WITH both the Commonwealth and Asian Games approaching, Hong Kong's elite athletes are reaching the peak of a meticulously planned training schedule to prepare them for the rigors of international competition. But even if all the physical training goes to plan, psychological barriers can wipe out years of preparation with devastating results. At the Hong Kong Sports Institute, Trisha Leahy knows all about the mental barriers that the territory's top athletes face. As the institute's resident sports psychologist, it is her job to aid and educate athletes in helping them maximise their performance potential - in other words, to have them mentally ready to go as hard as they can. A relatively new development, sports psychology is a support service designed to help athletes overcome and clear the mental cobwebs that may be clogging their mind and preventing them from taking that next step up the performance ladder. With a myriad problems to deal with - be it stress from home, conflicts with coaches, education difficulties, financial problems, anxiety, motivation, competition pressures or even flak from the media - Leahy said that athletes that can train their mind to behave at crunch time, often perform the best. ''It's based on the premise that you cannot separate your mind from your body,'' said the 36-year-old Leahy, herself a former volleyballer with the Irish national team. ''Whatever is going on in your head is affecting what is going on in your body and if your training only your body without training your mind then your just training half the picture. ''People are realising that you can't talk about a body and a mind - it's really a body-mind - it's continual, there's no separation. It's the same with medicine, you can't leave the mind out of the healing process or the healing will not take place as efficiently.'' With 90 per cent of today's top international athletes dealing with sports psychologists, Leahy said being mentally prepared was just as important as being physically ready for competition. She considers sports psychology just another arm of the sports sciences services, working in tandem with bio-chemistry, bio-mechanics and nutrition. If an athlete comes into her office depressed, moody or unhappy, Leahy has to a look at the factors. Are they over-training, are they eating enough, is there a communication problem with the coach? And then talk to the other departments and assess the problems. Working in conjunction with the coaches is a must if an athlete is to excel. ''When I'm trying to help an athlete change a reaction to a particular incident, the coach is also playing a role. It is important that we talk about the athlete and without their [coaches] co-operation, I'm effectively wasting my time.'' A native of Limerick, Ireland, Leahy graduated from the University of Cork with a Bachelors degree in applied psychology. She came to Hong Kong eight years ago to get a Masters degree in comparative Asian studies from Hong Kong University. A consummate student, Leahy is finishing a Masters in psychology at the Chinese University. Leahy, who has been in her position at the institute for 18 months, said she got into the growing field of sports psychology simply because of her love for sport. ''I'm very interested in sports and health psychology because I've been working in the fitness field for so long - not just teaching fitness classes but also as an educator teaching instructors. I found out more and more that I was interested in the psychological aspect of why people perform and the connection between the mind and the body in this whole area. No one can say for sure which field of sports psychology - physical educators specialising in psychology as related to sport and psychologists specialising in sport - is most effective. Leahy said that athletes have been the benefactors and few have dismissed the importance of sports science. ''There are one or two athletes performing very well at world-class level and not using a sports psychologist and they sorted it out for themselves and that's wonderful,'' said Leahy. ''They are not saying it is bunk, but rather they are saying 'I know what I'm doing and the way I'm working works for me. But on the other hand, maybe I can get a couple of inches higher or a couple of seconds faster'. And they will come in and say 'this is what I'm doing right now, is there anything in the way that I'm thinking or approaching it that may be limiting me?' And then we look at how to take away these limits and try to maximise their potential.'' Leahy has a soft spot for top athletes who have to endure a microscopic existence in the media spotlight. In sport, the situation seems to be that if you fail, you fail very publicly and the public has no mercy. Leahy feels that the media needs to be more aware of the role they play and to stop being so careless in their coverage and treatment of athletes. ''I heard a radio announcer describe a top 110-metre hurdler's performance at the Goodwill Games as 'less than impressive' and I thought what an outrageous thing to say as probably only two or three people in the world can go faster. That kind of comment can really damage your self-image and you begin to think 'I'm no good as a person as three people are better than me at what I do'. It's really upsetting because they [athletes] care so much and I think they deserve more respect than what society and the press is giving them. With my athletes, the press can be a major source of stress.'' Leahy said that the months of primary prevention she has taken with the institute athletes over the past six months would help to eliminate mental mistakes in the upcoming Games. ''I'm not giving the athletes treatment to stop problems, I'm teaching them skills to prevent problems from recurring so that you have got a balanced, centred human being who can maximise their potential. It's difficult to maximise your potential if you are caught up with a lot of internal wrangling going on in your mind,'' she said.