Even after running 13 marathons Dr. David Asp still needs to coax himself mentally through work-outs. Now, a volunteer assistant coach for the Red Wing cross-country team, Asp is helping the Wingers prepare for meets by training their minds.
Asp, a psychologist in the Behavior Health Department at Fairview Red Wing Medical Center, focuses on using positive coping thoughts to push through difficult and stressful situations. With a specialization in sports psychology and as an avid endurance sports participant, Asp developed a mental training program that is helping Red Wing utilize positive thinking.
Asp first became involved with the team in 2008 when Wingers head coach Jesse Nelson had Asp speak with the team about the impact mental training has on physical performance. A year later Asp became a volunteer assistant coach. With an extensive background in sports psychology, Asp was excited to equip younger athletes with the basic mental preparation needed to succeed.
"It's incredible the power of our imagination and how it can change things physiologically," said Asp, who has completed 13 marathons and three Iron Man triathlons.
Asp began practicing with the team two to three days a week and led the Wingers through visualization, relaxation, and breathing exercises a couple times per year. He also attended races as frequently as possible. Each year his involvement with the team as a sports psychologist increased, he said. Nelson and Asp decided to increase mental training as sports psychology became more prevalent in athletics.
"There's more of an awareness of the importance of it," Asp said. "There's more now we can do."
Asp tells the Winger runners to imagine their bodies as finely-tuned engines and their legs as powerful pistons running the engine. At the end of the race, runners want to kick into a "higher gear," he said. All of the thoughts are positive coping mechanisms that redirect negativity and push the athletes past tough stretches in competition.
"I tell them to trust their body to go to that pain threshold," Asp said.
The team bus is silent before meets. Most of the runners are listening to the podcast Nelson and Asp made which contains positive coping statements, Anderson said. The podcast equips the athletes with the focus it takes to overcome pain at the end of a race, Asp said.
"It relaxes you and takes away some of the pre-race stress," senior Christian Leitner said.
The training has worked for the Wingers. After taking the team through relaxation techniques and breathing exercises before its meet at Rochester Mayo, the girls team won the meet and several individuals ran personal best times.
"I had my best race," said sophomore Lindsay Scribner, who finished 13th and ran one of the best races in her career, according to Nelson. "It helps."
The team also went through the program when it traveled to Alexandria for a meet. Before the meet, Asp tried to get the Wingers to focus on performing at their peak, not attempting to win the race or place.
"You need to have some pressure," Asp said. "But a lot of athletes have too much pressure. It acts as a mental emergency break."
Both teams finished 14th in a quality field that featured some of the best teams in the state. Sophomore Ryan Schnaith turned in a career best time of 18 minutes 5 seconds in the 5-kilometer race.
Red Wing will compete in the section 1AA meet Thursday in Owatonna and Asp plans to lead the team through another session of visualization before the biggest race of the season. With the positive examples from Rochester and Alexandria, Asp said he hopes to keep growing the program.
"This has been a special year," Asp said. "The important thing is that they give it their all. Put everything out there. This is a beginning step. It's coming together and I've got some ideas for next year already."
The program lends itself well to high school sports. Nelson said the emotional roller coaster of adolescence increases the impact visualization can have on an athlete.
"Kids just lack confidence," Nelson said. "They don't believe in themselves as much as they should."
Low self-worth can be treated in athletics, Asp said.
"That's why mental training is so important," Asp said of the roller coaster of emotions in adolescents. "You need to stay consistently mentally focused and believing in yourself. Focus on positives rather than negative or stressful situations."
Asp said he expected good results after taking the team through the program, but the overwhelming acceptance and immediate race results was a pleasant surprise. The more the kids tuned into the importance of training their minds and emotions, the better they competed and the more they believed his ideas, Asp said.
"It helped tremendously," Asp said of team's success. "I saw their desire for more it, wanting to believe in themselves. I really sensed they wanted to have more of that. It was nice to see.
Asp started as a psychologist in 1982 when Fairview was Interstate, a private medical group, and this year will be his 30th in Red Wing. The runners appreciate the amount of experience Asp brings to his volunteer coaching position.
"It's pretty cool knowing he's gone through all that education," junior Kelsee Anderson said. "We're glad he can talk with us so we can run better. He's definitely made a huge impact on me."
Asp's impact is reaching beyond the course. Leitner, Scribner and Anderson said their schoolwork and overall lives have improved since starting the program. Leitner said his self-esteem has increased as a result of consistently using positive affirmation.
"(The visualizations) helps with not only running but everything," Anderson said. "If you can visualize yourself doing well in a race, then you will. If you can visualize yourself doing well on a big test, you'll do well."
In Asp's work for Fairview's Behavioral Health Department, he helps patients work through test anxiety. In the same way Asp taught the runners to visualize success in racing, they are able to focus the calming thoughts toward any stressful situation. Scribner said it helps her relax before her tests and Leitner said his grades are the best he's had.
Asp also works with Nichole Porath, of Northfield, who will be competing at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Houston. Porath, a marathon runner who runs upwards of 95 miles a week, came to Asp seeking help to mentally prepare for Grandma's Marathon in June. She spent time visualizing and Asp made a compact disc for her to practice with throughout training. Porath finished in a person-best 2 hours, 44 minutes and 46 seconds, more than a minute better than the Olympic qualifying time of 2:46 and more than five minutes ahead of her previous best time.
"I don't know if I would have qualified without his help," Porath said. "I can't say enough about how his work helped me."