DiMarco, Justin Leonard, Camilo Villegas,
Davis Love III and Chad Campbell. Valiante urges caution with hypnosis.
"I've never recommended it or used it," Valiante says. "More than anything, hypnosis is a state change - quitting some areas and engaging other areas. To a talented psychologist it can be a
"By itself, though, it is overused and misused. If you are trained a certain way, you see solutions that way. I would advise any golfer to be careful."
Still, Valiante has referred several golfers to Dr. Michael Lardon of San Diego, a sports psychiatrist who occasionally uses hypnosis. Lardon does not talk about his patients by name because of confidentiality. However, he is known to have worked with Rich Beem, David Duval and other touring pros.
Lardon generally combines hypnosis with other treatments. "You have to be in your cocoon world," he observes. "It's a relocation. It's a focused attention. When you are competing you need to go to an autopilot place."
To get golfers to that cocoon world Lardon starts with an assessment of their mental health. "Do they have substance abuse or marital problems, for example," he says. "Jack Nicklaus used to talk about getting everything in his life in place before the major championships."
Lardon, who carries a 2 handicap, tries to put golfers in touch with their subconscious intelligence.
"These guys (touring pros) tend to be so technical" he says. "This is particularly true with putting. It gets them in a heap of trouble, if you ask me. I have (putting) drills where I try to distract them, so they let their subconscious intelligence take over."
The subconscious mind is what hypnosis is all about.
"We want the conscious mind and subconscious mind to agree," Pry says. "It is a marriage of the conscious and subconscious. If a golfer is saying negative things to himself, he needs to know this."
Negative thoughts are one of the big targets of hypnosis.
"The winners are the ones who have mastered the mind game," says Silbert. "Golfers have to learn to deal with the inner thoughts and their emotions. This is a big part of what I do."
Pry calls it "the noise we have in our heads, thing rattling around in there that have an impact on us, whether we know it or not. So I help golfers identify the thoughts in their heads that are messing them up."
Although Lardon is a psychiatrist, many hypnotherapists are not medical doctors. Silbert has a doctorate in psychology. Pry, with a masters degree in counseling communication, was a special education teacher and a human resources director before turning full time to hypnotherapy.
How much does it cost?
Silbert charges $155 per hour. A 90-minute session with Pry, including 30 minutes of discussion and an hour of hypnosis, costs $150. Pry offers a four-session package for $400.
In comparison, Valiante charges $4,000 for an all day sports psychology session. It lasts six to eight hours and focuses on real life golf course situations. A half-day session is $2,000.
It is crucial to hypnotherapists that that their clients feel comfortable. Silbert lists herself as "founder and mother" of a discipline she calls golfology. If golfers choose to confide in her as they would their mothers, it's a sign of trust.
Pry's smiling face dominates the home page of her Web site. "I have a trustworthy face," Pry says. "I've always been a trustworthy person. Some of my clients trust me enough that we have sessions over the phone."
Look into my eyes. You will bark like a dog.
No, no, no. You will win the U.S. Open.
By Mark Lamport-Stokes
Sunday, June 8, 2008 1:00pm BST
LOS ANGELES, June 8 (Reuters) - The key to survival for players tackling the longest U.S. Open course ever at Torrey Pines next week is to be mentally disciplined and prepared for setbacks, says a renowned physician and sports psychiatrist.
Dr. Michael Lardon, who has dedicated his career to helping elite athletes understand and more easily achieve peak performance, has advised his players to use this strategy to cope with the demands at the year's second major championship.
U.S. Open layouts traditionally feature tight fairways, thick if graduated rough and slick greens. Regulation pars, rather than birdies, are often the most prized commodity.
"With the U.S. Open, you have to have a different expectation coming in," Lardon told Reuters.
"You have to realise you are going to hit beautiful shots that will run through the fairway, perhaps just two inches in, and you won't see the top of the ball in the rough."
"You have to say to yourself: 'This is the U.S. Open and it's the same challenge for all the different players.' They have to understand this is the nature of it."
"I loved the movie The Silence of the Lambs when Jodie Foster asks Dr. Hannibal Lecter how to catch him (serial killer Buffalo Bill) and Lecter says to her: 'You must understand the nature of what you covet.'"
"In majors, and especially the U.S. Open, the challenge is so difficult, you have to be so patient, your frustration tolerance has to be enormous and so I think you have to anticipate that this is going to be the nature of it."
"Pars are fantastic and there is a lot of damage control," added Lardon, who has 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem among his clients. "When you have the opening, then obviously you take it but it's not like regular courses you can dominate."
The South Course at Torrey Pines, which co-hosts the PGA Tour's Buick Invitational early each year along with the North Course, will play to a par of 71 and measure 7,643 yards off the back tees.
World number one Tiger Woods, a six-times winner of the Buick, is heavy favourite to clinch his 14th major title next week. In Lardon's view, the twice U.S. Open champion has no equal in the game when it comes to unwavering mental strength.
"What impressed me most is his almost surgeon-like attitude," Lardon said. "He's not a golfer, he's a rock star and he has some pressures to deal with that are immense."
"For the last two years in the majors here in the U.S., I have had real up-close access watching his preparation an hour or two before tee-off on the weekends and he is almost trance-like. I am very impressed with that peace."
Lardon, whose book Finding Your Zone was published earlier this month, believes Woods best exemplifies 'instant amnesia', a pre-requisite for sporting success at the highest level.
"To be in the now, you have to accept what has just happened. If you can't do that, you will be separate from the experience and that is when trouble lurks."
"Instant amnesia is a quality that Tiger personifies and it's absolutely essential because you're not always going to hit a perfect shot and when you get up to that next shot, you have to not be thinking about the previous one."
"We use that same attitude with place kickers in the NFL," added Lardon, a former top-ranked U.S. junior table tennis player. "Instant amnesia is a concept you must have if you are going to perform at your very best."
The 108th U.S. Open starts on Thursday. (Editing by Ed Osmond)
Atlanta Life Magazine
It's not a word that appears with regularity in psychiatry's manual of mental illnesses, but Dr. Michael Lardon knows precisely what his patients mean when they say they're plagues by "demons." They're not talking about the Loch Ness monster or Godzilla or some blood-curdling creature from a Stephen King novel. They're talking about a force field within themselves that can turn a lovely weekend golf outing into a nightmare.
So when Lardon puts that most fragile of patients "the golfer" on the couch it can often feel like banishing demons from the possessed.
Lardon, therapist to some of the PGA's biggest names, is trying to become the Freud of the links. But unlike Freud, who traced neuroses to the sublimation of our most basic urges and instincts, Lardon believes the path to a healthier score lies in some form of repression. In this counter-intuitive game, he says, it's best to keep a lid on the very reflex that's so prized in other sport, adrenaline.
"When an athlete is at his highest level, or "in the zone," we hypothesize that he has dissociated into a cocoon of concentration." Lardon says, "It's a glassy-eyed, trance-like state in which those natural primal reaction-increased heart rate and sweaty palms-aren't recognized.
He goes on, "Time may slow down in the zone... it is a place in us where our mind is free from worries, free from thoughts, free from out own self-doubt and self-limitations. The zone is a place where confidence soars. It is not a place one can control. It is a state of being we can facilitate."
"You're in the zone," a familiar mantra to anyone who spends time on golf courses, it is the highest compliment one duffer can offer another. It's also a favorite saying of television commentators. In the tongue-twisting vernacular of psychiatry, however, "the zone" is a far-flung destination reached only after a series of complex biochemical reactions that involve the mid-brain and cerebral cortex, among other sections of the brain and central nervous system.
A decade ago, Lardon, who was on a psychobiology fellowship at the time, helped direct a study involving some of the world's top athletes. It was conducted at the University of California's San Diego campus, and it focused on whether brain waves and other variables could be harnessed in order to put athletes in "the zone."
"It's like being on auto-pilot" is how Lardon explained it to the study's subjects.
A native of suburban New York City, Lardon, known as "Doc" to friends and patients, practices in the San Diego area, with its balmy, golf-friendly climate. Professional canons of ethics prevent him from identifying his patients by name, but they include a world's former No. 1 and a winner of one of the tour's four major events. He occasionally caddies for his brother Brad, a pro, and his shambling gait, inky black hair and kind face are well-known inside and outside the ropes at hallowed venues like Augusta National, Pebble Beach, and Torrey Pines.
Sports psychology is an established and fast-growing specialty, but in its frustration and fragility, golf is fairways beyond other athletics. "A good walk spoiled" is how Mark Twain described it.
In baseball, a batter can be fooled by a crackling curve ball, but a golf ball just sits there until a golfer hits it. And if the ball is struck improperly, who is there to blame? What you hit is what you get.
Knowing this, Lardon, a scratch golfer himself, borrows scenarios from other sports as part of his therapy.
A successful hitter tunes out the distractions of the ballpark and sees only "the curvature of the baseball," he says, and the successful putter sees only the bottom of the cup. "We all have the ability to dissociate," Lardon says. "Some dissociate more than others."
There's that word again. And in some contexts, it's not flattering. "The criminal mind dissociates and compartmentalizes," Lardon says. "The criminal cuts someone's throat and his heart rate doesn't change. You and I steal a pack of gum from a 7-11 and our heart is off to the races."
Do you have to be a sociopath to shoot par? Of course not.
According to "Doc," "if you can take a car ride and avoid the hazards of the highway, you can negotiate 18 holes and avoid the water, sand, and trees." "Don't let the water bubble up in your subconscious," Lardon advises. "The unconscious mind is the most powerful determinant of behavior."
Think of those who have inspired athletes to lofty heights and it's unlikely that a psychiatrist comes to mind. Bear Bryant was a quintessential southern daddy whom you didn't want to disappoint and Vince Lombardi's gridiron axioms ("Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" was one of them) could whip his team into an adrenal fury. Then there's "Doc," who tries to keep adrenaline to a minimum with nuggets such as "the only thing at stake in sports is your ego."
Sounds a bit like Freud, doesn't it?
Dr. Lardon can be reached at www.Drlardon.com
By Jay Root, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, July 12, 2008
Seventeen days before his big race at the 2002 Olympics, U.S. sledder Jimmy Shea got word that his grandfather, a 1932 gold medal winner, had been killed by a drunk driver. Reeling and distraught, he turned to sports psychiatrist Michael Lardon for counsel. At Lardon's suggestion, Shea taped a picture of Grandpa Jack into his helmet for the downhill race. Fifteen high-speed turns later, under driving snow, Shea won the gold with .05 of a second to spare, marking the memory of his grandfather by becoming the first third-generation winter Olympian the nation has ever had.
For Lardon, who has helped sports figures such as PGA champion Rich Beem and San Diego Chargers Pro Bowl kicker Nate Kaeding reach for greatness, Shea's win in Utah illustrates how even the most crippling distractions can be overcome - both in sports and in the game of life. Now Lardon, in a new book called Finding Your Zone, has boiled down the essential lessons and advice he dispenses to elite athletes. Those looking for some quick-fix, secret formula should stop reading now. As Lardon points out in the introduction, "The secret is there is no secret."
"Allow yourself to dream, but realize there are no shortcuts," he writes. "The Zone is not for sale for $19.99 or any price: It's free ...the Zone is within you."
If it sounds like a Star Wars, new-age approach to peak athletic performance, the book's spiritualistic undergirding is balanced with common-sense, practical steps to achieve it. Though some athletes have a physical edge over others, Lardon's chief message is that anyone with the will and discipline can achieve greatness.
He helped his own brother, Brad Lardon - two-time Texas State Open Champion and 2007 Southern Texas PGA Player of the Year - achieve his dream of getting a fully exempt PGA Tour card.
Michael Lardon's fascination with high-performance sports was nurtured by his own interest in table tennis. In 1976, at age 16, he was chosen by the United States Table Tennis Association as the country's most outstanding junior. He won a gold medal in the 1980 U.S. Olympic Sports Festival.
A graduate of the University of Texas medical school, Lardon won the Judd Research Award at the University of California, San Diego for his work studying the brain waves of some of the world's greatest athletes. The common link, he found, was their ability to perform at a "primitive, reflexive level while being fully engaged."
Time slows down when you're in the Zone, he observes, making a speeding fastball seem like it's traveling in slow motion or allowing golfers like Tiger Woods to enter an almost trance-like state, ignoring distractions and fears to sink a high-pressure putt.
But everyone can't be like Tiger, so how does the average Joe reach peak performance?
Lardon lays out 10 practical lessons for getting into the Zone, ranging from tips to good practicing habits to advice on letting go of negative thoughts and destructive behavior. Lesson No. 1 seems a bit odd - channeling the power of the subconscious mind - but Lardon points out that some of history's greatest achievements were born as dreams.
Inspired by a college class given by Jonas Salk, who devised a cure for polio based in part on recurring dreams about it, Lardon advises his clients to keep a dream journal and even to consciously daydream as a way of visualizing success and peak performance. He dedicates another chapter to the power of concentration and the danger of "overthinking" athletic performance. For example, after observing that professional golfers often alter their preshot rituals during high-pressure moments - generally spending more prep time when the stakes were highest - Lardon used a stopwatch in 2004 to calculate how long Tiger Woods spent getting ready to hit the ball. "He always took the same amount of time with each shot, regardless of its importance," Lardon writes.
He's a psychiatrist, so people often come to Lardon when they're in a slump, can't seem to win or choke too much. Typically, he writes, it's because they began to "care too much about the wrong things," like critics in the media, fame or money. To recreate the magic, Lardon advises his clients to make an effort to remember what was most important when they had the most fun, and to be honest about what truly motivates them. "Falling into the Zone is not that different from falling in love," Lardon writes. "They both come out of nowhere. They both can dissipate in a moment's notice, and without passion they cease to survive."
By James Achenbach, Senior Writer, Golfweek
SAN DIEGO - Dr. Mike Lardon is a sports psychiatrist. The difference between a sports psychiatrist and a sports psychologist can be as wide as, oh, the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike sports psychology, a largely unregulated field with a wide range of qualifications, sports psychiatrists such as Lardon are medical doctors.
Lardon majored in psychology at Stanford University, graduated from the University of Texas Medical School, attended UCLA for internal medicine training, and completed his psychiatry residency plus a two-year fellowship in psychobiology (the relationship of the mind and body) at the University of California at San Diego.
He serves as an associate clinic professor of psychiatry at UCSD and maintains a private practice.
So lay down on my couch, and I'll tell you how to hit a 300-yard drive.
No, no, no.
Lardon constantly crusades against stereotypes in the psychological arena.
"In psychiatry, we are pigeonholed all the time," Lardon said as we walked Torrey Pines Golf Course during the U.S. Open. "People talk about us like we are the ones who give drugs to crazy people.
"In the same way, sports psychologists and psychiatrists are pigeonholed: 'Oh yeah, I know all about them. They give advice to athletes.' Well, it isn't that simple."
Lardon stresses this reality: Our lives outside golf have a huge influence on our golf success or failure.
"On any given day," he said, "your score depends not only on how you play, but also on the framework and context of what is going on in your life. Using the same reasoning, what you do off the course can help you on the course."
He has been an adviser to David Duval and works with Rich Beem and Michael Campbell. All three are major champions who might be viewed as restoration projects, having plummeted in the world rankings.
Lardon does not discuss his players, and they, too, remain largely silent. Excessive testimonials invariably place too much pressure on the golfers who utter them, something Beem avoided when he said simply, "I'm getting there, and Mike is helping me."
Lardon is ready, though, to dispense specific advice that might help all golfers. His new book, "Finding Your Zone, Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life" (Penguin, paperback, $14.95), is aimed heavily at golf.
While observing the U.S. Open, he offered seven tips for golfers of all skill levels.
TIP NO. 1: Keep two scorecards.
One is for your score, the other is for your commitment to every shot.
"On every single shot, I want you to answer yes or no," Lardon said. "The idea is to achieve a yes on each shot. To do this, you need a clear image of the shot, you need to step into the shot with conviction, and you need to execute it with full commitment and a clear mind."
TIP NO. 2: Develop instant amnesia.
"Tiger Woods has this uncanny ability to forget one shot and go on to the next shot," he said. "I'm not saying that all of us can be Tiger Woods, but I am saying that we can learn from his example. Too many golfers become self-conscious after a bad shot. It happens to good players as well as average players. We need to overcome this self-consciousness and focus on the next shot."
TIP NO. 3: Let-go-of-the-club drill.
"Try this drill for letting go and moving on," Lardon said. "After every shot, do not let go of the club until you are ready to forget about the shot. If you are steaming mad, hold onto the club and recalibrate. Letting go of the club - whether you hand it to your caddie or stuff it into your golf bag - is a signal that you're ready to move on."
TIP NO. 4: Trust your training.
"Don't try to change things on the course," Lardon said. "Trust your training. Each time you play, that's what you have that day, so go with it. Maintain a clear plan. Don't complicate what your mind and body are doing."
TIP NO. 5: Stepping-over-the-line drill.
"Avoid overthinking," Lardon said. "I talk to players all the time, and you would think they're doing brain surgery. They get in their own way."
Lardon recommends a drill that has been advocated by Henri Reis, Annika Sorenstam's teacher, and others: Draw an imaginary line 3 or 4 feet behind the ball. Once you step over that line, all your computation has to be gone. Maintain a clear image of the shot and swing away.
TIP NO. 6: Anxiety is fine; fear is not.
"It is normal to be anxious," Lardon said. "Anxiety can be beneficial. Fear, on the other hand, can be inhibiting.
"Ask yourself, 'What am I afraid of? Can you live with the result of your shot? Can you accept it?' If you hit a bad shot, you're still going to be here tomorrow to play again."
TIP NO. 7: Keep a dream journal.
"The night before you play, run through the golf course in your mind's eye," he said. "Develop a mental template for it. Give yourself suggestions. You might be able to dream about your success. We all have the ability to move our dreams and influence our dreams. The unconscious mind is a powerful place."
"Then keep a journal. Jot down tidbits, what worked for you. Dreams go in there, too."
No couches here, just solid advice.
By Eli Miller
Southland Golf, September 2008
Elite athletes are capable of finding it on a regular basis, and top golfers are often in it when clutch shots are made.
It's also discussed in daily life, and chances are you've been in it before, whether it's generating your best report for school or work, conquering your favorite video game or making more putts than usual on the practice green.
It's performing at your highest level - being in "the zone" - and it's Dr. Michael Lardon's job to help professional golfers and other athletes be in it as much as possible.
"When you're in the zone, you really don't think too much," said Lardon, a sports psychiatrist whose education includes a B.A. in psychology from Stanford, an M.D. from the University of Texas and an internal medicine internship at UCLA. "You bypass your cerebral cortex, and when you do that you work at a much more reflexive, instinctive level. Paradoxically, as we've become more intelligent and think more [in our activities], we often get in our own way."
Lardon grew up playing golf in Long Island, N.Y., often waking up early with his dad and younger brother to play the Black Course at Bethpage State Park. Though he excelled at the sport as a youngster, his most successful athletic endeavor was table tennis. Lardon was so talented that he was chosen at 16 to go to Japan to train with the reigning world champion.
When Lardon returned to America for the national junior championship, he discovered the zone, a mental state where one of his top skills became even easier to execute.
"I made it to the finals and I had an unusual experience where the ball, which normally travels at speeds exceeding 100 mph, started to slow down, and I won the first two games easily," Lardon recalled. "I was in the zone. Then, somebody said something to my coach about me becoming the next national champion, triggering me to become conscious of what was going on, and I fell out of that state and lost the match. The experience haunted me for many years but also gave rise to my drive to understand the science behind this phenomenon."
Later, Lardon turned professional and played all over the world, still fascinated with similar states of peak performance he experienced. He won a gold medal at the Olympic Sports Festival in 1980 and then retired to delve into the zone from an academic angle.
His research took off during the early 1990s at UC-San Diego, where he completed his residency in psychiatry and a fellowship in psychopharmacology and psychobiology. In 1994, he was awarded a grant by the United States Tennis Association for the "Neuroelectric Assessment of Enhanced Athletic Performance" - basically, what role the brain plays in an athlete's performance.
"We had three focus groups: athletes that were among the best in the world, people that were in very good shape and then regular people," Lardon said. "Even regular people reported times in their lives - not always in sports, it could have been in their jobs - where everything was flowing synchronously."
Even before that study, Lardon, who has been an associate clinical professor in UCSD's psychiatry department since 1995 and a consulting psychiatrist for U.S. Olympians since 1999, was offering advice to pro golfers. He met many of them through caddying for his brother, Brad, who first made it onto the PGA Tour in 1991.
"Any PGA Tour level golfer can shoot 62," Lardon said. "Why somebody plays well on Sundays, or why somebody like Tiger Woods can always seem to put it together, that's between the ears."
His new book, Finding Your Zone: Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life, isn't devoted entirely to golf, but much of it is.
Here are four of Lardon's tips that can help you visit the zone more often on the golf course:
• See the big picture. "Half of [succeeding] is what's going on when you're out there in the heat of the moment and how you manage stress and anxiety. The other half is how you contextualize the sport in your life and the importance of having balance and a check of your ego."
• Keep a thought journal. "Go back after your round and recall what was happening on each shot. Almost uniformly, when players are playing well, they're fully engaged in the process of what they're doing. On poor shots their minds wander to things like, 'I've got to pick up my kids.' That happens so quickly and insidiously that I think amateurs don't really pick it up."
• Have a mental game plan. "Maybe 10 minutes before your round, take time and say to yourself, 'For the next four hours, my focus is going to be on staying relaxed every time I hit a shot.' Or, 'I'm going to try to be really cognizant of what I'm doing and what's going on so my attention doesn't drift.'"
• Pulse your concentration. "Think of your focus like an accordion. When you're walking after a shot, you can relax, and when your ball comes back into sight, your concentration starts to increase and you begin making calculations. You bring that intensity out, and when you step into the shot, you're fully committed, and after the shot you can relax again."
To learn more about Dr. Lardon, or to purchase Finding Your Zone, visit DrLardon.com.
By Toni Cicone, STACK Magazine, Sep. 1, 2008
"The 'zone' refers to a higher state of consciousness where we perform our best; it's something human beings innately strive for," says Dr. Michael Lardon, a sports psychologist and author of the book, Finding Your Zone. Elite athletes always strive to perform at this level, but many have a hard time getting there mentally. To help you out, we picked the doctor's brain for a few tips on getting in your zone - and staying there.
Desire vs. Will
Lardon advises transforming your desire to do something into your will to do it. "With desire, you have this energy, and it's just out there; but with will, you channel that energy at a goal," he says.
"Take Tiger Woods for example. Everything he does always has a purpose, a goal attached. Everything you do in your life [should be] related to your goal: what you eat and drink, how often you [socialize], when you work out and if you train your mind."
Lardon's first suggestion to finding your zone: tackle something that is difficult for you until you succeed without any mental pain. Once you accomplish that, choose your athletic goal, learn everything about it, make a plan, then put it in place. "You must match action with desire by following the plan you conceived," Lardon writes in his book. "When you do this, the process is now engaged and your desire has been forged into will."
Check Your Motivation
The motivation you have to reach your goal must be pure, according to Lardon. "To do anything well, you have to work hard, stay consistent and be highly motivated," he says.
To keep your motivation sharp, make sure the goal is yours - not your parents', a coach's or anyone else's. "The deepest motivation is called intrinsic motivation," Lardon says. "That comes from within, from the love of what you do."
Lardon adds that when your motivation becomes less about your relationship with the game, you create tension within yourself and dilute your energy, and you can be too caught up in how people perceive you. Keeping your motivation authentic will help you "tap into limitless motivation, which can really take you to much higher levels of achievement."
You can buy Finding Your Zone at drlardon.com.
Finding Your Zone: Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life by Michael Lardon, M.D.
Reviewed by Tim Boggan | Table Tennis Magazine, Nov-Dec 2008
Sports psychiatrist Dr. Mike Lardon is well known for having worked with PGA, NFL, and Olympic athletes. For almost 35 years he and his family have been friends with my family - originally through the now-Olympic sport of table tennis. Mike and my sons Scott and Eric won the 1976 U.S. Junior Team Championships at Detroit's Cobo Hall, and later that year Mike, experiencing for a time his own "Zone," was a finalist in the U.S. Junior Singles Championships at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Because of our shared table tennis and golf experiences (I was once Captain of my University Golf Team), I re-live in reading Mike's book much of my own competitive experience, for almost all those who take sports or anything else seriously probably at some time or other have been in a "Zone" - that is, where you perform at your highest level, but likely don't know how it happened.
To take an example from my own life - and Mike's book urges you to interrelate like doctor/patient, teacher/student - when in the 1960's six-time U.S. Table Tennis Champion Dal-Joon Lee had not lost a single match to any native-born U.S. player, I opened my eventual loss to him with an unbelievable 21-8 first-game win. When that game was over, I had no idea that I'd built up such a score, or even that the game had ended. For a moment in Time, but only for a moment, I'd been in a no-thought trance - the "Zone." How to do it again and again? Since that's what aspiring winners want to know, Mike's aim in this book is to share Lessons he's learned to help you try to find, repeatedly, this elusive "Zone."
Lesson One stresses the importance of dreams, even daydreams. They can lead you to the path of "self-actualization," to your "inner drive for higher values and purpose," and so to the "Zone." Write them down, think about them - they'll provide internalized energy and direction for you. And perhaps some revelations. Mike gives the example of Dr. Jonas Salk discovering the polio vaccine. During one of his recurrent dreams, "he was able to manipulate his perspective from observer to the subject itself, the virus. He said that in this state of being the virus, he saw his own (the virus's) vulnerability" - and the vaccine followed.
Mike had sometimes caddied for his brother Brad, for years a golf pro playing the PGA circuit, and thus had occasion to learn vicariously from watching some of the best golfers. He was struck - and wants you to be too - by how Phil Mickelson, positioned to win the Masters, "was napping just prior to teeing off." It showed how prepared he was, how confident he was - how he'd made the inevitable anxiety, the tension needed to perform, manageable.
"Fuel your determination to succeed with unwavering commitment," says Mike. Lesson Three describes "your most powerful ally: will." Mike's speed-skater friend Eric Heiden "played with pain." During his coldest practice sessions in a Wisconsin winter, he'd persevere when others left the ice. How'd he do it? By remembering how he used to test himself in summers by sitting in an automobile with the windows closed and the heat on, seeing how long he could endure it. Then in the dead of winter he'd practice this "solipsism" - his mind convincingly modifying reality so as to adapt this remembered warmth to the cold. Lesson: manage your reality, strengthen your will.
Lessons Four and Five I, as a now aging golfer, have to pay strict attention to - for I hit many bad shots and "freeze" on short putts. Problem is: I'm result-oriented, I'm afraid I'll mishit and add another stroke to my already burgeoning total. What you, Tim, and others like you need, says teacher Mike, is a homework assignment. You're all to keep two scorecards - one for your actual score, the other for those times you unconsciously know what you're supposed to do and unhesitatingly do it. For example, you read the line you want your putt to take and just smoothly stroke the ball. Nothing last-second extra is needed. Especially not thought. Keep it simple. ADD anything and you've got Attention Deficit Disorder. So, on the second scorecard, whatever club is called for, you're to record "the percentage of shots that you executed to the best of your ability." Use the following guidelines: first, visualize the shot you want, then hit it without doubt, or, if doubt exists, back away and start again. Absorb yourself in that regimen until it's mindlessly automatic. "We choke when we care too much about the wrong thing." Take satisfaction in the quality of shots hit. Have FUN! It's often said, says Mike, "that only 10 percent of life is what happens to you, and 90 percent is how you react to it."
One important concept is conserving your energy. You have to practice some detachment. If you're frustrated, have the mind-awareness to take a reality check. To relieve tension stretch your fingers. It's even o.k. to get angry - we've seen Tiger Woods bang down a club, or for uttering an audible curse word incur a reprimand from announcer Johnny Miller - but it's not o.k. to lose focus. Generally performance depends on intensity of focus. Anger can be overcome by visualization techniques. For example, Mike says he sometimes asks "players to shut their eyes and imagine putting their anger on a falling leaf and releasing it to descend into a flowing stream." That's Lesson Six.
But it follows in Lesson Seven that the player's passion, his juices have to keep flowing too. "A mind that is worried about what others think" is practicing "extrinsic motivation," not the "intrinsic motivation" needed. When we honor the pure motivation that comes from heart and soul, and is not laid out for us by others, "we are loving ourselves." But following our own path, pursuing our dream, is not an unhealthy experience. This "healthy narcissism" allows us to have the "dedication and effort required to achieve the highest level in business, arts, or sports." Being in the "Zone" requires pure motivation - it's a "private experience."
I once did an interview with Zhuang Zedong (Chuang Tse-tung), the famous three-time World Table Tennis Champion of the 1960's. "Failure is the Mother of Success," he said - and "Success the Mother of Failure." That is, the more successful the player, the more pressure he begins to feel; and the more pressure he feels, the more chance he's afraid of losing. For, with his reputation, and his need to preserve it, everyone goes gunning for him. "It's that fear, that failure of spirit, the player must overcome if he's to be great." Mike realizes this of course, and says it's imperative for a player, even for Tiger Woods, to realize "his sport is not a matter of life and death" (for him it almost is?). For sure, though, Lesson Eight says any player has to overcome fear.
Lesson Nine is so important to every player, for it emphasizes the importance of confidence. How do you get it? By "mastery experience" naturally, but also through vicariously watching someone who's got it, or who can inspire you to get it.
It helps if, as a lead-off quote in Lesson Ten states, "Playing under pressure is not to be feared. It is merely the normal circumstance of performing." Familiar territory for those who progress. Mike stresses the importance of "activation energy." Start a reaction that tries to lead you to the "Zone." But realize the "Zone" "can't be forced or controlled." It has "a life of its own." And though Mike does a good job of trying to get you to find it, understand it, when all's said and done, the ten lessons learned, the "Zone's" "an inexplicable phenomenon." It just arrives out of nowhere.
Since faith in yourself helps, I'll point you to my own inner door of intrinsic motivation, and show you the mystic key Simone Weil keeps for me and others. The "Zone's" in mind-awareness, though mindlessly obtained. She says: "Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul." That light, too, comes out of nowhere - faith-based... like the inexplicable "Zone."