Utah gymnastics: Mind over matter

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There was a time when Utah gymnast Nina Kim didn't want to visit the team's sports psychologist because she feared people would think she was weird.

Now she believes she couldn't be the gymnast she is today without him. It's a thought shared by many of her teammates, who view mental workouts with psychologist Keith Henschen almost as essential to their success as the physical training sessions they do in their gym.

"After you see him, you feel so much better," Kim said. "He knows exactly how we feel and he has helped a lot of professional athletes."

Could Henschen be the missing link the second-ranked Utes need to end their long drought without a national title? No one is ruling out the possibility, particularly since the Utes have exhibited more mental toughness this season than in recent ones.

Mistakes aren't dwelled upon, one gymnast's miss doesn't affect others' performances, and confidence is as high as the double back flips the Utes perform.

"Everything adds up and he has helped us come together," senior Kristina Baskett said of Henschen. "He is a master at the mental aspect."

It's not like the Utes have just discovered where Henschen's office is. After all, Utah coach Greg Marsden was once a student of his and sends all of his freshmen to Henschen for a season's worth of mental training in which Henschen gives them exercises in imagery, concentration and pre-performance routines.

After their freshmen year, it's up to the gymnasts to decide if they want to continue with Henschen, who is a professor at the university and also consults with the Utah Jazz and United States Olympic Committee.

This season, the gymnasts are keeping him busy, as many are regular visitors to his office. Their interest in Henschen is an extension of the way the Utes are taking more interest in bettering themselves overall, Marsden said.

"What is different about this group is everyone is accepting personal responsibility and they're going to see Dr. Henschen not because I'm making them, but they're all looking for ways to make themselves better," he said.

So what exactly does Henschen do? He's careful not to give himself too much credit. "If I take credit for the wins, then I have to take credit for the losses, too," he pointed out.

Some might view sports psychology as a bunch of hocus pocus, but what Henschen does isn't mysterious at all. For instance, he helps them focus on the positives rather than the negatives by giving them specific skills to keep their attention, such as sticking dismounts on the landings of beam routines.

"The reason I do that is you want to take the mind out of the routine," he said. "They know the routine, so I want to give them a particular aspect to focus on at the end of the routine, so they can trust their training during it."

He also has a lot of discussions about pressure and how to deal with the amount that comes when 12,000-plus people are watching the routines in the Huntsman Center.

"I try to make sense of what they experience," he said. "The main things I see are confidence issues, anxiety issues and things like that. We figure out what is causing it and how to get over it."

In a sport where wins and losses come down to tenths of a point, the Utes hope such training will make the difference for them.

"We need to cover every aspect and be as mentally ready as physically ready for nationals," Baskett said. "When we get to nationals, we want to be on autopilot."


Arizona State at Utah

At the Huntsman Center

Start » 7 p.m.

Records » Utah 9-1; ASU 2-5

Live scoring » utahutes.com

About the Sun Devils » Coming off its best two meets of the season, scoring a 195.25 against Arizona and a 195.575 against Washington. … Beate Jones is the top all-arounder with a career high of 39.4. … Coached by John Spini (325-148 in 29th season).

About the Utes » Lead the series with ASU 58-16-1 and have won the last six. … Scored a season-high 197.525 in a win over Michigan (195.35) on Feb. 20. … Kristina Baskett is ranked No. 2 in the all-around (39.54 RQS).

Elsewhere » San Jose State competes at SUU tonight; Utah State hosts Pittsburgh at 7 p.m.; BYU competes at Boise State tonight and at Denver on Monday.

Mind control

The Utes believe their mental training has helped them be more consistent as a team. Here is a look at their scores over the season:

Jan. 9 196.175

Jan. 19 196.725

Jan. 23 196.85

Jan. 30 197.05

Feb. 6 196.85

Feb. 9 196.95

Feb. 13 196.525

Feb. 20 197.525