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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 24, 2006

He gets their heads in the game

by Dan Kuester

When track and field athletes from around the world converge on Athens, Greece, this September for the world championships, they will have a Cyclone with them. But this Iowa Stater won't be competing in any events. In fact, he isn't even a student.

Marty Martinez, a psychologist for the Student Counseling Service, has been named to the U.S. track and field team as a sports psychologist.

Marty Martinez

Marty Martinez of ISU's Student Counseling Service will help national track and field athletes compete in the world championships this fall. Photo by Bob Elbert.

Sports psychologists work with athletes to get them mentally prepared and in the right frame of mind to compete.

For Martinez, who has been involved with national track and field for 25 years, this will be his first time working with the best athletes America has to offer. In the past, he has worked mostly with junior athletes.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Martinez said. "It's going to be the elite of the elite. In many ways, it's better than the Olympics, because the Olympics take three or four athletes per country per event. The World Cup takes only the best of the best."

Many of the athletes Martinez will be working with will qualify for the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, China.

How did he land this prestigious post?

"I think it was a little luck," he said. "And, hopefully, some trust and respect."

Success vs. winning

The games this summer, officially known as The International Association of Athletics Federations World Cup, will be Martinez' chance to do for the U.S. team what he has been doing successfully at Iowa State for 18 years -- contribute to athletic success.

Martinez said success and winning are two different things. In fact, Martinez rarely talks about winning.

"Winning isn't something you can control," he said. "Really, you can't even control the score. What you can control is performance.

"And the more you can control performance, the more likely you're going to be successful."

Martinez said he focuses on "the triangle" when working with students and athletes. The mind, the body and the will have to work together at the right time to get optimum performance, he said.

There are many ways the body might react to the pressure of athletic competition -- dry throat, increased pulse rate, change in body temperature, increase in adrenaline and others. Martinez' job is to use these physical reactions to increase performance.

Adrenaline is good for athletes, he said. It increases energy. But if the body doesn't use that extra energy properly, it can actually hurt performance.

"When a player gets too excited, and jumps offside, for instance, it's because the athlete is not harnessing the energy he or she has," Martinez said.

"If you're trying to work hard and not putting it all together," he said, "you're not increasing intensity. You're increasing tension."

Combining that intensity with confidence is the key. He said athletes must have the confidence to act instinctively. That is when they perform their best.

There are numerous ways Martinez tries to get the best out of a student-athlete. Getting the athlete to visualize him or herself competing and performing well is one technique he uses to focus that energy. Another is breathing deeply and relaxing. A third is to tighten and relax muscles, which causes the individual to release tension. Of all the tools Martinez uses, he said the most important is to stay adaptable. What works with one athlete may not help another, and even the same athlete may need different methods to focus the energy at different times.

Pilot program for student-athletes

Martinez currently is helping develop the Sports Psychology Services (SPS), a pilot program at Iowa State. Terry Mason, director of the Student Counseling Service, has been working to provide a psychology service for athletes since he arrived in 1993. Mason is pleased with the work Martinez has done with the program so far.

"He and the other counselors have worked very hard to make the program a success," Mason said.

One of the most successful athletes in amateur athletics history believes Martinez helped him a great deal.

"I spent a lot of time with Marty during my NCAA career and before the Olympics," said Cael Sanderson, four-time NCAA wrestling champion. "Marty is a tremendous asset to the Iowa State athletics department."

Martinez is slow to claim credit for the successes of the athletes he works with, no matter how much they insist that he should get some praise.

"I don't think the sports psychologist should get much credit for winning or much blame for losing," he said. "We should be in the background."

When it comes to working with athletes, however, Martinez is more assertive.

Mobile service

Getting his message to athletes requires that Martinez go where they are performing, studying and competing.

"The athletes have study table at Beyer Hall," he said. "When they are studying, they are in the right frame of mind to improve. So that's where I go to talk with them."

Other times, he may go to the wrestling room, the field, the pool, the track or anywhere Cyclones train and compete.

"Wherever the athlete wants to communicate," he said, "that's where I'll go."

If it is seems Martinez spends hours and hours working with student-athletes, he does. But he spends more than twice as much working with students.

Athletes and students have many of the same pressures -- expectations, time management, performance and others. Athletes also have to deal with issues other students may not, such as pain, injury and working on careers as both a student and as an athlete.

Student or athlete, the techniques Martinez uses are the same. And Mason stresses that SPS is not just for what happens on the field.

"SPS is designed to help provide a more comprehensive support of the student-athletes, in terms of enhancing performance as well as helping them out with the more traditional issues," Mason said.

Students and student-athletes have similar problems, according to Martinez. And solving those problems is similar.

"It's a matter of getting your natural energy working for you, rather than against you," he said.


"Winning isn't something you can control. Really, you can't even control the score. What you can control is performance. And the more you can control performance, the more likely you're going to be successful."

Marty Martinez