Performance

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Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a […]

Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a negative or positive outcome.

One of the most gratifying experiences about my job is hearing about the challenges faced by veterans recovering from injury. The most common type of injuries are cognitive based (e.g., brain trauma), but other injuries include personal loss or bodily injury. Regardless of the type of injury, each poses their own unique set of challenges.  With this in mind, I have come to learn that the preparatory and application approach applied to a challenge ultimately that may make the difference between overcoming a challenge or falling short of expectations. Furthermore, the preparatory and application approach may assist in defining our character, assist or inhibit personal recovery, and/or set the foundation for how one allows or does not allow the challenge to govern our decision making. After spending time with veterans from the United States’ two longest conflicts in US military history, I have gained a unique perspective about how to embraces challenges as an opportunity rather than an intimidating obstacle.

Through observation and application, those approaching a challenge in a manner consistent with the betterment of one’s personal health will ultimately yield the most significant and beneficial results. In other words, taking ownership of the situation will enable oneself to approach a situation in a manner that is both achievable and, more importantly, approachable. One of the most impactful instances of this is when I witnessed veterans learning to walk again. The road to recovery for these veteran’s is both long and intimidating, but the one’s that chose to accept the situation, empathize with others, and lead their own recovery, ultimately had the most success.

Below are several common elements that I have gathered based on the testimony of others in similar situations:

  1. Approach a challenge as an opportunity to try new things. The approach to a challenge is not a ‘one size fits all approach’. Each challenge poses what are called sub-challenges and are based on the situation as much as the individual. For example, positive thinking is a common element that is preached to athletes. However, some individuals may be hindered by this, and may need to think more critically in order to be successful. Until you try something that differs from the masses, you may never know what make you successful in your own unique way.
  2. Just because it works for one challenge, may not mean it works for another challenge. As in the previous example, just because you found success in one strategy, may not mean it works for every challenge you face. Take a challenge as an opportunity to try new things (as above).
  3. Do not be afraid to fail. Failure is inevitable. One of the most impactful phrases I have heard on the job is that “those who (never) failed at some point in their life never took the risk to reach their fullest potential.” Be a leader and embrace failure as an opportunity to adapt your strategy for future challenges.
  4. Just because I overcame a challenge doesn’t mean it won’t come back. Mistakes are bound to happen at some point in life. In order to eliminate the potential of making multiple and/or repetitive mistakes, visualize a problem you my face before it occurs. Prepare for the unexpected and welcome mistakes during these hypothetical situations as an opportunity to strengthen your adaptability and problem solving skills.
  5. Just because it isn’t realistic, doesn’t mean it is impossible. Contrary to many life coaches of whom I have collaborated with, goals and expectations do not have to be realistic in order to become possible (granted, it helps). With enough drive and determination, accompanied by guidance and motivation, anyone can achieve anything. This is not to say that these goals will come easy, but it is to say that one can take small stumbles, learn from them, and achieve something great.

In the end, these elements are strictly observational in nature. They do not possess some of the hard ‘empirical’ support of elements of which is normally sought after. However, for someone looking to begin goal setting, these are a good place to start. Approach a challenge as an opportunity, embrace mistakes as a learning experience, learn to adapt through hardship, and never be afraid to come up short.

Article

Many athletes talk about superstitions that they have in the build up to matches, races or competitions. These superstitions are compulsive actions that don’t necessarily serve a purpose and can be irrational. Often athletes believe that ‘certain actions’ will lead to ‘certain results’ and can be a restriction and burden on your performance. Therefore, it […]

Many athletes talk about superstitions that they have in the build up to matches, races or competitions. These superstitions are compulsive actions that don’t necessarily serve a purpose and can be irrational. Often athletes believe that ‘certain actions’ will lead to ‘certain results’ and can be a restriction and burden on your performance. Therefore, it is recommended that athletes focus on the development of a pre-performance routine to prepare for a sporting event or skill execution.

What is a pre-performance routine?

Pre-performance routines are functional as they help athletes to calm their nerves and concentrate on factors that are within their control. On a wider scale they can include the preparation steps you take the night before a competition right down to the final few seconds before the competition starts. They can also be a more specific process carried out prior to the execution of a skill. Moran (1996) defined a pre-performance routine as ‘a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sports skill’. More recently Foster, Weigand and Baines (2006) suggested that pre-performance routines involve ‘cognitive and behavioural elements that intentionally regulate arousal and concentration’.

Looking at the breakdown of a pre-performance routine the behavioural and cognitive elements are often broken down to develop the right process for the individual. Behavioural components can include practice swings in golf, bouncing the ball before a table tennis serve, glancing at the rugby post before kicking and using breathing techniques before a race or gymnastics routine. Cognitive components can include the development of skills such as mental imagery, focus self-talk, motivational self-talk, focusing on the target.

Why have a pre-performance routine?

Throughout years of research in this area there have been many benefits identified for the development and use of a consistent pre-performance routine in different sports and in the execution of various skills.

In golf the process of a pre-performance routine has suggested improvements in:

  • Concentration – by encouraging individuals to focus their thoughts on task-relevant cues
  • Moving on – by helping golfers overcome the tendency to dwell on previous negative experiences, holes or shots
  • Attention – by preventing ‘warm up’ decrements and the devotion of excessive attention to the mechanics of their automatic skill

More generally, the process of routines has shown improvements in the following areas:

  • Reducing the impact of distractions
  • Triggering well learnt movement patterns
  • Diverting attention to task relevant thoughts
  • Improving concentration
  • Enhancing the recall of physiological and psychological states
  • Achieving behavioural and temporal consistency in performances
  • Moving away from a focus on the mechanics of skills and increase automaticity
  • Allow performers to evaluate conditions and calibrate their responses

Singer (2002) more generally suggested that the purpose of pre-performance routines is to “put oneself in an optimal emotional, high self-expectant, confident, and focused state immediately prior to execution, and to remain that way during the act” (p.6).

How can I develop my pre-performance routine?

  • Start by identifying what you currently do so you can start to apply meaning and focus to your actions and thoughts
  • Identify what you want to achieve from your routine
  • Understand that routines are individual processes, make it right for you
  • The duration of your routine is not important (unless your sport includes time limits), just be aware that the timing should be consistent.
  • Identify elements to your routine that are specific to the sport skill that you are executing
  • You will need to be flexible with your routine over time, as you develop, you will need to adapt your routine
  • Your routine will take time to establish – so be patient
  • Establish whether you can stop and restart your routine if you get distracted

Do you have any superstitions linked to your sport? Have you ever thought about how these may help or hinder you? Take some time to think about how a pre-performance routine may help you. Some sports will allow for breaks in play or clear opportunities to develop a process that will help you to compose and find the focus you require while taking control of how you prepare for what you are about to do.

Article

Our drinking club has a rugby problem? There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and […]

Our drinking club has a rugby problem?

There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and pitch upgrades. Added to this alcohol plays a central role in most team bonding sessions and camaraderie around rugby teams. At an elite level, the alcohol industry sponsors the most prestigious European club competition and the national leagues in Scotland (1). Given alcohol is known as a depressant with little benefit on ‘on field’ performance or athletic prowess yet is still so popular, why is this so and do we need to be worried?

It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the reasons when or why alcohol and sport, specifically rugby, became so closely linked. In the short term alcoholic beverage produces feelings of pleasure, increased socialisation and escapism thought to be at least partly due to effect of alcohol on the dopaminergic regions of the brain. Following an often physical battle for 80 minutes, it is a vital part of downtime following tough games where emotions can be at their greatest and allows teams time to come together – spending time discussing what has went on before. In amateur rugby  for  some less focussed teams, winning a post-match ‘boat race’ can even negate and lessen the feelings of disappointment following a loss on the pitch! The drinking of large amounts has been linked to perceived masculine superiority within some teams when studied by psychologists in a UK cohort (2). Players and coaches can also use alcohol as a reward for training and working hard throughout the week. Rugby union is traditionally played on a Saturday afternoon, hours before what would already be a time when there would be increased alcohol intake (with or without rugby) particularly within the 18-30 age population and demographic. Although not exhaustive, these are some of the main points to consider when assessing why alcohol is part of the rugby culture.

There is a variety of classifications used to describe alcohol use and how to view it from a clinician’s point of view. As in other areas of medicine, I find the concept of viewing things from a spectral perspective to be most useful. At one end is the tea totaller and occasional drinker, through to binge drinking or hazardous use somewhere in the middle to alcohol dependence syndrome, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome at the other end. The order of these at the ‘heavier use’ side is still up for debate. From a sports medic, psychiatrists or psychologist’s perspective, it is vital to not only be aware of patterns of use, amount of units, on/off season, symptoms and signs of withdrawal and dependence but also take an holistic psychological evaluation of life events surrounding any athlete. It is not uncommon for alcohol to be used as a crutch for perceived relief from an underlying mental health disorder or indeed be brought on by the depressive effects of the drug. A well recognised vicious circle can result.

Recognising there may be an issue is not only the role of the sports medic, physiotherapist, sports psychiatrist and psychologist but also team mates and administrators. Indications that a player might be in need of help comes in many forms. Mid week drinking, regular ‘Sunday sessions,’ being the ‘last guy at the bar’ when team mates have left, gambling issues,  following an alcohol related event (drink driving, fighting, regretful sexual encounter) might give some clues about hazardous use or early addiction. Concurrent cocaine or other drugs of recreation are prevalent in this population and should be considered likely if an alcohol related illness is identified. Administrators and coaching staff need to be sympathetic towards any issues, have honest conversations with players and be aware of the subject matter and understand clear pathways of referral.

The traditional forms of screening come by way of CAGE and Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) (3) which are usually carried out by GPs. Although these do not necessarily have validity in a purely sporting sense, do give a good starting place to proceed or otherwise with evaluation and assessment. Given less pressures on time, sporting insight, likely comorbidity and need for advanced risk assessment – sports psychiatrists are well placed to deal with this initial assessment and evaluation.

There may be no treatment necessary for some. However one of mainstays of treatment is motivational interviewing and should be at least broached with most. This involves a direct, patient centred approach usually attacking the barriers to or fear of change. I believe clinicians need to be focused and relevant when working with this age demographic. The player needs to be able to trust with whom they are working with and more than ever, a positive therapeutic relationship is necessary for positive outcomes. There may be no obvious underlying reason found, however the athlete should be given every opportunity and be assisted in exploring possible causes.

Sports psychiatrists are well equipped to assess for underlying mental disorder which commonly coexist. Medication specifically for players with alcohol addiction would be used sparingly however could come in the form of disulfiram (4) and acamprosate (5). It is important that any medication is used in combination with psychological and close supervision. After a period of being in favour with some, nalmefene (6) seems to have safety issues surrounding it but theory behind it is exciting looking into the future. Antidepressants may also be appropriate along with ‘simple things’ such as life structure or alternative activities. As with everything in sport, a wider MDT approach is best and should be expected from an athletes perspective.

Alcohol is used widely within many rugby circles. Despite the obvious dangers, many have enjoyed and benefitted from its use within this environment – it is difficult to see this changing in the short term although perhaps some reduction of use has occurred since the advent of professionalism within the game. Clear pathways of referral need to be established by management teams who suspect addictions issues emerging.  Players need to be making educated choices with how they integrate into this culture.

Article

The Need for Achievement! Everybody has the inherent drive for self-improvement and development. This desire for achievement places us in new scenarios (e.g. first day at university, job promotion, sporting competitions) and requires us to respond to the situational demands that these scenarios require. In these scenarios’ individuals may: · Become overwhelmed and struggle with […]

The Need for Achievement!

Everybody has the inherent drive for self-improvement and development. This desire for achievement places us in new scenarios (e.g. first day at university, job promotion, sporting competitions) and requires us to respond to the situational demands that these scenarios require.

In these scenarios’ individuals may:

· Become overwhelmed and struggle with or even fail at the task at hand.

· Manage and survive (barely!).

· THRIVE

As part of a coaching team it is vital to understand how to promote thriving in a sporting context. This blog will initially outline what thriving is and then move on to highlight the impact the environment and those within it can have.

What is Thriving?

Thriving is best defined as the joint experience of development and success [1].

· The development component relates to progressive enhancements that are either of a physical (e.g., learning to throw a ball), psychological (e.g., learning to think rationally), or social (e.g., establishing relationships) nature.

· The success component is typically evidenced through a variety of temporally and contextually relevant outcomes (e.g., academic performance, cardiovascular capacity, wealth). When an individual is thriving this development and success is suggested to be experienced in tandem rather than in isolation.

People can experience thriving in all areas of their lives or in specific situations. To elaborate, an individual can experience development and success in their sport, but not necessarily in their job [1].

To achieve development and success individuals must experience holistic functioning, which is displayed through high-levels of well-being AND performance [1].

· Well-being: The state of being or doing well in life. This can be categorised into physical, emotional, psychological and social dimensions.

· High-levels of well-being are important for thriving as it ensures individuals have the personal and social skills to aid development.

· Performance: The level of quality shown in the execution of an action, operation or process that can be assessed through a range of performance related tasks (e.g. a footballer scoring a penalty kick).

· High-levels of performance may be necessary for an individual to achieve success.

If an individual repeatedly perceived high-levels of well-being and performance across a series of situations, then the experience of thriving could lead to sustained development and success [1].

High-levels of well-being + performance = THRIVING resulting in sustained development and success.

This can be achieved through two methods:

  1. Optimising the contextual enablers of thriving [1].

2. Understanding how their role as social agents can impact development and success [3].

Contextual enablers are the characteristics of an environment which can foster continued task engagement and subsequent thriving [4]. It is important to note that most of the enablers are not just limited to sport and can apply across a vast range of contexts.

Coaches and support staff should work together to ensure the following enablers are reinforced:

· Challenge Environment — athletes should be placed in situations that provide an appropriate balance of challenge and difficulty. These situations should provide learning and career opportunities. In sport this could be seen at the academy level where thriving players are offered opportunities to play in senior teams.

· Attachment and Trust — Interpersonal relationships should be leveraged as a resource to permit the exploration of challenging situations and the instigation of behaviours aligned with the coaches’ desires. Both can increase the likelihood of human thriving. Furthermore, interpersonal relationships built on secure attachment, acceptance and trust can act as contextual enablers as athletes will be more likely to be committed and willing to any ideas/objectives. They will believe that future actions will be mutually beneficial in terms of success and development.

· Family Support — Research has shown that family support can act as a relational catalyst for thriving. For example, partners were suggested to alleviate strain caused by time-related work pressures [5]. Therefore, professional athlete’s schedules should be designed to allow for adequate time for significant others.

· Teammates and Staff Support — Staff should encourage teammates to support and guide one another through completing daily tasks and overcoming challenges. Turning to the staff themselves, they should also provide support as it will encourage athletes to take risks which may result in learning and vitality. Creating this overall supportive environment will create various other enables of thriving (e.g. agency). Staff can further support athlete development and success through the provision of performance feedback, this informational guidance about performance is likely to facilities athlete’s perception of competence and in turn, enable thriving [6].

As social agents, coaches and support staff play an important role in facilitating an environment that creates human thriving in sport. Research has uncovered the environmental factors that may promote human thriving in professional sport and suggested how key stakeholders can support these mechanisms. These factors were grouped into two themes; establishing bonds between teammates and establishing a connection to the coaching staff & clubs [3]. Through creating close and caring relationships thriving can be facilitated.

The methods used to support these mechanisms were suggested to be:

· To establish bonds between teammates;

· Form collective goals

· Decrease external player recruitment

· Maintain equality in the playing squad

· Create opportunity for interaction

· Ensure effective teammate communication styles

· Allow senior players to offer guidance

· To establish a connection to the coaching staff & club;

· Actively nurture and manage a family club culture

· Have consideration for non-playing squad members

· Create an honest and fear-free environment

· Facilitate enjoyment

· Decrease player turnover rate

· Establish a joint team & club goal

· Foster player development

Athletes want to operate within an integrated, inclusive and trusting environment [3]. To promote thriving within this environment, coaches should participate in both overt and substantial gestures (e.g. team socials) and small subtle interactions with players. Furthermore, where possible athletes support networks should be supported. To support athletes in sports that often require emotion and desire to succeed, coaching staff must appeal to the sensitivities and welfare of athletes to help them achieve this [3].

In conclusion, this blog has introduced the concept of human thriving. Highlighting that athletes can thrive through the joint experience of development and success. This is realised through effective holistic functioning and observed through the experience of high-level of well-being and perceived high-level performance [1]. Furthermore, the role of the environment and those within it can have on influencing human thriving has been outlined. It is hoped with the recommendations that coaching staff can effectively support athletes to achieve greatness.

 

Article

The 2018 Commonwealth Games has further reinforced the young age that some athletes are attending such high-profile events At just 11-years-old Anna Hursey became the face of the games in Table Tennis. Anish Bhanwala has become India’s youngest medallist as he earned a gold medal in the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol. The England Women’s artistic […]

The 2018 Commonwealth Games has further reinforced the young age that some athletes are attending such high-profile events

  • At just 11-years-old Anna Hursey became the face of the games in Table Tennis.
  • Anish Bhanwala has become India’s youngest medallist as he earned a gold medal in the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol.
  • The England Women’s artistic gymnastics teams average age was just 17 years with Taeja James (at 15) being the youngest English medallist at the Gold Coast.

Despite their young age these athletes will have been training for years and will have competed internationally on many occasions. These individuals will be training multiple times a day while balancing school and social lives. The key focus of this article will be to outline the (sport and non-sport) transitions that are experienced by young athletes with a focus on the balance of demands and resources.

Understanding Transitions

Transitions can have an impact on a person’s self-perceptions, motivation and moral development. Transition has been defined by Schlossberg (1981) as “an event or non-event which results in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and thus requires a corresponding change in one’s behaviour and relationships” (p. 5). In the model of human adaptation to transition, Schlossberg (Schlossberg, 1981, 2004) identifies three sets of factors that interact during a transition, namely the characteristics of the individual experiencing the transition, the perception of the transition, and the characteristics of the pre-and-post-transition environments

Transitions for young athletes

  • The Sport environment – Athletes may experience a clear increase in frequency, intensity and types of training, and matches or competitions of a higher level than they were used to before (e.g. The Commonwealth Games).
  • Psychological changes – These sport environment changes will require a change in motivation to participate and a stronger focus during training. They may also result in a change in the importance they put on their sport and how that becomes a bigger part of their identity.
  • School commitments – An increase in the sport environment will raise challenges for the completion of school work and may even impact on school attendance. This may further impact social connections in school as individuals may lose contact with friends.

The Athletic Career Transition Model (Stambulova 2003)

This model reveals that the process of the transitional challenge starts for athletes with the demands posed to them to progress in their development and which stimulates them to mobilise resources to find ways to cope.

  • Demands – Includes all factors that may interfere with the development of the athlete (e.g dual career, GCSE exams).
  • Resources – Includes all internal and external factors that may facilitate the coping process (e.g. parental support, effective use of competencies, financial support).

The balance between demands and resources and the effective use of resources will determine the extent to which athletes are able to cope with the transitional challenges. If effective the process of coping can lead to a successful transition.

It’s your journey

There is no one size fits all when it comes to supporting individuals through any transition. Some young athletes may take all transitions in their stride and find that the resources available to them far outweigh the demands of the experience. Others may find even small transitions or environmental changes to be challenging and require more support with resources to help them cope. Here are some points to remember:

  • Some transitions may be smooth processes, and some may be more challenging. Appreciate that each transition is unique and influenced by many factors which may have a negative or positive impact on your personal experience at that time.
  • Identify transitions in advance and list any demands that may arise because of them. (As a coach or a parent can you help your young athletes identify these demands?)
  • Ensure you have the resources you need to work through the identified demands. (As a coach or a parent can you help your young athletes identify resources?)

The young athletes at the Commonwealth Games will have experienced transitions despite their young age. Each of these experiences will have shaped who they are as an athlete at this stage but also who they are as a person. Facilitating an understanding of career transitions with young athletes and the appreciation of demands and resources will help them to appreciate what they have learnt when they face later life transitions (e.g. changing jobs, moving to a new house, retirement from sport).

“Develop the person alongside the performer. Facilitating the competence of the person across all aspects of his or her life by focusing on the nurturing of psychological skills that could be used to help the individual be successful beyond sport.”  Neil and Cropley, 2017 – Delivering Sport Psychology across Youth Sport Contexts

Article

In March 2015, Leicester City Football Club were facing relegation from the Premier League and embarked on what commonly became known as ‘The Great Escape’. Fast forward 14 months and Leicester City had overcome 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16. For every football fan, this fairy-tale story made Premier League history, with […]

In March 2015, Leicester City Football Club were facing relegation from the Premier League and embarked on what commonly became known as ‘The Great Escape’. Fast forward 14 months and Leicester City had overcome 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16. For every football fan, this fairy-tale story made Premier League history, with football pundits and the media alike, describing this as ‘resilience’. More recently however, all eyes are on Leicester once again as a result of the events that occurred on the 27thOctober 2018 and the subsequent death of the Chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. Interestingly, Leicester City have a fruitful history of experiencing a variety of bumps and twists in the road which may have well equipped the players and staff to continue despite this tragic accident. Manager Claude Puel, supports this idea by stating: “the players will be better footballers and better men for their experiences since the death of chairman, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha” [1]. As highlighted, the term resilience can encapsulate the everyday mundane stressors, but also the extreme life traumas, with resilience being required in order to respond to these events [2].  In addition to elite level athletes, the term resilience applies to many other high performing contexts, where on a day-to-day basis, individuals are put under an immense amount of pressure.

So why is this important? Firstly, we all experience stressors and adversities in our lives; I’m sure whilst reading this sentence, something crops to mind immediately. Therefore, how well equipped we are to deal with these events is crucial. Secondly, as humans we continually strive for success [3]; the term ‘average’ doesn’t seem to sit too well with many among us, as we all push ourselves to advance what has come before. However, this desire to succeed brings extreme pressure, that often test our capabilities [3]. Merely surviving is not enough to succeed at the highest levels; this concept can be shown by Andy Murray. A moment in history emerged when Murray won Wimbledon in 2013, being the first British man to do so, in 77 years. With already a significant amount of pressure on Murray’s shoulders, Murray subsequently went on to lose 3 match points prior to securing the win. This added pressure could have had a profound effect on his performance, therefore, it is imperative that in order to succeed at the highest levels, we must thrive on pressure.

What is Resilience?

Due to the increasing visibility of the term ‘resilience’ within the media, whilst it is important to specify what exactly resilience is, it is also important also to dispel common assumptions and additionally outline what resilient is not. To clarify, resilience refers to the capacity to withstand – and even thrive on – the pressure and stress experienced [4]. Colloquially, resilience is commonly associated with the phrase ‘bounce back’. Within the literature, this explains the reactive nature to resilience as this is the ability to rebound from minor disruptions [3-4]. However, a common misconception is that resilience is purely reactive. Referring to the previous example of Andy Murray, superficially this may look like reactive resilience. However, delving into the history of Murray, this highlights a long list of setbacks and adversities (e.g. surviving a school massacre at aged 9, losing 4 consecutive grand slam finals), which ultimately prepared Murray to withstand and thrive on pressure. As Murray indicated himself, “failing’s not terrible … learning from my losses is something I’ve done throughout most of my career” [5]. To highlight, resilience is not about responding to a one-time crisis. It’s about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious [6].

How to develop resilience in high performing contexts?

In order to develop resilience in ourselves and others, we will focus on three key areas – personal qualities, facilitative environment and challenge mindset [3], all with the aim to enhance an individual’s ability to withstand and thrive on pressure.

Personal Qualities:

Numerous positive personality characteristics (e.g. openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extroversion, emotionally stability and optimism) are associated with promoting optimal performance [2]. Results indicate that these positive personality characteristics have the potential to protect individuals from the negative effects of stressors. As a result, developing these characteristics are desirable in order to perform at the highest level.

One avenue to explore could be the use of relaxation techniques. Roger Federer is a good example of this, where on the court, Federer is distant and detached, safely tucked away in a zen zone designed to limit the highs and lows to which he is naturally inclined [7]. However, rewind back to Federer’s younger days and you would see a stark contrast between the behaviours you see today. Federer has transformed from a racket smashing and ill-mannered individual to one of the most respected and gracious sportspeople of all time.

Another possible avenue to explore could be the use of positive self-talk. By providing encouragement and support to yourself may lead to increased levels of optimism, as an individual may gain confidence that they have the available resources to overcome a setback. Michael Jordan epitomised the use of positive self-talk; in the 1998 NBA Finals, down by one point, with only 18 seconds left in the game, Jordan made the winning shot. Although an incredibly pressurising situation, Jordan had no qualms and has stated: “when I got that rebound, my thoughts were very positive” [8].

Facilitative Environment:

It is imperative that individuals in a high performing environment are prepared for the arena they are stepping into, this could be creating match-like features within a training session, consisting of a crowd and poor referee decisions. Or alternatively, this could be practising an important pitch in front of an audience responding to any on-the-spot questions. Although, these situations are not pleasant for us and put us under undue pressure, it is crucial that we get this exposure prior to the ‘Olympic Final’ – whatever your Olympic final is. It would be unethical to send a colleague or athlete out into an arena they are simply unprepared for. Therefore, to effectively prepare for this environment, researchers have offered the concepts of ‘challenge’ and ‘support’ enabling individuals (e.g. coaches/managers) to manipulate the environment accordingly [9].

Within this matrix, in order to ensure high performance is sustainable, we should aim to create a highly challenging, yet highly supportive environment. This may deceive you to think creating this environment is a simple task, however this can be incredibly complex, with lines blurring from producing a ‘facilitative’ to an ‘unrelenting’ environment.

To explain, the duty of care scandal in elite sport can showcase the impact of creating an unrelenting environment. Para-swimming was found to have created a ‘climate of fear’, whereby the welfare of athletes was disregarded in pursuit of sporting excellence. It is crucial that the challenge we disseminate is combined with adequate support to individuals; if too much challenge and not enough support is imposed then well-being will be compromised. Conversely, if too much support and not enough challenge is provided then the comfortable environment will not enhance performance [3].

How to create a high challenge environment?

  • Set high expectations
  • Instil accountability and responsibility
  • Developmental feedback – inform individuals how they can improve

How to create a high support environment?

  • Enable people to develop their personal qualities
  • Help promote learning and trust
  • Motivational feedback – encourage and inform individuals of what is effective

Effectively creating a facilitative environment can be showcased perfectly by the All Blacks. Coaches engage in behaviours whereby individuals are encouraged to make decisions, to be accountable for these decisions and to encourage players to take initiative [10]. The All Blacks embarked on a creating a culture of ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’, with the end result being an incredible win-rate of just over 86%, and a Rugby World Cup. As showcased, by implementing a facilitative environment, this will make subsequent demands more manageable, leading to improvements in performance [11].

Remember – Resilience programs should be specific to individuals and will have to be monitored and adapted regularly. A key take-away message:

“Comfort the troubled and trouble the comforted”

Challenge Mindset:

Arguably, the pivotal point of any psychological resilience training program is for individuals to positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter [2]. The focus here is on how individuals react to stressors and adversity.

How do we create a challenge mindset?

Within any situation, there are two possibilities in which an individual could respond. This being: (a) an individual may react negatively, evaluating an encounter as a threat or conversely, (b) an individual may react positively and evaluate the encounter as a challenge [12-15]. In order to create a challenge mindset, we must help individuals to positively evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter. Fundamental to this mindset is individuals having an awareness of negative thoughts and understanding that they have a choice in how they react to and think about events.

Two techniques that can be used:

  1. Thought Stopping [16]

  • Stop negative thoughts (e.g. simply thinking “stop”, be assertive and even visualise the red stop sign)
  • Verbalise: Expose negativity by telling someone about your thinking (e.g. ensure this person will help you replace these thoughts with more positive ones)
  • Park negative thoughts (e.g. this can be done by writing or drawing your thoughts)
  • Confront: Challenge any irrationality by asking questions (e.g. “is there another way to think about this?” “Can I take any positives from this situation?” Try to gain perspective; “If I had a month to live, would this still be important?”)
  • Replace with positive thoughts and images (e.g. focus on what you are in control of)
  1. Learning your ABC’s [16]
  • A = Adversity (e.g. I didn’t get selected for the football match on Saturday)
  • B = Beliefs (e.g. I must be terrible at football and I will never improve)
  • C = Consequences (e.g. Giving up football)

The model suggests that by better understanding and strengthening your beliefs, you will improve your consequences, which will thus enable you to better manage adversities.

Implications of Implementing Resilience Programs:

Within this blog, we have highlighted some common misconceptions already about the term resilience. However, confusion exists whereby a lack of resilience is misconstrued as a weakness, this is not the case as both resilience and vulnerability can co-exist and are both needed in order to succeed [3]. Within her Harvard Commencement speech, J.K Rowling stated: “Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way … The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive” [17].  As a result, failure can lead to growth and enhanced resilience in future [18-20].

However, as individuals we can still feel the need to suppress our emotions and continue despite the increasing need to ask for help. To explain, during his sporting career, Michael Phelps was described as a ‘motivational machine’ [21]; although this was, arguably, facilitative whilst in the sporting arena, once retired, Phelps suffered from depression. Within an interview in 2018, Phelps stated: “being an athlete you’re supposed to be this strong person who doesn’t have weaknesses, doesn’t have any problems” [22]. Although this example was specific to sport, I would suggest that these beliefs are not isolated within a sporting context but can be translated into any high-performance domain. As with the above example, the suppression of emotions and over-reliance on outcome goals (e.g. winning) can equate in a lack of concern for your own personal well-being and may have detrimental consequences on your mental health.

Concluding Remarks:

Therefore, key take-away messages from this blog are:

  • Resilience is not a fixed trait. It can be developed.
  • Resilience is not a suppression of emotion. Resilience can be developed through failure.
  • Resilience is not a special quality found in extraordinary people. Everyone can showcase resilience.
  • A lack of resilience is not a weakness.
  • Success should not be achieved at the expense of an individual’s well-being.

Article

Five seconds left and a basketball team has the ball, down by one point. The coach has set a play for the team to execute and so far it is running smoothly. An athlete catches the ball, wide open for a three-point shot (three-pointer), but he also sees a teammate wide open, very close to […]

Five seconds left and a basketball team has the ball, down by one point. The coach has set a play for the team to execute and so far it is running smoothly. An athlete catches the ball, wide open for a three-point shot (three-pointer), but he also sees a teammate wide open, very close to the basket. What decision should be made? Should he take the three-pointer or pass to the teammate?

Decision Making

Individual performance and team success are heavily dependent on the decisions made within the competition. More times than none, the team which makes the most amount of ‘correct’ decisions, usually wins the match (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016).

Decision-making is defined as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of actions among several possibilities (Chamberlain & Coelho, 1993).  Effective decision making requires the integration of perception and knowledge of previous experiences, to produce the desired action (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016; Klein & Calderwood, 1991; Perrig & Wippich, 1995).

Decision making in sports is of high importance due to the sporting environment and the pressurised demands placed on athletes. For example, the sport of tennis requires a constant transition from offence to defence. For this reason, decisions need to be made quickly and accurately. This is in order to hit the ball to the desired spot and defend against the opposition. Researchers have investigated decision making in multiple individual and team sports, with results suggesting a positive correlation with the speed and success of a made decision and multiple sport demands. These demands are pattern recognition, anticipation and reactive agility (Hepler, 2015; Paull & Glencross, 1997; Scanlan, Humphries, Tucker & Dalbo, 2014).

In addition to research, decision making theory has been established, dividing decision making into three categories. These are decision quality (the success of the made decision), decision speed (time taken to execute the decision) and decision efficacy (the belief that the decision made was the right one) (Hepler, 2016; Hepler & Feltz, 2012). More specifically, theories have been established, providing potential explanations of this decision making process; with its implication to sports. These include classic decision making, where it is suggested that decision making can only be correct through rational analysis. Another model is naturalistic decision making. It is suggested that in a time-pressured situation, a correct decision is conducted through recognition, holistic evaluation and satisfying the decision-making criteria placed on the task (e.g. finding the target, correctly positioning the body) (Abraham & Collins, 2011; Balague, Hristovski & Vazquez, 2008; Beach & Lipshitz, 1993; Collins & Collins, 2013; Klein & Calderwood, 1991).

These theories bring into focus a different aspect of decision making, emphasising the diversity of the decision-making process. Furthermore, it is evident that these theories require the athlete to be in a psychological state where they can focus and have belief in their ability to make a correct decision. Relating this back to the previous basketball scenario, if the athlete undergoes the decision-making process and decides to attempt a three-pointer, he needs to have belief in his ability. This belief should not only in the decision he made being the correct one, but also in his ability to successfully perform a three-pointer. This self-belief is referred to as self-efficacy.

Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is defined as a person’s judgement of their capabilities to execute the desired actions (Bandura, 1977). It is not concerned with the skills an individual possesses, but rather the judgements one makes with whatever skills he or she possesses (Moritz, Feltz, Fahrbach, & Mack, 2000).

High self-efficacy is produced and enhanced from four sources:

    • Mastery Experiences: Previously successfully completing a task gives an individual self-efficacy in their subsequent performance. An athlete is more likely to perform a skill in competition if they have previously executed it successfully in training.

    • Vicarious Experiences: A combination of using models and observing yourself (recording or mental imagery) to facilitate positive change in the mind and body (Dowrick, 1999; Keller & Carlson, 1974; Maibach & Flora, 1993).

    • Verbal Persuasion: Receiving compliments about individuals performance ability. For example, a coach congratulating an athlete on their improvement (Tod, Thatcher, & Rahman, 2010; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2007).

    • Physiological and Emotional states:  Used to gauge whether the individual is compatible with the task demands (Britner & Pajares, 2006; Maddux & Gosselin, 2003; Tod et al., 2010).

These four sources do not work separately, but rather they operate together to influence self-efficacy. For example, verbal persuasion can increase persistence when experiencing setbacks, mastery experiences can increase this further; with an indication of progression evident through physiological and emotional states.

Self-Efficacy and Decision Making

The relationship between decision-making and self-efficacy is evident, as effective decision making requires the integration of perception and knowledge of previous experiences to produce the desired action. This action would not be successful unless the athlete has a belief in their ability to perform the desired action (self-efficacy) (Cotterill & Discombe, 2016; Perrig & Wippich, 1995; Wood & Bandura, 1989). In addition, knowledge of previous experiences is evident through mastery experiences, aiding in an accurately produced action.

Looking into this relationship in more detail, high levels of self-efficacy positively correlate to performing the desired action quickly (decision speed), accurately (decision quality) and with the belief that it will be successful (decision efficacy); with decision efficacy being produced through the four sources of self-efficacy (Hepler, 2016). For example, if a basketball player had previously executed a jump shot successfully (mastery experience), levels of self-efficacy would elevate. A subsequent increase would occur in athletes levels of decision-making speed, efficacy in the decision made and decision quality. This is supported through studies in the sport of basketball and baseball, with the results indicating that high levels of self-efficacy were a positive predictor of participants decision making quality, efficacy and speed (Hepler & Chase, 2008; Hepler, 2016).

In relation to decision-making theory, this is congruent with naturalistic decision making. As this theory suggests that decision making in experts is conducted through recognition (Collins & Collins, 2013), if an athlete has conducted mastery or vicarious experiences (producing higher levels of self-efficacy), when placed in a time-pressured situation, satisfying the decision-making criteria would be easier (due to the previous successful experience), resulting in performing a fast and successful decision (Hepler & Feltz, 2012).

Applied Implications

Research has found positive results in participants level of self-efficacy and decision making abilities. It can therefore be suggested that by practitioners and coaches applying techniques to increase athletes self-efficacy, an indirect effect on their decision making ability could occur.

Applied implications for practitioners would be that when working with athletes who are aiming to increase their decision-making abilities, psychological techniques which have been shown to enhance self-efficacy (imagery and self-talk) can be used (Callow, Hardy & Hall, 2001; Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011). This can then be integrated with decision-making exercises related to the demands of the athletes’ sport. This would increase the likelihood of a quick, accurate and successful decision being made. It would also increase the likelihood of this performance level being maintained, due to the increased level of self-efficacy.

Applied implications for coaches would be that through using coaching techniques to increase self-efficacy, an indirect effect could occur in athletes decision-making ability. For example, coaches could assess athletes physiological and emotional states to gauge what area of the task demands need to be improved. When this has been identified, training within this area can be conducted (mastery experiences). Words of encouragement can also be given to the athletes when improvements have been made (verbal persuasions). Once these skills have been consistently performed successfully, athletes should have high levels of self-efficacy and feel comfortable applying it within competition; performing the desired action quickly, accurately and successfully.

Conclusion

In conclusion, research within the field of decision making has shown that self-efficacy could play an influential role in the success and speed a decision is made (Hepler & Chase, 2008; Hepler, 2016, Hepler & Feltz, 2012). This is important in the context of sports due to the demands placed on athletes and the improvement of the possibility of winning if the ‘correct’ decisions are made. Although these results have been found, most of these studies have only been conducted in laboratory setting. To gain a deeper understanding of this relationship, field studies need to be conducted. In addition, as multiple variables influence an athlete, positive results cannot be certain. Never the less, the consistency of results found in previous research suggests that by applying techniques to increase athletes self-efficacy, a positive impact on athletes decision-making capabilities could occur; aiding athletes to perform more successfully in competition.

Article

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Arthur Ward. A challenge mindset has long been associated with improved sports performance. However, it is only recently that research has suggested that developing this mindset is one of the keys to building psychological resilience in an athlete1. Put simply, resilience differentiates the […]

“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” – William Arthur Ward.

A challenge mindset has long been associated with improved sports performance. However, it is only recently that research has suggested that developing this mindset is one of the keys to building psychological resilience in an athlete1. Put simply, resilience differentiates the two kinds of people that William A. Ward mentions. As such this psychological resilience has become increasingly recognised as a vital ingredient in the recipe for success, both inside and outside the sporting world. It is easy to think of times resilient athletes have thrived under pressure, think Jonny Wilkinson’s winning drop goal at the 2003 world cup, and equally easy to think of times less resilient athletes have cracked under the pressure, think John Terry’s penalty miss in the 2008 Champions League final. As such, it makes sense that coaches want to make their athletes more resilient. To do so, it seems necessary that coaches should clearly understand the steps they can take to help develop this challenge mindset in athletes and enable them to break records in the face of adversity rather than crumble.

What is a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

A challenge mindset is where an individual reacts positively to the stressors and adversity that they encounter, so does not involve the manipulation of events themselves but rather just the individual’s interpretation of the events1. When individuals encounter a stressful situation, they undergo a primary appraisal whereby they determine how they may be affected and whether they care about the situation. Following this comes the secondary appraisal where the individual appraises whether they believe they have the resources to deal with the situation2. If the individual believes they do not have the resources available to be able to handle the demands of the task then this is a threat appraisal, whereas if they do believe they can meet the demands of the task, this is the desirable challenge appraisal2. On top of this, individuals also evaluate their own thoughts and emotions experienced in a process known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion3,4. By getting individuals to positively evaluate their resources, thoughts and emotions by changing negative appraisals to positive ones we can instil this challenge mindset.

Why do we want a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

Interpreting a situation as a challenge rather than a threat is associated with several psychological benefits, such as more facilitative interpretations of anxiety, as well as improved performance5. Adopting this challenge mindset is also one of the three keys to developing psychological resilience in individuals1. Psychological resilience includes a protective quality that refers to an individual maintaining their performance and wellbeing when placed in a pressurized or stressful situation (robust resilience), or it is the ability of an individual to bounce back to normal functioning after their wellbeing and performance have been temporarily disrupted when under pressure (rebound resilience)1. Athletes are almost guaranteed to experience such set-backs at some point, the question is not whether an athlete will encounter adversity, but instead, how will they respond when adversity occurs?6. As such, it is easy to see why resilience is central to success and developing a challenge mindset is vital to increasing this resilience.

How can we develop a ‘Challenge Mindset’?

A challenge mindset is largely formed through the combination of an individual’s personal qualities and their immersion in a facilitative environment1 with all these factors contributing to resilience levels. As such it is important that to develop a challenge mindset, personal qualities and a facilitative environment must be enhanced, which in turn will produce more resilient individuals. Personal qualities include an individual’s personality and the psychological skills that they have1, and since an individual’s personality is very stable but psychological skills are far more malleable it makes sense to focus on the development of these psychological skills rather than attempting to manipulate personality traits in a resilience training program.

So, what exactly does the environment and psychological skills need to develop in an individual to create a challenge mindset? The key is making the individual believe they have the resources to handle the demands of a situation. To achieve this we must either increase their perceived resources or decrease the perceived demands. Theory suggests that high self-efficacy, high perceived control of the situation and the adoption of approach goals (particularly mastery approach goals) are the most effective ways of manipulating these appraisals and getting an individual to appraise a situation as a challenge not a threat5. As such, it is logical that the psychological skills taught to the athlete and the environment provided encourage the growth of these three factors when aiming to instil a challenge mindset.

Psychological Skills

Whilst there are many psychological skills that are suggested as being worthwhile to teach athletes, there are three central psychological skills that have been the most prominent in the research and are widely used across high-level sports. These three skills are imagery, goal-setting and self-talk. When looking to promote self-efficacy, perceived control and approach goals, as is necessary for a challenge mindset, these three psychological skills are very at effective at doing so7-10. These skills are all well researched and in-depth areas in themselves, so whilst I will provide a brief explanation on the implementation of these techniques, coaches looking to train these skills should familiarise themselves with the detailed methods that have been established or consult a psychologist.

Imagery

The mental simulation or re-creating of an experience in the mind. Imagery should focus on following the PETTLEP guidelines11:

  • Physical – Adopt same position, wearing same clothes with the same equipment as in competition
  • Environment – Be in an environment as similar as possible to the one in which competition takes place e.g. on the same court
  • Task – Image the task identically to the actual performance with both the execution and outcome
  • Timing – Complete the imagery in real time
  • Learning – Image according to skill level, a novice should image more basic things than an expert e.g. in basketball a novice images dribbling while looking at the ball, an expert may image themselves looking elsewhere
  • Emotion – Include the emotions that would be experienced in the situation being imaged e.g. anxiety
  • Perspective – Imagery can be from a first or third person view

Goal-setting

The process of goal setting should follow the SMARTS principles12:

  • Specific – outline precisely what is to be accomplished
  • Measurable – Need to be quantifiable
  • Action Oriented – Indicate the steps required to achieve the goal
  • Realistic – Should be achievable for the individual
  • Timely – Possible to achieve within a reasonable amount of time. Both long- and short-term goals should be set, with long-term goals giving a direction and short-term providing the steps that lead there
  • Self-determined – Athlete makes them by themselves or together with a coach

On top of this coaches should aim to12:

  • Develop goal achievement strategies. This is a plan for how the goal can be achieved and should be specific with definite numbers but a degree of flexibility (e.g. if a goal is to improve strength the strategy could be “I will do a weights session 3 times a week)13
  • Promote goal commitment by encouraging progress and providing consistent feedback.
  • Provide goal support by getting parents and significant others to buy in and help work towards the goals too.

Self-talk

A focus on stopping and replacing negative thoughts is key when creating a challenge mindset1. To regulate thoughts the following steps can be used12,14.

  • Thought Stopping– identify a negative thought and say a cue word such as “stop” to yourself
  • Replace with a positive thought– restructure the statement to be positive e.g. “I don’t play well in the rain” becomes “It’s the same conditions for both us, I just need to focus”. Take a deep breath and repeat the positive statement as you exhale.
  • Keep phrases short and specific
  • Phrases must be said with meaning and attention
  • Combine with self-feedback– adding some technical or tactical instruction to the statement e.g. “Bend your knees more and you’ll get that” helps performance and the learning process

Facilitative Environment

So, what support can we provide to the athlete to create a facilitative environment and contribute to a challenge mindset? The support should be provided as part of pressure inurement training1, which is essentially where the challenge and support given to the athlete are gradually increased to reach an environment with high levels of both. Since the way that challenge is increased is relatively rigid we must focus on the support provided to really influence a challenge mindset. The teaching and training of the psychological skills mentioned previously is included as part of this support but what other steps can we take to support an increase in an individual’s self-efficacy, perceived control and approach goals that were outlined earlier as vital to creating a challenge mindset?

Firstly, coaches can have a huge influence over what goals are adopted by an athlete. As mentioned earlier, mastery approach goals evoke a challenge mindset. Mastery approach goals are essentially an individual striving to improve themselves, and not comparing themselves to others10. For athletes to adopt these goals it is essential that significant others, be that coaches, parents or anyone working with the athlete, model the desirable goals themselves, for instance by asking questions about their performance not about the match outcome and avoid comparing the athlete to others. On top of this it is important to work with the athlete during goal-setting to set these mastery approach goals, so regular sessions regarding goal-setting are important to decide with the athlete how they can improve themselves and then coaches can refer to these goals throughout training, being consistent with reference to self-improvement.

Secondly, coaches should focus on developing the sources of self-efficacy15 in athletes. This can be done when communicating with an athlete as well as encouraging these points to be a focus of self-talk. These sources and what others can do to promote them are as follows:

  • Performance Accomplishments– Reminding athletes of times that they have been successful in the same or a similar task
  • Vicarious Experiences– Athletes view someone similar to themselves perform the same task as them which instils a view of “if they can do it, why can’t I?”
  • Verbal Persuasion– Simply telling the athlete that you believe in them and they are good enough to succeed. Modelling confidence yourself also helps
  • Imaginal States– Getting an athlete to use imagery to view themselves succeeding
  • Physiological and Emotional States– An athlete viewing their arousal as positive, coaches simply describing that the symptoms of arousal (e.g. raised heart rate) are necessary for peak performance has proven somewhat effective16 and arousal management techniques (e.g. relaxation) may help.

Self-efficacy is closely related to perceived control. Whilst self-efficacy is essentially the degree of self-confidence an individual has that they can succeed in a specific situation, perceived control is the belief that they will have the opportunity to display this ability. For example, an individual may have low perceived control over a situation due to weather conditions or because a referee is making poor decisions which is preventing them from achieving their goal no matter how well they perform. Recent research has fortunately provided some ways that appear successful in increasing perceived control9,17:

  • Focus on controllable aspects– Communications with the athlete should be on relevant controllable things. Coaches, or parents, should be focusing on what the athlete can control, for example, their own tactics or technique
  • Attribute success to individual’s effort– Positive changes that occur (i.e. improvements) should be attributed by the coach to the individual’s efforts rather than any external factors such as the coach’s own suggestions making the difference, instilling the idea in the athlete that they can bring about the change required themselves, if they put the required effort in.
  • Generate a variety of solutions– By working with the athlete to come up with a variety of solutions to the same problem this works to increase their perceived control as they realise there are several ways to overcome adversity. This is related to the promotion of something called ‘Langerian Mindfulness’18 which has recently been established to improve perceived control in sporting and educational settings17.

To summarise, these ideas suggested are actions that coaches can take when providing support in training sessions that will help to promote the three contributors to a challenge appraisal5 and as a result contribute to forming a consistent challenge mindset within the individual athlete. This is associated with improved sporting performance and contributing to a more resilient individual, a quality required for peak performance when under pressure or facing adversity.

I’d love to hear any comments, thoughts or questions you have about any of the ideas raised in this blog so please do let me know!

The associated infographic for this blog is pictured below:

Article

Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions. Translating such physical determinants […]

Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions.

Translating such physical determinants into optimal performance outcomes requires something arguably more subjective. Indeed, when understanding the making of champions, we also may consider psychological determinants of performance. Specifically, personality traits have received a lot of attention in sport as they are known for their ability to predict behavioural outcomes, and thus can inform how individuals act, and perform within a sporting context.

One personality trait or disposition which remains controversial regarding the impact of its role in elite sport is that of perfectionism. Perfectionism is commonly identified in elite athletes, defined by Stoeber & Otto (2009) as a

“striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance alongside over-critical evaluation of behaviour”.

So, does perfectionism help, or hinder performance?

Its role is contentious due to its multidimensional nature. This means it is conceptualized as having some components which are adaptive, and beneficial to sporting performance and others which are maladaptive and detrimental to sporting performance.

These two different components have been named by researchers as perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist strivings involve individuals setting high standards for themselves and ‘striving’ to attain these standards, accompanied by high self-esteem and life satisfaction. Arguably, these are necessary to perform at high levels.

A study of Olympic athletes found that perfectionist strivings were present to a much greater extent than perfectionist concerns. Alternatively, perfectionist concerns relate to a tendency to behave in ways to avoid making mistakes, and are characterized by doubting one’s actions and being excessively critical of personal mistakes, with failures presenting a threat to individuals self-worth. For example, in distance runners, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns may affect how they appraise an upcoming competition:

Athlete A demonstrates perfectionist strivings by suggesting “I have set a standard for myself in running under 20 minutes for a 5k, and I will do everything I can to achieve it”.

Athlete B, demonstrates perfectionist concerns by saying “If I don’t achieve a time of below 20 minutes in the 5km I will have failed and everyone will judge me”.

The relative presence of components of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns have been used to classify individuals as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are suggested to typically demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist strivings and unhealthy perfectionists demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist concerns. Healthy perfectionism is associated with high confidence, positive mood, and superior performance. Alternatively, unhealthy perfectionism has been associated with consequences deleterious to performance, namely; burnout, increased anxiety and poorer mental health.

But, it is not as simple as it seems…

The paradox of perfectionism…

Recent research suggests that we cannot assign athletes into single categories as either a healthy, or unhealthy perfectionist. The presence of perfectionist strivings typically correlates with perfectionist concerns and components of perfectionist strivings have been shown to interact with perfectionist concerns, making concerns more maladaptive in the presence of perfectionist strivings. So, Athlete A, will commonly demonstrate elements of Athlete B’s dispositions.

Perfectionist strivings may be misconstrued as inherently adaptive because the majority of research has omitted the effect of perfectionist concerns when reporting outcomes in individuals. This means that the beneficial effect of perfectionist strivings seems to be inflated. In summary, the conceptual meaning of perfectionist strivings appears to change depending on how it is measured. Indeed, it has been suggested that the combination of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns…

“energise a pattern of overstriving which has pervasive and debilitating effects” (Hill, 2014)

 This results in what is known as the ‘paradox of perfectionism’. If perfectionist strivings improve performance, surely, they should be distinct from factors which do the opposite? It appears that we cannot purely be a healthy perfectionist without the maladaptive components of perfectionism coming into play. As an athlete who wants to perform at the highest level, or for coaches supporting these athletes we need to develop strategies to promote facets of perfectionist strivings, and identify, and minimize the maladaptive outcomes to performance and mental health of perfectionist concerns.

The following section will identify evidence-based practices to minimize the negative implications of unhealthy perfectionism that may arise in athletes attempting to achieve high levels of performance.

Reducing Burnout

A negative outcome of perfectionist concerns is burnout in athletes. Burnout consists of a triad of factors conceptualized by Appleton & Hill (2014) as:

1) Reduced physical or emotional capacity for sport

2) lower accomplishment

3) reduced value of participation in sport.

The incidence of burnout in perfectionists has been found to be mediated by the type of motivation athletes have. ‘Healthy’ perfectionists were found to have more intrinsic motivation. This means they partook in their sport for the pure enjoyment or love of it. Those who were unhealthy perfectionists were motivated in their sport to avoid negative outcomes, or for external rewards such as praise from others.

This suggests that promoting intrinsic motivation may be a means to reduce burnout in perfectionist athletes. According to self-determination theory, a ‘needs supportive’ environment can facilitate intrinsic motivation. This can be done through the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Indeed, athlete’s perception of the satisfaction of these basic needs within sporting environments has been associated with a reduced risk of athlete burnout.

Satisfaction of these needs in athlete’s environments can be done as follows:

  • Autonomy – give athletes choice in the selection of their training and competition.
  • Competence – give athletes task focused feedback, in a non-controlling manner
  • Relatedness – emphasize social support between teammates as an important factor in a training environment

Increasing Self-Esteem

Mental wellness is an antecedent to success in athletes. Therefore, it is imperative to identify strategies to promote this in athletes. Research has suggested that self-esteem plays a mediatory role in the relationship between perfectionism and mental health – with lower levels of self-esteem predicting poor mental health in perfectionists.

Researchers have done some digging into the components of self-esteem which predict negative outcomes in perfectionists. Baseline self-esteem is a component of self-esteem, relating to an individual’s perception of self-worth and is relatively static. A study of Swedish Olympic athletes found that those with higher baseline self-esteem typically showed attributes of perfectionist strivings, namely high personal standards. This was accompanied by low perfectionist concerns. Those with low baseline self-esteem scored highly on perfectionist striving, but also high on perfectionist concerns. This undermines performance as it increases competition related anxiety, resulting in excessive worry and fear of failure.

So – should we just focus our efforts on increasing baseline self-esteem? This may be challenging because research has suggested that it is something relatively static, informed by genetics, upbringing, and prior experiences.

However, using the critical confidence equation, we may be able to identify ways to overcome the negative implications of low baseline self-esteem. This equation suggests:

Self Confidence = Baseline Self-Esteem x Evidence

The self-confidence someone has for their performance is a function of their baseline self-esteem multiplied by evidence they have accumulated from performance and training.  Those with low baseline self-esteem, typically have to ‘earn’ self-confidence for performance and based on this equation, we can do this by increasing the amount of evidence they have for their ability.

This evidence can be accumulated through creating what is known as a ‘preparation environment’. This involves the athlete deciding on their attitudes, standards and values which they will endeavour to uphold in training which will be conducive to the highest quality of training. In line with this, coaches should insist that the standards set should be upheld and not compromised. Within this environment, athletes should be encouraged to learn from own actions, continually set themselves shifting targets and kept accountable for upholding the self-selected standards. Creating such an environment may account for the negative outcomes of low baseline self-esteem in perfectionists through increasing self-confidence via accumulating evidence of ability.

Goal Setting

 Perfectionists typically set high standards for themselves. But, how perfectionists think about their goals can result in differing effects on performance outcomes. Perfectionist strivings have been associated with mastery goals. Individuals with mastery goals view competition or training as an opportunity to improve ability and skills, and failure to meet these goals as learning opportunities. Performance approach goals have also been associated with perfectionist strivings. These are goals orientated around proving one’s ability, and attempting to demonstrate that it is superior to others. Perfectionist concerns have been associated with performance approach goals, as well as performance avoidance goals. Here, individuals view training or competitions in terms of avoidance, they fear performing below their ability, or worse relative to others. Both types of performance orientated goals typically result in lower levels of performance because instead of “improving their ability, the focus is very much on proving ones ability” (Stoeber et al., 2008).

We know that we may not be able to classify individuals into healthy and unhealthy perfectionists so the focus of perfectionist’s goals may differ depending on the situation. Therefore, it is important to encourage techniques within high performing athletes to promote mastery-approach goals. Epstein’s TARGET framework is an acronym for a series of techniques which have been create a mastery-orientated environment in sporting settings:

Task – encouraging athletes to focus their practices on personal tasks, achieved through setting individualized goals with reduced opportunity for peer comparison.

Authority: allowing athletes to elicit authority in training and evaluative measures of their performance.

Reward success based on individual effort and not performance relative to others.

Grouping, involving collaborating with team mates and peers in a non-comparative manner which benefits all athletes.

Evaluation based on improvements on a personal level. This should focus, on the quality of mastery of a particular task as opposed to performance relative to others.

Timing of feedback and evaluation should be implemented in adequate time, flexibility is encouraged by the athlete and the coach.

It has been shown that adopting each of these principles can form a mastery-orientated environment, which is conducive to creating mastery-approach goals. Research has shown elite athletes have described as it being a predictor of their enjoyment of sport, and also improved performance. Additionally, it can reduce the likelihood of some of the consequences of maladaptive perfectionism; specifically, burnout.

Coping Responses to Failure

Facets of perfectionism affect how individuals react to failure. A research study of young elite athletes found that high levels of perfectionist concerns predicted negative psychological outcomes in response to failure, mediated by fear of shame and embarrassment. Additionally, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns predict life satisfaction, indicative that those with high levels of perfectionist concerns struggle to cope with

The risk of negative outcomes of perfectionism is enhanced in those who experience failure. This may be unavoidable in elite sport where high standards are constantly set, and the margins for error are small.

However, “proactive” coping strategies can act as a protective mechanism, buffering to the negative outcomes of failure in perfectionists. One of these is called “positive reframing”. A study measured level of satisfaction following stressful events in athletes demonstrating high perfectionist concerns. The use of positive reframing was particularly effective for those high in perfectionist concerns, and increased their life satisfaction to a similar level to those low in perfectionist concerns.

So, how can athletes implement positive reframing into their sport? This can be done through writing down the negative thoughts and failures as a means to initiate conscious reframing of them. From this, we can try to draw positive aspects from these outcomes, and focus rather on what has been achieved, as opposed to what hasn’t.

For example:

Failure: I didn’t win a race I was expected to.

Positive reframing: I didn’t win the race, but I executed my race plan as I hoped to and I put my best effort into the performance.

Broadly, this technique essentially encourages the athlete to accept imperfection. Striving for perfection is not maladaptive, but insisting that one has to be perfect is, especially when self-worth is contingent on attaining exceptionally high standards. It is challenging to learn to accept imperfection in performance settings which are inherently evaluative, but this technique can help address that.

To summarize…

Some components of perfectionism are desirable and necessary in performing at the highest level in elite sport, but due to their high correlation with the maladaptive components of perfectionism, it is important to identify specific strategies to foster resilience to these negative outcomes. Conscious awareness of these, alongside implementing strategies based on research evidence to reduce these can act as a buffer to their impact and facilitate striving for success with a healthy and positive mind-set. In summary, these strategies involve:

  • Reducing the risk of athlete burnout through fostering a needs-supportive environment conducive to high levels of intrinsic motivation.
  • Addressing low baseline self-esteem using the critical confidence equation by generating tactics that individuals can use to ‘earn’ self-esteem
  • Creating an environment conducive to mastery approach goals through the TARGET framework
  • Generating effective coping strategies in response to failure to promote resilience and satisfaction
Article

If you are experiencing a mental health problem or need urgent support, these helplines can offer expert advice. Samaritans www.samaritans.org Telephone: 116 123 Mind Infoline www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines Telephone: 0300 123 3393 Rethink http://www.rethink.org/about-us/our-mental-health-advice Telephone: 0300 5000 927 Childline https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/contacting-childline/ Telephone: 0800 1111 Anxiety UK www.anxietyuk.org.uk Telephone: 03444 775 774 SANEline http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/support/helpline Telephone: 0300 304 7000      

If you are experiencing a mental health problem or need urgent support, these helplines can offer expert advice.

Samaritans

www.samaritans.org

Telephone: 116 123

Mind Infoline

www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines

Telephone: 0300 123 3393

Rethink

http://www.rethink.org/about-us/our-mental-health-advice

Telephone: 0300 5000 927

Childline

https://www.childline.org.uk/get-support/contacting-childline/

Telephone: 0800 1111

Anxiety UK

www.anxietyuk.org.uk

Telephone: 03444 775 774

SANEline

http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/support/helpline

Telephone: 0300 304 7000

 

 

 

Article

University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete. Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount […]

University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete.

Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount of pressure to successfully balance their academic studies with their sporting commitments. This greater level of stress may in part be due to the decreased amount of time that they are warranted to complete their responsibilities. Although our discussions are predominantly aimed at those individuals who are at University and studying full time or part time depending on their level of sport competition, many of the challenges and benefits outlined may also be relevant to secondary school and college level athletes.

‘A time of transition’

Transitions such as the move to University can have an impact on a person’s self-perceptions, motivation and moral development. They have been defined as “events or non-events which result in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and require a corresponding change in one’s behaviour and relationships” (Schlossberg, 1981, p.5). The Athletic Career Transition Model (Stambulova, 2003) reveals that the transitional challenge starts for athletes with the demands posed to them to progress in their development. This stimulates them to mobilise resources and find ways to cope. The effective use of resources to overcome demands will determine the extent to which athletes are able to cope with the challenges they face.

Demands faced by student-athletes

Scheduling / time management

University is a time of significant change in the athlete’s life and with the increased demand of balancing academic deadlines with regular training and competition; student-athletes are subjected to a large amount of stress. It is a full-time job (and more) if you truly want to get the best out of yourself in both your sport and your academic studies. With this comes a huge level of organisation, scheduling, communication and time management.

  • Missing lectures – it is inevitable that there will be clashes between your training / competitions and lectures which will mean you playing ‘catch up’ in your own time.
  • Extending deadlines – You may find that deadlines come around at the same time as key dates in the sporting calendar. This may mean extending the deadline, or if you can, trying to get everything done early so you can submit on time.
  • Food – Planning in time to shop and plan your meals is a huge undertaking especially if budgets are tight. But, if you can get this right it will have a positive impact on everything else you do.
  • Sleep – While there may not feel like enough hours in the day it is important that you ensure you are getting the sleep required to be effective in your waking hours.

Sport stressors

The same as with any sport participation there are the usual sport stressors and demands on you:

  • Injury – However disappointing and challenging it can be, injury is an inevitable part of sport and may become more of an issue if you don’t know the support that is available to you.
  • Deselection – Transitions can come with the challenge of trying to firstly get selected, and then keep your spot on a team. Many student athletes face deselection setbacks through their time at University and may end up competing at lower levels than they anticipated.
  • Conflict with team members or coaches – This can come from trying to get your priorities and time management right for you, and to satisfy the needs of everyone you are close to. Alternatively, as part of the transition to university you are likely to be working with a new coach and new team members which may come with its own possibilities of conflict.
  • Burnout – For many student-athletes the transition to University means an increase in training commitments, if not managed appropriately (and coupled with your academic commitments), you may find yourself experiencing burnout.

Social / athletic identity

Identity development will be something that many student-athletes don’t think about but your time at University will play a part in shaping yours.

  • Social life – Athletes with a strong athletic identity might tend to neglect other aspects of life to fulfil their athlete role, which can increase the potential risk of social problems. Depending on your level / sport you may find that all your social activities are with team mates.
  • Career plans – You may find that you go in to University with vague or non-existent career objectives and invest heavily in your athletic role. You will be juggling dual-role identities, full-time athlete and full-time student, and may find that you only choose to invest in the non-sport identity and explore non-sport career options once your sport commitments are over.

Resources available to student-athletes

Time

An ideal balance of sport and education commitments will take time to develop:

  • Don’t over plan your day / schedule so that your expectations are unrealistic, and you get demotivated by constantly falling short.
  • Identify key times in your academic / sporting calendar and what you can do to get ahead, only extend deadlines if you know this will help (rather than an excuse to put things off).
  • Take control – control will be key to keeping your stress levels as low as possible (this also include using the support available to you, not just feeling like you must do it all alone).

Support

Understand the support available to you as soon as possible

  • Sport and Academic staff – Being proactive and organised will inevitably mean that you will feel like you have more support around you. But, communication will be a key part of the process. Be one step ahead to get required information to coaches and staff members to identify challenging times in the year.
  • Parents – You may be living away from home for the first time but that doesn’t mean that your parents are no longer there to support you. Make sure you keep in touch.
  • Peers – If you can, prioritise some time to socialise with people away from your sport environment. Building a strong athletic identity can really help with your development in sport. But, appreciating the role that a wider support network can play for you is key.
  • Fellow athletes will be a big part of your journey as you are all ‘in the same boat’ so you understand each other’s experiences.

Student-Athlete Benefits

As well as the demands and challenges outlined above there are clearly many benefits to being a student-athlete. Student-athletes often have positive self-esteem and body image; may have a built-in support network through teammates, coaches/athletic department staff and may feel very connected to the campus community.

Here are just a few more benefits to being a student athlete:

  • improving physical health
  • obeying the competition or societal rules
  • promoting societal values, integrity and building character;
  • enhancing confidence, motivation, sense of empowerment, and self-esteem;
  • providing social interaction, fun and enjoyment;
  • offering opportunities for education and career in sports;
  • expanding life experience and making more friends;
  • knowing how to deal with failure and difficult situations,
  • developing life-skills
Article

The long route of the golf course contains a trail that can last anything between 2 to 4 hours. Whilst this is an incredibly long time for one to process and assess their game, it provides opportunity to emotional assessment. This assessment can depend on current emotional state. For example, success can lead to positive […]

The long route of the golf course contains a trail that can last anything between 2 to 4 hours. Whilst this is an incredibly long time for one to process and assess their game, it provides opportunity to emotional assessment. This assessment can depend on current emotional state. For example, success can lead to positive emotion. In contrast, failing to achieve targets can lead to negative emotion. Therefore, a round of golf can be subjected to numerous emotional experiences.

To manifest and regulate emotions, it has been suggested that emotional intelligence can be used to help facilitate opportunities. The use of emotional intelligence can at least enhance positive thinking and arguably increase performance levels. Thus, the main focus in this article is mindset, although other factors can also influence performance levels. Mindset is by large a controllable factor when practiced alongside other skills and techniques, if practised consistently and on a regular basis.

The principle of emotional intelligence can be related to key factors of self-awareness, self-management, motivation and relationship management. Throughout a golf round golfers needs to be self-aware of their thoughts, behaviours and emotions. Thus, identifying strengths and areas to improve performance levels. Remember that the mind is a complex muscle that contains a network of fibres. If these get confused or agitated, at any moment, they can influence your own thoughts, behaviours and emotions.

To facilitate this thinking, it requires golfers to develop and build self-awareness. Therefore, each shot (tee-shot, fairway, bunker) must be assessed. What went well? What didn’t go well? What is the next shot? Using the ‘what’ system enables golfers to develop that self-awareness as they walk up to their next attempt. Golfers who utilise this practice are more likely to succeed than those who are negative in their approach.

Self managing emotions is critical for golfers. The management of emotions is purposeful for direction and focus. For example, the golfer needs to make a better shot when attempting to hit the green with a poor lie in rough grass. Management of emotion would require using skills to determine outcome. It is what is called clearing the airways. Similar to a sat navigation system the golfer should be assessing course of action through a purposeful and selective plan. The key here would be not to rush your thought process. Rushing thought processes increases likelihood of poor shot selection. Another in built feature should be the use of deep breathing. This method can occur on approach to the ball. Deep breathing, when practised well, is a useful technique that helps to control the emotional equilibrium in the mind. Deep breathing clears away the negative thinking and amassed cobwebs. A golfer should practice deep breathing everyday in different situations and even away from any golf range, equipment, course or competition. Given time, building into practice the use of yoga can also help with deep breathing. Taken together, the technique for deep breathing is to breathe though your nose for 3 seconds and then allow it to leave through the mouth for 5 seconds. A key feature of deep breathing is to make sure that your stomach rises and not your chest. It is recommended that beginners start to practice deep breathing by lying on the floor in a quiet place. Once you are comfortable and able to breathe with the intended focus required then deep breathing can take place naturally and in a rhythm.

Motivation has both an intrinsic and extrinsic value to process focus and direction. Golfers should prepare for their round with set targets that are process and performance related. These goals can be reflected upon and modified according to state of play. Golfers are encouraged to associate goal setting within reason that is purposeful and beneficial for performance. Relationship management is important for golfers and the support team around them to facilitate and support the process. A critical aspect of relationship management is to maintain rapport and trust. This is especially true of the golfer and caddie. Building effective relationship management is possible through understanding each other and having the ability to discuss matters closely.

Taken together, emotional intelligence can help to facilitate golfing performance. Research has previously highlighted how emotional intelligence leads to productivity performance. There is no doubt that emotional intelligence can influence golf performance effectively.

Article

Young athletes will experience times when they struggle with their confidence and it is low, they will also experience the opposite where confidence is high, and everything seems to be straightforward. With some effort and the right knowledge and support young athletes can take control of their confidence. This doesn’t mean that they will be […]

Young athletes will experience times when they struggle with their confidence and it is low, they will also experience the opposite where confidence is high, and everything seems to be straightforward. With some effort and the right knowledge and support young athletes can take control of their confidence. This doesn’t mean that they will be full of confidence 100% of the time, but its presence can be increased.

What is confidence?

Confidence can be linked to a variety of terms that are all interlinked and are often used interchangeably.

  • Self-confidence – The belief that one has the internal resources, particularly abilities, to achieve success.
  • Sport Confidence – Used to describe a sport-specific confidence, which is an athlete’s belief that he or she has the ability to perform successfully in sport (Vealey, 1986)
  • Perceived competence – Focuses on the skills individuals perceive they possess. Self-confidence focuses on people’s beliefs about what they can do with the skills that they have (e.g. perform successfully).

The importance of Confidence for Young Athletes

Self-efficacy theory states that self-confidence influences how people behave, think and emotionally respond in various situations (Bandura, 1997). Behaviourally, levels of confidence or self-efficacy influence young athlete’s motivation in terms of the choices they make, the effort they expend, the persistence they show in the face of difficulty, and the resilience they demonstrate in rebounding from failure. Chase (2001) found that 13-14-year-old athletes high in self-efficacy had stronger motivation to participate in sport in the future compared to low self-efficacy children. Perceived physical competence has been linked to positive emotions in youth sport such as feeling pride, satisfaction and enjoyment (Ebbeck and Weiss, 1998).

What happens when confidence is low?

A lack of confidence is often accompanied by feelings of worry, uncertainty, fear, doubt and/or anxiety. If young athletes are experiencing one or all of these, then they are unlikely to perform consistently well. These feelings are likely to have an impact on an athlete mentally and physically which can be detrimental to aspects of their performance like decision making and co-ordination. These performance issues may then prevent the young athlete from being the best they can be in their given environment (which may subsequently reduce their confidence further).

How can we build confidence in Young Athletes?

Vealey, Chase and Cooley (2018) outlined case studies related to confidence in various domains. These cases provide suggestions that can help us understand young athlete’s confidence within various age groups.

  • Importance of fundamental motor skills and physical literacy for confidence – If we go right back to the early stages of a young athlete’s development, then fundamental motor skills and physical literacy are the main areas of focus. An important goal for all children in these early stages is the attainment of physical literacy, which is the physical competence and confidence to maintain physical activity at an individually appropriate level throughout life.
  • Developmental changes in perceived competence – The age and developmental stage of a young athlete will affect the way that they view their competence. Children become more accurate in assessing their personal competence as they age. Additionally they will use different sources of information upon which to base their confidence as they age.
  • Maturational influences on confidence and importance of mastery orientation – The rate that an individual matures will impact upon their confidence and the role of mastery orientation. For example, because of their early success, early maturing boys receive a lot of recognition and attention from coaches, which fuels their confidence and motivation in sport but as others catch them up this confidence could be knocked.
  • Learned helplessness – Learned helplessness happens when people become conditioned to believe that a situation is unchangeable or inescapable. Attributions affect confidence and motivation because they are the reasons young people identify as to why they succeed or fail. Learned helplessness can hamper confidence and motivation to get better because and individual does not believe they can improve.
  • Coach expectancy and feedback – It is important to remember the huge influence that coaches can have on the confidence of young athletes as they progress through their respective sporting environments. Coaches can influence youth athlete’s confidence through various aspects of the coach-athlete relationship including modelling and leadership, trust, encouragement and performance feedback.
  • Importance of developing and reinforcing a growth mindset in young athletes – The Growth mindset will be key for young athletes. Although confidence is based on beliefs about abilities, an athlete can believe his ability is either (a) fixed and unchanging (fixed mindset) or (b) something that can continually be improved and developed (growth mindset) (Dweck, 2006)
  • Performance slump and loss of confidence – The most important source of confidence for young athletes is their performance. So it is not surprising that when athlete’s performance decreases, their confidence subsequently suffers, this can be a vicious circle for many if not addressed early enough.

Final Points…

From the 7 areas identified above it is clear to see that there is a wide range of concepts that relate to young athletes’ confidence in the sport domain. Identifying that an athlete is low on confidence will be the first step, while then understating why this has happened and what needs to be done to help them build it back up again. From this point forward remember that confidence can be improved!!

Article

Imagery is a mental skill with which many of us are familiar. If done correctly, and adapted for the needs of the athlete, imagery can be an effective mental skill that can improve performance. Imagery can allow the mind to practice being in a be in a high-pressure situation before the big event. Use all […]

Imagery is a mental skill with which many of us are familiar. If done correctly, and adapted for the needs of the athlete, imagery can be an effective mental skill that can improve performance. Imagery can allow the mind to practice being in a be in a high-pressure situation before the big event.

Use all the senses. Imagery is not the same as visualisation. In its best form, imagery uses all the senses. It should not only include seeing the anticipated performance, but also the smells, noises, and most importantly the emotions that accompany sport performance. When an athlete is able to extend imagery past just using visualisation and get the relevant emotions involved, it can allow that athlete to practice responding to the nerves and ahead of time, which will help that athlete to react to those emotions with control on the big day.

The good, the bad, and the ugly. Imagery does not mean only imaging the positive outcomes. In fact, having the athlete imagine scenarios that are less than ideal and respond ahead of time to difficult situations can help the athlete feel more in control and thus lower performance anxiety. For example, what does happen if a swimmer rips her suit? Or a runner gets his least favourite lane assignment? What if the other team is awarded a penalty kick? As these examples suggest, the imagery can extend beyond just the moment of pivotal performance. Imagining these scenarios days or even weeks before a high-pressure event can allow an athlete to make the necessary preparations both physical and mental.

Teaching and Practicing Imagery. As with so many things in sport, imagery takes practice. When teaching imagery, it is best to start with an “easy” scenario. For instance, have the athlete(s) imagine what it is like to walk into their home after training and wander into the kitchen (something all athletes do day in and day out!). Then ask athlete(s) what the weather was like in their imagined scenario? What was being cooked in the kitchen? Was anyone else home? Draw their attention to the other senses involved in imagery. Once comfortable with the imagery of arriving home after training, have the athlete(s) choose a sport performance scenario to practice with next. Again, ask the same questions regarding the other senses, and have the athlete re-imagine the performance scenario adding in a another sense each time. The goal is to eventually include emotional elements when using imagery such that the imagery is most helpful for high-performance situations.

It is important to note that imagery does not have to be done in a dark room, lying down with eyes closed. It certainly can be, but it can also be done pitch or pool side. In fact, if done in the sport environment the athlete does not have to imagine the smell of the chlorine, or sound of the whistle, it will already be in place. If natural, the athlete can also stand and act out the movements that will be required. A great example can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/23/sports/olympics/olympians-use-imagery-as-mental-training.html

As always, teaching imagery is about getting the athlete familiar and comfortable with the mental skill such that it can adapted it to fit his/her needs and overall pre-performance routine.

Article

Expectation is defined as ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future’. Expectations can affect athletes in various ways and can lead performers to react in positive ways (Mothes et al, 2017), although often the reaction is negative (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). Expectation and confidence… Often in sport it is assumed […]

Expectation is defined as ‘a strong belief that something will happen or be the case in the future’. Expectations can affect athletes in various ways and can lead performers to react in positive ways (Mothes et al, 2017), although often the reaction is negative (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017).

Expectation and confidence…

Often in sport it is assumed that these two concepts go hand in hand – if athletes expect to win or expect to play well, they are confident they can win or play well. But this is far from the truth. It is often the case that expectations hold athletes back from developing high levels of confidence. (For more information on confidence, see my previous article ‘Why is Confidence important for Young Athletes?’).

Some points to remember with these two concepts are that:

  • Strict or high expectations can undermine and suck the life out of confidence
  • Confidence is a belief that proceeds execution but, is void of strict expectations
  • Confident athletes don’t judge their performance quality based on prior expectations
  • Expectations usually concern results, or personal statistics
  • If athletes don’t meet these demands (expectations) they feel unsuccessful

Expectations in Youth Sport…

The increased focus and time commitment in one sport (specialisation), can often come with the expectation that young athletes will experience a lifelong, highly successful journey in their respective sport. However, this is not always the case. To maintain an involvement in sport, young athletes need to have high levels of confidence (based on past performance and training) without the judgmental behaviour that comes with expectation.

Young athletes that feel the pressure of expectation will have started to imagine negative outcomes that are yet to occur (Cohn, 2017); ‘my parents and coaches have invested a lot of time and money in my sport involvement so they expect me to keep going and perform well but I am going to disappoint them if I don’t do well’. In this instance, the player has imagined that they will perform badly before they even set foot on the field.

Helping young athletes manage the pressure of expectation (Process focus)

Often athletes focus upon the outcomes of matches or competitions such as the result, which they have almost no control over, or they get too fixated upon outcome goals such as scoring goals, winning points or getting high scores from judges. Instead, athletes should focus upon the simpler processes of their sport which, when attained correctly, will eventually add up to playing well, competing effectively, winning games or competitions and maintaining participation.

Too many athletes forget that goals, tries, personal bests and medals are made up of lots of little competencies completed correctly again and again. Once athletes focus upon perfecting these small movements, better performances follow and subsequently better results after that (Schunk & Schwsartz, 1993).

Manageable objectives can be used to help young athletes focus on specific tasks during their performance. No judgments are involved. Objectives create a process-oriented focus that helps athletes concentrate on execution. Furthermore, once these objectives are fulfilled, the athlete will gain confidence, rather than feel disappointed. An athlete that is perfecting the processes of their performance is very rarely an athlete that feels the weight of expectation upon them.

Identifying your process focus…

  1. Process goals are completely under your control. They are the small things you should focus on or do to eventually achieve your outcome
  2. Be aware when your mind drifts to outcomes. Look for warning signs such as increased anxiety or your mind wondering to your own or others expectations
  3. Refocus your attention on your current situation. Take a mental time-out and pause.
  4. What are the processes you need to focus on for the next few minutes of your match, competition or routine?

Process goals provide one facet in establishing a “live in the moment” attitude

Article

Champion or defeated? Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure. But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life? […]

Champion or defeated?

Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure.

But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life?

The science

Positive Psychology often references the Broaden and Build Theory, which suggests that a positivity can actually increase brain functioning.  It suggests that a positive attitude broadens ideas and actions and builds resources by developing new skills and relationships.

One way to increase positive emotion, and therefore broaden our abilities, is through gratitude. This involves realizing the value of a person or situation, whether positive or negative.

Generally, inherent gratitude is related to higher optimism, life satisfaction, well-being, prosocial behavior, and social support. It is also related to lower negative feelings, (Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, Chung, Svetina, 2018).

But, specifically in the world of sports and performance, this prosocial behavior that dispositional gratefulness fosters is related to improved team cohesion and life satisfaction in elite athletes, (Chen, Kee, & Chen, 2015). Appreciation can even reduce athletes’ tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable situations during high levels of competition. These uncomfortable situations could include negative thoughts like, “I’m not good enough”. Athletes might also want to avoid unwanted emotions like failure, or negative physical feelings like injury.

This experiential avoidance often gets in the way of athletes reaching their goals and full potential. But, athletes high in gratitude avoid uncomfortable situations less if they also feel they have more support from their coaches. In other words, gratitude combined with coaching support can help athletes see adverse experiences in a positive way, and face challenges head on rather than avoid them, (Chen & Wu, 2016).

Can gratitude be learned?

But, if we don’t already have dispositional gratitude, can we develop and practice it to improve well being and performance?

A study recently published in the Journal for Applied Sports Psychology explored this idea. Researchers used a Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) that included a 90 minute Gratitude Workshop to college athletes. The researchers measured gratitude, life and sport satisfaction, perceived social support, psychological distress, and athlete burnout before, immediately after, and four weeks after the PPI. They found that gratitude was related to increases in well-being measures like state gratitude, sport satisfaction, and social support.  It was also related to decreases in ill-being like psychological distress, athlete burnout after the intervention (Gabana et al., 2018).

So, if athletes and coaches can find more ways to incorporate appreciation and social support, or help develop gratitude beginning in youth sports, athletes may be able to overcome injury, defeat, burnout, and other challenges that come with elite performance. The more we are able to find the positive in difficult situations, the more we will be able to rise above adversity.

Article

“The lads showed great resilience today, they just never gave up”. How many times have you heard this, or something similar, regurgitated by coaches in a post-match press conference? Is resilience simply “not giving up” or does it have a deeper meaning? And just how can the military help athletes develop resilience? Do you know […]

“The lads showed great resilience today, they just never gave up”. How many times have you heard this, or something similar, regurgitated by coaches in a post-match press conference? Is resilience simply “not giving up” or does it have a deeper meaning? And just how can the military help athletes develop resilience?

Do you know what resilience is?

Before reading any further, close your eyes and attempt to define resilience. If you thought of performing under pressure or dealing with setbacks, you are on the right lines. Essentially, it is using personal qualities in order to withstand ‘pressure’1. ‘Robust’ resilience is probably what most of you are thinking of; holding off an opponent by not letting negative thoughts, emotions or events affect performance1. Not too dissimilar is ‘rebound’ resilience, which is the term given to an ability to bounce back from a setback1; an athlete getting injured right before an Olympics who goes on to win gold at the following Olympics four years later. Simply, those who lack resilience are likely to crumble under pressure and suffer a subsequent rapid deterioration in performance. Conversely, high levels of resilience will protect an individual from the negative effects of pressure, helping to facilitate optimum performance.

How does anyone become ‘resilient’? First, you need stress or adversity2. Take Leicester City Football Club for example. Facing relegation in March 2015, they turned the tide and were league champions 14 months later in what was arguably the greatest fairy-tale in Premier League history. This was a team who experienced being at the lowest of lows that seemingly developed both robust and rebound resilience in order to withstand the negative effects of pressure and bounce back from the brink. Olympic champions have reported that without a significant adversity, winning a gold medal would not have been possible2. It may be necessary then, for athletes to experience a setback in order to perform at the highest level.

Adversity is just one part of the resilience story. The grounded theory of psychological resilience9 (image 1) explains how, in order for there to be optimal sport performance, a performer requires psychological factors such as positive personality, self-determined motivation3,4, confidence, focus and perceived social support. They also need to be able to perceive stress as an opportunity to grow (challenge appraisal) as well as being self-aware of emotions and thoughts (meta-cognition).

Image 1. A grounded theory of resilience

Fletcher and Sarkar created the Mental Fortitude Training Program for Sustained Success1 (image 2) which suggested psychological resilience is underpinned by an individual’s personal qualities; the personality characteristics and psychological factors that enable one to overcome the negative effects of stress. According to this training program, athletes require personality characteristics such as conscientiousness and perfectionism, whilst possessing confidence and self-determined motivation. A facilitative environment that is high in both challenge and support is required. Finally, a challenge mindset is necessary, where the individual interprets pressure and cognitive processes positively9.

Image 2. A mental fortitude training program for sustained success1

Resilience in the military

Psychological resilience is probably the most important psychological skill in the armed forces. In a theatre of war, they experience an unprecedented number of adverse situations, and are required to prepare for unknown challenges. What can the military teach us about resilience?

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF), based on the concepts and benefits of ‘positive psychology’6, was developed by the U.S. Army to help soldiers prepare for the stress of being in a theatre of war. It is a preventative programme, developing psychological resilience to improve soldier responses to adversity, thus reducing the number of those returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder7. Master Resilience Trainers (MRTs) deliver resilience training and are trained in self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, character strengths and connection8. These skills are, in the U.S. Army’s opinion, critical for the development of resilience, and are taught through Institutional Resilience Training (IRT).

Through IRT, soldiers receive training on the ABC model7. This model teaches soldiers to recognise an event (A), understand their beliefs surrounding the event (B) and assess the consequences of their thought processes about the event (C). Additionally, soldiers are educated in energy management, problem solving and address deeply held beliefs. They are also taught how to minimize catastrophic thinking, fight counterproductive thoughts and learn ways of cultivating gratitude. The energy management component of the programme is grounded in mindfulness training, with breathing control and positive imagery used to maintain resilience8. In my opinion, this is central to developing resilience; accepting and recognising that negative thoughts are a natural process will help prepare both soldiers and athletes to face adverse situations. Following this education, soldiers focus on identifying character strengths and strengthening relationships, something that is thought to be imperative wehen developing team resilience11.

What is particularly interesting about CSF is the suggestion that this training programme, coupled with military training, will make a soldier ‘fit’ to serve. The military are often associated with being physically fit; superhuman strength giving them an ability to overcome obstacles and terrain many civilians could only dream of. However, many people forget the distressing images and experiences that soldiers are exposed to, the day-to-day challenges they face and the high pressure situations they must work in. Physical fitness alone will not prepare soldiers for battle or athletes for competition, so resilience and a challenge mindset are clearly a requirement in order for them to operate effectively in their chosen domain.

Resilience training in sport

A theatre of war is very different to a competitive sporting arena, but there are more similarities than you realise. Both usually involve a battle between opposing teams or individuals; both can have disastrous consequences should one lose this battle; and both require individuals to overcome numerous challenges and set-backs along the way. For this reason, it would appear that the resilience training received by soldiers could also be utilised by athletes and teams.

Think about it, how many times have you seen a football team race into a 2-0 lead in the first-half, only to lose the game 3-2? At 2-0, a team is comfortable. If the opposition score (2-1), there is an increased pressure to hold on to the lead, resulting in a necessity to withstand this pressure. A resilient team would be likely to make correct decisions under pressure and see the game out to win. However, teams lacking in resilience are likely to experience catastrophic thinking; deep thoughts about worst-case scenarios (e.g. “we are doomed to lose because…”). IRT is used to minimize catastrophic thinking in soldiers, thus the techniques used by the military would seem appropriate to develop resilience in athletes and help them prepare for pressurised situations.

“Icebergs”, or deeply held beliefs8, are discussed during IRT and should be addressed in athletes. According to CSF, a belief should be questioned in the following way: is it meaningful; is it accurate in this situation; is it able to be changed; is it useful? Following this, icebergs can be appraised and assessed, with a decision made on whether they are facilitative to performance or not. There are infinite times this process could be used in sport; “striving to be the best player on the pitch” may be incredibly meaningful but may not be useful, particularly in team sports where cohesion and selflessness are two attributes necessary for optimal performance. Whilst these deeply held beliefs can be incredibly resistant to change, an athlete must at least recognise them if they are to develop psychological resilience.

Resilience training for sport through military training camps

It seems then, that sport can learn plenty about resilience from the military. Military-style training camps are one way sports teams are beginning to improve a number of attributes in order to achieve success. Resilience, teamwork, cooperation, problem solving, decision making…all important attributes that the military teach that sport stars undoubtedly need. So what are the benefits of athletes attending a military training camp to develop resilience? And are there any times it is not such a good idea?

Military training camps for resilience done RIGHT

Sports teams have been attending military training camps for the last 20 years, with Clive Woodward’s 2003 Rugby World Cup winning England team one of the earliest examples. Woodward used the Royal Marine’s knowledge and training to identify those players that possessed the qualities to succeed under pressure. After a marine training session in 1999, Woodward stated that “one wrong team player can sap all of the energy from the group”10, aligning with the famous quote from Aristotle, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. It is not a group of resilient individuals and their personal qualities that make a resilient team (although this can help improve team resilience), it is the collective qualities of a group that heightens the resilience of the team as a whole1. These collective qualities include the interpersonal relationships built within the team, something that the CSF programme has sought to develop; developing these relationships should be a focus when attempting to develop resilience through a military camp.

More recently, Brian Ashton also took the England rugby team to a Marines training camp. Ashton assessed how his players developed a challenge mindset following their Marines training camp experience. Players were constantly reminded during rugby training post-camp about how they had dealt with significant adversity and challenges during their time at Lympstone. During the military camp, players had to quickly find the best way to overcome a challenge, similar to the response required in a competitive match by an elite athlete. Whilst cooking a wild animal on an open fire during a sustained army exercise is a far-cry from walking out in front of millions representing your country, the personal qualities and mindset developed during the military camp undoubtedly helped these players to withstand the negative effects of pressure; they reached the 2007 Rugby World Cup final.

These examples of exposure to stress align neatly with Pressure Inurement Training1 (PIT) (image 3); gradually increasing the demand of stressors whilst subtly adjusting the level of support given to an individual to foster psychological resilience. A military training camp, when done right, uses a form of PIT, putting athletes in a highly pressurised environment with adequate support. England football manager Gareth Southgate talked about a “dislocated expectation” during a marines training camp, helping his players realise how they must be “…adaptable in moments of difficulty…”12. This adaptability is crucial due to the dynamic nature of sport, but care must be taken to avoid exposing athletes to pressure that they are unable to deal with; if pressure is high, level of support should also be high. Without care, consideration and support, the effects of delivering a military training camp poorly can be catastrophic…

Image 3. Pressure Inurement Training1.

Military training camps for resilience done WRONG

At the same time that Clive Woodward was utilising the skills and mindset of the Royal Marines in preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, Gideon Sam and Rudolph Straeuli put their South African rugby team through what was described as a ‘team building’ military camp in the Limpopo bush13, infamously known as ‘Kamp Staaldraad’, or ‘camp barbed wire’. Naked and held at gunpoint, players were forced into tight spaces and covered in ice-cold water as well as being ordered to pump rugby balls up in a freezing lake, with Sam boldly stating, “the guys were pushed hard, but that is what preparing for battle is about”13. Whilst being vulnerable and succumbing to this insanely high level of stress in order to become resilient may be true14, it seems entirely unethical and inappropriate to subject someone to this level of physical and psychological distress. This camp happened before much of the resilience research had been published, so now we can see the importance of an appropriate level of support through developmental and motivational feedback1.

One other example of a military-style camp done wrong is the infamous Melbourne Swimming Boot Camp ‘execution’; two swimmers were mock-executed by gunshot and their ‘bodies’ were removed on stretchers in front of other members of the swimming team. Again, this was part of putting the athletes through considerable levels of emotional stress but it seems that, like Kamp Staaldraad, the coaches crossed an ethical line that should not be crossed. Coaches must not forget that no athlete is ever completely resilient to the effects of pressure; with enough adverse circumstances and added pressure, any individual can experience psychological distress and problems15. Despite so far discussing resilience as a ‘necessity’ for elite sporting performance, there has been a tendency for weakness to be misconstrued as strength, with people pushing themselves to the limits when it is clear that the effort is wasted and is only serving to endanger one’s health1. To what extent is it necessary to push someone to their limits?

Developing resilience in the army is not too dissimilar to developing it in athletes and teams. Whilst the environment it is developed in is entirely different, the methods and techniques used are almost identical. The lessons, mindset, personal qualities and psychological characteristics taught in the military have the potential to help athletes and teams acquire the necessary resilience required to perform at the highest level.

Article

What is it? There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? […]

What is it?

There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? The ones that take you by surprise. Before you were feeling calm, confident and collected, now you’re engulfed by a sudden sense of dread. This is known as short-term stress or acute stress. Acute stress induces physical and emotional responses that help to ready the body and the mind to deal with a threat (Cole, 2007). We experience acute stress when we feel threatened or someone we care about is under threat. Think of the last time you watched a scary film, you knew something scary would happen you but didn’t know when. Your heart was pumping, your muscles were tensed and your body was ready to run or ready for combat. You were ready to fight or to flight. However, once the film was over there was no more threat and so the stress reactions went away (Cole, 2007). This is what makes acute stress different from chronic, once the threat is no longer there the stress responses fades.

When does it occur?

Every athlete from the elite to the casual, from international competition to the 5 aside friendlies will know the feeling of pressure to perform and the stress that can accompany it. No one who has ever played sport can say they haven’t faced stress and very few can say they’ve never fallen to it. When we’re performing it can feel like we’re the only one who suffers from stress but when researchers have looked into the area they’ve found similar causes of stress appearing that can be generalized to a whole range of sports. Researchers Nicholls and Polman (2007), asked players from the England Under-18s Rugby Union team what stressors they faced. The most commonly report sources of stress were 1) physical error 2) criticism from coach or parent 3) mental error 4) sustaining an injury and 5) observing an opponent perform well. Not one of the top 5 causes of stress was related directly to rugby. These could all be applied to other sports and have just as much relevance. In any sport one can feel stressed when they’ve been criticised by the coach or the dread of making a mistake and feeling it’s impacted the whole game. Even Ander Herrera, in an interview with FourFourTwo, commented how the pressure was stepped up when he moved to Man United “You have more pressure on you. I told you before everyone is going to talk about you. Everyone is going to watch your games.”

Why do we succumb to stress?

Why is it that only some situations cause stress? Or the same situation can be stressful for one person but not another? Imagine this: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You love dogs and instantly feel happy and relaxed. You even go over to say hello.

Now rewind the situation: You have gone out for a walk in the park.  The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You are terrified of dogs. You begin to panic. Your heart is beating faster and your muscles have become tense ready to sprint in case the dog decides to run at you.

The difference between the two situations was that in the second your fear made you view the situation as dangerous. While stressors themselves are bad they aren’t damaging until we judge them as having the potential to be damaging to us. When a person is met with a specific event they decide if this event is threatening to them or if it is relevant to their well-being (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunekl-Shetter, DeLongis & Gruen, 1986). This is cognitive appraisal. If we don’t view the situation as threatening we don’t become stressed. Looking back at the cause of stressors discussed above (Nicholls & Polman, 2007) one can see how an opponent playing well could threaten how we view ourselves as the better player, or on a more practical level a good opponent can mean we risk losing. Once we’ve viewed a situation as threatening, unless we know how to handle that stress, the outcome can be detrimental to our performance.

Failing to cope

Failure to cope effectively with stress in a sporting environment can cause people to engage in behaviours that negatively affect performance such as poor decision making, misguided attentional focus and self-defeating thoughts and emotions (Anshel, 1990). Misguided attentional focus can lead to self-focus which occurs when a player pays too much attention to the explicit parts of a skill to make sure it’s done correctly (Hill & Hemmings, 2015). Have you ever paid too much attention to how you walk and suddenly walking became difficult? Overthinking the things we can do automatically, along with self-defeating thoughts and poor decision making can lead to a sudden decline in our performance, also known as choking.

“Choking in ‘sport is an acute and considerable decline in skill execution and performance, when self-expected standards are normally achievable, and which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure” (Mesagno & Hill, 2013). In the 2011 Masters Rory McIlroy experienced the full effects of stress on performance. After a week of playing well and gaining a comfortable lead, his performance on the final day spiralled and he finished with a score card of 80 tied for 15th place. Rory McIlroy’s drop in performance exemplifies how stress doesn’t have to be a constant factor and doesn’t have to build over time. It can come on us suddenly and while we may have been playing well before, once stress hits it needs to be managed before it can take control.

Dealing with stress

While the common suggestions for handling stress may be to take long bath or relax with a film these won’t do when you’re mid match. Instead people use a coping strategy, a technique that will allow them to quickly deal with and relieve the stress so they can perform at their best. Researchers have looked into the area of coping and found two coping styles, avoidance coping and approach coping (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001; Anshel & Anderson, 2002; Wang, Marchant & Morris, 2004; Nicholls & Polman, 2007; Anshel & Si, 2008; Hill & Hemmings 2015). When using approach coping you pay attention to whatever it is that is causing you stress and you actively take steps to deal with the issue to decrease the intensity of the stressor (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001). In sport approach coping can be used to address problems like executing a specific skill. Imagine you’re a rugby player. You’re having a great game except you are having trouble catching the ball properly. You’re quickly becoming stressed as you know this is a skill they can do well in training. You could ignore the problem but instead you wait until half time and go speak to your coach. They remind you to keep your hands up ready to catch. Armed with this knowledge you catch the ball without issue and the stress melts away. Other forms of approach coping techniques noted in the research are questioning, arguing, imagining the stressful event or reflecting on a previous error to come up with a solution to decrease the possibility of it happening again (Anshel & Anderson, 2002).

Avoidance coping is as it sounds. Avoid the stressor to stop it impacting your game. Avoidance is when a person tries to ignore the stressor or psychologically distance themselves by seeking out other people to act as distractions or moving on to the next task at hand (Anshel et al., 2001). Imagine your team is playing well in your football match and you’re one ahead of the opposition when the ref decides to give them a penalty. You disagree with the call and know it may mean the score is tied if they make the shot. However there is nothing you can do about the call or the outcome of the penalty so instead you focus on your next job in the game. Other methods of avoidance coping strategies include ignoring the stressor, discounting it as unimportant or engaging in another, unrelated task (Krohne, 1996).

How to cope when it counts

Both coping styles can have advantages and disadvantages. Knowing when to use approach or avoidance coping is rarely black or white, more often it depends on the stressor itself and the situation one is coping with. A general finding across research is approach coping is more effective in times when we have high controllability over the situation and there is a source of information we can draw from to fix the problem (Anshel, 1996). Thinking back to the example above when you were having problems catching the ball. Fixing the skill was in your control. By going to the coach at half time there is time and a good source of knowledge you could use to improve. Where approach coping wouldn’t work is in instances of high pressure with little controllability. If someone were to choose to focus on specific elements of a skill, like catching a ball, at a time of high pressure, in the middle of a ruck, this distracts them from more relevant elements of the game (Beilock & Gray, 2007) like where the ball is going next.

In these times of high stress, avoidance coping can be more appropriate. Avoidance coping is far more advantageous in situations where we have low control over the cause of the stress (Anshel et al., 2001). Looking back to the previous example when the ref made a call you disagreed with although the call caused stress you had no control over the situation. Therefore ignoring that stressor and moving on to your next job in the match is a more appropriate way to cope.

Knowing which method of coping to use and when may sound clear cut and obvious, but that isn’t the case. Often, athletes will report using a combination of both to deal with stress. For instance, Hill and Hemmings (2015) interviewed golfers to see what forms of coping they had employed in situations when they choked and when they played well. In terms of choking the most common coping strategies were avoidance coping, hoping, venting and self-focus which is a form of approach coping. In terms of playing well, the coping strategies most commonly mentioned by players were approach coping strategies of a pre- and post-shot routine, cognitive restructuring, and simulated practice as well as using the avoidance strategies of acceptance and withdrawal, walking away from uncontrollable stressors, to help their performance. Good performance wasn’t dictated by one form of coping, it took elements of both, just as choking was the result of using inappropriate avoidance and approach strategies. Mesagno and Marchant (2013) reported netball players who were more susceptible to choking in high pressure situations used approach coping, whereas players who were more resistant to choking used avoidance coping to handle the stress. However when they interviewed the netball players they described using elements of both coping styles, similar to the golfers.

The key is to know what coping strategies to use and when. Golf is a slow and technical game, by trying to avoid the stressor by mentally distancing themselves the player rushed the shot. It was the wrong avoidance strategy to use. As we saw a more appropriate response to stress would be to use a pre-shot routine to keep them calm and focused. An appropriate avoidance mechanism was withdrawl as it allowed them to walk away from sources of stress like a verbally abusive opponent. Netball is a faster game than golf and there is less time to use techniques like routines or look for information to fix a problem. Therefore using avoidance strategies to prevent over thinking on uncontrollable stressors aided performance. Nevertheless players did also report successfully using some approach coping techniques like cognitive restructuring, which is replacing negative thoughts and statements with positive ones (Silva, 1982). Neither the golf nor the netball players used all one and none of the other method to cope. In times of good performance appropriate elements of both styles of coping were used.

In conclusion

Stress doesn’t have to be long-term and building to cause problems in our performance. Often it can be that sudden feeling of threat that can impact how well we play. Once we feel threatened if we fail to cope or don’t cope well there is the risk we choke. Approach and avoidance are two methods of coping often employed in the world of sport. Approach coping helps us to tackle stressors by giving them attention and dealing with them head on. These are most applicable when sources of stress are controllable and we have time to fix them. Otherwise avoidance coping can suit us best. When we have little control over the cause of the stress it can make more sense to walk away or ignore it. Usually to perform at our best we employ strategies from both types of coping. This requires a balance of using the right strategy at the right time, like using a pre-game routine to focus our thoughts and withdrawal to ignore a stressor that is outside our control.