Performance

Article

I saw a picture doing the rounds on Twitter this week of a U15 match for Ajax vs. Sparta Rotterdam where one boy looks almost fully developed and the other boy doesn’t. It got me thinking about the Relative Age Effect (RAE), this is the phenomenon that sees children born close to the cut-off periods […]

I saw a picture doing the rounds on Twitter this week of a U15 match for Ajax vs. Sparta Rotterdam where one boy looks almost fully developed and the other boy doesn’t. It got me thinking about the Relative Age Effect (RAE), this is the phenomenon that sees children born close to the cut-off periods for their age groups have an advantage in their sporting environments (the same can be true academically, too). 

To help us study the RAE further the year is broken down into four quartiles:  

  1. Q1 = Jan-March birthdays
  2. Q2 = April – June birthdays
  3. Q3 = July – September birthdays
  4. Q4 = October-December birthdays

(note: these quartiles may slightly change depending on country)

So why is this important? 

Focusing on sports, those born in Q1 have a head start on their counterparts who are born later in the year, in fact they may experience the benefits of cognitive, physical and emotional advantages (Cobley, Baker, Wattie, & McKenna, 2009a) which can benefit them in their particular sport – think of the kid who has bigger and faster than everyone when you were younger, or for those who are coaching, I’m sure you’ve experienced being “wow’d” at your clubs trials or training sessions by a child who seemed to stand out due to their advanced physical capabilities, this might have even skewed your impression of them and the others on the field. 

In 2017, an article in the Irish Examiner (Shannon, 2015) contained the details of the birth dates of the Irish national football team to play Denmark. 11 out of 23 (48%) of the players were born in Q1, 7 (30%) were born in Q2, 5 (22%) were born in Q3 and 0 were born in Q4. It’s not limited to football however, RAE’s have been found in Ice hockey, baseball, basketball, netball and cricket. Interestingly, a reverse RAE can occur and has been found in gymnastics where younger athletes seem to have the advantage (Maffulli, King, & Helms, 1994)  

Why does it happen?

If you think of the traditional methods of talent spotting or talent identification, when looking at players at a particular age group one’s eyes would be drawn to the players who are bigger and faster than their peers. If you then think of a one-off trial day, it doesn’t always give the younger players a chance to make a lasting impression. It’s not uncommon for the Q1 kids to be labelled the “most talented” in their age group, and for coaches or clubs that prioritise the outcome (“win-first” mentality) over the overall development of all players this will likely continue to happen at youth level. But what happens when these players cannot get by with their physical ability anymore? 

What about the Q4 athletes?

The following extract shows both sides to the RAE from the same football club: 

“From my experience in football, English Premier League football academy 2010 had 150 boys of which 26 were born in the second, third and fourth quarter. That meant 124 were born in the first quarter of the year. 10 players were on loan that year; all ten were from the fourth quarter. Those boys on loan were 18, 19 and 20. The academy is up to 18, so the best players that kept on by English Premier League football academy were all from the fourth quarter.” (Andronikos et al., 2015)

There was a staggering amount (124/150) of boys in the academy that were born in Q1, but the players who have progressed out of the academy were all from Q4. The presence of RAEs can actually prove to be useful for those Q4 athletes; there is a line of thinking that proposes that the younger, smaller players have to become problem solvers, they have adversity to deal with in their younger athletic careers and this can aid the development of their psychological skills (Andronikos et al., 2015). There is a potential danger that dropout rates due to RAEs (think of the kids who do not enjoy sports because they do not get the attention they need to develop!),and this in turn means a reduction in talent pools in certain sports in those age groups in the future. 

Ways around the Relative Age Effect

Research has shown that those born in Q1 do have advantages in certain (mainly strength-based sports such as football, basketball, rugby etc.) but please don’t go planning your child’s birth so they can be born in Q1! There are also sports that this does not apply to as much, think of weight categories in wrestling and martial arts, think of those finer/softer skills such as table tennis. Extended age categories (2-year age groups) have been found to work in some sports as well as dividing by “skills points” in skiing. 

Educating those tasked with identifying the talent is important here, talent identification experts were interviewed and raised concerns about coaches they knew that would opt for children who would contribute to their team winning straight away rather than those who may show more promise in the long term, scouts were also said to fall victim to the RAE when watching games and recommending players (Adronikos et al., 2015). 

It’s clear that a focus on long-term development will help to include those “late-developers” and give them more opportunity to showcase their skills, I think clubs have a duty to inform and educate parents on this as well so they are on board with the vision for youth development. It’s easy to forget the bigger picture and place too much emphasis on winning nowand although it can be important, it can also have a negative effect on player development as playing time may be distorted. As well as focusing on skill development instead of results, it has also been proposed that age groups get split into 1stand 2ndhalf of the year or even into 4, something which might be hard to implement but it’s an interesting idea. 

If you are a coach, or involved with a club, or sports organisation then you may already know about the RAE. If not, I hope that this goes some way in raising the awareness around this phenomenon and you can start to notice it and maybe it can even change the way you try to develop players. The phrase I have come across before is that there is talent that “shouts” and talent that “whispers”,I’m pretty sure that you have, or will come across both “types” of talent but it’s vital that both are nurtured and provided with the right environment to thrive.

Article

Sports competition has the ability to continually draw large amounts of spectators. A reason because of this is due to the multiple situations in which no one foresees occurring. The unpredictability of sports can leave fans nervously biting their figure nails, as nothing is certain. Take for example just in the year 2019. In the […]

Sports competition has the ability to continually draw large amounts of spectators. A reason because of this is due to the multiple situations in which no one foresees occurring. The unpredictability of sports can leave fans nervously biting their figure nails, as nothing is certain. Take for example just in the year 2019. In the 3rd round of the F.A Cup, Leicester FC (Premier League) lost to Newport FC (League two); a team 74 places below them. Or in the sport of basketball, where the Milwaukee Bucks (1st) lost to the Phoenix Suns (30th). Or in the sport of tennis, where Serena Williams lost to Karolina Pliskova. These, at first glance, looked like an easy victory for Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. However, these athletes and teams were unable to produce the performance necessary for victory. Unforeseen situations not only impact the final results of competition but also the individual performance during competition (Doron & Bourbousson, 2017). The unique thing about these situations, however, is that its performance impact is heavily dependent on the perception the athlete has of the situation. Within this article, an exploration of this perception and these situations will be investigated. Practical suggestions will also be made of the psychological skills and techniques which could positively impact this perception and subsequently performance.

Stressors

Each sport, team and individual athlete has a unique set of demands. These demands are environmental (weather, crowd noise), opposition (skill level, team strategy) and self-demands (self-expectations) (Fletcher, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Neil, 2012). How these demands impact the performance of the athlete is dependent on their perception. When the athlete perceives a situation to be harmful to their performance, exceeding their physical and psychological capabilities, this is referred to as a stressor (Nicholls, Levy, Grice, & Polman, 2009). An athlete, for example, could perceive defending against a faster opponent as a stressor, as they believe the opposition demands exceed their performance capabilities. Stressors can also be experienced team wise (team stressor). For example, a player receiving a red card could be a stressor, as the team may collectively perceive this hole in their formation to exceed their performance capabilities.

A negative perception of a stressor can negatively impact the mental and physical skills the athlete is able to use during this situation; subsequently effecting their overall performance negatively (Neil, Hanton, Mellalieu, & Fletcher, 2011, Nicholls et al., 2009). This is because by negatively perceiving a stressor, an athletes’ focus is narrowed to only that stressor experienced, instead of focusing on the performance necessary for victory (Anshel et al., 2001; Campbell & Jones, 2002). For example, only focusing on the faster players’ speed when they have the ball or only focusing on the hole in the team’s formation. This perception about unforeseen situations could not only negatively affect performance, but could also lead to results experienced by Leicester FC, Milwaukee Bucks and Serena Williams. If however, these stressors are perceived differently, more positively, what impact could this have on the athlete’s performance?

A positive perception of a stressor means that the individual views the situation as a challenge rather than harmful to their performance. This does not eliminate or enable the athlete to avoid stressors as these situations and demands are inherited within their sport. This mental switch however, opens the possibility of finding solutions to the stressor experienced (Folkman, 2013; Lazarus & Folkman, 1987). This is evident, for example in the sport of basketball, wherein the 2016 NBA finals the Golden State Warriors faced off against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was expected that the Golden State Warriors would win after having just set NBA history with the most regular-season victories. This looked to be the case as they were winning the series 3-1. The Cavaliers however, performed in a way that suggests they viewed the situation as a challenge. They made multiple adjustments to their team offensively and defensively and were able to win 3 games in a row and be crowned 2016 NBA Champions.

It is clear that a negative perception of a stressor could have a negative impact on performance and the opposite effect could occur with a positive perception. Because of this, implementing psychological skills would be useful to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors which occur. This is enabled due to these skills and techniques drawing the athletes focus to a problem solving (rather than problem focused) mind state; increasing the options available for the athlete to successfully cope with the stressor and perform at an optimal level (Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2009). These sport psychological skills and techniques can be used when experiencing both individual and team stressors.

Psychological Skills and Techniques

For individual stressors, the technique self-talk could be used to promote a positive perception of stressors. Self-talk is the external and internal dialog a person has with themselves. The underlining principle is that what a person says to themselves impacts how they behave (Hardy, 2006). This suggests then that by initiating the desired thought, the desired action is taken (Hardy, Hall, & Alexander, 2001). There are multiple types of self-talk, however the one which could be beneficial when experiencing stressors would be goal-directed self-talk. Goal-directed self-talk is used to make progress on a task or solve a problem (Latinjak, Font-Lladó, Zourbanos, & Hatzigeorgiadis, 2016). This could be used by creating a cue word which is unique to the individual and their sport. It would also allow them to focus on what is required to perform to the level they can (Hardy, Gammage, & Hall, 2001). For example, if a tennis players’ stressor is their opponent’s defence, the potential goal-directed self-talk cue word could be “target”. This cue word places the focus on the position in which the athlete wants to put the ball and ways to execute this; scoring the point. This cue word therefore, switches the athlete’s perception to viewing the situation as a challenge and attempt to find solutions to cope with the current stressor.

 

For team stressors, the psychological skill team cohesion could be used for the team to promote a positive perception of a stressor. Team cohesion is the process of keeping a group together and in pursuit of a common objective (Carron, Bray, & Eys, 2002; Kleinert et al., 2012). Similar to self-talk, by the team drawing their focus to the task at hand (referred to as task cohesion), the desired action is more likely to occur. This could be conducted through effective team communication, team leadership and understanding your role within the team. With these techniques integrated within the team, when stressors arise, a structure would be in place to enable everyone to understand what they individual need to do within the team, enabling the collective group to focus on finding solutions to stressors experienced.

Conclusion

In conclusion, unforeseen situations always occur within sports. This is one of the many reasons why sports fans enjoy sports as nothing is certain. These unforeseen situations are referred to as stressors and every athlete experiences this. As stressors cannot be entirely removed, the focus within sport psychology has been placed on the perception the athlete has of these stressors. A negative perception of these stressors can have a negative impact on the athlete’s performance. However, psychological skills and techniques can be implemented to enable athletes to have a positive perception of stressors. With this perception, athletes can focus on solving the issue at hand, putting them in the best position to perform at their optimal level.

Article

Sports can be such a relentless, ever-changing, fast-paced, unpredictable environment which can have a huge impact on our performance in a successful or unsuccessful way. How much of this can we control or influence? What factors can’t we control? How much control should we strive for? Should we let things be as they are? Firstly […]

Sports can be such a relentless, ever-changing, fast-paced, unpredictable environment which can have a huge impact on our performance in a successful or unsuccessful way.

How much of this can we control or influence? What factors can’t we control? How much control should we strive for? Should we let things be as they are?

Firstly let’s look at the uncontrollable variables, this is where the athlete has no control over or cannot influence the outcome in their favour.  Such variables are, the weather condition, opposition team, the venue, fans, how much time left in the game or to some extent the referee or umpire. The list of things not in our control are endless.

Let’s focus on what we can control, which is ‘US’ more specially our Attention and our Focus.  Attentional control relates to how an athlete can focus awareness onto the environmental stimuli that are most relevant during the task. The process of attending selectively to the most important cues involve concentration.

Nideffer’s Attentional model is a great start to build athlete awareness and understanding. Nideffer’s approach to attention, can be broken down into two dimensions.

Firstly, width. Here there are two options, broad or narrow. Broad takes in a great deal of information from the environment. Narrow is the opposite, one or two stimuli we focus and select. This dimension shows the change in the amount of information to be processed.

Secondly, direction, here is where the attention is focussed, inwards and onto the psychological state or outwards onto the environment.

These dimensions each occur on overlapping continuums, creating four “quadrants” of attentional focus.

The important piece about this model, you might be thinking what is best? Where do I need to be? At any given point in time there might be places for all of them. So instead of thinking one is right and one is wrong. It’s becoming self-aware, where do I need to be in this moment. What’s value for me right now, can I select and move through the different quadrants I need to be when I need to be there.  So coming back to when we say control the controllable, we can control where we are and recognise, right now I might be broad-external but I need to switch to internal-narrow. Then I can take the time, come back to my breath and be where I need to be. Attention and concentration in sport must be adjustable, like a zoom lens on a camera.

Maintaining concentration is critical to performing your best, yet figuring out what to focus on and maintaining the correct attentional focus during performance is not easy. This is where Nideffer’s model can come in handy.

Below are additional exercises that may be helpful in improving one’s ability to concentrate during competition.

  • Becoming self-aware of the controllable’s vs. uncontrollable’s – make two lists. One list should be the controllable’s, which are those factors athletes can do something about. The other list should be the uncontrollable’s, which are the elements of performance athletes cannot do anything about.
  • Create a “What if” plan, this can help prepare you for any obstacles or challenges you may encounter in the ever-changing, fast-paced, unpredictable environment. Address the things you really fear in the game. Just list them all. Then address them one by one, asking yourself, is it controllable or not and if it happens I will….
  • Concentration cues, highlight and develop a list of correct cues athletes should be focussing on when on and off the ball. Use trigger words or short phrases to reinforce specific concentration cues for a task or skill i.e “drop back” or “bend from your hips”.
  • Incorporate simulation pressure games or drills to train positive responses to adversity (e.g. Use time pressure, 1-0 down or bad officiating decisions etc.).

Remember athletes who can focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions enjoys the greatest possibility of success. So invest your time and energy into things you can control such as attention. You are never going to be in complete control of everything so why not accept the unpredictability and enjoy what you can control.

Article

When athletes talk about the progress that they make, their achievements, their celebrations or how they have overcome challenges and setbacks they often talk about the importance of the support that they had around them through the journey. Briton Goldie Sayers will belatedly receive her 2008 Olympic javelin bronze medal in front of a home […]

When athletes talk about the progress that they make, their achievements, their celebrations or how they have overcome challenges and setbacks they often talk about the importance of the support that they had around them through the journey.

Briton Goldie Sayers will belatedly receive her 2008 Olympic javelin bronze medal in front of a home crowd at next month’s Muller Anniversary Games.
“It means so much to me to be able to share this special moment in front of friends, family, coaches and teachers who all supported me for so many years during my athletics career.” (BBC Sport)

What is social support?
“An exchange of resources between at least two individuals perceived by the provider or recipient to be intended to enhance the wellbeing of the recipient” (Shumaker & Brownell, 1984, p.13).

Support provided from coaches, parents and peers in sport has been identified as an important resource for athletes. The quality and type of social support an athlete perceives and receives has been linked with (Bianco & Eklund, 2001; Holt & Hoar, 2006; Rees, 2007):
• recovery from injury,
• youth sport participation,
• burnout,
• self-confidence,
• performance

Structural support – the extent to which a recipient is connected within a social network, like the number of social ties or how integrated a person is within his or her social network. Family relationships, friends, and membership in clubs and organisations contribute to social integration (Bianco & Eklund, 2001)

Functional support – looks at the specific functions that members in this social network can provide, such as emotional, educational and tangible support. Data suggests that emotional support may play a more significant role in protecting individuals from the deleterious effects of stress than structural means of support, such as social involvement or activity (Lakey, 2010).

A closer look at types of support…
Emotional support –
• Individuals such as family, friends, and significant others provide emotional support such as listening and advising.
• They help you cope with the frustrations and negative emotions experienced in sport.
Educational Support
• Some individuals can help you cope with injury by educating young athletes about the specific injury and the rehabilitation process.
• Coaches and teammates can provide educational support by informing you of important team matters.
• Educational support can also be particularly important for young athletes as they go through a lot of learning to develop and progress within their respective sport environment
Tangible Support
• This social support provides you with the day-to-day assistance within sport.
• This may be in the form of lifts to and from training and matches.
• Financial support to participate in the respective sport

Final thoughts…
Have you ever thought about the support network you have around you? Or the support that you provide for others? Many young athletes may not appreciate their support network initially, but they will recognise the value of the support around them as they gain more experience and are encouraged to become more independent in various environments.

Article

Sports performance at a high level often boils down to the last moments of competition to dictate a winner. A penalty shootout to advance to the final, a golf putt to claim that first trophy, scoring those two basketball free throws to ice the game. In these scenarios, although elite athletes practice the correct technique […]

Sports performance at a high level often boils down to the last moments of competition to dictate a winner. A penalty shootout to advance to the final, a golf putt to claim that first trophy, scoring those two basketball free throws to ice the game. In these scenarios, although elite athletes practice the correct technique over and over again, the pressure and importance of the situation can inhibit the athlete from executing the skill properly when the time arises (Otten, 2009). This is often seen in situations when the athlete has to perform a stationary shot. For example a basketball free throw, a golf putt, a football penalty kick, Archery and Darts. But why? Why does choking occur in these situations and how can athletes positively change their results? In this article, this concept of stationary shooting and pressure is discussed. An evaluation of why there is a difference between stationary performances in training and in competition will be explained and how individuals can better prepare for these pressurised situations.

There is a preconceived notion within sports that stationary shooting success should be identical to the success experienced within competition. This is because these skills are practised the exact same way in training as required in competition, so you would think nothing should change in competition. With no oppositional threat in these situations, this can be perceived to be the case, however chocking in these scenarios still occur (Masters & Maxwell, 2008). For example, in the community shield clash between Liverpool and Manchester City, both sides played exceptional. Man City was dominant in the first half. However, in the second half, Liverpool took back the momentum and clawed their way back into the game, with after 90 minutes the score being 1-1. It went to penalties where everyone handled the pressure well except one player, Georginio Wijnaldum, who missed his penalty, costing Liverpool the match and the trophy.

Stationary shooting tasks in any sport require intricate body movements to produce the correct technique. Often known as the game within the game, these skills place a high physical demand on the athlete, suggesting mastery of this skill is required for it to be successfully performed consistently. From developing skills to mastery, as skill level increases, the amount of attention which needs to be placed on the skill decreases (Taylor & Ivry, 2012).

When under pressure, these same mastered skills could be executed poorly, by the athlete reinvesting conscious focus into the execution of the skill (Jackson, Ashford, & Norsworthey, 2006). For example, a golfer trying to consciously control their feet positioning, grip and position of the putter and bodily movement of the golf stroke, instead of automatically performing this. By athletes consciously trying to control already mastered skills, it slows down and disrupts the processes in which the skill can be executed, causing a decrease in performance (Wulf, Shea, & Park, 2001). Another way this poor execution could occur is through athletes focusing on threatening stimuli. Staring into the crowd before taking that game-tying free throw, or listening and dwelling on the comments made by the opposing player before picking up your bow and arrow for your shot. By focusing on these threatening stimuli, anxiety can increase and disrupt the fluidity of movement necessary to successfully perform the skill. Not only have we seen this countless amount of times in competition, but previous research has also confirmed this in a basketball free throw and golf putting shooting tasks (Wilson, Vine, & Wood, 2009).

This is why stationary shooting success differs between training and competition. Pressure and how the athlete handles it. Handle this negatively and you’ll probably see that athlete on the front page of the newspapers the next day detailing his ‘terrible’ performance. Handle this positively and they would be celebrated for years to come. This was the case in world Paralympics championship, where Eric Bennett was down 5-1. with the end drawing near, he was able to handle the pressure and provide an amazing comeback victory; becoming a popular story within the archery community.

Pressure within these scenarios is always going to be there, however, both reasons highlighted to why pressure negatively affects athletes have one prevailing theme; focus. Where your focus goes, your technique flows. By negatively placing your focus on a stimulus, poor performance is more likely to occur. On the other hand, by positively steering this focus, positive actions are more likely to occur. Here are some recommendations for athletes and coaches of how to positively steer focus in these situations.

Recommendations

Coaches who are teaching athletes stationary shooting techniques and helping athletes get this technique to an elite level. By only instructing athletes to repeat the technique over again, this may help in mastering the technique, but this will not help when athletes have to perform the technique in pressured situations. By applying different forms of practise in training sessions, this would help in both mastering the skill and success in pressured situations. Suggested through positive results in previous research, examples of these include filming athletes during practise, facilitating pressure-induced simulations and using ‘Quiet eye’ (Beilock, Wierenga, & Carr, 2002; Vine & Wilson, 2010). Quiet eye refers to a pause an athlete makes just before they initiate the skilled movement, where their eyes are focused on the target. These suggestions normalise the competitive environment for the athlete, enabling them to perform more comfortably and accurately during those high pressured moments (Davids, Araújo, Shuttleworth, & Button, 2003).

For athletes who have already learned their stationary shooting technique but are failing to successfully execute this, psychological skills can be used to help in these pressured situations. Suggested through positive research results (Wulf & Su, 2007; Zachry, Wulf, Mercer, & Bezodis, 2005), this could be done by adopting an external focus of attention. An external focus (as opposed to an internal focus) directs the athletes’ attention away from the basic steps of the skill, enabling a smooth execution of the skill. This can be seen for example if an athlete focuses on the back of the basketball rim when performing a free throw or by an athlete focusing on the hole when putting in golf. Adopting an external focus goes hand in hand with the technique quiet eye as this technique places an external focus of attention on the task (Vine & Wilson, 2011). This is a psychological technique which athletes of all abilities can use. Also remember, with anything, the more you use it, the more comfortable and confident you will become in using it in pressured situations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, competitions frequently come down to making that last free throw, scoring that penalty, or scoring that putt to win the game. This can pressure the athlete, raising the difficulty of a skill which has been performed time after time; despite the skill not having to be altered when in competition. If not handled properly, this can resort in the athlete chocking. However research has found multiple techniques which could aid in these scenarios, presenting an efficient strategy to successfully perform the skill whilst under pressure. Although results of using these techniques vary depending on the athlete and sport, the application of these techniques increases the likelihood of performance success. Not only that, but it reduces the likelihood of seeing your face on the front page of tomorrows newspaper in a negative light so make sure you focus. Where you focus goes your technique flows.

Article

When athletes make adjustments, four factors come into play.  Coaches, along with the athletes should assess these factors and make the appropriate changes to their routines. Competence  Specific skills are needed in sports.  Fundamental practice, spaced repetition, and teaching and learning of these specific skills are needed to take place.  Players must be able to […]

When athletes make adjustments, four factors come into play.  Coaches, along with the athletes should assess these factors and make the appropriate changes to their routines.

  • Competence 
    • Specific skills are needed in sports.  Fundamental practice, spaced repetition, and teaching and learning of these specific skills are needed to take place.  Players must be able to complete and control the desired action, i.e. throw a certain pitch in a certain location. Physical ability is needed as well as fundamental knowledge – i.e. the player has to be strong enough to shoot from 3-point range.  Proper relaxation and focus of the mind and muscles are needed for the action to occur (relaxation exercises will help with this skill). If an action has never been actualized previously, the player and coach should not expect the adjustment to be made in a game.
    • Questions to assess this factor:  Have I done this before? How often?  How is it done?
  • Awareness
    • Players must intellectually understand what he/she is doing (both correct and incorrect).  Players have to “see” himself – either through a mental checklist or biofeedback or video. Each player can piece together exactly what he/she did and then compare it to exactly what he wanted to do.  Players who recognize ‘red flags’ sooner will be able to make quicker adjustments.
    • Questions to assess this factor:  What did I do to get myself here? What do I need to do now?  If I cannot “see” myself, what can I do to breathe, relax, and think so I can “see” more clearly?
  • Motivation
    • Players must understand the benefit to making the adjustment.  He/she should have SMART goals and the desire to achieve those goals.  Goal activities must be controllable and pertinent to the player’s role, which is agreeable to the player.  The player wants to make the adjustment and puts forth effort. If the player does not agree or does not care about the adjustment, little or no effort is given.  if the athlete understands what is in it for him to make the adjustment and agrees with it, he will follow through passionately.
    • Questions to assess this factor:  Why am I doing this? What will happen if I make this adjustment?  Am I passionate about making this adjustment?
  • Discipline
    • Players must stick to the plan (goal-achieving process) despite failures and successes.  Players must understand the game plan, developmental plan, or learning session. If a player strays from the desired plan but is disciplined, he will turn it around and get back to it (setbacks happen).  Players with discipline have the focus to stay within themselves, stay on task, and follow their routine.  
    • Questions to assess this factor:  What is my plan? Where am I within that plan?  Has something “showed” me that I have strayed off-course?

Adjustments to athlete’s skills are discussed, attempted, and applied all of the time in sports.  Coaches and athletes should assess these four factors when determining which athlete and which adjustment should be made.

Article

Many elite athletes when considering their success in sport, can probably tell you that it didn’t always come easy… in fact it usually comes at a price.  When training for the Olympics, United States Gold Medallist Michael Phelps trained 25-30 hours per week. During his 2008 interview with NBC, Phelps quoted “Eat, sleep and swim. That’s […]

Many elite athletes when considering their success in sport, can probably tell you that it didn’t always come easy… in fact it usually comes at a price.

 When training for the Olympics, United States Gold Medallist Michael Phelps trained 25-30 hours per week. During his 2008 interview with NBC, Phelps quoted “Eat, sleep and swim. That’s all I can do.”

Countless hours of training and competing, often come with great sacrifices. Athletes surrender time, relationships, education, and other opportunities outside of sport, just to name a few.

So, what happens when your athletic career comes to an end? Whether voluntary or involuntary, are you prepared to make the transition into a career that doesn’t include a warmup and cooldown? If this thought scares you, it’s ok, you’re not the only one. 

Former Professional Footballer and head of player welfare at the PFA, Michael Bennett says,It is hard for footballers to think about life after sport when week in, week out you’ve got a battle on your hands to hold down a position”. He added:“It’s constant – players are told what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep.”

Many elite athletes find career termination a tough pill to swallow. Experiences can include a loss of status, identity crisis, and loss of direction and focus, in some cases leading to substance abuse, self-harm, and depression (Ungerleider, 1997).

England Rugby former Captain Catherine Spencer speaks on retirement, “Then suddenly it feels as if you’re not needed on the top of that mountain and you plummet to the bottom. You don’t know where you’re going or how to look up. Your whole being is almost taken away from you.”

But what if I told you that your experiences as an elite athlete actually has the potential to give you a competitive advantage in environments outside of sport? Yes, your life-skills developed throughout your sporting career are not only intangible skills, that many organisations see great value in, but the consistent application during training and competition has assisted in the disciplining of these skills and strengthening them to make them very appealing to the world outside sport.  

Life skills are mental, emotional, social, and behavioural attributes. They are learned or refined through sport participation and have the potential to be transferred beyond sports settings (Gould & Carson, 2007). Examples include but are not limited to: 

  • Performing under pressure
  • Being organised
  • Meeting challenges
  • Communicating with others
  • Handling success and failure
  • Accepting other’s values and beliefs
  • Being flexible in order to succeed
  • Being patient 
  • Seeking critique
  • Taking risks
  • Making and keeping commitments
  • Knowing how to win and lose
  • Working with people you don’t always like
  • Respecting others
  • Pushing yourself to the limit
  • Recognising your limitations 
  • Managing arousal levels
  • Accepting responsibility for behaviour 
  • Showing dedication
  • Accepting criticism and feedback in order to learn 
  • Ability to self-evaluate
  • Smart decision-making
  • Ability to set and attain goals 
  • Having a growth mindset
  • Showing self-motivation
  • Ability to work within a team or system
  • Practicing self-control

(Danish et al, 1993)

Upon reflection, are any of these skills familiar to you? Do any personally resonate with your own athletic experience? If so, we’re off to a good start! 

How do these skills transfer beyond the role of an elite athlete? 

Well, there are actually several studies on traits and skills that link to business success. These qualities include the need for achievement, innovativeness, “proactive personality”, generalised self-efficacy, stress tolerance, need for autonomy, high degree of self-control, and risk (Collins & Porras, 2005). Articles have been written to help business professionals maximise their potential by comparing them to Olympic athletes. Some of these comparable qualities include supreme grit and courage to fight until the end, an appetite for feedback and critique, seeking situations to be pushed by other elite performers, planning out paths for long-term goals, maintaining an inner focus, and self-direction (Kerr et al, 2017). 

Now that we start to identify and see the transference of skills beyond sport, what next?

Professional development expert Dale Carnegie once said,“Knowledge isn’t power unless it is applied.”

It is only by becoming aware of these life skills and understanding how they are not only transferable, but contain immense value beyond a sporting scope, can athletes apply them through preparation, process, and continuation of career transition, all to give them a competitive edge beyond sport.

(McKnight et al, 2009).

How to go about this can be, and is difficult, but we’ve outlined a starting steps and tools to help!

Become aware of your transferable skills

Give yourself time to reflect on your athletic experience, what have you gone through that has strengthened you as a person? What strengths and abilities have you acquired? Has your role and responsibilities as an elite athlete given you immense leadership ability? Maybe your experience of academies, trials, and multiple contracts, has given you resilience and the ability to perform under pressure. 

Having trouble getting the ball rolling? Ask people who know you well, they may be able to provide perspective and insight that you don’t see. 

It’s very important to understand the similarities between elite sport and environments outside of sport. People, process, purpose, values, etc. have all been things that elite athletes are constantly exposed to, and a lot of the same variables apply to other contexts. Start to bridge the gaps in your mind and get excited about what’s to come. For example, how have you grown to develop successful relationships with your teammates? Developing relationships is a critical skill in many areas of life which can then be transferred from sport in to different environments. Once you can then identify what the transferable skills are, and how you applied them within your sport, you can start to build on how these can be transferred in to new settings. 

Consider your areas of interest

What have you enjoyed doing in your free time outside of sport? What questions do you find yourself asking? Did you have favourite subjects in school? Did you have any dreams that you put on hold while in your athletic career? Maybe you still have a passion to remain involved in your sport, have you thought about coaching? Scouting? Many athletes seek competitive drive and goal-setting, and therefore choose to pursue careers involved in the business and finance sector. Don’t be afraid to visit career fairs and attend workshops. You don’t have an obligation to commit, just dip your feet in the water! 

Prepare yourself

Once you’ve developed a clear idea of your potential career paths; research, research, research. What qualifications do you need to attain? What are the steps? Is there a timeline for it? Gain a clear understanding of the occupation. Contact professionals in the potential career and ask them about the job, how they got it, if they have any advice for you. Try to make sure that you’ve gained a clear understanding of the occupation and its demands before pursuing it. 

It’s also important to understand that although your intangible skills and behaviours have potential to transfer in to success in new industries, you are in new competition, up against people who are industry qualified. You should be prepared to work hard and educate yourself in these new areas. Then, your intangibles have the potential to thrive even more. 

Network

Network yourself as a former elite athlete, use the platform and people that you know to start building bridges and making connections. Start attending networking events in your city and keep contact with former retired athletes that you know. Think about how you can build you CV or create a LinkedIn profile. Athlete Network is a social networking and job search platform that helps athletes and organisations connect, also using a data driven algorithm to match you to companies based on traits and culture. To help you in the process, utilise resources like interview training, seminars, educational modules, workshops, individual counselling, or referral networking (Stambulovaet al, 2009). And don’t forget, your story as an elite athlete can inspire others, so be courageous to tell your story even when you are networking, you never know who might take real interest. 

Utilise Support 

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support and guidance from friends, family, and mentors. Are you close with your coaches? Ask them about their experience in career transition, you may find helpful advice or support. 

There are a number of organisations who understand that the career termination can be difficult and seek to support and/or hire elite athletes undergoing career transition. To name a few:

  • Add-Victor: founded by ex-England rugby player Steve White-Cooper, is a recruitment agency placing talented individuals from elite sport and military backgrounds into the finance industry. They’ve inspired companies like Citigroup and Aon to hire ex-athletes. 
  • Athlete Career Transition (ACT): founded by ex-Wales rugby internationals and brothers Andy and Steve Moore, uses psychometric profiles of elite athletes to match them with companies 
  • Life After Professional Sport (LAPS): Exeter City Football Club forward Robbie Simpson created LAPS to help former professional athletes find full time work by providing a job board, networking opportunities, advice and case studies of former athletes who have successfully transitioned careers. 
  • The Transition Phase (TTP): Founded from his experience as a former professional footballer and scholarship athlete, Riteesh Mishra created the initiative to support young athletes with dual careering and career transition away from sport. 
Article

Mental Health and the Whole Athlete  The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. […]

Mental Health and the Whole Athlete 

The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. Therefore, providing a facility that focuses on the whole child in conjunction with their athletic motives for success is imperative.

To reach total wellness for both adults and adolescents, we need to target fitness, the mind, and their social emotional behaviors. This delivers a necessary mind-body connection leading to self-awareness of the individual. Once an individual can achieve self-awareness, accurate self-perceptions and self-confidence is gained leading to responsible decision making in all aspects of their lives.

Adolescents often act on impulsivity due to the brain not being fully formed. Therefore, the mind-body connection is often disconnected and leads to them lacking the self-awareness skills to identify their feelings. They are in need of that reconnection and in order to do that they have to become a work in progress athletically, in their mind, and socially. Within our facility, we draw the adolescents in based on their desire to become better in their sport, but even that is not possible without fully developing the whole child. Yes, they may experience athletic progress toward their goals, but to make it consistent and above all of the rest, it is completely necessary for them to find that mind-body connection. With this connection, their ability to achieve a growth mindset, self-motivation, and self-confidence to overcome any obstacles that come their way during their athletic journey can now be achieved.

Meet Gabby. A 14-year old softball player and consistent member of my athletic performance facility. She came in as a strong softball player looking to achieve strength and perform better in her sport. However, she has had underlying mental health issues that have been creeping in on her. She was unsure of what she had been experiencing, but having had the exposure to the relationship between fitness and mental health, allowed her to continue her athletic journey and achieve. “I never really knew how serious you were about how working out and being active helps your mental health until I stopped.” Gabby, like most teenagers was learning to manage her time with school, sports, and training. She took a break from training for about a month and unfortunately, experienced the disconnection between her mind and body. As she has been predisposed to mental health issues with a family history of them, she had found that they were creeping in. “I wanted to thank you because when I look at it as a whole you really are the reason I started to step back and say to myself “are you okay” and I wasn’t.” Due to her ability to be self-aware and her exposure to the mind-body connection, she took the necessary steps to help herself and get her through the hard time eventually leading her way out of that athletic training break. Gabby was recently diagnosed with adjustment disorder and anxiety and is now working on identifying those feelings and developing additional coping skills. She realizes that the mind-body connection is a necessary part of her lifestyle and overall wellness. She has been back to training and working on her mind with additional support for now. Although, one day she may not need that service, she recognizes how it can assist now. She also recognizes how her training and consistent work on her mind-body connection at our facility is a lifestyle that she is unwilling to break from. This lifestyle not only has helped her achieve her athletic goals as a freshman Varsity athlete, but is now allowing her to achieve overall success where no obstacle can stand in her way.

Article

Creating a rich, full and meaningful life (while accepting the pain that goes with it) Quote by Russ Harris In this brief article I will be offering an outline of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for sport and how it can help to improve psychological skills. During competition an athlete may experience a range of […]

Creating a rich, full and meaningful life

(while accepting the pain that goes with it)

Quote by Russ Harris

In this brief article I will be offering an outline of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for sport and how it can help to improve psychological skills. During competition an athlete may experience a range of thoughts, feelings or sensations which sometimes can have a negative impact on their performance. ACT’s main focus for the athlete is living their ‘core values’ and committing to behaviours that move them towards these values, whilst taking difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations with them. ACT offers a framework that athletes can use to help them improve their ‘psychological flexibility’. This framework is known as the ‘hexaflex’ which has six key components to help become more ‘psychologically flexible’.

Six key components in ACT

1.Cognitive defusion

2. Acceptance

3. Contact with the present moment

4. The observing self

5. Values

6. Committed action

ACT Metaphors

ACT uses metaphors to create shortcuts to aid understanding and to ‘free up’ mental space, which helps stop athletes from ‘hooking’ onto thoughts or ‘fusing’ with feelings. One example of this is viewing thoughts like clouds in the sky and allowing them to freely move around without ‘hooking’ onto them. This is extremely useful, when athletes ‘get stuck’ after a bad line call or an event that makes them angry. An example of this is in tennis where a player may play several points, games or even sets in an angry emotional state after a poor shot. If the player could learn to ‘defuse’ and stop ‘hooking’ onto thoughts it would free them up to play the rest of the match at a higher level.

Your Mind Is Not Your Friend Or Your Enemy

The main job of your brain is to keep you alive, if an athlete experiences painful thoughts, feelings or sensations, it is a natural reaction to try and ‘get rid’ of these rather than accept them. However, typically by trying to ‘get rid’ of these results in ‘fix it’ behaviours that move them away from their values in the long term. Let’s look at an example:

David was a keen tennis player who experienced feelings of anxiety and depression after a series of poor performances. His way of dealing with these feelings was to engage in ‘fix it’ behaviours like 1. Avoiding competitions as they elicited anxiety or 2. Not training with the best players as he didn’t want to show weakness. These behaviours may ‘get rid’ of these feelings in the short term, however they will be moving David away from his core values which results in living an unfulfilled life in the long term. David may become more withdrawn, stop training or not compete anymore as a way to ‘fix’ how he’s feeling.

David could use ACT to help him ‘defuse’ from his feelings of depression and anxiety, while allowing them to be there instead of trying to ‘get rid’ of them. Everyone experiences unpleasant feelings, thoughts and sensations and it is a part of life. The key is to allow these to be there and still live your life based on core values. David could also look at accepting that athletes all go through performance peaks and troughs and by using acceptance it would make room for painful feelings, emotions and thoughts instead of ‘fighting’ with them, which can use a lot of energy and result in a person feeling ‘stuck’. David would then be able to take committed action based on his core values, for example if David valued ‘playing tennis’ he would commit to still playing (moving towards his values) while taking difficult feelings with him. In the long term, David would be living a ‘value based’ life and would carry on doing everything that is important to him, rather than withdrawing using ‘fix it’ behaviours to avoid painful feelings and thoughts. This then improves ‘psychological flexibility’ and helps David to keep playing tennis and stop avoiding painful feeling and thoughts.

The above example highlights how athletes can engage in ‘fix it’ behaviours which appear to be a solution to their problems, however they are moving them away from what’s most important in their lives. ACT is fantastic for improving psychological flexibility in athletes and really helps to ‘free up’ the mind from painful and difficult thoughts and feelings, while living the life that is based on your values.

If you would like to find out more information regarding ACT in your sport then please contact me.

Stephen Renwick

Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist (Specialising in Psychology)

MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

www.renwickresearch.co.uk

Article

A bit of background on identity… If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values […]

A bit of background on identity…

If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values and beliefs that you are committed too? Are they just in sport or do they link to other areas too?

Most young athletes will find that they have some level of athletic Identity which is the degree to which an athlete identifies with the athlete role (Sinclair and Orlick, 1993).  As we look more closely at identity there is a concept called identity foreclosure, this is the commitment of one’s identity to one area without exploration of alternatives (Murphy, Petitpas and Brewer, 1996). This can mean that some young people have an ‘Exclusive’ athletic identity and derive their self-identity exclusively from the athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder, 1993).

Identity and adolescence…

Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood which extends mainly over the teen years. It has been Identified as a stage in life during which individuals form a true self-identity (Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968).

If we look more specifically at adolescence and identity, for those involved in high level participation in one sport this comes with a lot of sacrifice & dedication. This can lead to two potential challenges for these individuals:

  • prevents them from engaging in exploration of different roles and behaviors
  • Possibly leads to identity foreclosure

Athletic Identity Positives

There have been positives linked to athletes having a high or strong athletic identity:

  • Salient Self-Identity: Having a strong athletic identity often leads to a strong sense of self and sureness of who you are.
  • Self-Confidence: Increased self-confidence, self-discipline, and more positive social interactions have all been observed in those with high athletic identity compared to those with a low athletic identity.
  • Health and Fitness: Individuals who highly value the athletic component of the self are more likely to engage in exercise behaviour than those who place less value on the athletic component of self-identity (Brewer et al., 1993).

Exclusive Athletic Identity potential risks

However, there are some potential risks to be aware of:

  • Emotional Difficulties Dealing with Injury: Injuries are an inevitable part of sport. Athletes with a robust athletic identity often find it difficult to cope with an injury, especially if it results in them being side-lined for a prolonged period of time. They tend to lose confidence and may experience feelings of helplessness.
  • Difficulty Adjusting After End of Athletic Career: Retirement is also something that cannot be escaped by any athlete, and it can be difficult to adjust
  • Alternate Career or Educational Options Not Considered: This can be a problem for young athletes who do not make it to a professional status or for those who experience career-ending injuries.

How can we support young people in their identity development?

  • Encourage young people to consider who they are as a person and as an athlete
  • Helping young people gain a clear understanding of who they are ‘off the pitch’ will enable them to:
    • Widen their sense of self
    • Gain clarity over their other strengths
    • Protect them from longer term psychological difficulties

And for those thinking that this may take their focus away from their sport I would argue it’s quite the opposite.

  • Having a clearer understanding of who they are will allow athletes:
    • to ‘switch on and get in the zone’ at the appropriate times
    • and ‘switch off’ thereafter,
    • this fits with the knowledge that successful athletes need to be in the here and now and have the ability to maintain concentration.
Article

In order for athletes to become elite and perform consistently at a high level, they must exhibit mental discipline.  They must create and follow productive routines. They also must control their attention. In creating routines, elite athletes get a full spectrum of information from quality, trustworthy resources.  These can be strength and conditioning coaches, mental […]

In order for athletes to become elite and perform consistently at a high level, they must exhibit mental discipline.  They must create and follow productive routines. They also must control their attention.

In creating routines, elite athletes get a full spectrum of information from quality, trustworthy resources.  These can be strength and conditioning coaches, mental coaches, technical coaches, nutritionists, as well as agents, physicians, and loved ones.  An elite athlete takes into account the three aspects of preparation and performance. These include: technical-mechanical movements, such as how one moves in the sport and completes certain strategies; physical components, such as sleep, nutrition, health, etc; and mental components, such as confidence, focus, and intensity.  

Aside from bigger picture of seasonal, weekly, and daily schedules, elite athletes lock in on two time frames before competition, 1 hour before performance and 5 minutes before performance.  During these two crucial moments, elite athletes take inventory of their “eyes and ears.” They ask the question, “Where is my attention?” This systematic routine will ensure that the athlete is paying attention to actions, thoughts, and emotions that are productive for them to compete at their peak.  If they discover that they are distracted, they can simply change their view (sometimes visualization is needed), their feelings (breathing is key to gain control over their heart rate), and/or their actions (follow their set pre-game “to do” list).

This process can occur at times throughout the competition, depending on the sport (possibly at every timeout or halftime).  This process can also occur after competition, when the athlete is evaluating his performance, cooling down, or speaking with teammates or media.

The key to any productive routine is that the athlete must be aware of why they need to follow it to perform at their best, accept that these actions must be followed for consistent peak performance, and commit to this process.

Article

My journey with sports hasn’t been easy. Like fellow athletes all over the world, I’ve been cut from a team, yelled at by coaches, and pushed my limitations mentally, physically, and emotionally farther than I ever thought possible. I mean, that’s just part of an athlete’s job, right? Through all of my experiences as a […]

My journey with sports hasn’t been easy. Like fellow athletes all over the world, I’ve been cut from a team, yelled at by coaches, and pushed my limitations mentally, physically, and emotionally farther than I ever thought possible. I mean, that’s just part of an athlete’s job, right? Through all of my experiences as a volleyball player, I’ve overcome a multitude of obstacles and developed a sense of grit that I utilize in every aspect of my life today. Each obstacle was seemingly impossible to defeat, but one in particular has been the toughest to ignore on and off the court; my identity as a female athlete.

As a woman in the world of sports, I’ve been gifted with the sixth sense of undeniable fortitude. More often than not, I’ve been told that my femininity is a recipe for failure, that I’m not strong, fast, smart, or good enough to call myself an athlete. On the occasion that I am praised for my athletic abilities, there’s always a counteracting microaggression (Wing Sue, 2007) to remind me that digging a volleyball well equates to a lack of womanhood. For many female-identifying athletes, the journey to success is constantly met with similar challenges that take a toll on our self-perception and in turn, our athletic performance. From Toni Harris and Becca Longo, the first women to receive collegiate football scholarships, to tennis legend Serena Williams’ constant shattering of the glass ceiling, being a victorious woman in this field doesn’t come easy.

In comparison to male athletes, the narratives around female athletes need to change globally in order for sports to become more inclusive, especially when it comes to men coaching women. My collegiate volleyball team was once sent an article from our coach that discussed women’s inability to survive collegiate sports. The author claimed that female-identifying athletes cry more often than their male counterparts, can’t handle the pressure that coaches place upon them simply because they’re women, and included other insulting commentary that was biased, harmful, and unfair. These claims persuaded our coach to label us as “soft” despite our season routine of:

  • Practicing five days a week for three hours at a time
  • Hustling to the gym two days a week at 6:00am and 4:00pm for two-a-days before and after class
  • Travelling for 5+ hours every weekend for competitions
  • Lifting at least 5-6 hours a week after practice
  • Playing two games in a weekend, leaving Sunday afternoons as our only break from volleyball  

Imagine being beholden to that schedule all while trying to eat three solid meals a day, academically succeed, and sleep more than four hours a night. Most, if not all, student-athletes experience a similar routine, thus one group of athletes isn’t more sturdy than the other based on their gender. I know many male collegiate athletes whose season schedules were just as grueling. However, even though identify as a woman, I objectively believe women are forced to practice mental toughness and grit on a daily basis in all facets of life. We shouldn’t have to fight for respect in the workplace and on the court. If you combined the mental and emotional toughness that women use to push for equality with the natural pressure that sports provide, you’ve got yourself an indestructible machine of a woman who can handle anything and everything that comes her way.

I think every athlete, no matter their gender identity, needs to have mutual respect for their colleagues’ sports, experiences, grind, and struggles. This is especially true for coaches who are unaware of how their coaching styles may affect their non-male-identifying players. Coaches should never allow unconscious biases shroud their expectations of a team. There needs to be more awareness of our ability to empower or disempower athletes no matter where we stand in a team hierarchy. With the recent case of Caster Semyena’s public scrutinization fresh in our minds, we need to do better by our girls and women. The field, court, gym, and weight room must be equal now. It’s time for women in sports to be celebrated rather than put down. What are you going to do to proudly say #MeToo?

Article

Anxiety is part and parcel of performing in sport for a majority of athletes and being able to manage your anxiety can really help you produce a better performance. Under pressure, some athletes can produce a ‘clutch’ performance where they actually perform better, however for others they can be overcome with nerves or anxiety. Having […]

Anxiety is part and parcel of performing in sport for a majority of athletes and being able to manage your anxiety can really help you produce a better performance. Under pressure, some athletes can produce a ‘clutch’ performance where they actually perform better, however for others they can be overcome with nerves or anxiety. Having had first-hand experience of anxiety while competing and working with other athletes to help them manage their own anxiety, this short article aims to offer some tips to help you manage your own anxiety.

Anxiety is a state comprising of both physical and psychological symptoms due to feeling apprehensive in relation to a perceived threat. Anxiety may differ from situation to situation and each individual may experience things slightly differently. For example, one tennis player I worked with couldn’t get themselves onto the court without feeling like passing out, while a swimmer I worked with would be physically sick just before competing. Typically anxiety is split into trait anxiety which is linked to a person’s personality or state anxiety which is a temporary feeling of anxiety experienced in specific situations.

It is natural when experiencing anxiety to want to get rid of the feelings because they are unpleasant, therefore people can seek solutions to avoid feeling like that. If the anxiety becomes extreme an athlete may even get to the point where the only way to not feel like that is to stop competing or even quit the sport. This is a solution, however the athlete would be moving away from what’s most important to them (their sport). Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help an athlete manage their anxiety and teach them ways to keep the feeling, sensations and thoughts at a controlled level while living their true values. The actual solution to their anxiety is to give up their current solution. For example, an athlete may start to avoid training or competing in order to avoid anxiety. A more positive solution would be to accept anxiety, embrace it and learn ways of living with it.

ACT is based around a hexa-flex framework which helps to create more ‘psychological flexibility’ for the athlete. The six elements are acceptance, cognitive diffusion, self as context, committed action, values and contact with the present moment. If an athlete experiences anxious thoughts while competing, they can learn to ‘defuse’ from these which helps to reduce the impact. This means that rather than ‘hooking’ onto an anxious thought, you actually allow the thoughts in your mind to come and go like clouds come and go in the sky, freeing up your mental space. Some athletes find that this is a better way of dealing with anxious thoughts rather than spending time analysing them. This observing of your thoughts helps create some distance and enables psychological flexibility, so that you don’t feel the same anxiety as you would normally (cognitive defusion).

Another tool in ACT is known as the over enthusiastic assistant (create a name for yours e.g. David Brent), where your assistant is constantly passing you ‘memos’ all day (memos are thoughts). Your assistant may send you a memo saying ‘What if you perform badly today and everyone’s watching’ or ‘you are not as good as your opponent’. ACT suggests that you say thank you to your brain for sending you this because the brains main job is to keep you alive! However, you accept the ‘thought’ memo and place it to one side. Occasionally, the over enthusiastic assistant may send a good memo and say something positive. This freedom to choose which memos to pay attention to also helps to create psychological flexibility.

Mindfulness is another aspect of ACT, which is highly beneficial to help athletes stay in the present moment more, without thinking about the past or the future. One APP called Head Space is a good place to start because it is guided mindfulness and teaches you the basics.

The above offer some tools I have used in ACT for sport, which have produced some excellent results in a short space of time. The great thing about ACT is that it moves you towards living your core values, while accepting your thoughts, feelings and sensations. If you would like to use ACT in your sport feel free to contact me.

Article

Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, […]

Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, whereas for others it surges them on to achieve greatness.

In the run up to Rio’s 2016 Olympic Games, Team GB put together a group of Performance Psychologists to help their elite athletes and teams deal with this exact pressure [1]. Their mission: design a resilience training program that is backed by scientific evidence to develop their athlete’s and team’s ability to withstand – and even thrive on – pressure. Fast-forward to Day 16 of the Games, and Great Britain has delivered their most successful performance for more than a century, winning a total of 67 Olympic medals [2]. One piece to that success may lie with the evidence-based training program used by the team of psychologists to build resilience [1]. A key part of this includes Pressure Inurement Training that can be used by coaches and leaders looking to improve their own athlete’s and followers performance under pressure.

After reading this blog you should be able to:

  • Understand what resilience is and how coaches can help to create training sessions that build resilience in their athletes
  • Know how Pressure Inurement Training can be used to build resilience via challenge and support

So, what is Pressure Inurement Training?

After learning a skill, the next step is to perform it under pressure to learn how to deal with the stress of competition. Obviously, it is difficult to replicate the exact same pressure of an Olympic final, but training under pressure means athletes can learn how to cope with the feelings of pressure in a non-threatening setting and transfer this to competition. Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually changing the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure individuals face [1]. Although it is tempting to place your performers under extreme stress and see how they cope with it, this often misrepresents what resilience actually is and how it should be developed.

Put simply, resilience refers to the ability to withstand – or even thrive on – pressure to enhance performance [3]. Resilient qualities seen in elite athlete’s include positivity, determination, competitiveness and commitment, persistence and passion [4]. Pressure Inurement Training includes specific ways to show how coaches can structure their training sessions to get their performers to use these personal qualities and build resilience. Feelings of pressure is achieved through specific ways to increase feelings of challenge, while continually balancing and adjusting levels of support over time.

What does a high challenge and high support environment look like?

A high challenge and high support environment involves having trusting and respectful relationships with your athletes, where athletes are encouraged and expected to be involved in both learning and development. It should be clear that both high challenge and high support helps your performers to learn in an environment that facilitates the personal qualities needed to build resilience. Essentially, this creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages sensible risk taking, where team members will not be scared to make mistakes and success will be recognized and celebrated together [5].

How can I increase challenge?

Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually increasing pressure by putting in place specific changes to the training environment to evoke a stress-response [6]. There are two main ways to evoke a stress-response during training that will help to increase challenge: a) firstly, by increasing the demands of training so that it is similar to competition, and b) knowing that individuals only feel pressure during events that are important, relevant to their goals and involve playing for certain consequences.

Step 1) Increase the demands of training:

  • Introduce different types of demands usually experienced during competition.
  • Make training sessions challenging by increasing the uncertainty of competition demands.
  • Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the competition demands in training.

Coaches can introduce some of the types of stressful events their athletes are likely to face during competition, known as competitive stressors, into training sessions to increase challenge [7]. Some examples include manipulating the rules of play or competing against better opponents [8]. It is useful to divide competitive stressors into the four corners of ‘mental’, ‘technical’, ‘tactical’ and ‘physical’ play [9]. For example, coaches or leaders can make a session more technically challenging by focusing on only one aspect of technique for the entire session while playing against a tough opponent.

‘‘Sometimes…you put a right footed player who can’t do anything with his left foot on [the] left side [of the pitch] and force him to use his left foot… so the player can use both feet when he comes into the first team’’– former professional football player, Dennis Bergkamp on using technical challenges in training.

The second way to increase the demands of training is by manipulating the properties of the competitive stressors, including recreating the uncertainty of competition. Athletes often experience the most pressure when they are competing in a different situation, under different rules or new environments because of feelings of uncertainty [10]. Coaches can create novel situations in training to increase the uncertainty of events, which may involve training with a different set of rules, on a different surface or with different equipment. A great example of this is by Coach Bob Bowman, coach to the most successful Olympian in history, Michael Phelps [11]

In a training session, Bowman once purposely stepped on Phelps’ goggles and cracked them without him knowing. Phelps was forced to swim with his googles filling with water. This challenging demand during training paid off, as in the 2008 Olympic final of 200m butterfly, disaster struck and Phelps goggles cracked. Because of Bowman, Phelps knew what to do and he overcame the problem by counting the number of strokes he needed to get to the other end of the pool. Phelps won Gold.

Lastly, to increase challenge coaches can look to increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of competition demands during training [12]. Athletes feel pressure when competitive stressors are physically and mentally more intense, experienced more frequently and for different lengths of time that it usually lasts for. An example of a competitive stressor that lasts for a short length of time may include hearing an unpleasant comment from a spectator during a match. Coaches may increase the frequency of this short-term stressor by simulating negative comments from an audience more often in training.

Step 2) Increase feelings of pressure:

  • Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  • Use performance-based consequences that involve forfeits and rewards or using others to increase feelings of judgement

While competitive stressors themselves are bad, they don’t always lead to feelings of pressure. Coaches must understand that pressure is only experienced when athletes judge the competitive stressors as having the potential to threaten their personal goals of high performance [13]. Understanding the goals of your performers will allow coaches to create specific training demands that are relevant to his or her goals. For example, an athlete who wants to perform better in front of crowds would feel more pressure when being watched by a large audience in training. Hopefully it is clear that putting in place any ‘coach-led’ methods to increase pressure may not actually increase feelings of pressure as it may not be relevant to their athletes goals

The final way to influence feelings of pressure includes using consequences in training. This can include rewarding athletes by winning something positive, athletes receiving a forfeit for not meeting the expected standard, or being evaluated by others that judge their performance [8]. For example, circling everyone around two people who are being watched will increase feelings of pressure. It is important athletes do not feel ridiculed or scared to make mistakes, as an unrelenting environment with too much challenge and not enough support will lead to athletes avoiding taking future risks and fear failure [14].Remember, to create a high challenge and high support environment, athletes must trust their coach and believe everyone is valued.

“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”– Former Olympic hockey player, Wayne Gretzky on taking healthy risks.

Summary of how to increase challenge:

  1. Introduce some of the stressful demands that are normally experienced in competition into training sessions
  2. Increase the uncertainty of training demands to help athletes transfer their skills to new situations
  3. Increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of the training exercises to reflect competitive pressure
  4. Make sure training demands are important and relevant to performers goals
  5. Use consequences that involve forfeits, rewards or being judged by others

How can I increase support?

While coaches must increase challenge using the methods described above, a key part of Pressure Inurement Training involves increasing the support provided to individuals to enhance their personal qualities (i.e. positivity, determination, passion etc.) to build resilience [1].To do this, coaches must increase and adjust levels of support to allow athletes to feel confident dealing with greater challenge. Firstly, athletes should learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure, and then be able to practice dealing with challenging events using these skills in a non-threatening environment. Secondly, before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, they must explain the reasons for increasing challenge at the start of each activity and review how their athletes dealt with the challenge at the end.

Step 1) Athletes must learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure and practice these skills during training

Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills to deal with the added pressure, and if used correctly, can improve performance [15]. This can include learning how to stop negative thoughts and promote positive self-talk strategies, or learning how to use mental imagery before a competition more effectively. Learning these psychological skills will help athletes to avoid the negative thoughts of pressure, that could lead to choking, into a more positive experience during competition to enhance performance. These skills can then be used in training sessions where athletes practice these psychological skills to cope with the added challenge. As the Manchester City F.C. manager, Pep Guardiola echoed during behind the scenes footage:

‘‘Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it’’Former World No.1 in tennis Billie-Jean King, on thinking positively about pressure.

Step 2) Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of each training session

Before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, explaining to athletes at the start of training sessions why it is important they experience more stressful demands in training by helping them to learn how to cope with pressure [16]. Briefing athletes helps to avoid feelings of unrelenting pressure that will compromise their well-being [17]. For example, coaches should stress, ‘the drill is important to helping you make better choices with limited time to think, which helps with how fast you react to your opponent. If you can improve your decision making under a time limit, you’re more likely to perform better under pressure and reach your goal of winning more points’.

Following this, coaches should look to provide a debrief at the end of each Pressure Inurement Training session to review how their performers dealt with the added challenges and how they reacted to it (e.g. ‘How did you cope with the added challenge?’). It’s important to keep the discussion focused on how they dealt with the pressure and how it affected their performance. If athletes were unable to cope with the added pressure and they react with more negative outcomes, then coaches should temporarily decrease the challenge and increase support. On the other hand, if athletes react more positively then coaches should increase challenge further [1].

Summary of how to increase support:

  1. Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills (e.g. positive self-talk, mental imagery) and practice these skills during training sessions
  2. Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of sessions to improve support and consider each person may react differently to pressure
  3. If responses are negative, consider increasing support and temporarily decrease challenge. If positive, consider increasing challenge.

How do I balance challenge and support?: Verbal Feedback

A key part of balancing challenge and support requires the coach to provide the athlete with the correct verbal feedback during Pressure Inurement Training. This is based on how the athlete is responding to the added challenge. Coaches must carefully monitor both the psychological responses and effects on performance to provide the correct forms of feedback.

Scenario 1) Too much challenge and not enough support leads to negative responses and performance and well-being suffers

When individuals are unable to cope with the added challenge, they are likely to react negatively. This may be in terms of actual behaviour (e.g. withdrawn, or aggression) or psychologically (e.g. anxiety, frustrated). In which case, motivational feedback and increased support should be provided. Motivational feedback includes encouragement, positive reinforcement of what they are doing well, and specific information on how to improve to promote learning [17].

Examples of motivational feedback:

  • ‘We’ve worked on this skill today because it is related to your performance goals.’
  • ‘You tried really hard to cope with the added challenge, well done’
  • ‘You dealt with the challenge well by controlling your breathing more’
  • ‘Try doing this next time so you can do Xbetter’

Scenario 2) High challenge and high support leads to positive responses and performance improves

When an individual reacts more positively and shows they have adapted well to the added challenge (e.g. happiness, determination, willing to train harder), then developmental feedback should be provided with increased challenge. Developmental feedback involves informing athletes on how to improve further with the goal of developing his or her ability to cope with greater challenge [18].

Examples of developmental feedback:

  • ‘What have you learnt that you could use in a match?’
  • ‘Great job! What’s one thing that you could have done even better?’
  • ‘You’ve mastered this skill, now let’s make it harder’

Summary of how to use verbal feedback:

  1. Carefully monitor how individuals react to increased challenge (e.g. ask question, notice changes to behaviour and performance) and then provide correct feedback
  2. Motivational feedback used if individual is struggling to adapt, in this situation coaches should increase support and temporarily decrease challenge.
  3. Developmental feedback used if athlete responds positively and has adapted to the increased pressure, in this situation coaches should further increase challenge when appropriate.

Take home messages from this blog:

  • Resilience can be changed over time, so coaches should look to build resilience in their athletes to improve performance under pressure
  • Pressure Inurement Training looks to continually balance and adjust challenge and support over time that will leads to individuals withstanding – and potentially thriving on – pressure.
  • Challenge should be increased gradually and in an appropriate way that considers the age and experience of its athletes to cope with the demands of pressure.
  • Pressure Inurement Training can be used within current training sessions and requires coaches to adapt to the needs of their athletes. Carefully monitoring both the psychological and performance outcomes of athletes will help to avoid chronic stress and burnout.
  • Pressure Inurement Training is one part of a mental fortitude training program that focuses on improving the conditions that athletes train. For resilience to be developed, athletes also need to enhance their personal qualities and create a challenge mindset.
  • To develop well-adjusted people and high-performing athletes, coaches must also consider how athletes can learn to control their own emotions and interpret them more positively (known as emotional intelligence), and focus on other areas such as ethical awareness, counselling and mindfulness.
Article

10,000 hours, this is the number many researchers have advocated that it takes for athletes to master their craft. Day in, day out, athletes practice to fine tune their skills to ensure that when the moment matters, they can deliver on the biggest stage. So why is it that athletes crumble and fail to deliver […]

10,000 hours, this is the number many researchers have advocated that it takes for athletes to master their craft. Day in, day out, athletes practice to fine tune their skills to ensure that when the moment matters, they can deliver on the biggest stage. So why is it that athletes crumble and fail to deliver these mastered skills when all eyes are on them? Due to the demands of different sports and events, each have their own unique set of internal and external demands, these can range from external demands from spectators and coaches, to a more internal self expectancy. If the athlete perceives these demands in a negative light, they will perceive that scenario in a stressful fashion which is quantified as a stressor by Nicholls and colleagues in 2009. Due to this stressor, it is clear to see that athletes ‘unlearn’ that 10,000 hours worth of training and in essence for that moment become ordinary.

One of the clearest recent examples of this phenomenon is the Euro 2016 tournament where England suffered a surprise defeat to Iceland. Many fans may remember this game and recall the shock nature of the result and suggest the England national team merely ‘bottled it’, however, the psychological processes which underpinned that performance were of significant relevance. Watching the later stages of the game unfold, it was clear to see what was occurring, as the game approached the later stages, the England players were engulfed by external stimulus’s and in turn started to unlearn the skills which they have spent hours, days, months and years fine tuning. This can be evidenced in a number of ways, firstly England mustered a huge amount of shots towards goal as can be seen in Reference 1, however, not only were the shots taken from areas on the pitch where no professional football player would expect to score from, the shots missed the target by some margin.

My sentiments here are echoed by the BBC Sport’s chief football writer Phil McNulty who used the following quotes to describe some of the England players attacking players performance who were tasked with saving the nations blushes:

  • ‘Never seen so many passes go astray in the second half.’
  • ‘Complete nightmare. Missed a good headed chance in the second half and took a collection of the worst free-kicks and set-pieces seen at this level.’

These comments confirm that the England players psychological state of mind melted in the cauldron of the Stade De Nice on the night of Monday the 27th June 2016. Indeed what we saw that very night unfold before our very eyes was a crystal clear example of the processing efficiency theory proposed by (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992). This theory has two parts, the first focuses on performance effectiveness which is straightforward to quantify as this can be measured through accuracy of athletes or indeed a teams performance, the second is a little less straightforward. Processing efficiency is based on the relationship between two things, performance effectiveness and the effort and resources used to reach that level of performance. Essentially the pressure built up during performance can be quantified as anxiety, it is this very emotion which targets the working memory system (WMS) in our brain. This system can be broken down into 4 sections, however for the purposes of what we are examining here i will be focusing my attention on two of these. At the top of this system lies the central executive, this system is tasked with planning, tactics and other complex functions. The second element of the WMS i want to focus on is the phonological loop which is involved in the repetition of words and phases along with visual stimulus. In regards to the former of these systems, it is this which suffers the most impact when anxiety/stressors strike, there is also a small impact on the phonological loop.

In sum, it is indeed the WMS which is responsible for the significant reduction in performance which we saw on that night of June 27th. The expectancy in which the players placed on themselves coupled with the weight of the nations expectations resulted in players such as Harry Kane taking a free kick which was closer to the corner flag than the goal. This negative perception of the demands of the event caused these elite athletes to unlearn the skills which they have spent over 10,000 hours mastering.

Article

The most commonly known use of the ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches have been with education settings, with Carol Dweck conducting most of her mindset research in education settings. Through this research Dweck repeatedly found that students with a Growth Mindset seek out difficult situations and respond to failure by increasing their effort and finding effective strategies […]

The most commonly known use of the ‘Growth Mindset’ approaches have been with education settings, with Carol Dweck conducting most of her mindset research in education settings. Through this research Dweck repeatedly found that students with a Growth Mindset seek out difficult situations and respond to failure by increasing their effort and finding effective strategies to overcome the challenge. Individuals who take this approach therefore hold the belief that you can improve which leads to outcomes that make it more likely that you will improve (Dweck & Leggett, 1988),

Within this article we will provide an overview of what a Growth Mindset is, how it can transfer from education to youth sport and some suggestions for applying the Growth Mindset ideas that we have outlined.

What is the Growth Mindset?

The view that you have of yourself can determine everything. If we look at the belief that your basic qualities are unchangeable then you are likely to take more of a fixed mindset approach to challenges. This means that you want to prove yourself correct in these beliefs and therefore you don’t embrace challenges or learn from mistakes or setbacks.

In contrast, the growth mindset  is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts. Changing your beliefs to this growth mindset approach can have a powerful impact and create a passion for learning and improving. “why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better” (Dweck, 2006).

From Education to Youth Sport…

Due to its value within education environments there is scope for the idea of fixed and growth mindsets to transfer in to other environments where individuals are aiming to develop and improve e.g. youth sport.

Research in youth sport has shown that individuals have developed fixed mindsets when they have been praised for their ‘talent’ or results and outcomes. Children who have these experiences of praise often for their talent often then find themselves in situations where they chose easier options and give up earlier than children who were praised for their effort (Dweck, 2006).

If we look more specifically at this, praise can have a huge impact on an individual’s motivational mindset. Praising winning might make a young athlete happy and proud for a short while, but when they lose, their confidence may spiral as they don’t receive the same level of coach or parent approval. From a fixed mindset approach the individual may see losing as an indication that they lack talent and therefore can not overcome this challenge or similar challenges in the future (Vealey, Chase and Cooley, 2018).

While young athletes should be recognised for their accomplishments, excessive praise and focus on outcomes should be avoided as it can often lead to pressure to keep repeating the outcomes (as well as the fixed mindset outlined above). Think about this, instead of saying:

“way to be a winner”

You could say:

“your practice on…really showed today – great job”.

(Knight, Harwood and Gould, 2018, pg102)

Coaches can help young athletes develop a growth mindset by:

  • Explaining that mistakes are part of learning, improving and developing
  • Using examples of top athletes facing setbacks and overcoming them
  • Helping them develop a mistake ritual to accept and overcome mistakes and focus on the next part of their performance.
  • Debriefing after a competition to discuss the positive performance accomplishments as well as using the mistakes to create a learning experience and goals for improvements.

Some suggestions to help you with the Growth Mindset

Dweck (2006) has a few exercises to help you out.

  • Never think of yourself as talented, gifted or smart. Describe yourself as a lifelong learner, intellectually curious, and motivated to grow.
  • Identify the areas where you would like to grow.
  • How can you achieve your ideal self?
  • Which potential areas of improvement are within your control?
  • How will you respond to setbacks and failure?

It is important to have patience with yourself. You will encounter many challenges and setbacks as a young athlete and no matter how hard you try, it might be a long time before you see the results you hope for. But just remember you will never see those results if you give up. Adopt a lifelong growth mindset, and you will see the benefits.

Article

Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).  A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is […]

Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).  A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is highlighted below.

RED-S, as the name suggests, is caused by relative energy deficiency, which is when the caloric intake is too low to match the level of calories needed for swimmers in to reach optimal health and performance. RED-S has broad and far reaching impact on the body and mind with it impacting the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, the menstrual function, the immune system, the metabolic rate, the growth and development of an athlete, menstrual function, bone health, protein synthesis, as well as psychological functioning.

Consequence of RED-S that coaches and support staff may see in the pool includes (but is not limited to) a variety of physical issues such as decreased muscle strength, decreased endurance, increased risk of injury, and is less responsive to training. There is also an increased risk of depression, impairment of judgement, and increased irritability. From a psychological perspective, it is important to understand a swimmer’s psychology can be a cause of RED-S, but RED-S can also cause a negative impact on a swimmer’s psychology.  RED-S and psychology have a bidirectional relationship. For example, disordered eating or an eating disorder can mean a swimmer has a large calorie deficiency resulting in RED-S. Or a swimmer can experience psychological distress and depression due to RED-S.

When it comes to treatment of RED-S, increasing energy intake and a reduction of exercise should be considered in conjunction. However, if an athlete refuses to follow a treatment plan that involves increased energy intake and a reduction of exercise then it is likely that a psychological factor is present, with that athlete suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder. It is important for coaches and support staff to not wait to see dramatic weight loss before talking to a swimmer about their concerns and seeking professional help for that athlete.

Early detection of RED-S is crucial to limit its impact on health and performance. Educating coaches and staff on the signs and symptoms and including screening for RED-S in annual health checks is key. Additionally, nutrition conversations should focus on how good nutrition can enhance performance and not weight loss. Comments on body shape should be avoided, and a general understanding that a “normal weight” and even good performance does not always mean a healthy individual.  Creating an open and communicative coach-athlete relationship and team culture can allow for athletes who may be suffering from psychological issues related to RED-S to open up before physical symptoms manifest. Keeping a multidisciplinary team up to date on the RED-S research and collaborating openly with athletes is paramount to minimising the negative impact RED-S will have.

To book your place at this year’s conference held in March in Nottingham you can visit:

https://asa.formstack.com/forms/sssm_conference_2019

 

Article

Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity? The most obvious is […]

Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity?

The most obvious is the “think positive” approach. Focusing on our positive qualities can breed confidence, and allow us to build on our strengths. Thinking about the “positives” may create optimism. But equally, athletes will want to consider their weaknesses and shortcomings, to see how they can be improved. If an athlete is to evaluate themselves realistically, they cannot purely focus on their strengths and positive qualities.

Handling the side of oneself that falls short of the “ideal” isn’t easy. Weaknesses and obstacles are seen as threats to future success, and sources of frustration. And unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog environment of competitive sport, the emphasis tends to be on pushing hard and being “tough”. Athletes can easily become excessively critical of their weaknesses or how they handle obstacles. They may see self-criticism as a “must” for motivation and improvement. But are these actually the best approaches to use?

Researchers have actually found self-criticism to be negatively associated with motivation and progress towards goals (Powers et al., 2011). Some athletes even quit sport due to self-criticism (Ferguson et al., 2014). A more constructive way of responding to challenges and weaknesses is by taking a self-compassionate stance.

What is self-compassion?

Self-compassion refers to the ability to recognise distress in oneself, with the commitment to alleviate it. According to Neff (2003), self-compassion includes three major components:

  • Self-kindness (showing kindness and understand toward oneself when experiencing any sort of distress or failure);
  • Common humanity (seeing one’s experiences as a part of being human, and knowing that others experience the same); and
  • Mindfulness (being able to notice uncomfortable thoughts and feelings with a nonjudgmental awareness, rather than over-identifying with them).

Why self-compassion?

Self-compassion is related to fewer negative thoughts and feelings in response to sporting challenges (Reis et al., 2015). Self-compassion interventions have also succeeded in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts following  mistakes in athletes (Mosewich et al., 2013).

Ferguson and colleagues (2014) interviewed female athletes about how self-compassion could help in their own sporting lives. They identified various potential targets for self-compassion:

  • Dealing with mistakes or missing goals and expectations
  • Working through injuries and plateaus
  • Stepping back and looking at situations rationally
  • Positive thinking and self-encouragement
  • Persistence and self-belief
  • Balancing weaknesses and strengths
  • Taking responsibility and fixing things
  • Keeping things in perspective

How does it work?

However, athletes are often naturally wary of the idea of self-compassion. Self-criticism is seen as necessary for caring about improving and avoiding complacency (Ferguson et al., 2014). Self-compassion can be seen as self-indulgent or being “too nice”. However, research has found the opposite.

Self-compassion is negatively related to being passive, and positively related to taking responsibility (Ferguson et al., 2014). It means caring about one’s wellbeing and performance, and then encouraging oneself to take action to achieve their goals (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion provides an emotionally safe and non-judgmental context in which to consider one’s weaknesses and how to improve them. This affords more realistic self-evaluation (Breines & Chen, 2012). Without fear of self-condemnation, the athlete is freer to explore their weaknesses and gain greater awareness (Neff, 2003).

Breines and Chen (2012) found that individuals encouraged to be self-compassionate demonstrated better outcomes in various tasks over those encouraged to focus on their own positive qualities:

  1. Stronger “incremental beliefs” about personal weaknesses. This means seeing shortcomings as changeable rather than fixed, which breeds greater motivation and persistence.
  2. Greater motivation to make amends and avoid repeating a moral transgression in the future.
  3. More effort and time spent studying for a second test after failing an initial one.
  4. Greater upward social comparison, which means taking inspiration from people who are more successful in some way.

Self-compassion is neither a show of indulgence nor complacency, but one of courage. It requires an athlete to look at the reality of their situation, and decide how to move themselves forward. The take-home point is that harsh self-criticism is not necessary for improvement. Encouragement and realistic evaluation of one’s strengths and weaknesses is more productive.

How self-compassion works

So what does self-compassion look like in practice? Firstly, it involves noticing and engaging with whatever the difficulty may be; a mistake, setback, or the realisation of a weakness. It means recognising that the experience is tough, and allowing the natural uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up without judging them. This enables realistic self-appraisal.

Upon recognising this difficulty, self-compassion involves engaging with oneself in a way that helps, not hinders progress. This means speaking kindly to and encouraging oneself, like one would a friend. Providing this reassurance and honesty reduces the tendency to self-criticise, and offers the security to solve the problem.

Finally, self-compassion requires tapping into one’s motivation and committing to solving the problem. It means asking oneself: “what do I need to do to move closer to where I want to be?” A self-compassionate approach may provide the athlete with the resilience they need to face and overcome adversity.

Article

Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas […]

Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas behind motivation and motivational climates.

Firstly, Motivational climate is the psychological environment that the coach creates by designing sessions which provide instructions and feedback that will help to motivate the athletes in training / competition (Amnes, 1992). Secondly, motivation impacts on how we think, feel and interact with others. This is an essential prerequisite in sport for getting athletes to enjoy the process of fulfilling their potential.

Win at all costs (Ego) or learning (Mastery) environment?

There are two contrasting climates that have been discussed in previous literature. If a Mastery climate is being developed then the environment revolves around supporting effort, cooperation and emphasis on individual/team development, learning and mastery of the tasks that are being undertaken (Roberts et al, 2007).

An ego climate is one in which the main goal is winning, and success is defined as being better than other players or other athletes. These environments often rely on comparisons between athletes, and coaches punishing mistakes and errors (Roberts et al, 2007).

Understanding an athlete’s motivational orientation:

An individual athlete’s motivation in sport can also be linked to 2 contrasting approaches. An ego-oriented athlete is constantly monitoring their performance related to others and is interested in winning with the smallest of efforts. Such dispositions mean that these athletes are also more prone to withdrawing from challenging situations when their ability seems shortcoming (Nicholls, 1989; Roberts et al., 2007).

A task-oriented individual will be more focused on mastering the task at hand and giving enough effort in to this process. Task-oriented athletes` are more likely to persist in the face of setbacks, put in more effort, select more challenging tasks and stay motivated in the process of development (Roberts et al., 2007).

How do you motivate young athletes?

One of the main discussions I have with young athletes, coaches and parents is the fact that it is unrealistic to shift completely from the motivation to win as that is an inherent part of sport and an important goal. However, it is not the only or most important objective in youth sport.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How much do you reinforce the importance of training and effort?
  • How do you address situations where athletes win but their performance was not as good as it has been previously?
  • How much are the athletes enjoying the experience of being involved in sport even if they are not winning?
  • How often do you make direct comparisons on young athlete’s abilities?
  • How do you talk about referee, umpire or judge decisions?

Going in to detail on all these questions and how you can effectively approach the challenges that come about through each of them far exceeds the scope of this article. However, they do provide some food for thought the next you are supporting your child or the children you coach in a sport environment especially around competitions.

‘Children first, athletes second’

Although throughout this article we have used the term ‘young athletes’ one final point to remember is that they are ‘children first, athletes second’. There are so many great, physical, social and psychological benefits to children being involved in sport. Try not to lose these by focusing too much on winning (which can increase unsportsmanlike behaviours and lower levels of moral reasoning).

Article

One of the top Google searches related to finding sport psychologist provision is “sport psychologist near me” (Google Ads, UK, Keyword Planner Search, February 2019) however not every athlete, coach or parent is within a commutable distance to their nearest sport psychologist. This is one of many contributing factors that are leading more and more […]

One of the top Google searches related to finding sport psychologist provision is “sport psychologist near me” (Google Ads, UK, Keyword Planner Search, February 2019) however not every athlete, coach or parent is within a commutable distance to their nearest sport psychologist. This is one of many contributing factors that are leading more and more consultations to take place over videoconferencing technologies such as Skype, Facetime or other VOIP (voice over internet protocol) platforms. And with mass media publications such as the New York Times dedicating articles to this trend under titles such as “When Your Therapist Is Only a Click Away”, one might expect more and more non-athletes and athletes to consider this method for accessing psychological services.

How is it defined?

Teletherapy, or telepsychology, be it by email, webcam, text message or smartphone, has existed in one form or another for more than 20 years (Novotney, 2017). The proposed benefits of these methods of accessing psychological therapies include the convenience of scheduling an appointment and talking with a therapist from the privacy of one’s own home (Hanrahan & Andersen, 2010), as well as accessing particular services from rural or remote geographies, or for elite athletes away in other parts of the country or abroad training and competing (Cotterill & Symes, 2014). For ease of discussion, all references to sport psychology provision via Skype, Facetime or other VOIP services will henceforth be referred to as ‘videoconferencing’. The wider category of ‘teletherapy’ includes other technologies such as email and text message.

What is the evidence behind it?

The first long term study investigating teletherapy took place in 1996 and lasted over a decade. Researchers in Amsterdam examined the effects of online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for a variety of mental health disorders, conducting 9 controlled trials with 840 participants (Ruwaard, Lange, Schrieken & Emmelkamp, 2011). These studies suggested that online CBT is a viable and effective alternative to face-to-face treatment. In a more recent APA article reviewing the literature around teletherapy by Novotney (2017), it was noted that studies indicate “telemental health is equivalent to face-to-face care in various settings and an acceptable alternative” (p.48). It is worth noting that a majority of the studies (which can be accessed herefrom the Telemental Health Institute) only used videoconferencing as the teletherapy variable. Despite the growing evidence base from clinical psychology, there has yet to be any studies that have attempted to assess the effectiveness of online delivery within the sport psychology domain.

What are the ethical considerations?

In the third edition of the British Psychological Society’s (BPS) practice guidelines, there is a section dedicated to the considerations around delivering psychological support through videoconferencing. These include:

  • Ensure that the network which is used is as secure as reasonably possible, and, as far as is feasible, assures privacy to their clients.
  • Utilise ‘fit for purpose’ VOIP systems (such as Skype) opposed to public networks, such as social media sites (such as Facebook).
  • Ensure that any media used to communicate personal data is secure.

In a recent article entitled ‘Sport Psychology in a Virtual World’, Cottrell, McMillen and Harris (2018) also added the following key recommendations and notes:

  • Ensure one understands the technology to be incorporated in the consultation, as well as the ability to utilise that technology effectively as a part of service provision.
  • For some athletes, technology serves as a significant contextual factor in their experiences (e.g. eSports athletes).
  • Ensure steps are taken to protect the confidentiality of online or technology-based sessions. This information can be successfully addressed during the informed consent process.
  • Remain aware of any additional persons who might be out-of-sight of the video camera or in close proximity of the athlete(s).

What are the practical considerations?

An article in the Sport & Exercise Psychology Reviewby Cotterill and Symes (2014) note a number of practical considerations to be aware of when using videoconferencing with athletes. These include:

  • This service provision relies on having a good internet connection and when the connection is slow it can make for a disjoined conversation, and a frustrating experience for the client.
  • Time differences (if a client is in another country) must also be considered, as this can make for some unorthodox consulting hours.
  • While many clients are likely to own a laptop, they might not always have this device on them when needed, therefore a phone conversation may take precedent.

Bringing it all together

With technology and smartphones becoming more ingrained in modern society, such devices and videoconferencing may become more prevalent in all types of service provision, including psychology and sport psychology services. Whilst there is a growing evidence base for clinical psychology provision through teletherapy and videoconferencing, there isn’t currently a similar evidence base in the sport psychology domain. Practitioners should also heed the advice of the BPS (or the applicable local accrediting body) when considering ethical issues such as security, privacy and confidentiality. Furthermore, the sport psychologist must be aware of practical considerations such as internet speed, videoconferencing quality, and the time zone of the athlete. If sport psychology practitioners are utilising these technologies with their clients, they might do well to consider the following advice from Watson, Schinke and Sampson (2015) in their book chapter ‘Ethical issues affecting the use of teletherapy in sport and exercise psychology’. That is, to consider the client’s needs, interests and circumstances, juxtaposed with the ability of both client and practitioner to communicate effectively using the technology in question.