A master of the visualised art

Book of the Week: The Winning Mind - A guide to achieving success and overcoming failure By Steve Backley, with Ian Stafford. (Aurum Press. pounds 13.95)
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The Independent Online
Steve Backley has already competed in the 1996 Olympics. Months before the big event gets underway in Atlanta, Georgia he has woken up on the day of the final, eaten, warmed up and competed - in his mind.

On the evidence of this book, there can be few more thoughtful or self- aware characters around in athletics than the double European and Commonwealth javelin champion. If there were a Visualisation Olympics, he surely would be the gold medallist. As he prepares to challenge for the real Olympic javelin prize, Backley has taken time out to show how sports psychology has helped him maximise his performance in a career which has been rebuilt as bravely and painstakingly as Nick Faldo's golf swing.

In 1993, when he finished outside the medals in the world championships after a build-up which was all but ruined by injuries, Backley experienced what he describes as the most negative phase of his life. "The Steve Backley of 1990, the young man who was going to sweep up every gold medal going in world athletics, seemed like a distant memory," he recalled. Two years on, having retained his Commonwealth and European titles and picked up a world championship silver medal, he attributes his new trajectory largely to the process of mental analysis which he embarked upon in the winter of 1993-94.

Where this book makes its impact is in the moments when Backley convincingly roots such abstractions in specific experiences of competition. His description of last year's World Championship final, when he moved up to second place with his last throw, provides a fascinating insight into how it actually feels to be competing at the top level. It culminated in what Backley regards as his best performance yet in international athletics. When his original plan of taking the lead with a big opening throw went awry, he was able to maintain his nerve and adapt his technique in mid-competition. "In the space of fifteen minutes, in the time it takes for all the others to throw, I set myself a new range of goals," he wrote. "... I am sure that I would not have been able to have handled such a situation in the past."

Backley's attention to detail is such that he has taken what he considers to be his best throw - the one which set a world record in Stockholm seven years ago - and had the rhythm of his foot contact on the run-up digitised on to a tape. "I now know this series of beeps like I know my favourite pop record," he says.

Each chapter is broken down into story, theory and summary, and there are occasional uses of diagram, but as Backley acknowledges, this is not intended as a textbook guide. It is a personal, anecdotal account - occasionally repetitive, often illuminating.