By J. Brady McColloughÂ /Â Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LONDON -- The secret to USA Shooting's success at the Olympics sat in a small office in Pittsburgh's North Hills two weeks ago, awaiting transport across the pond.
The object in question would be picked up just off Perry Highway in Warrendale, lifted into a large crate and eventually shuffled through customs in the United Kingdom.
There, Dan Vitchoff, thousands of miles away from the Pennsylvania Hypnosis Center where he spends most of his waking hours, would be ready to receive his creation and begin putting it to good use.
To Vitchoff's relief, the "Mind Gym" made it safe and sound. What a journey it has been for him and his hulking black leather chair. There was Beijing, where in 2008 Vitchoff's mental training methods were used by Team USA shooters Glenn Eller and Vincent Hancock, who won gold medals. Then there were the athletes from other sports who needed Vitchoff's help cleaning out their cluttered minds. Then came the hundreds of non-athletes who couldn't stop smoking or overeating.
There is just one goal now: to get his shooters in a perfectly calm state of being throughout their stay in London so they'll have no distractions standing in the way of their pursuit of gold when they arrive at the Royal Artillery Barracks.
"I'd do anything for these people," Vitchoff said.
"My phone is on 24 hours a day. Those guys know I have no limit."
When called upon, Vitchoff, 52, will sometimes just perform the duties of a loyal friend. He'll take them out to eat, he'll bring them a protein shake in the morning, he'll make sure they're getting all the vitamins they need and, most important, he'll listen to them. But other times, the shooters will want a date with Vitchoff and the Mind Gym.
For those who swear by it, the Mind Gym is a magical apparatus. Clients can experience a hypnotic state without having to hear "You are getting very sleepy" or having a pocket watch swung in front of their eyes or, once entranced, being asked to move around like a monkey.
Now, that doesn't mean the Mind Gym is easy to comprehend, so allow Vitchoff to explain.
First, he will recline a patient so that he or she is laying back with their spine fully supported.
"Our brain is always balancing us," Vitchoff said. "There's a mechanism there that uses these muscle groups to balance you. As soon as it registers that is safe, it goes 'Ahhh.' It just literally takes a breath."
Next, he will begin using what he calls the "33 method." He will talk to the client, stating the same thought in three tones -- for those who respond better to visual, auditory or tactile cues.
"You're taking into consideration in a generic form everybody's learning style," Vitchoff said.
"I'll say it in three different tones. Like, 'It's a pretty relaxing chair, isn't it?' Or 'That is a relaxing chair.' Or 'You're going to feel really relaxed.' So I asked a question, I made a statement, then I made a benign statement."
Then Vitchoff will put headphones on the client and play soothing, synthesizing tones that he has found can trigger a relaxed, deep focus.
The Mind Gym has a computer hooked up to it so that clients can decide what specific program they want to complete during a session. Some of the options are "program confidence while you sleep," "relax and recharge" and "beginning of a champion's day."
That Vitchoff has become an authority on inducing focus is ironic. Growing up on a farm in California, Pa., he was a child who seemed like he should have been brilliant but, for some reason, wasn't.
"I was one of those [attention deficit disorder] kids," Vitchoff said.
"I always felt I could do something if I just put my mind to it. It was quite difficult having trouble reading and not doing well on tests. It wasn't good for self-esteem. It was embarrassing to me."
Vitchoff attended Point Park University where he found himself still searching for direction. When he took a psychology class called "Theories of Personalities," taught by Professor Robert Fessler, he was introduced to hypnosis.
"He changed my life," Vitchoff said. "I calmed down for one time in my life and I could focus and concentrate and relax. My mind slowed down. It was amazing."
Vitchoff began to study hypnosis and continued to use the method to help himself. He earned a master's degree in education and became a certified hypnotherapist. He started small with clients who wanted to stop smoking or lose weight, and he built his reputation from there.
Through the years, Vitchoff said, he has worked with numerous professional golfers, NFL place-kickers, and other athletes who have developed a mental block.
Vitchoff got involved with USA Shooting through a man whom he helped stop smoking. He is now on contract with the organization and spends much of the year at Fort Benning in Georgia, where many of the shooters work as instructors for the U.S. Army.
One of those shooters is Josh Richmond, a native of Hillsgrove, Pa. He is a favorite in Thursday's double trap competition, and he credits much of his success to his mental training with Vitchoff.
"Josh is more relaxed," said Mike Richmond, Josh's father.
"He's more confident. When he gets to the range, he knows what he has to do, and he just goes out and does it. It's almost like he flips a switch."
Mike knows the feeling. For the last year, he has been working with Vitchoff doing sessions in the Mind Gym with the goal of losing weight. He started at 305 pounds and was down to 259 when he left for London.
A telling moment for Mike came Monday night at a USA Shooting gathering.
"They had cheeseburgers and french fries, and I walked right past them to the salad bar," Mike said.
Josh Richmond has worked his whole life for Thursday's event. The pressure could be overwhelming, but Mike doesn't expect his son will feel much of it because of his preparation with Vitchoff.
Vitchoff knows that he missed some opportunities in his life before he found hypnosis. But he's making up for it now.
"I would have never dreamed that I would be doing this," Vitchoff said. "This is my passion."