3Qs: Art on ice

One of the most talked about com­pe­ti­tions at the Sochi Games has been figure skating, which will end on Thursday with the women’s free skate. Over the first week of com­pe­ti­tion, figure skaters proved to be a unique breed of Olympians, ath­letes who com­bined skill, strength, and show­man­ship like no other. Erin Sharaf, a clin­ical coor­di­nator and instructor in Northeastern’s physi­cian assis­tant pro­gram, knows a thing or two about the pres­sure facing the medal hope­fuls: She skated pro­fes­sion­ally with the Ice Capades for three years and with Hol­iday On Ice for its Euro­pean tour in 1989. Here, she reflects on the chal­lenges facing the figure skaters and her research on mindfulness—a key attribute of some of the world’s most suc­cessful athletes.

Erin Sharaf, clinical coordinator and instructor in Northeastern’s physician assistant program, skated professionally with the Ice Capades for three years and with Holiday On Ice for its European tour in 1989. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

What challenges do you expect these Olympic skaters will face?

The biggest challenge will be not letting their nerves get the best of them. They have been practicing the same exact routines for about a year and know how to deliver a perfect performance. But they have been waiting for this chance for a very long time and the pressure can be too much for some. If they can stay calm and focused, it will allow their bodies to tap into muscle memory. They have all done the jumps and spins hundreds of times and are at the peak of conditioning. Unless there is an injury, the challenges are mostly mental ones.

What will you be looking for in the ice skating competition?

All elite skaters have tremendous technical ability, so I look for passion, musicality, and the ability to connect with the audience. I also like learning a little bit about their personal stories. They may look pretty and delicate but they are tough competitors. One skater capturing attention already is 15-year-old Russian Julia Lipnitskaia. She is really tiny but incredibly talented and powerful for her age. She has a maturity and poise well beyond her years and brought the house down during the team event. She is definitely someone to watch.

When we wrote about your work in 2010, you mentioned you were developing a "mindfulness stress-reduction program" to empower people to better cope with stress, pain, and illness without using medication. Where does this project stand now and is there any connection to Olympic athletes?

I am currently teaching an elective at Northeastern called Mindfulness: Theory and Practice. I’m also facilitating a mindfulness-based integrative medicine group at a family practice in Wellesley, Mass. Mindfulness is absolutely important to Olympic athletes and I suspect that many of them practice it in some form. The most important thing they can do is get out of their own way and let their body do what it has been well trained to do. Mindfulness is a perfect way to work with the stress of such an important few minutes so that they can give their best performance when it counts. The Seattle Seahawks practiced mindfulness as a team in the year leading up to their Super Bowl championship.

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