Peak Performance Techniques of the Russian and East German Olympic Victors by Grigori Raiport - Book Review
The XV Winter Olympics were dominated by the Soviets, who won 29 medals, 11 of which were gold, and the East Germans, who won 25 medals, of which 9 were gold. The US barely finished in the top-10, coming out in 9th place with 6 total medals, 2 of which were gold. The author of Red Gold attributes the secret to the success of the Soviets and East Germans in these Olympic games as well as many other past and future sporting contests to lie in the area of sports psychology. The author has personal experience of the specific techniques that were utilized by these elite athletes as he received his Ph.D. in sports psychology from the National Research Institute of Physical Culture in Moscow, Russia, where many of the techniques he describes in his book were utilized and studied. He describes the Institute as “a laboratory or think tank where the best Soviet minds are challenged to explore the realm of peak performance.” (xvi) He continues: “The Institute is really an elite think tank concerned with the single objective of creating winners.” (9) It was here where the author was able to work with some of the most elite USSR teams and athletes including the Soviet Olympic Team, the Dynamo Soccer Club, gymnast Ludmilla Turischeva and weightlifter Vassili Alexeev.
There is a variety and combination of science and philosophic inquiry utilized throughout the book. The main scientific principles Dr. Raiport illustrates are those that were developed, cultivated and utilized at the Institute. He compares the ideas and exercises that were used at the Institute with the philosophic teachings of Aristotle, Darwin, Einstein, Maslow, Nietzsche and Plato. Doing this makes the book and the exercises contained within very easy to read, relate to, and practice, especially for a western audience such as those in the US.
One of the main scientific principles and exercises that were described in the book is the Auto-Conditioning Training (ACT), which is similar to self-hypnosis in the west. Researchers at the East German Leipzig University observed that particular music such as baroque music cadences have the ability to synchronize body rhythms such as the heartbeat or brainwaves. As such, ACT sessions at the Institute were accompanied with music such as Bach or Vivaldi concertos. “At the Institute we never worked with our athletes without playing a suitable audio tape in the background to create a receptive mood.” (85) After the music was selected, the participant in the ACT session would lie down on their back and begin to relax all the muscles in their body. From there, the athlete would repeat a variety of phrases designed to create complete relaxation throughout their entire body. Some of these phrases include: “I am becoming quiet and relaxed. My arm is heavy and warm. My neck is relaxing. My back is relaxing. Everything is slowing down.” (87-89) Once a state of complete relaxation was achieved, preferably without falling asleep, the athlete was instructed to stay in that state for at least 10 minutes. Afterwards, the goal was for the athlete to feel quite refreshed and able to face any workout, competition or challenge that they had for the rest of the day.
The ability to determine the optimal anxiety level of an athlete before a major competition was another extremely relevant factor in the success of an athlete that was discussed in Red Gold. Dr. Alexeev from the Institute developed a simple way for an individual to determine their optimal level of anxiety before a major event or competition. The way this works is for the athlete to take their pulse three minutes before the event is set to begin. For a runner it would be right before the race starts, and for a basketball player, it would be right before the tip-off. After several trials, the pre-game pulse rate should be compared with resultant performance and then graphed. From there, it was quite common for individual athletes to find a specific pre-game pulse rate range that would produce the best performance for them. The goal from there would be for the athlete to either raise or lower their pulse rate to their peak performance pre-game pulse rate before the next contest and continuously monitor the results.
The author describes one empirical success of this method when he was working with markswoman Natasha Penkova at a skeet-shooting tournament in Rostov. At the beginning of the contest, she was off from her normal world-class level, so Dr. Raiport took her pulse. He realized that it was only 84, whereas her optimal rate for her peak performance was known to be around 130. Thus, he told her to run to a tree about a hundred meters away and back. It did not make sense to her at the time, but upon her return her pulse was up to 135. From there she went on to dominate the rest of the contest and eventually won, despite her earlier poor performance.
This book contains many ideas and exercises in the realm of sport psychology that seem to be slowly gaining traction here in the west. In 1992, only four years after this book was published, US News and World Report came out with a cover story entitled The Mental Edge, which described how scientists such as Dan Landers at Arizona State University were conducting studies showing how the ability to control various brainwaves and perform mental visualization exercises were able to improve athletic performance.
Another book that came out that contains many similarities to Red Gold was Mental Training for Peak Performance that was written by sports psychologist Dr. Steven Ungerleider in 1996 and updated in 2005. The main issues discussed in this book mirror Red Gold in a variety of ways including using affirmations, self-talk, breathing and meditation. There is also a discussion of using guided imagery, visualization and dreaming to see yourself achieving success, much in the same way that Red Gold describes how to identify with your winning self through disidentification, the primary discussion throughout Chapter 8 in Red Gold. “Disidentification is a kind of mental purge that leaves you free to discover the infinite possibilities at your disposal.” (107) This chapter continues by describing how Dr. Raiport utilized a visualization exercise to help gymnast Ludmilla Turischeva regain her confidence to win again by overcoming her fear of becoming too identified with her body and her success or failure as a gymnast, which was determined to be a major factor preventing her from reaching her full potential.
Overall, there is an abundance of vital information contained within Red Gold for any athlete wishing to utilize sport psychology in order to improve their performance. The information and exercises described in Red Gold have been used for decades by some of the best athletes in the world and have resulted in many gold medals and world championships won by athletes utilizing the methods Dr. Raiport describes. There are seven specific exercises that are described in detail at the end of the book that should be utilized by anyone wishing to improve their performance in sports, business or life in general. Much of the information provided is quite timeless and resonates quite well with the ancient Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucius traditions as well as popular philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, and Nietzsche. Nevertheless, it is the ability of Dr. Raiport to aggregate this information and combine it with his own personal sports psychology experience to write Red Gold in a manner that is easy to read and understand by even the youngest athletes to make this a must have book for anyone wanting to take their athletic performance to the next level.