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For more than a decade, former Walter Johnson High School standout swimmer Eric Friedland has dedicated nearly 20 hours per week to elite-level training.

He’s sometimes out of bed before the sun rises for morning workouts, and he deals with fatigue and muscle soreness on a daily basis.

And it’s all for two minutes of swimming — Friedland’s team-best time in the 200-yard breaststroke during his senior season at the University of Texas in 2011-12 was 1 minute, 59.96 seconds.

“When you put it that way, it’s hard to give up every day [to train]. But after you accomplish your goals, when you have a good swim, when you do well at a competition, it’s worth all the time and effort,” said Friedland, who competed in the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials this year for the second time. “Every day you have to keep thinking that.”

Friedland has “it.”

The 2011 NCAA 200 breaststroke champion has the intangibles, that enviable mental strength that enables him to remain focused and dedicated to achieving the goals he sets, the capacity to put his best foot, or in his case, arm, forward when it most matters. And he has that unwaivering self-confidence in himself that helps him bounce back from those few instances where he doesn’t perform his best.

But there are plenty naturally gifted athletes who cannot see past the arduous training it takes to reach the pinnacle of a sport and who buckle under the pressure of an important game or race.

Despite all the potential benefits that athletics can provide, 75 percent of all sport participants will drop out of sport by the time they are 13, said Dr. Caroline Silby, who holds a doctorate and master’s degree in sports psychology from the University of Virginia and is a faculty member at American University.

“Youth sport participants cite too much pressure and lack of enjoyment as reasons for their early exit,” added Silby, who has worked individually with 10 Olympians, two of them gold medalists.

Genetics play a major role in athletic achievement. But perhaps the biggest differentiating factor in determining which athletes are cut out for top NCAA Division I athletic programs and professional sports is what goes on between the ears.

“When you have two equally talented athletes, people need to have a certain amount of innate ability, but two people of equal ability, the one who has the better mental attitude is the one who is going to be the superior athlete,” said Sheila Rowny of Sports Psychotherapy in Bethesda.

As sports continue to evolve at a rapid rate thanks to constant technological advances and sports medicine studies, more and more athletes are becoming aware of the importance of the mental game.

In the past decade, Rowny said it’s been more publicly accepted for coaches and athletes to seek help.

According to Sports Psychology Today, virtually every college, national, professional and Olympic team has a psychologist on staff, and it is estimated that more than 300 professional golfers work individually with sports psychologists.

“[Mental strength] is so important [in sports],” Friedland said. “I haven’t personally seen anyone for help but a bunch of my friends have and say it’s totally worth it.”

Achieving mental strength, Silby said, is a life-long process.

Pressure cookerMental strength can be measured by a variety of factors.

An athlete’s ability to perform under pressure, to brush aside mistakes and setbacks, seems to the be the focal point for the general public.

“Michael Jordan was described as ‘Knowing how to win,’” Silby said.

Ninety percent of Silby’s clients, she said, are looking for ways to consistently perform their best when it counts the most.

Pre-competition nerves, Silby said, actually can be channeled into positive performances if handled correctly.

“Mental skills such as mindfulness training, self-talk, visualization, mental game plans, focus points, mental pacing and pre-competition routines have helped athletes to accept the nervousness and respond to cues that facilitate high-level performance,” she added.

Certain practices, like breathing techniques and pre-competition routines or rituals can help keep an athlete’s nerves in check.

“Before each pitch I take a deep breath in my windup, it helps me kind of relax and get my mind set for the next pitch,” said Germantown resident Tori Finucane, one of the nation’s best 18-and-under softball pitchers who has verbally committed to play on scholarship at the University of Missouri in 2013-14.

Practice makes perfect

Silby said athletes tend to fall into two categories.

One group of athletes thrives under pressure — the proverbial “clutch” players.

The other group are the perfectionists — the athletes who can outwork anyone and typically “win” every practice session, but they tend to falter when everything is on the line.

An athlete who can combine the two could be virtually unstoppable.

Longtime Winston Churchill High School girls soccer coach Haroot Hakopian said working on mental strength has been a part of his team’s daily routine for the past three years.

In that time the Bulldogs have reached three consecutive Class 4A West Region finals, losing two one-goal decisions and one in penalty kicks to four-time defending state champion Bethesda-Chevy Chase.

Goal-setting, Hakopian said, helps the Bulldogs remain focused.

Ride the roller coaster

Even the best athletes inevitably have their ups and downs. Finding mental stability during those times is imperative.

Sometimes surviving hardships can make someone that much more unflappable.

“It starts with yourself and your mindset, having confidence that you can do it and wanting to push yourself,” Finucane said. “Last year I could not throw a strike to save my life. I was very frustrated with myself. But I worked that much harder than I ever had. This year I’ve come back better, physically, but also mentally. If I walk a batter, it’s no big deal. There’s another batter coming up now.”

Rowny said athletes in a similar situation will have learned a whole new set of mental skills, making them that much more prepared moving forward.

As children are encouraged to specialize in their sports at younger ages these days, mental training, Silby and Rowny agreed, becomes even more important.

It’s something that can be facilitated by coaches and parents.

Hakopian said he finds the high school age to be the perfect time to start a mental training regimen.

“You can take an average player who can make herself into a good player by being mentally tough. I’ve coached hundreds of those,” Hakopian said. “Then you can get the naturally gifted ones and try to click in with the mental training. Once in 10 years that type of athlete comes along where they’re driven, they’re focused, they know where they want to be and they’re going to get there no matter what.”

jbeekman@gazette.net