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Mental training boosts Olympic marksmen

| Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 12:13 a.m.
Psychologist Dan Vitchoff uses hypnotherapy to aid athletes, including former Junior Olympic shooter Michael Cates and Olympic gold medalist Vincent Hancock.

Some sports are more of a mind game than others.

“When shooters start out, it's about 90 percent physical,” U.S. Olympic team member Josh Richmond said. “When they become a competitive shooter, it becomes 90 or 95 percent mental.”

That's where Dan Vitchoff comes in. A hypnotherapist from the North Hills, he is the team psychologist for USA Shooting, the sport's national governing body. He began working with gold medalists Vince Hancock and Glenn Eller before and during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and has expanded his clientele for the 2012 games in London.

Richmond, however, has worked with Vitchoff for several years. In fact, he was Vitchoff's entrée into the world of shooting after they met at a charity function for hunters in Ligonier seven years ago. A U.S. Army sergeant, Richmond is competing in his first Olympics.

“He was somewhat intrigued with my profession, and I was somewhat intrigued with his,” said Richmond, the No. 1-ranked double trap shooter in the world and a gold-medal favorite in the event. “We took it from there and we never stopped working together.”

Vitchoff, 52, is founder of the Pennsylvania Hypnosis Center, where he helps patients deal with a host of afflictions and bad habits. Along the way he discovered that many of his visualization and relaxation techniques would be useful for athletes, including golfers, wrestlers, gymnasts and a few members of the Steelers (Vitchoff in most cases keeps his list confidential).

Shooters and golfers, Vitchoff said, have the most in common. “Similar mentalities,” he said. “It's all about how the brain causes your body to use the club or the shotgun. It's all about the mind. It's about showing them how to calm down and lower their pulse rate. Their brain needs to be completely focused and their body needs to be calm. Otherwise, adrenaline takes over and the body gets jerky.”

Vitchoff has devised what he calls his “33 Method” of mental training. He said it sends his athletes to the “mind gym,” where they can visualize, relieve physical pressures and achieve a state of deep relaxation.

“A lot more goes into this than closing your eyes and listening to me talk to you for 45 minutes,” he said.

Richmond, 26, who barely missed qualifying for the 2008 Olympics, said he found Vitchoff at the right time in his career.

“I was knocking on the door of being a serious world contender,” he said. “But I didn't have any medals on the world stage. I always came up short and I was running out of options. There was nothing different I could do. That's when Dan grabbed a hold of me and pretty much broke down my whole career and built it back up.”

How did he do it?

“Finding out who I am, what motivates me,” Richmond said. ”Mental imagery, breathing techniques. He used known practices of psychology and adapted them.”

Richmond overcame the disappointment of 2008 by winning the world championship in 2010 and sewing up his Olympic berth the following year. A member of the U.S. Marksmanship Unit, he deployed to Afghanistan last fall and for three months helped train Afghan soldiers in using weaponry. Richmond said his contact with Vitchoff was fairly steady through the first three or four years before tapering off, but he still enlists Vitchoff for maintaining his edge.

Hancock, who is seeking to win another gold medal, said, “I've been a big advocate for (Vitchoff). “His method does work, absolutely. If they can get on board with what he's coaching, it's gonna work.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@triblive.com or 412-320-7810

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