Kara Patterson is living through a cliché. A horrible, gut-wrenching, soul-searching cliché.
“It’s pretty much 99 percent mental,” said Patterson, a 25-year-old Vancouver native who happens to be America’s best javelin thrower.
Isn’t that what we always hear? That at the elite levels of athletics it’s more mental than physical? That the difference between winning and losing can be in your head?
It’s a cliché, sure. But there’s more than a grain of truth to it, especially when you’re talking about the miniscule difference between Olympians and champions and world-class competitors.
That is the level that Patterson, a Skyview High School graduate, has attained. And as she heads into the U.S. Track and Field Championships next week in Eugene, that is the level she is hoping to recapture.
“I feel amazing,” she said. “I’m in the best shape of my life. The thought that I’m healthy and just not throwing far is comforting.”
A year ago, Patterson broke the American record in her event while winning her third straight national title. In subsequent weeks, she recorded the second- and third-best throws in American history.
She finished the year ranked sixth in the world — a breakthrough season for somebody who represented the United States in the 2008 Olympics and the 2009 World Championships.
But this season has been a struggle, and it reached a nadir last week at a Diamond League meet in New York, where Patterson threw 40 feet short of her personal record.
“I kind of changed some things I didn’t need to change,” she said. “I lengthened my approach to build speed without as much effort. That just gave me time to think about things I shouldn’t be thinking about.
“That was one of the most memorable meets I’ve had in a long time — and not in a good way.”
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: Sometimes it is, indeed, all in your head.
That is a topic that has been circulating throughout the sports hemisphere for the past week, in the wake of LeBron James’ inexplicably passive performance in the NBA Finals. James’ psyche has been dissected and deconstructed and examined by all manner of armchair psychologists.
If LeBron can shrink from the challenge rather than rise to the moment, if he can crumble under the pressure, then we all are witnesses to a Ph.D.-level course in human psychology.
Patterson can relate.
“I’ve never really had this exact experience of coming off a great year and having these expectations,” said Patterson, who works with a sports psychologist at her training center in the San Diego area.
“We talked before this year about the expectations. The ones we talked about for me are internal, not external,” she said. “I figured out a long time ago that if people are watching your career, they want you to succeed.”
Throwing the javelin, of course, presents a different kind of pressure than playing the NBA Finals. But the level of focus is the same, and the internal pressure can be equivalent.
Those are the demons Patterson will be battling at Hayward Field, with a national title and a spot in the World Championships on the line.
“I need to bring my personality to the competition, be my relaxed self,” Patterson said. “But it’s hard to be relaxed and have fun when you’re worried about throwing poorly again.”
Be relaxed? Have fun? Those are the kinds of clichés Kara Patterson would love to embrace.
Greg Jayne is Sports editor of The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find his Facebook page by searching for “Greg Jayne – The Columbian.”