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The year is 1982. You are Dexter Manley. You and your teammates listen to records and play Atari and wonder how to get around those mammoth 275-pound offensive linemen. If you're smart, you hold off on that third Big Mac. If you're ahead of your time, you do power stretching.

The year is 2002. You are Michael Strahan. You and your teammates listen to CDs and play Xbox and wonder how to get around those mammoth 375-pound linemen. If you're smart, you do power stretching. If you're ahead of your time, you hire a hypnotist.

Go ahead and laugh. Call Strahan Miss Cleo in cleats. Snicker when he explains how every night before a game, he falls asleep to a tape of a French guy telling him he's quick, powerful and young, and nothing can stop him. But you'd also have to chuckle at Strahan's then-career-high 15 sacks in his first year working with hypnotist Jean-Pierre Marquis.

Maurice Greene
Mo Greene is the world's fastest human -- for now.

And you'd also have to laugh at Eagles WR Freddie Mitchell, who saw a sports psychologist for two months while at a speed camp and knocked two-tenths of a second off his 40 time. He zoomed from midround risk to first-round lock. A rail-thin blond shrink named Trevor made Freddie a mint. Giggle at that.

Back in 1982, athletes rolled their eyes at teammates who did pool workouts or loaded up on carbs. Not many saw how weight training could make athletes quicker. No way anyone imagined that in 20 years, defensive ends would outweigh that era's offensive linemen -- and still get faster.

And now, in 2002, few see what a little mind-training can do.

Speed will soon be about much more than fast-twitch muscles and 40-yard times. It will be about using anything from brain monitors to high-tech goggles to prepare the mind the way weightlifting prepares the body. Free weights, protein shakes and strength coaches have revolutionized speed training and performance in the past two decades. But that revolution may pale compared to what's coming. "You'll have a generation of coaches who will be as conversant in cortex skills as in free throw follow-through," says Brad Hatfield, a University of Maryland kinesiology professor and sports psychology expert. "It'll happen."

Back in 1984, Hatfield asked several Navy riflemen to shoot at a target while he monitored their brain activity. He found that when the best shooters pulled the trigger, their left brain quieted and their right brain fired up. In all the inferior riflemen, left-brain activity remained fairly constant. They experienced little or no right-to-left brain transfer.

On the field, the left brain is like a D-back jamming you at the line of scrimmage. That's the "thinking" side of the brain, the side in charge of motor skills. According to sports psychologist Trevor Moawad, athletes actually say anywhere from 60 to 800 things to themselves in a game, and it's the left brain that does all the talking. Strahan has actually heard himself say things like "I feel sluggish" and "Are my feet under me?"

That self-talk takes up valuable time and slows the body. But when an athlete is calm and confident, the more creative right brain takes over, and the self-talk -- and hesitation -- subsides. Athletes call that being in The Zone, but really it's just left-brain/ right-brain teamwork. "The Zone," says psycho- physiologist Evan Brody, "is a thought-free state." Remember when Michael Jordan scored 35 points in one half to open the '92 Finals against Portland? After hitting his sixth three in 18 minutes, MJ turned to press row and shrugged as if to say, "Even I can't explain this." Right-brain transfer, Mike.

"It's a sign of superior skill," says Hatfield. "It's a neural expression of focus. It's blocking out what's irrelevant and using what is useful."

Blocking out what is irrelevant (the crowd, the pain, the distractions) and using what is useful (the little visual cues that save that split-second) makes the difference between hitting and missing a baseball, catching or dropping a pass. A lot of it comes from practice. But a lot more will eventually come from technology.

Say hello to the FTVS (Firearms Training Video System). The FBI uses it. A student puts on some funky headgear with a camera mounted right above his dominant eye. His trainer wears similar funky headgear, except the trainer sees what the student's camera records -- he sees what the student sees. Imagine an offensive coordinator and quarterback with the FTVS. Imagine the following conversation: "You're not looking at the linebacker's feet, which are screaming blitz. You didn't see that corner lay off. And you're not watching your receiver when his hips drop. When his hips drop, he's about to make his cut." Imagine a little virtual reality thrown in, so the quarterback can face different situations without leaving the locker room. With the FTVS (let's rename it the Speed Training Video System), athletes can practice how they see. Translation: quicker decisions, faster athletes.

Now say hello to the Vision in Action system, another piece of funky headgear that documents the eyeball's movement the way a Camcorder records a player's route. Joan Vickers, a U. of Calgary kinesiology professor, found that the best athletes actually lock their eyes on a ball or target in less time than the average athlete. So they have more time to set their bodies and react. That's why superstars like Barry Bonds and Venus Williams appear so stable and calm on their feet, even when a ball is approaching at 100 mph or more. "Elite athletes see things earlier," says Vickers, who developed the system. "Others get their information way too late, so they are jamming the motor system." So by throwing on these high-tech goggles, a wide receiver who needs to run routes over the middle will be able to tell when his focus is leaving the ball just before it -- and a head-hunting strong safety -- arrive.

But before the STVS and the Vision in Action system help remove all distractions, athletes have to learn to chill. Even the best athletes lose valuable time because they think too much, and that's why hypnosis could be as crucial in 2020 as nutritional supplements are today. "Indecisiveness can disrupt the timing of electron firing in the brain," says Brody, the psychophysiologist. "In the future, you're going to see feedback that trains athletes to stay calm under pressure."

That's what helped Freddie Mitchell. Just three months before draft day last year, Mitchell ran a shoddy 4.78 40 at a speed camp in Florida, a certain stake through his chance to reach the first round. Then IMG sports psychologists put together a tape of Mitchell running the 40 with "4.4" and "Freddie Mitchell: Future Hall of Famer" superimposed on the screen. Mitchell popped in the tape at the rookie Combine -- and went out and ran a 4.4.

Future Freddies will be able to sprinkle in a little technology. Athletes will watch game tape with headphones and electrodes. When they see themselves make a great play, they will feel a rush of testosterone, adrenaline and dopamine. That surge of positive feeling will trigger the brain monitor, which will send a distinct sound to the player's ears. The player will then associate that sound with excellence on the field. Then, right before a game (or perhaps during the game), the player will listen to that sound, get that surge -- and kick some butt.

The year is 2020. You are a defensive end in the NFL. You and your teammates produce your own 3D videos and play virtual reality Street Fighter and wonder how to get around those mammoth 475-pound offensive linemen. If you're smart, you hire a hypnotist. If you're ahead of your time? Hey, maybe you change your DNA.

But wait. Will athletes simply get faster and faster? Will games become so blisteringly seamless that fans will need 22nd-century technology just to watch? Maybe not. Athletes can revamp their muscles and their minds, but not their ACLs and their joints. Think of what might happen if every athlete were chiseled and lightning-quick and one step ahead of every play. Think of the collisions. Think of the concussions. Think of the danger. "We could get our athletes so finely tuned," says IMG speed expert Loren Seagrave, "that any little mistake might cause a major disaster. A 4.0 guy may not be able to survive."

What will it all mean in the year 2020? Weight training changed athletes as we know them, but mind training will change sports as we know them. Which brings us to ...

PREDICTION 1: The exoskeleton. Expect athletes to one day wear bodysuits made of a durable but extremely flexible polymer fiberglass. "It's like your own personal vehicle," says Seagrave. That will allow harder hits and fewer injuries. The bodysuits could even be fitted with miniparachutes to limit human speed the way governors slow down race cars. The only thing the exoskeleton can't do is cut down on knee wear and tear. Ergo ...

PREDICTION 2: Turf pellets. You think today's sneaks are cool? Just wait until shoe companies put microchips in their footwear that record data on speed, force and torque to help athletes run more safely and efficiently. Meanwhile, scientists are developing a black granular substance that can be sprinkled onto a grass field to hold cleats without clamping onto them the way AstroTurf does. But that may only be one change to the playing field ...

PREDICTION 3: Rules changes. Unless the parachute idea catches on, those who succeed Bud and Tags and David and Gary will have to make some tough decisions. Move the fences back? Go to Olympic-size rinks? Raise the rim? And what happens to the record books when 80-homer seasons are routine and everybody in the NBA can dunk from the foul line? Expect some beloved sports standards to go the way of the leather helmet. And while you're at it, that male-dominance thing ... ?

PREDICTION 4: Women first. Studies show that while the world records in the men's and women's 100-meter dashes have both lowered progressively over the past century, the women's slope has been steeper. So sooner or later, the fastest women may actually be as fast as the fastest men. In roles where size is not nearly as important as speed -- say, point guard or goalie -- we could see women competing with men.

Different gear, different fields, different rules, different athletes. If it all comes true by the year 2020, will it still feel like sports? "Change things too much," says Seagrave, "and you might as well call it something else."

This article appears in the May 27 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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