WINGATE SPORTS CENTER, Israel (Jul. 25)
Boris Blumenstein slaps the shoulder and pulls at the black belt of a member of Israel’s Olympic judo team, whose eyes are fixed on a computer screen. Blumenstein, 58, is trying to distract Yoel Razvozov, who is playing a computer game aimed at improving his decision making and ability to compete under pressure. The physical distraction and the din of a judo match on an adjacent television are intended to simulate the stresses of competition.
The game is one of the tools used by Blumenstein, the Israeli Olympic team’s psychologist, to help Israeli athletes mentally prepare for competition.
“What is the most important thing? That there is always a result,” said Blumenstein, motioning towards the readout from Razvozov’s computer game.
Blumenstein, jokingly referred to by some members of the Olympic team as the “brain coach,” is a key figure in the Israeli Olympic delegation to the Athens games, which beg! in Aug. 13.
Like many of the athletes he works with and most of the delegation’s medical staff, he is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
The staffers gained much of their expertise and know-how through years of working with top Soviet athletes. But the Ukranian-born Blumenstein credits his years in Israel at the Wingate Institute, Israel’s premier sports training center, for making him the scientist he is today.
It was at the Ribstein Center for Sports Medical Sciences on Wingate’s leafy campus near the coastal city of Netanya that he learned how to do research according to American-style methodology and statistics.
And it was here that he helped build a biofeedback lab as part of a mental preparation program for Israeli athletes.
When an athlete presses a finger to an input device, Blumenstein can measure physiological responses to competition such as stress and concentration. He and a team of researchers have developed a unique program that! uses biofeedback to help athletes increase their ability to connect m ind and body while reducing physiological tensions. One of the steps in the program, for example, trains athletes in how to talk to themselves during competition.
Sometimes the athletes Blumenstein works with come to his office, but he also accompanies them in their training, often hooking them up to his laptop computer after they finish their days of back flips or sprints.
There are few world-class athletes in a country as small as Israel, says Blumenstein, a cheerful man with an easy smile, so each one must be trained with special care and attention.
He says that part of the fun of working in Israel is that, unlike in large countries where sports psychologists focus exclusively on one sport, here he gets to work with all the athletes.
“For me it is especially fun because I have to know different sports and the personalities and different situations,” he said.
On a recent day in his office, Razvozov, who recently took second place in the European champi! onships in his weight range, brings Blumenstein a video of his recent matches so they can review his performance.
Also in Razvozov’s hand is a photograph of him on the winner’s platform at the European Judo championships. The photo will be the 18th on Blumenstein’s wall of Israeli athletes he has trained that have gone on to succeed at international championships.
Razvozov, a sandy haired 24-year-old, has just had his best year is not shy about crediting Blumenstein.
“Ninety percent of my improvement in the last year has been psychological, so I can thank Boris,” he said. “I am now more focused mentally during competition. Before I would lose focus, now I don’t.”
At this level, mental preparation, Blumenstein said, “is the difference between first place and tenth place.”
Blumenstein, whose interests in sports began when he ran track as a child in Ukraine, said he is thankful to Israel for letting him blossom professionally.
“What Israel gave me person! ally, I want to be able to give back,” he said. “I have been here 14 y ears and within that time, I have published dozens of research articles and papers, one book, and another on its way. I have gone to conferences all around the world.”