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.
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.
Stress is a common attribute and trigger that we all suffer from on a daily basis. This stress is normally attributed to high levels and is based on external influences. However, we also need to be mindful that stress can actually be a positive mechanism and it not always purely negative. This article will purposefully […]
Stress is a common attribute and trigger that we all suffer from on a daily basis. This stress is normally attributed to high levels and is based on external influences. However, we also need to be mindful that stress can actually be a positive mechanism and it not always purely negative. This article will purposefully look at negative stress and how we can manage its symptoms through the use of purposeful strategies.
There are 4 key stages to stress:
1) Causes of stress – An emotional demand places physical or psychological pressure
All stress will have a cause that is formed from factors beyond our control. Stress is normally caused by factors that are external and predominately humans react to these negatively as they cause distress. Based on these influences humans will suffer both physical and psychological symptoms of stress as it is the inability of not coping under pressure.
Reflective practice is a useful strategy that can help overcome symptoms and causes of stress. We should all appreciate our strengths and also become aware of limitations. Further, reflective practice enables us to develop self-awareness which enables us to become more empowered. Indeed, empowerment enables our physical symptoms of stress to alleviate. The use of setting smart and measureable goals is also important because this leads to focus and clear direction. Indeed, most of our stress is based on being disorganised and therefore goal setting will also help alleviate stress.
2) Individual perception of the demand – The person produces an individual view of the situation and whether it is threatening to them
Based on the causes of stress we react either positively or negatively. This reaction can be formed on experience and maturity. For example, sitting an exam for the first time will arouse different levels of stress to one where you sit a different exam for the 5th time.
Simply put the situation that one finds themselves in could be the difference between fearing the situation and meeting with its demands. Much of this is placed on the human mind and reaction. Perception is a vital ingredient in meeting with stressful demands.
It is suggested that to develop perception one should be clear of what they are attempting to achieve. Somebody who has a task to complete for a deadline is more likely to be less fearful if they have planned accordingly. Conversely, if somebody has not planned and is not aware of the task demands they are more likely to be fearful of the situation.
3) Stress response – Production of physical and psychological changes in the individual
Stress does produce physical and psychological changes in all individuals. These physical changes relate to feeling nervous and jittery, increased heart rate levels, stomach churning and general appearance changes on the skin. Psychologically one can suffer from negative thinking, lack of concentration and lost in thought. The production of these symptoms can only add to further stress and worry.
Strategies to overcome these responses are based on patience and resilience. Some symptoms of stress once they arrive take longer to leave. However, exercise (light, moderate or intense) will help the bloodstream produce positive chemicals that will alleviate stressful symptoms. Listening to music is also known to help the mind and body relax to a certain degree. The introduction to therapies such as mindfulness, yoga and meditation are strategies that can help decrease levels of stress and should be practised consistently. The case with these strategies is that not all will agree with the individual concerned and therefore trial and error is suggested.
4) Behaviour consequences – Any positive or negative changes in performance resulting from the perceived threat
Our behaviour is a manifestation of our own ability to cope. Behaviour that is irrational and negative will result in irritability, verbal language that is harmful, physical harm and overthinking. Our minds are programmed by a computer and alongside this we have a chimp and a human mind. The chimp and human will clash if there is a disagreement. As the chimp is more powerful the human will not win. Therefore, the human mind must slowly appraise the situation once the danger has passed. For example, there are many times we lose our temper only to regret it after. The temper is actually the chimp, the regret is the human.
One way to facilitate behaviour consequences is to appraise the situation on reflection following the event. Ask yourself some key questions and how you would handle the situation differently in the future. The key of behaviour consequence is based on a simple rule. Following your own appraisal have you learnt? If the answer is yes, then you as a person will be in a better position to deal with in the future as self-awareness has increased.
In summary, stress is an on-going battle that we cannot switch off. What we can do is develop strategies to enable us to cope when the pressure is on.
In the past 20 years the Paralympic Games has experienced rapid growth as athlete numbers have increased from 3,259 in 1996 to 4,328 in 20161. Since London hosted the Paralympic Games in 2012, the public awareness of the Paralympic Games has increased and there is now an acknowledgement that its participants are world class, elite […]
In the past 20 years the Paralympic Games has experienced rapid growth as athlete numbers have increased from 3,259 in 1996 to 4,328 in 20161. Since London hosted the Paralympic Games in 2012, the public awareness of the Paralympic Games has increased and there is now an acknowledgement that its participants are world class, elite competitors2. Such growth has resulted in greater media coverage of elite para-sport, higher media profiles of the athletes, alongside increasing demands to perform on the big occasion from funding providers. Despite the increasing demands on the para-athletes, there continue to be allegations in the media, from top Paralympians, claiming their National Governing Bodies are treating them as second-class citizens to their Olympic counterparts in the provision of training opportunities, facilities and support. This blog is about the unique issues experienced by elite para-athletes as a result of their relationship and interaction with the sporting organizations within which they operate. It is envisioned that through raising this awareness, sports organisations will adopt suitable stress management interventions to promote wellbeing and enhanced performance of elite para-athletes.
Organisational stress and stressors
When we consider stress in sport, we normally associate it with pre-competition nerves about performance. However, research has shown that elite athletes experience and recall more demands associated directly with their sporting organization than with competitive performance3. These are known as organizational stressors and are linked with negative emotions, undesirable behaviours, dissatisfaction, overtraining, poor psychological health, low wellbeing, burnout and underperformance4.
A respected psychological theory of stress, the meta-model of stress, proposes that stressors arise from a transactional relationship between an individual and the environment in which they operate. Stressors are reconciled by the individual’s assessment of the demand on them and their coping abilities. This is an ongoing process, moderated by personal and situational characteristics because individuals respond to stressors in different ways5.
Organisational stress has been defined as “an ongoing transaction between an individual and the environmental demands associated primarily and directly with the organization within which they are operating”5. In a sporting context, this is a dynamic relationship between the athlete and the sport organization’s environment, whereby an athlete may evaluate an organizational-related event alongside their coping abilities. The sport organisation’s structure and culture will influence their assessment5. However, it is important to recognize that elite para-athletes are working within numerous organizations at various levels, such as the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), International Sport Federations, National Paralympic Associations, National Sport Federations and specific sports teams, which increases the sources of organizational stressors and tensions they may have to deal with.
Research has proposed a framework of four categories of organizational demands experienced by elite athletes6:
Understanding organisational stressors unique to elite para-athletes is imperative because of the potential they have to disrupt athletic performance and impair elite para-athletes’ wellbeing.
How different are elite para-athletes to elite able-bodied athletes?
Researchers have raised the question whether elite para-athletes are actually any different from their able-bodied counterparts, in terms of their athletic needs and experiences. Characteristics of Olympic and Paralympic athletes have been found to be alike as they share similar reasons for competing in elite sport, the necessary mental approach and athletic identity7. Research looking specifically at the organisational stressors for elite para-athletes found numerous demands similar to elite able-bodied athletes in relation to incompatible coaching styles, unfair selection processes, structuring of events at competitions and expectations to win a medal8.
However, research has also found significant differences in the way that male and female athletes respond to organisational stressors, as well as differences between team and individual-based athletes and between athletes competing at different competitive standards9. Therefore it is likely that elite para-athletes experience organisational stressors unique to them. Below are five specific organisational stressors, which have been identified in research as unique to elite para-athletes8.
Disability classification is an inherent aspect of disability sport, whereby athletes are assessed on how their impairments limit their ability to perform a specific sport. Athletes are grouped into categories for competition in an attempt to create a fair and equal playing field10. This is similar to grouping athletes into weight categories in boxing.
Para-athletes have reported a number of stressors arising from the classification system and the classification process. The classification system can change, which creates uncertainty for athletes. For example, para triathlon is a new, developing Paralympic sport, which, in the past eight years, has seen three different classification systems. These changes have been implemented as the international sport federation has sought to comply with the IPC’s classification code as well as create a fair, evidence-based system, which promotes equitable competition. Athletes are not just faced with the stress from such uncertainty but national funding bodies are reluctant to fully support athletes when classification categories are unknown, which adds financial stress for the athletes. Athletes perceive the diversity of impairments in some categories to be too great and so unfair to those with more severe impairments. Athletes can also become de-classified, whereby they are no longer eligible to compete in para-sport.
The process of classification can create demands on athletes if it is carried out too close to competition, creating additional fatigue. Some athletes have reported being subjected to degrading tests during the process, whilst others feel they are not believed when they say they cannot perform a certain movement because of their impairment8. Recently there have been a number of allegations in the media of athletes being wrongly classified, potentially causing additional emotional responses from athletes as a result of this environmental factor.
Therefore there is a need for the IPC, National Paralympic Committees and disability sport governing bodies to work with athletes to reduce the organisational stressors placed on them as a result of classification systems and for para-athletes to be appropriately supported to cope with the demands.
Lack of disability-specific coaching
Research has highlighted that the majority of coaches to elite para-athletes have little to no disability sport specific training or personal participation before working with para-athletes. This has been highlighted as an area of stress, negatively impacting on performance and the sport experience of para-athletes7.
The coach-athlete relationship and communication is of paramount importance for a successful partnership. Whilst coach education is fundamental to coach development, coaches generally do not receive much disability-specific training. That which is provided is separate from ‘mainstream’ coach education and often very brief. Consequently coaches acquire disability-coaching knowledge informally and quite often ‘on-the-job’11. Therefore, to enhance the coach-para-athlete relationship, provide optimal and appropriate coaching to para-athletes and reduce the demands it can impose on para-athletes, disability sport governing bodies should create disability-coaching pathways with disability-specific coach education programmes.
Lack of crowds at disability sport events
Whilst some elite athletes have reported competing in front of large crowds as a stressor, para-athletes have the challenge of competing in empty stadiums. Running, swimming or cycling in a major championship in an empty venue reduces the impact of the ‘big occasion’ and results in a lack of atmosphere for the athletes8.
The Paralympic Games in London in 2012 sold 2.7 million tickets with most events and sessions selling out12. However, five years later, the World Para Athletics Championships were held in London and only 25% of the available tickets were sold, compared to sell-out crowds watching the World Athletics Championships, also held in London, two weeks later. This was, however, regarded as a success; in 2015 the same championships were held in Doha where only 15,000 tickets were sold in total. The 230,000 tickets sold in London for the World Para Athletics Championships represented more tickets sold than in all eight of the previous championships combined. Such was the increase in the number of spectators in London, top para-athletes worldwide have called for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships also to be held in London so that they can perform in front of crowds again.
Consequently when Local Organising Committees are awarded a major championship, ideally its ability to generate spectator interest should also be considered. However, this will be difficult given the high costs to countries of hosting such events and the challenge of finding nations who are prepared to host para championships across all sports13.
Cost of disability specific equipment
To compete in disability sport, disability specific equipment is often required, such as racing wheelchairs, hand cycles, tandem bicycles, sport-specific prosthetic limbs, such as running blades. Alternatively modifications are required to standard equipment for para-athletes to participate in their chosen sport. Such bespoke equipment is charged at a premium, particularly for elite para-athletes, where cutting edge technology is a necessity to be competitive against the best in the world. In research involving elite male wheelchair basketball players, the players cited lack of finance for their sport specific wheelchairs as one of the most significant sources of stress14.
Inaccessible venues for disability requirements
Competition and training facilities that are perceived to be “disability unfriendly” are a significant organisational stressor for para-athletes8. Even where there may be elevators and ramps to enhance accessibility, these may not always be fit for purpose. For example, in the Paralympic village in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, athletes were accommodated in 17-storey tower blocks with just two elevators, which could only fit two wheelchairs at one time. Queues for lifts could be extensive at busy times, particularly when athletes were travelling to competition. Even if an athlete could physically use the stairs, having to walk down over ten flights of stairs is far from ideal competition preparation. Therefore, whilst the accommodation was theoretically accessible, in practice it was limited and caused additional pre-competition stress to the para-athletes.
Whilst removing organisational stressors may appear to be the most desirable option for stress management, this is unrealistic. It is not possible to remove all organisational stress from athletes’ lives. Some organisational demands, such as classification, are an inherent and unavoidable aspect of disability sport. However, much can be done to minimise the consequences and overall outcomes of organisational stressors at both an organisation and individual level. Through a combination of proactive and reactive strategies, para-athletes can acquire the necessary psychological skills to manage and cope with any demands not eliminated15.
These involve a proactive and preventative approach through reducing or removing as much organisational stress as possible through the management of the organisational environment. This is particularly effective if a particular organisational stressor is pervasive. Such changes can be made at a macro level, such as rule changes, organisational restructuring, and cultural changes. At a micro level this can be achieved with alterations to training and competition environments and coaches providing disability-specific training sessions15. For example, a sport governing body responsible for both able-bodied and para elite athletes could ensure that training facilities and resources are shared equally and fairly between the two groups of athletes, rather than para-athletes having to make do with times and facilities not used by their able-bodied counterparts.
This is a proactive approach to modify the individual para-athletes’ reactions and responses to organisational stressors rather than modifying the organisational environment. Interventions could involve stress management training, sharing of information and contingency planning through the development of a range of “What if?” scenarios15. For example, if a sport governing body perform a reconnaissance of a competition venue, information about the accommodation, logistics and competition venue should be shared with para-athletes to enable them to prepare fully and avoid issues arising once athletes arrive at the competition venue. Athletes will be able to cope better with issues if they have been able to prepare in advance, rather than having to confront them suddenly once in the environment.
This is a reactive approach whereby strategies are developed to minimise the negative consequences of organisational stress by helping para-athletes cope more effectively and to lessen the impact on the para-athletes’ wellbeing and performance15. For example, if a para-athlete has had a change of classification at a major championship, counselling could be provided to help the para-athlete come to terms with the situation and still perform to their best.
A tripartite, holistic approach to organisational stress management provides a methodical structure than can aid practitioners in optimising para-athletes’ wellbeing and performance. However, sport organisations and event organisers should acknowledge their own role in the organisational stressors experienced by para-athletes. Strategies should also encourage the involvement of para-athletes in the stress management process, which will promote greater para-athlete control over the organisational environment5.
In summary, the organisational environment imposes numerous demands on para-athletes on many levels, which para-athletes consider to be significant and meaningful. Through highlighting a few organisational stressors, which are unique to para-athletes, it is intended that sport organisations and practitioners will gain a greater awareness of sources of organisational stress on para-athletes. Along with the suggested tripartite approach to managing organisational stress, practitioners will be more able to develop appropriate and tailored stress management interventions for para-athletes with the aim of optimising their overall wellbeing and sporting performance.
Over the years, there has been many athletes that have been tipped to be the next big star, but fail to reach their full potential. One example is Freddy Adu, who in 2004, at the age of just 14, became the youngest athlete in America to sign a professional contract playing football for D.C United […]
Over the years, there has been many athletes that have been tipped to be the next big star, but fail to reach their full potential. One example is Freddy Adu, who in 2004, at the age of just 14, became the youngest athlete in America to sign a professional contract playing football for D.C United in the Major League Soccer (MLS). He was the youngest player to appear and score in the MLS and was referred to ‘as the next Pele’. Many people believed he was going to become one of football’s top players.
Fast forward 13 years. Did Freddy Adu become one of football’s top players? Sadly not. Since his big money move to Benfica in 2007, Adu has played for 10 different professional clubs in 10 years and now at the age of just 28, he is currently a ‘free agent’ and doesn’t play for any club.
So why didn’t Freddy Adu reach the levels everybody thought he would and why do so many other athletes suffer the same fate? One answer maybe some athletes don’t have the right mindset required to fulfil their potential and succeed at the elite level. If that is the case, what type of mindset does an athlete need to be successful?
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, there are two types of mindsets people possess; fixed and growth mindset. Everyone will hold both mindsets, but will often tend to favour one mindset more than the other.
Individuals with a fixed mindset have the belief that traits such as intelligence, ability and athleticism are fixed, and no matter what you do or try, these traits cannot be changed (Dweck, 2006, 2009). As a result, these individuals tend not to value effort and are more focused upon looking the best. Often, people with a fixed mindset won’t fulfil their full potential due to not investing the required levels of effort to succeed. Research has repeatedly identified that a fixed mindset commonly leads the tendency to give up easily when faced with setbacks, due to the fear of failure and looking stupid (Dweck, 2006, 2009). In their eyes, if you can’t succeed at something, there is no point in persisting because you simply don’t have the intelligence to be successful. Often this is reason many young athletes who are described as having lots of potential, fail to transition to the top level.
People who favour a growth mindset will perceive that success and achievement is a long journey that involves hard-work, dedication and persistence. Their belief is that traits such as talent and intelligence can be developed and improved over time and if they work hard enough they will achieve their full potential. Research has shown that developing a growth mindset can lead to positive results such as developing higher levels of resilience in the face of difficulties (Yeager & Dweck, 2012; Hinton & Hendrick, 2015), persisting for longer periods (Mueller & Dweck, 1998) and achieving higher results (Dweck, 2008).
When analysing the processes of the two mindset types, it is clear to see how a fixed mindset could have been attributed to Freddy Adu’s career failure to reach the heights people expected him to. His early career success was regularly linked to his natural ability and the similarities to the football icon Pele. However, growth mindset behaviours such as hard-work, commitment and persistence were rarely mentioned. Potentially, the constant praise on his ability could have led Freddy Adu to develop a fixed mindset and believe his success was predominately down to his natural ability. This follows previous research carried out by Mueller and Dweck (1998), who identified that when students were praised on their intelligence/ability rather than their hard-work, their motivation and performance were diminished.
With research demonstrating a growth-mindset approach to be a predictor of long-term success. The key question is, how can athletes effectively learn to develop the processes of a growth mindset and increase their chance of reaching their full potential? The first step is to be aware that the journey to long-term success won’t result from only talent and ability. If you asked any elite athlete, was becoming successful easy? They would say no and state behaviours such as high levels of effort, persistence and always striving to learn, are the vital ingredients to achieving success. The quotes below from Michael Phelps (Most decorated Olympian) and Cristiano Ronaldo (4x world footballer of the year) encapsulate the importance of always aspiring to learn and to develop.
Michael Phelps: ‘There will be obstacles, there will be doubters, there will be mistakes. But with hard work, there are no limits’.
Cristiano Ronaldo: ‘I feel an endless need to learn, to improve, to evolve, not only to please the coach and the fans, but also feel satisfied with myself’.
The second step to is to set no limits. Setting limits on what you can achieve, will limit what you can achieve. Always consider there is something new to learn and every experience you encounter, you will be able to use to help you develop.
A key ingredient to developing a growth mindset is the ability to embrace setbacks/failure and learn from those experiences, what you need to do to improve. Most importantly, use that failure to fuel your motivation to succeed and fulfil your full potential. The top athletes in the world can successfully perform in all environments; both normal and challenging because they learnt from their past mistakes and failure.
Finally, identify your sources of inspiration that pushes you to develop and succeed. Your source of inspiration could be the ambition to participate an international competition, become a professional athlete in your chosen sport, be inspired by the success of another athlete or simply have the desire to improve because you enjoy performing.
Embracing a growth mindset, could be the answer to you reaching your full potential.
Introduction “What a liberation to realise that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle When Michael Jordan was asked how he was able to transform his on-court leadership and lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, he attributed it […]
“What a liberation to realise that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle
When Michael Jordan was asked how he was able to transform his on-court leadership and lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, he attributed it to a pretty unsuspecting character. George Mumford, his mindfulness meditation teacher, who has also worked with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on optimising their sporting performance (Mumford, 2015). Since the late 1990’s, there has been an exponential rise in published research on the topic of mindfulness-based interventions. Eighteen million Americans now have a meditation routine, and 44% of all U.S. companies offer mindfulness training to their members of staff (Kotler & Wheal, 2017). What started as an alternative approach within mind/body medicine, has now breached the domains of the mainstream, with major developments being seen in clinical and sport psychology, cognitive therapy, neuroscience, education, law, business, and the military (Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2011). This article will seek to understand the eastern origins of mindfulness practice and highlight its key characteristics, before examining how it has been secularised and developed to form interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Finally, differences in cultural ontology between east and west, particularly in relation to the self, will be used to examine the difficulties in operationalising mindfulness within a dualistic scientific setting and incorporating mindfulness techniques into reductionist interventions.
What is Mindfulness?
“The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it. Until this moment. Now I see that I will never find the light unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel”. – Bruce Lee
Mindfulness originates from Buddhist philosophy and acts as the central tenet for many of its meditative traditions, such as Zen, Shambhala, and Vipassana (Khusid & Vythilingham, 2016) and has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; p145). Translated from the Pali word sati, mindfulness encompasses an array of meanings, but the most important relate to “clear awareness” and “memory” (Dreyfus, 2011; Harris, 2014). In Buddhism, the origins of suffering (dukkha) are thought to be caused by our ignorance of the impermanent nature of the universe (anitya), and our patterns of attachment and resistance towards pleasant or unpleasant experiences (Vago & Silbersveig). Through formal meditative practice, which entails sitting or lying still and placing awareness on a particular aspect of experience, such as the rhythm of breathing, physical sensations, or a chosen mantra, or participating in mindfulness-based movement activities such as yoga, tai-chi, and qigong (Crane, 2017; Lucas et al. 2016), the individual is able to practice becoming aware of, and disidentifying from, their habitual unconscious cognitions and develop a sense of familiarity with the feeling of clarity and calmness that arises (Vago & Silbersveig, 2012). The cultivation of this state of awareness allows the individual to adopt a much more accepting, non-judgemental attitude; a kind of ‘go with the flow’ mentality, towards both internal and external stimuli, which can cause drastic improvements in general well-being (Shapiro et al. 2008). These experiences are validated by studies in neuroscience, which show the ability of mindfulness meditation to elicit structural changes in the brain, specifically, increasing the density of white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex; responsible for self-regulation, and reducing the density of grey matter in the right hemisphere of the amygdala; responsible for the expression of negative emotional states (Hölzel et al. 2009; Tang et al. 2010). Mindfulness has been shown to demonstrate broad utility across a vast array of clinical settings, including predicting the efficiency of attentional networks (Di Francesco et al. 2017), enhancing adaptive affective processing (Dixon & Overall, 2016; Kang et al. 2017), building cognitive resilience in high-stress populations (Jha et al. 2017), increasing divergent, creative thinking capabilities (Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2017), reducing depressive ruminative thoughts (Perestelo-Perez et al. 2017), addressing emotional eating problems in bariatric patients (Wnuk et al. 2017), improving smoking abstinence programs (Davis et al. 2017), and even promoting political compromise in areas of prolonged intergroup conflict (Alkoby et al. 2017). The benefits also translate to many dimensions of sporting performance, with research demonstrating the ability of mindfulness to reduce perceived stress and subsequent rates of athlete burnout (Gustafsson et al. 2015), improve pain management, enhance self-esteem (Carlisle 2017), as well as facilitate the experience of flow (Kee & Wang, 2008; Kaufman, Glass, & Arnkoff, 2009; Bervoets, 2013).
“As MBSR teachers, we cannot teach someone their insights; at best, we create the space in the MBSR classroom for insights to bubble up from awareness, naturally on their own”. – Allan Goldstein
Although mindfulness practice originates from spiritual traditions, the key premises can be easily transferred to a secular setting (Harris, 2014). This has seen the development of two key mindfulness-based interventions, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBSR was first developed in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts as a holistic method for treating patients with a wide variety of physical and psychological problems. The program consists of eight 2.5 hour weekly sessions of extensive mindfulness practice with each individual encouraged to do 45-minutes daily practice on their own accord (Crane, 2017). Although MBSR has seen significantly positive treatment effects in populations such as breast cancer survivors (Christensen & Marck, 2017), war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (Cole et al. 2015) and adolescents with mental health concerns (Van Vliet et al. 2016), the holistic nature of the practice has made it difficult for science to isolate the specific mechanisms of action. This seems to highlight friction between cultural viewpoints, as the scientific community demands that all interventions be evidence-based from randomised controlled trials, where cause and effect relationships can be isolated and established, which leads to doubt over the empirical basis of a lot of the mindfulness research. Conversely, mindfulness practitioners see the cut-throat reductionist analysis of something so complex and multi-faceted as a disservice to the heart and spirit of the teachings, and worry that the authenticity of the practices are being lost in translation (Fennell & Segal, 2011). Kabat-Zinn himself voiced his concerns over the cognitive therapy community’s implementation of mindfulness techniques into interventions such as MBCT, over fears that it would be “plugged into a behaviourist paradigm with the aim of driving desirable change, or fixing what is broken” without respecting the unique essence of mindfulness as an ongoing practice or a lifestyle, rather than a temporary treatment technique or exercise.
Nevertheless, the development of MBCT, which was specifically designed by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002) to prevent patients recovering from serious depression from engaging in thought patterns that may increase the likelihood of relapse, attempted to bridge the gap between the purely acceptance-based MBSR and the more control-oriented Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Unlike MBSR, participants in MBCT are taught the techniques of mindfulness meditation in a group-based setting and the teachings of non-judgemental acceptance are placed within a more control-based cognitive framework. The program consists of eight weekly 2-hour sessions, including one silent whole day of mindfulness practice. Throughout the course of the eight weeks, students are taught body-scan meditation (moving awareness through various regions of the body), mindful movement (maintaining present awareness of all sensations associated with each movement pattern), sitting meditation and ‘the 3-minute breathing space’, which is a mini-meditation practice that can be implemented in particularly stressful situations (Crane, 2017). Participants are taught to use their enhancements in attention to try and notice the origins of their depressive ruminative thought patterns, but the ability to decentre from their thought patterns is only implemented at times of potential relapse. Teasdale elucidates the incompatibility of mindfulness and relapses in depressive mind-states and suggests that the process of “shifting” into a mindful mode of being can be used to interrupt the chain of negative feedback loops and prevent the onset of depressive episodes (Segal, Williams, Teasdale, 2012). A meta-analysis by Perestelo-Perez et al. (2017) examining the efficacy of MBCT on reducing ruminative thought patterns in participants who had suffered at least one major depressive episode, included nine randomised controlled trials and revealed a significant moderate effect of MBCT when compared to treatment as usual. Evidently, MBCT provides an extremely potent alternative for helping people with their psychological issues, but the question remains: is MBCT a true representation of mindfulness practice? Or has is just been “plugged” into a behaviourist paradigm as Jon Kabat-Zinn feared? In order to better understand these questions, ontological differences between eastern and western culture must be considered.
The Self: East vs West
“Imagination builds the image of the self, and thought then functions within its shadows. From this self-concept grows the conflict between what is and what should be, the conflict in duality”. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to attain Nirvana, which translates to “blowing out”, where the cessation of suffering (dukkha) is finally realised. One of the key realisations along this process is that of “non-self” (anattã), which means that nothing exists independently; everything in the universe is in a dynamic web of interrelatedness. This includes the notion of the self, and roots Buddhism in an ontology of monistic idealism, as opposed to the material dualism that permeates the majority of western culture. By realising the “illusion of the self”, the propensity for desire, craving and attachment (tanhã) is also transcended, which contributes to the cessation of dukkha (Kabat-Zinn, 2011; Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011). Academics have tussled with this idea, as Norman (2017) likens deeply mindful states to metacognition, where an individual’s identification with thoughts and emotions is broken, and they begin to view them with greater objectivity, rather than as facets of the self. Many other terms have been coined to describe this process, such as decentering, deautomisation, detachment, and reperceiving, all alluding to a fundamental shift in perspective, where one escapes the limiting parameters of their own subjective point of view (Shapiro et al. 2006). Thus, mindfulness can be thought of as the tool that is used to become aware of awareness, to “use the mind to see through the mind”. This deconstruction of the self is essential to overcome what Van Gordon et al. (2016) calls ontological addiction, which has been defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the impaired functionality that arises from such a belief”. It is posited that the belief in a separate self is a logical fallacy and scientifically impossible, considering the multitude of conditions that the human being is reliant upon, such as air, water, food and so on. This is supported by recent developments in neuroscience research, which calls the phenomena of consciousness the “hard problem”, and suggests that, although people tacitly assume that there is a unified, central agent to all of their experiences, this cannot be proven (Hyland, 2015). However, dualist science is predicated upon the perspective of subject/object observation, so it is understandable that this perspective is difficult to incorporate authentically. This is most evident in research by Xiao et al. (2017) who introduces the concept of “the mindful self” in an attempt to integrate Buddhist psychology with one’s self-schemas, suggesting the development of another self, rather than the transcendence of self-concepts entirely. So, does this highlight a fundamental disconnect in the way Western psychology has adopted the use of mindfulness when compared to its Buddhist origins? Buddhist texts treat mindfulness as a constant practice that progresses through multiple phases of development, starting with the awareness of bodily sensations and advancing to clearer awareness of deeper cognitive processes, emotional states, and finally an altered view of self in relation to the universe. Systematic practice is required for its gradual refinement, rather than it being implemented as a symptomatic remedy once psychological issues arise. Conversely, Western psychology seeks to label mindfulness as a stable psychological skill that ignores the developmental and contextual facets of its Eastern origins. Mindfulness is operationalised from intellectual knowledge and contemporary measures of self-reported assessments, rather than from direct phenomenological experience, which does not account for the gradual refinement of the practice, the subsequent increases in experiential vividness, or the difficulty associated with implementing mindful awareness into everyday life (Grossman & Van Dam, 2011). Although the aforementioned scientific studies demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for alleviating psychological issues in a vast array of settings, further research must aim to reach consensus on the definitions, characteristics, and cultural nuances of such a multi-faceted phenomenon, to ensure that the construct is not misconstrued.
Mamma Mia! Italy’s football team failed to qualify to the next 2018 World Cup for the first time in 60 years. The front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading sport newspaper, pictured a very desperate Gigi Buffon, captain and goalkeeper, and in bold letters the word “The End”. The disappointment and the anger […]
Mamma Mia! Italy’s football team failed to qualify to the next 2018 World Cup for the first time in 60 years. The front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s leading sport newspaper, pictured a very desperate Gigi Buffon, captain and goalkeeper, and in bold letters the word “The End”. The disappointment and the anger are still fresh, and it is still at this time a very touchy subject especially in a country where football is considered a religion. However, it is important to talk about it without trying to point fingers and finding someone to blame but instead as a learning lesson. Put aside the coach, his choices and the players, Italy were not a cohesive powerful team and the turning point was the 3-0 loss against Spain.
Now that the Italian football team will try to pick itself up renovating players and staff, there is so much that can be learned from the best teams after Spain’s football domination where they won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010, and Germany latest victory at the 2014 World Cup. What makes these two teams successful is not just the talent and the skills that they have, but also the mindset, team cohesion and unity.
Germany for example is known for its selfless attitude. The football team is known as Die Mannschaft which translates to “The Team”. Yes, there are many talented and remarkable players in the squad however not one of them tries to be in the limelight. The whole team is in the limelight, there are not individual stars. After Germany thrashed Brazil 7:1 in the 2014 World Cup semi-final, the tweet “Portugal has Ronaldo, Brazil has Neymar, Argentina has Messi, but Germany has a team!” went viral. Their cohesiveness and cooperation not only made them bring home optimal results, but it was also debilitating for the opponents.
So, young sports teams (not just football) that want to strive to success and perform better need to work on their unity and cohesiveness. A starting point can be drawn from the psychological theory of Emotional Contagion. This theory first developed by Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1994) suggests that consciously or unconsciously an individual is able to influence the emotions of others through verbal and nonverbal cues. Nonverbal cues include touches, body language, facial expressions, speech patterns and vocal tones. The contagion happens through imitation. When you see someone expressing an emotion, you will tend to mimic that expression causing you to feel the emotion in itself. You will feel happier around people that are happy and smile a lot and sadder around depressed and more negative people. The emotions can have a powerful impact among team members, and can be influential in the functioning of the team affecting performance.
The theory was first studied within a business environment by Barsade (2002) at Yale University. Participants were asked to participate in a mock managerial exercise where they had to discuss how to allocate a sum of bonus money to their employees. They had to pretend to be a head of a department and they had to give a small presentation supporting why the candidate from their respective department deserved the bonus. Before the start of the exercise they had to rate their mood and how they felt. To control the group’s emotions the confederate had to act a particular emotion: cheerful enthusiasm (confederate was happy, energetic and optimistic), serene warmth (calmer attitude emitting warmth and peacefulness), hostile irritability (confederate was frustrated, hostile, impatient and irritable) and depressed sluggishness (confederate was unhappy but in a more dull and lethargic way). To be energetic he made a lot of eye contact and had a strong tone of voice. The participants were not aware of the conditions. At the end of the exercise, they were asked to report how they felt during and after. The results showed what was predicted: the confederate’s emotion did have an effect on the group members. Supporting the theory of emotional contagion, the group’s mood changed adopting the one of the confederate. Barsade also found that contagion of positive emotions resulted in more cooperation, lower conflicts and increased task performance.
If the Emotional Contagion has an impact on performance amongst team members, then it must have the same effect on sports teams. The idea is that when the team’s spirit is upbeat, positive and energetic it will influence the mood of the single players.
Totterdell (2000) monitored the mood of four professional cricket teams and how that impacted performance. The cricketers were given pocket computers where they had to record their mood and how they felt they were performing individually and as a team. Measures were taken before, after the game and during the breaks. The findings support the one’s of Barsade. When the team was in an overall good mood as a consequence the individual players were also happier and more energetic. Players felt that they performed a lot better when everyone in the team was contented. Interestingly, this was mainly found in fielding situations when the players were all engaged in the same activity and they needed to coordinate and communicate more, rather than in batting situations where the effort was individual.
Some sceptics might say that the players were happier because they performed better rather than the other way around. To support the evidence that emotions are contagious, Moll, Jordet and Pepping (2010) monitored the behavior of football players after kicking a penalty during a penalty shootout during the European Championships and World Cup from 1972 to 2008. Penalty shootouts are known to be very stressful for everyone: players, coaches, team staff and even the fans as they determine the outcome of a game. The study conducted by Moll showed that there is a link between the player’s post-performance behavior and the final outcome of the penalty shootout. In fact, when the successful penalty was celebrated with big smiles, the expanding of the chest, moving the arms and raising the fists, those players were part of the team that ultimately won the shootout. Instead, those players who looked down after successfully scoring a penalty were not part of the winning team. The celebratory movements were then a sign of achievement and happiness that was transmitted onto the next player of the same team that was up for the penalty. So yes, to answer the sceptics, the players celebrated because they performed well and scored but the findings show evidence that the positive emotion of happiness and pride influenced the performance of the next teammate positively.
Another interesting finding from the study was that it is more beneficial for the team if the players celebrate the goals together rather than with the audience or by themselves. Dr Gert-Jan Pepping said that “If you cheer facing the supporters after you’ve scored a penalty, the supporters will get wildly enthusiastic. That’s all very fine, but they’re not the ones who have to perform at that moment. Your team members on the pitch are. It’s very important to celebrate together — that’s what makes scoring contagious.”
This doesn’t only apply to football, in fact if you ever watch a volleyball match you will notice that the teams tend to celebrate every single point scored with a team huddle, high fives and back slaps. So, if you consider that to win a match you need to win three sets out of five with each set being 25 points, that will equate to 75 possible team huddles, and many more high fives and back slaps. In basketball as well it is common that players celebrate shoots with fist bumps, leaping shoulder bumps, half hugs and head grabs.
Kraus, Huang and Keltner (2010) conducted a study on the relationship between touch behavior for each of the 30 NBA teams and performance. Performance was not limited to number of points scored but also rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, turnovers and shot attempts. The findings did show that a higher number of touches between team members was linked to greater performance. The two most-touched bonded teams were the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, two of the league’s top teams. Of the Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett was the star of the study as he reached out and touched four guys within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw. According to Kraus and colleagues, the touches represented a powerful enabler of trust between team members, and increased cooperative and interdependent behaviors, essential to the functioning of the team. Without realizing the basketball players were communicating positive emotions through the physical touches.
From these studies and from the theory of Emotional Contagion, some practical implications can be drawn in order for young sports teams to enhance their performance and get on the right track to achieve greater results.
As an athlete you should:
FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT. Understand what mood you are in and if you see it is not beneficial for the team or for your own performance try to change it. Think about something that makes you happy or laugh. Force a smile and try to hold it. You will see that you will feel better and that will impact how the others feel as well.
SPREAD YOUR EMOTIONS. Be a team player and create the best atmosphere. Smile a lot, give high fives, make eye contact with everyone, be energetic.
CELEBRATE, CELEBRATE AND CELEBRATE EVEN MORE. No matter what sport you play, try to celebrate every single achievement. If it is a point scored do a team huddle, if a player has made a great pass, or a remarkable action let him/her know! This will boost the player self-esteem and impact positively the performance for the rest of the game. This not only will help spreading emotions but will also put the opponents under pressure.
BE A LEADER. If you are the captain or hold some leadership role within the team, hopefully your squad trust you and listen to you more. In that case, you have to be even more aware of the power of emotions and the impact on the team performance. Be ready to spread positivity and keep an eye out for those who give out negative vibes. These players might need a pep talk, or even a smile, a high five or a verbal praise.
BE A TEAM PLAYER. You might not be the captain but you are still part of the team. Avoid playing for your individual glory, instead be a team member. When Manuel Neuer, German’s football goalkeeper, in an interview was congratulated by the reporter for an amazing save, he first gave credit to the defence and the ability of his team players.
A team’s coach and staff also play a crucial role in creating the perfect environment that supports positivity and stimulating better performance.
CREATE A POSITIVE CULTURE. The coach is not only responsible to train the team but also to create cultural values and norms within the team. This means that the players should be aware of what behavior and emotional expressions are acceptable underlying that aggressive and negative behavior won’t be tolerated.
However, it is important not to ignore the other side of the coin of the Emotional Contagion theory.
Some researchers have gone deeper and applied emotional contagion to other aspect of sport and performance. O’Neill (2008) has researched the concept of injury contagion so whether an injury in one teammate would cause an emotional response of anxiety or fear on the other team members. The idea is that through emotional contagion, if you see someone from your own sport experiencing a bad injury then you will be affected by an emotional trauma. Specifically, O’Neill investigated whether the performance of alpine skiers would be impacted. The findings showed that after seeing someone breaking their knee and ligament the athletes made tactical changes. These changes had a negative impact on their performance as they put them more at risk of getting injured themselves. Psychological tests have also revealed that the athletes used more words and sentences related to fear in their normal dialogue after the traumatic experience.
A practical implication from this study can also be drawn for the coach and team staff:
BE AWARE. Because Emotional Contagion can have a dark side such as injury contagion. When an athlete gets injured, the team staff needs to keep an eye on the others’ reactions and emotional responses to it. Staff should be available if the athlete needs to talk, especially if traumatized by the injury and fear for himself.
The road to success is definitely not easy and it won’t be free of obstacles and drawbacks. Italy might feel devastated now, but this is not the end of Italian football. Similarly, Spain and Germany didn’t have it easy, but what makes them successful is an incredible cohesion and a solid team structure. Applying the theory of Emotional Contagion could possibly be the first brick towards the edification of a better team, as it eases the path to a greater performance.
Assisting youth and professional athletes outside of the sporting environment has been a challenge for many years. There has not been an accepted specific name for the industry or a blueprint for curriculum design. We are missing guidelines for practical applications focused on helping the youth and professional athletes in their personal, social and professional […]
Assisting youth and professional athletes outside of the sporting environment has been a challenge for many years. There has not been an accepted specific name for the industry or a blueprint for curriculum design. We are missing guidelines for practical applications focused on helping the youth and professional athletes in their personal, social and professional development. These three ingredients are the pillars of personal development and when administered correctly produce a fruitful and sustainable athlete.
Mental health has become an everyday term for ordinary people, which is why I focused on becoming a mental health professional. Over the course of an athletic career, I quickly learned mental health is personal development for athletes. But few athletes are receiving personal development and pushed in the direction of mental health. Due to an athlete’s lifestyle, consistent pressure to perform and behavioral expectations away from sports eliminates athletes from the category of ordinary people. Neglecting the need for personal development and replacing it with common mental health principles can explain why we are witnessing so many athletes move from mental health to mental illness.
Personal development for athletes is currently called different things throughout the global sporting community. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, British University and College Sports, National Football League, National Basketball Association and Premier League all have different names for professionals working with athletes in the area of personal development. The link connecting the above helping professionals together is the job they are all attempting to accomplish. These teams and organizations seek to take a personal approach to a player and develop that player. Resulting in Personal Player Development (PPD).
The biggest challenge for helping professionals working in the PPD industry is deep rooted in accepting the need to be trained in the PPD field. A Sports Psychologist is highly trained in delivering maximum performance of athletes. Athletic trainers are also highly trained in keeping athletes fit and key on recovery maintenance. But what type of PPD training do Welfare Officers, (UK) or Life Skills professionals (USA) receive? Most often the qualifications of these helping professionals don’t match the job duties as they pertain to the personal, social and professional development of the athlete.
The lack of qualified professionals working with athletes can be blamed on 1) the lack of curriculum focused on PPD of the athlete and 2) the investment and the return on investment, is in its infancy stage. Currently very few dare to make the leap to fully embracing PPD. More importantly, they are not sure of the value a PPD professional brings to an organization or an athlete. A PPD professional works with athletes on the daily personal, social and professional issues athletes encounter.
The backbone to PPD is a unique understanding of athletic identity for this generation. Athletic Identity for this generation of athletes involves more than identifying as an athlete or retiring from the sport. It’s an everyday phenomenon athletes experience. Athletes require this daily phenomenon to be explored and maximized to achieve ultimate success in and outside of the sporting environment. Being an athlete is not what we do its who we are because of our unique daily belief system.
Why is PPD so important to all of us? To universities or professional organizations, real PPD provides significant brand protection. For the coach, PPD assists in the overall performance of an athlete. For the parent, PPD is the essence of developing an athletically gifted child to become a fully functioning successful adult. The helping professional becomes prepared with actually developing an athlete for long term success. PPD allows athletes to develop a skill set in which they are infrequently introduced. Ultimately, it will prove valuable during and after their sporting experience. It is of particular importance to understand athletic identity, decision-making, and coping skills as athlete’s experience a multi-level platform of transitions which include the post-athletic phase of their lives.
Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as: …one’s ability to […]
Resilience is a hot topic in today’s world. From sport psychology to military psychology, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of resilience, and how resilience training should be administered. Going back to my previous article titled “Empirical vs. Non-empirical Resilience Strategies – Outcomes and Consequences,” resilience will be defined as:
…one’s ability to overcome cognitive obstacles (e.g., stress, negative self-talk) and maintain composure during high stress activities. Multiple factors have been identified and linked to outcome performance related to resilience. These include, but are not limited to: determination, confidence, spirituality, and one’s ability to adapt (Gonzalez, Moore, Newton, & Galli, 2016).
In order to address whether or not resilience can be coached, we need to take a step back and look at the fundamental principles of resilience: 1) the definition of resilience (see above), 2) resilience as it stands in objective literature, and 3) resilience as it subjective observation.
When looking at the definition of resilience referenced by Gonzalez et al. (2016), several key words can be extracted for further interpretation. The first is the word cognitive and how it relates to obstacles. The word cognitive emphasizes the mental approach to an, potentially multi-faceted, obstacle. In other words, a cognitive obstacle is not something that is readily foreseen, nor is it something that can be moved by physical force. A cognitive obstacle is one that must be experienced and subsequently adapted to through means of different mental strategies and/or psychological skills [e.g., visualization, deep breathing, goal setting] (Fitzwater, Arthur, & Hardy, 2017). This is not to say you cannot plan for cognitive obstacles drawing from past experiences, but it is to say that not all cognitive obstacles can be predicted.
“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
This quote is applicable to cognitive obstacle idea, and sets us up for the next key word connected to resilience: outcome(s).
It is not uncommon for athletes to spend hours at the gym counting reps and forgetting the two most basic principles of training: purpose and outcome(s). Purpose and outcomes are fundamental concepts of sport performance. Without purpose, why participate? Without an outcome, what are you striving for? Granted, outcomes are not always black and white, but a purpose should be fairly clear and concise on either a personal and/or team level.
With the fundamental principles of purpose and outcome(s) in mind, it is just as important for athletes to plan for failure as it is for them to plan for success. Some common approaches seen throughout the literature are the concepts of goal setting, deep breathing, and visualization (Adler et al., 2015). These are all equally important, but most are approached in a positive light (success) and not a negative light (failure). Coaches may want to embrace these mental training approaches from both perspectives in order to prepare their athletes for what may be an unexpected outcome.
The third, and final, key word in the definition of resilience is composure. Composure, while listed in the second position in the definition of resilience, is a key component for any athlete and/or coach. One’s ability to maintain composure in the face of uncertainty may make the difference between success and failure; life or death. As there is not a readily available and common definition of composure from a research perspective, we will think of composure as one’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of uncertain or trying circumstances.
In my experience as a researcher, composure is, more often than not, a subjective measure based on observation. However, it is not something that cannot be quantifiable. Self Determination Theory (SDT) is a great starting point for coaches that wish to seek out the impact of components related to composure. Empirically supported, SDT emphasizes three major sticking points: relatedness to the task, comprehension of the subject matter, and the autonomous means of approaching a task. One’s ability to maintain a level head in the face of adversity may rely on these factors. While not directly correlated with composure, SDT does show promise on the overall impact of performance (Mellinger, Cheek, Sibley, & Bergman, 2014) and should be considered moving forward with a basic mental performance plan.
Resilience is a high interest topic in the field of sport psychology, no doubt. But, the delivery of which resilience training programs are ‘best’ remains quite elusive, if not controversial. The US Army has the Comprehensive Solider Fitness (CSF) program; the US Navy SEALS has psychological skills training (PST); and professional athletes, more often than not, use life or skill coaches (Fitzwater et al., 2017). So which on is best? Based on the literature, the answer varies.
In order to determine which delivery method and/or program is the most effective, researchers need to be able to measure the outcomes related to resilience. In the case of Fitzwater et al. (2017), researchers sought to quantify the effects of mental skills (e.g., visualization, goal setting) as they related to overall performance. In more simplistic terms, they wanted data to support the notion that mental skills training could make an impact on military performance. Taking soldier’s from the British army’s para recruit program (n = 173), researchers revealed that mental skills did have general support for enhanced resilience and military performance.
So what? These results are important because they are what researchers call objective. In other words, they are results that are independent and apart from any personal bias. Proven test measures with high rates of validity and reliability were utilized to collect information to support or nullify a hypothesis. This is important because now one who may seek mental skills training has something to base a curriculum. This is contrary to the CSF program which is subjective. In other words, a subjective result is something that is based on observation, and personal experience which data may or may not support. This becomes an issue when personal biases may have a negative impact on the message one may be trying to deliver.
Studies such as the one described above are not without limitations. However, they do help take a proactive, data driven, approach to resiliency training.
With the previous section describing objective vs. subjective approaches to resilience training, it is important to note that many great programs may result from subjective experiences. However, before developing a complete mental skills regiment for the purpose of facilitation, an extensive search of the literature should be considered.
Having been exposed to both the CSF program and private based mental skills programs, I have learned that mental skills are highly independent and may be more effective through an individualized delivery method, rather than a generalized group setting. In other words, a strategy that works for a solider, may not work for an Olympian. The same goes for position specific sports. For example, a sprinter may need a different mental coaching strategy than a distance runner. The same applies for physical training: a sprinter wouldn’t want to run a 5k to train for a 100m dash, right? With that said, this may be extremely time consuming, thus simply exposing athletes to the potential benefit of cognitive performance may be a good preliminary delivery method for mental skills training.
Mental skills are important for enhancing performance, this is clear. What is not clear is what the best delivery method is. Both objective studies and subjective programs have their strengths and weaknesses, but the objective methods provide valid and reliable results from which one can be more comfortable in developing a comprehensive mental skills training program. As coaches, we need to be active in keeping up to date with the research. As athletes, we need to be open to new and innovative ways of gaining another competitive edge over an opponent. In the end, the advancement of our understanding surrounding mental skills and performance is only limited by our fear and/or unwillingness to try new things.
Eventing is commonly referred to as the triathlon of horse riding. It consists of three disciplines: dressage, show jumping and cross country. All three disciplines are intended to test the partnership of the horse and rider as well as their ability. In terms of scoring, the competitor who finishes on the lowest score wins, as […]
Eventing is commonly referred to as the triathlon of horse riding. It consists of three disciplines: dressage, show jumping and cross country. All three disciplines are intended to test the partnership of the horse and rider as well as their ability. In terms of scoring, the competitor who finishes on the lowest score wins, as it is run on the basis of cumulative penalties. Eventing is a seriously high-risk sport; event riders are three times more at risk of an injury than motorcycle racers and six times more than car drivers (Paix, 1999). Consequently, lots of work has been done to minimise the risks; frangible pins are now common place on some of the cross-country fences in order to prevent rotational falls (a fall in which the horse somersaults over the fence, often resulting in the horse landing on the rider (O’Brien & Cripps, 2008)) but the risks are still apparent.
Decision making is essential in a fast, dynamic sport such as eventing. Not only is it vital for completing on a low score and potentially winning but it is also potentially lifesaving. Decision making is the intellectual process resulting in the selection of a course of action among several different options (Kaya, 2014). Depending on how we perceive a situation, depends on how we will respond and ultimately make that decision. If we view a situation as a challenge then we feel that we have a high sense of perceived control and self-efficacy, as well as an approach focus. However, if we view a situation as a threat then we feel that we have a low sense of perceived control and self-efficacy, as well as an avoidance focus (Jones et al, 2009). So when you canter up to that cross country fence, if it is that “scary” fence you’ve been worrying about then you’re likely to appraise it as a threat which will ultimately affect your decision making.
Eventing requires the rider to be an “edge worker” (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). This means that the rider is often negotiating the boundary between chaos and order which in this case is the distinction between life and death in terms of a successful jump cross country.
The edge worker navigates the threats by performing a skilled performance which requires mastery of their fears and anxieties. By overcoming these fears through mastery trainings and performances, it results in the feelings of exhilaration linked to sensation seeking (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). Although risk is unavoidable in eventing, it is moderated by the development of skills, focus, control and planning (Thompson & Nesci, 2016). Horse riding is unique in sport in terms of the fact that the human does not have full control over a situation. Research by Thompson and Nesci (2016) found that partnership between horse and rider is a protective factor against crossing the edge into chaos. They also highlighted how the rider should focus on the controllable and keep a positive mindset to preserve states of flow to produce successful outcomes.
So how can we help to make better decisions in eventing, reducing risk and increasing safety?
Imagery can be a beneficial way to improve decision making (Hale & Crisfield, 2005) such as response accuracy and timing when using cognitive general imagery (Westlund Stewart & Hall, 2017). Cognitive general imagery is used for rehearsing strategies and execution. This can be used in eventing, especially on the cross country in terms of mentally rehearsing situations and your reaction. For example, you could walk the course and then mentally rehearse yourself going around it, imagining yourself executing those decisions such as jump, land, ride three positive strides, take off, land and canter off.
The following PETTLEP model is a good place to start:
Physical (what you’re wearing while in the image, feeling, smelling, listening to)
Environment (where the imagery is performed – in competition/training/certain event)
Task (the content – what you will be doing)
Timing (real, slow or quick time)
Learning (the script should be adaptable to changes in performance – constantly update the script)
Emotion (how you will feel – excited, nervous, happy, focussed)
Ultimately, eventing is a risk-taking sport which requires fast decisions which can determine how the horse jumps a fence. We need to ensure we are making effective decisions for positive outcomes. Imagery can be beneficial in providing a platform and a model to rehearse these decisions, as well as creating a positive mindset to facilitate flow states.
Whether I have worked with Gymnasts, Footballers, Table Tennis Players or Triathletes, one thing has become clear, they all need to focus their attention on different cues at different times. When we think of the concept of focus the following terms are key, internal, external, narrow and broad (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). Focus of attention […]
Whether I have worked with Gymnasts, Footballers, Table Tennis Players or Triathletes, one thing has become clear, they all need to focus their attention on different cues at different times. When we think of the concept of focus the following terms are key, internal, external, narrow and broad (Weinberg & Gould, 2003).
Focus of attention in sport is often linked to how we can help athletes build towards specific performances, outcomes or results. So, what is realistic in terms of our expectations about focus, what athletes focus on? How focused they are and how long can they maintain that focus?
Sport environments provide athletes with a variety of choices in terms of what they decide to spend their conscious effort on. With all the choices and the amount of information that is available, it is no wonder that a lack of concentration or focus is identified when performances or results are poor. But, the challenge is understanding the direction and application of an athletes focus, and understanding the athletes need in relation to focus so we know when they need to switch off and relax.
Many people think of focus as concentrating on one thing for a long time. However, focus is the ability to attend to internal and external cues in your attentional field whilst also understanding times when you need to focus on one cue or several cues.
When working with athletes we need to help them understand the various options available to them in terms of where they focus their attention. Within this, an important skill is ‘scanning’, this is where athletes can understand and utilise the various attention options to ensure they match the environment they are in and outcome they are aiming to achieve. Here are two examples of scanning:
Here are two points to conclude that may help you in the future when you are thinking about your focus during practice or competition:
Sports related head injuries (e.g., concussions) affect one’s ability to concentrate, make decisions, foster learning, and perform both individually and collaboratively as part of a team (Asplund, C., Mckeag, D., & Olsen, C., 2004). Furthermore, head injuries have the potential to become more dangerous over time if not understood properly and taken care of in […]
Sports related head injuries (e.g., concussions) affect one’s ability to concentrate, make decisions, foster learning, and perform both individually and collaboratively as part of a team (Asplund, C., Mckeag, D., & Olsen, C., 2004). Furthermore, head injuries have the potential to become more dangerous over time if not understood properly and taken care of in an appropriate manner (Senthinathan, A., Mainwaring, L., Psych, C., & Hutchison, M., 2017). While the threat of personal injury is overwhelmingly important, many coaches and/or athletes may lose sight of this by sacrificing recovery over return-to-play [RTP*] (Wallace, J., Covassin, T., & Lafevor, M., 2016). This sacrifice not only puts the athlete at risk for more severe injury but puts the coaches, affiliated school/organization and team in a position of responsibility should anything happen to the injured athlete. As a result of this threat, a mutual understanding of what head injuries are and how they affect performance is imperative. In addition, a better understanding of the rehabilitation associated with head injuries may assist in reducing future unintended harm and reduce repeated rehabilitation. This, in turn, may increase athletes’ self-confidence, expedited return to optimal performance, and create greater team cohesion.
Before getting into a discussion regarding RTP, it is important to gain a basic understanding about brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI), more often referred to as concussions, occur when there is a sudden acceleration and deceleration of the head. This results in one’s brain moving with an abnormal force. Subsequently, the brain will experience what is called axonal shearing (Asplund et al., 2004). Put in simple terms, a concussion is a force, either internal or external, that results in one’s brain moving in a sudden and rapid manner which commonly results in internal damage to the brain (Kissick & Johnston, 2005). As with all injuries, there are symptoms. Common symptoms associated with traumatic brain injuries include, but are not limited to: amnesia, loss of consciousness (LOC), headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and visual impairment (Asplud et al., 2004). There has been debate over which symptom has the most influence regarding the severity of TBI an individual may have sustained, but for the purpose of this article, we will not be addressing debate.
The main dangers surrounding TBIs are that the majority of the symptoms are not external. This means, as coaches, we must trust the athlete to report any uncomfortable symptoms after sustaining a head injury. Granted, there are exceptions that coaches can see in order to make more sound judgment calls (e.g., heavy hits, falls, and penetrating injuries). This process of revealing possible symptoms to a coach or trainer is what is called the initial reporting process. The reporting process is the timeframe from which an athlete may have initially sustained an injury, but the symptoms may not yet severe enough to be overly apparent. Common symptoms in this category are headaches, dizziness, and/or nausea. This time is crucial because it gives coaches the opportunity to remove the athlete from activity that may compound the injury and make it more severe.
What is to say my athlete will hide these symptoms in order to avoid losing ‘play’ time? This question is a primary obstacle that coaches may face when it comes to self-reported injuries. The first thing to consider when trying to develop a remove-from-play (RFP) strategy may be by simply asking oneself: “are my athletes aware of the dangers that head injuries pose?” If the answer is no, than the answer may be as simple as exposing your athlete’s to what TBI(s) are and the dangers they pose. Moreover, educating athletes about compound concussions resulting from underreported symptoms may hold the key in getting athletes ‘on-the-fence’ of reporting to come forward. It is a coach’s responsibility, to help educate athletes both on and off the field. This includes information about the sport of which they play, and the dangers of which the athletes will be exposed to.
Another way to approach the difficulty of unseen injuries is through continuing education for coaches and staff. There are a wide variety of sources one can use to educate their coaches and staff. Sources include, but are not limited to: online education, seminars, workshops, and medical training. These approaches, while more time consuming, may enable coaches to identify some of the smaller external factors that pair with TBI(s) (e.g., stumbling, slurred speech, abnormal eye movement). In the end, the end goal of continuing education should aim at providing coaches with a broader knowledge of the symptoms of TBI. This, in turn, may enable coaches to make better decisions regarding RFP and RTP moving forward.
So what about an RTP plan? Currently, there are no universal RTP plans that are in place specific to brain injuries. The main reason is due to the complexities that are associated with head injuries. How hard one hits his/her head, susceptibility, repeated concussions, and post-concussive syndrome (PCS) are just a few of the factors that have shown to have an influence on TBI severity (Asplund et al., 2004; Senthinathan et al., 2017). When it comes to head injuries, it is up to the on-site medical provider to provide guidance from which route is best for the athlete. However, this is not to say coaches are helpless in assisting his/her athletes.
As a coach, a potential starting point for determining whether or not to address a potential TBI is to ask the following questions:
When in doubt, the best thing a coach can do if he/she is concerned about an athlete is to consult a medical professional. Athletes are the first line of defense in protecting themselves. Coaches are there to provide authoritative guidance when necessary and ultimately have the power to initially remove athletes if they are concerned. However, most coaches are not medical professionals or experts in the field of TBI. As a result, it is their responsibility to report an injury regardless of the consequence to team performance. Concussions remain dangerous regardless of the stage/severity. Research and media reports show that TBI(s), if gone unchecked, have the ultimate severity of, in rare cases, death (Senthinathan et al., 2017).
In the end, the expectation that athletes are supposed to be tough and perform, regardless of circumstance, may be harmful. Athletes should be expected to perform, but they should be expected to perform by the safest means possible to maintain their performance. In other words, athletes should not be placed in a situation where the game/competition/practice comes before personal safety. After all, an athlete who has cognitive performance deficiencies related to a head injury is not an effective athlete. We, as coaches, owe it to our athletes to assist them in performing to their fullest potential by keeping them healthy and educating them about how to keep themselves healthy in the future. Our ability to perform pends on their ability to perform. Optimal performance begins and ends with optimal health.
* RTP refers to the process of rehabilitating individuals who have suffered a head injury and returning them to full sport participation (e.g., practice and competition).
CrossFit is a fitness regimen developed by a man called Greg Glassman. He defined fitness in a meaningful, measurable way – increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. He then created a strength and conditioning program specifically designed to improve fitness and health. CrossFit is described as “constantly varied functional movements performed at […]
CrossFit is a fitness regimen developed by a man called Greg Glassman. He defined fitness in a meaningful, measurable way – increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. He then created a strength and conditioning program specifically designed to improve fitness and health.
CrossFit is described as “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity”. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more!
I started Crossfit about 6 months ago attending sessions twice a week and have since upped my membership a few times in that period and now attend 5 times per week. I have found CrossFit to be very effective and moreover very addictive. Not only in the sense that I attend more often but I have become completely obsessed with the sport and all things CrossFit. In this article I wanted to explore some of the reasons why I think CrossFit is so addictive for me and many others, looking beyond the fact it provides desirable physical changes to our bodies.
Social support can be described as an observable and perceived phenomenon related to the experience of being cared for and loved, valued, and esteemed (McColl, 1995). Most research makes a distinction between various forms of social support, including practical support, informational support, and emotional support. The CrossFit community covers all of these areas.
The community at CrossFit is something not to be underestimated. It is hugely different to a commercial gym. Everyone at the box (CrossFit gym) knows each other – by name! Supports each other and cares about your progress. No one is left to struggle through a workout on their own. Someone is always on hand to offer advice/guidance, moral support and encouragement; this could be a coach or a fellow member.
The CrossFit program is driven by data. Every workout uses a whiteboards to keep accurate scores of what was done each day. It is encouraged that everything is written down in a personal log to track progress of weights used and times/reps achieved during workouts. This data has important value well beyond motivation; I find the main benefit of recording everything is that it enables you to set goals.
Goal setting has been widely researched. Studies of goal setting have found that specific, goals lead to better performance and goals affect performance by affecting effort, persistence, and direction of attention (Locke & Latham, 1985) The implications of these findings help explain why CrossFit is so addictive. Who doesn’t like to get better at things?
As mentioned above scores after a workout are written up on a whiteboard for everyone to see. This allows you to compare your performance with others in the box and create an element of competition. I sometimes found it extremely difficult to push myself during workouts at a normal gym when working out alone and I no longer have to worry about this since starting CrossFit. I find myself pushing harder and striving for better performances when I’m working out at my CrossFit box alongside the other members. In a study testing aerobic exercise Irwin et al (2012) found that participants improved their performance by an average of 87 if they did it with a partner rather than by themselves. this proves the power of working out alongside others.
Looking at the above three factors I think it is clear to see what it is about CrossFit that makes people like myself keep coming back for more.
Each and every day athletes are trying to gain an edge over their competitors. Regardless of how an athlete trains (e.g., diets, exercise, or studying film), the idea remains the same: be at the top of his/her game. Athletics is highly competitive and athletes will do what is necessary to succeed. As the intensity of […]
Each and every day athletes are trying to gain an edge over their competitors. Regardless of how an athlete trains (e.g., diets, exercise, or studying film), the idea remains the same: be at the top of his/her game. Athletics is highly competitive and athletes will do what is necessary to succeed. As the intensity of training increases and competition becomes more aggressive, the potential risk for personal injury becomes greater. Because of this risk, it becomes imperative that coaches have the knowledge and proper training to help identify and facilitate the safest and most effective ways of competitive training. Overall, athletics should be a vehicle that fosters personal growth and development.
Obviously physical development remains one of the primary focuses of athletes. It is not uncommon for individuals to fall short in other aspects of training such as proper diet and academic goals. As a result, it becomes increasingly important for coaches to guide their athletes to be well rounded and promote excellence in all areas of personal development. While this may be many coaches’ intent, it is up to the athletes to fully grasp and apply the concepts which the coach encourages. The relationship between an athlete and a coach should be one of professionalism and respect. Additionally, it should be a relationship that provides a foundation of values and core ethics of which an athlete can draw upon retrospectively.
In order to assist in the development of an effective and balanced coaching strategy, this article will focus on the concept of visualization or the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). In examining visualization, this article will be broken up into three main components: 1) visualization in research, 2) practicing visualization as a soft-impact practice alternative, and 3) practicing visualization as a non-impact practice alternative.
Visualization in Research: A Brief Case Study
Recently, there has been a large push in visualization related research. Universities, government organizations and sport institutes have been at the forefront of some of the most significant gains regarding how visualization is interpreted and how it relates to other cognitive components [e.g., mental toughness, cognition, relaxation, and concentration] (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).
Athletes spend a large amount of time training and the risk of injury has the potential to increase as the demands of competition become greater. As a result, it would be to the athletes’ benefit to find additional training methods to supplement his/her practice regiments. It would also be to the coaches’ benefit to familiarize him/herself to alternative means of training and the research supporting and/or negating that method. This style of planning can assist in the development of a well-balanced practice plan that incorporates both the physical and mental components of training to keep athletes healthy. Familiarizing oneself with empirical based research can eliminate any predisposed notions coaches or athletes may have about training methods they are not familiar with.
For example, a coach unfamiliar with visualization training may believe positive visualization techniques will yield positive motivation and sport performance. While this may be a good argument, empirical research has found limited support between the positive thoughts resulting in positive motivation (MacIntyre & Moran, 2007).
Some of the most significant visualization research relates the association between cognitive training exposure and mental toughness. Results from a case study conducted by Sheard & Golding (2011) revealed positive associations among 49 elite athletes’ positive cognitive, visualization, total mental toughness, and feeling of a challenge related to performance outcomes in international competition. While there are other factors to consider (e.g., weather, game tactics, injuries) this study provides valuable insight of how cognitive training could positively influence performance.
With this in mind, these results may not represent each and every athlete. Personal coaching experience and observational coaching are valuable skills and powerful tools for success. However, for those lacking experience, sport research can be a great place to start developing training plans. The evidence supporting positive psychological development in athletes is encouraging (Sheard & Golding, 2011). Furthermore, the continuing education of athletes related to supplemental training styles is also encouraging (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).
Currently, there are large amounts of information surrounding the use of visualization in sport. Results have shown that visualization has the potential to be a valuable tool for success in athletics (Sheard & Golding, 2011). However, there is minimal evidence that definitively states how visualization should be applied. Furthermore, the use of visualization with elite athletes is lacking. Visualization should therefore be used as a supplement for coaches looking to create more diverse practice plans.
Visualization as a ‘soft-impact’ Practice Alternative
Competitive athletes undergo a gauntlet of training methods throughout their ‘peak’ seasons. During this period of time, the risk for injury and over-working an athlete increases. As a result, coaches need to be aware of the emotional and physical feedback their athletes exhibit. If an athlete begins to show signs of increased stress or fatigue, it may be a good time to rest the athlete.
Rest periods should be considered time the athlete takes away from the constant physical demands of competition and training. However, this does not mean all activity the athlete undergoes has to cease. Typical rest days may be filled with stretching or mild aerobics in order to induce relaxation and promote recovery. While these are great physical alternatives to methods such as running or weightlifting, they have the potential to fall short in preparing athletes for competitions mentally. This is where visualization techniques have the potential to be an effective alternative.
Visualization can be a valuable asset to any training regimen in the sense that it can be utilized both on and off the field. As previously stated, visualization is ‘the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery‘ (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). The body’s senses comprise of five major components: 1) sight, 2) sound, 3) smell, 4) taste, and 5) touch. In order to get the maximum effect out of visualization, it important to engage, during practice, as many of the senses the athlete may experience in competition. Let’s look at a soft-impact example:
A track and field athlete is tasked with running a 4×100 meter relay with three other athletes. The weather has been a consistent 70 degrees, but it is expected to rain the following day during the competition.
In this example, touch and sight appear as the primary senses a coach may want to look at. The athletes hands are going to be wet and their eyesight diminished due to the rain. A coach in this situation cannot control the weather, but they can prepare their athletes for the elements through the senses. To engage a sense of touch, a coach may pour water over the athletes’ hands during hand-offs or in their shoes to simulate poor weather conditions.
A second sense, sight, could be manipulated through the use of darkened sunglasses in an indoor training facility. This, in turn, can foster a greater understanding of how to adapt to alternative conditions.
The other three senses (sound, smell and taste) are slightly more difficult to engage. Perhaps the competition area has a specific smell or plays music. These other senses, while more difficult to simulate, are not impossible to create. Overall, this should be a preparatory stage just like a common impact practice.
Visualization as a non-impact Practice Alternative
Similar to soft-impact practices, non-impact practices are meant to foster recovery and provide a break from high intensity training. The main difference between ‘soft-impact’ training and ‘non-impact’ training is how the technique is applied. Looking back at the previous example, soft-impact training usually involves a pre-competition practice component (e.g., jogging, stretching). Non-impact training is meant to engage an athlete’s mental understanding of the sport. In other words, non-impact training involves placing an athlete in various positions he/she is expected to be during competition and having them visualize his/her reactions to specific stimuli. This visualization, coupled with verbal feedback, can be a powerful tool in assessing the overall competency of an athlete and their understanding of their body in space.
To recap, visualization is a promising supplement for athletes during training sessions and during rest periods. Research surrounding this type of training, while still being developed, has revealed a variety of additional factors to consider when developing training plans. With this in mind, it would be to both the coach’s and athlete’s benefit to explore these supplemental training methods to enhance overall performance.
Exam time is a stressful period for many students. It is that time of year where we wake up early, go to bed late and spend numerous hours sitting down at our desks writing notes, memorising essays and flicking back and forth between books trying to cram everything in before that important exam date. If you […]
Exam time is a stressful period for many students. It is that time of year where we wake up early, go to bed late and spend numerous hours sitting down at our desks writing notes, memorising essays and flicking back and forth between books trying to cram everything in before that important exam date. If you are preparing for your exams then it is important that you are following the basic energy principles so that you are ready to perform. Athletes take great care to make sure their energy levels are in the best shape possible for performing. Do you?
Having the right energy levels throughout exam period is a key factor for any high performing student. If you don’t think about what you eat before and during study time, then there is a good chance that your energy levels won’t be what they need to be at important moments in the day. If you want to think clearly, be more creative and make great decisions then it is vital that your energy levels are in great shape. Staying hydrated when studying and throughout exam period is fundamental. Just a 1-2% dehydration level will start bringing about unhelpful side-effects for performing (loss of concentration, moodiness and headaches). If you can manage your hydration, nutrition and rest and recovery then this will help to reduce your stress levels.
Here are 3 things that you can do to improve your energy levels throughout exam period
Hannah was preparing for her GCSES which were 6 weeks away. Hannah put a lot of pressure on herself to perform well in exams and often worried about how she would manage all of her revision. Hannah knew that focusing on her energy was going to be important, therefore she developed a simple energy plan. Her simple plan was to:
Hannah had to spend some time organising her plan, but after trying it out for a couple of weeks, Hannah found that she had more consistent energy levels. She found that her concentration levels had improved and a reduction in her stress levels.
The next time you are preparing for an exam why don’t you try and develop your own energy plan? Not only will you see a physical and mental difference but it can also help to boost your chances of succeeding in your exams.
To be successful in sport, as suggested by the most popular literature in the field of attitudes, behaviours and sporting achievement is focused on self-confidence (Cox, Shannon, McGuire & McBride, 2010). The main theories surrounding confidence are the self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1986, 1997) and sport-confidence (Machida, Marie Ward, & Vealey, 2012). Gilson (2010) describes how […]
To be successful in sport, as suggested by the most popular literature in the field of attitudes, behaviours and sporting achievement is focused on self-confidence (Cox, Shannon, McGuire & McBride, 2010). The main theories surrounding confidence are the self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1986, 1997) and sport-confidence (Machida, Marie Ward, & Vealey, 2012). Gilson (2010) describes how research has proven the most important psychological factor in sport to be confidence, further describing that confidence is the clear differentiation between elite successful athletes, and the non-elite. To ensure high levels of performance, Bandura (1986 as cited in Beaumont, Maynard and Butt, 2014) suggests that the self-efficacy model is of benefit to athletes, based on the definition of self-efficacy as an individuals ability to perform and construct specific skills. Although, in relation to performance levels within athletes, it is important to always remember and understand that confidence levels will fluctuate. It is well known that if an athlete is performing well, and ‘in form’ as a sporting term, then the athletes’ self confidence will improve. Understandably, if this is then the opposite and the athlete is currently not performing well then the self-confidence will in turn be lower.
Mental preparation for sporting events and practices has proven to be very successful, but it must be conducted consistently and in the correct manner. Many successful professional sporting athletes’ have figured out the most effective way to plan their mental preparation to ensure they are most successful in their field. Some examples will be the use of imagery for the likes of Ronaldinho, Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Johnson. Ronaldinho describes his use of imagery as, “So what I do, always before a game, always, every night and every day, is try and think up things, imagine plays, which no one else will have thought of. That is my job. That is what I do. I imagine the game.”
Much research has been conducted in these areas, including interesting research which analyses gender differences within confidence. Hays, Thomas, Maynard and Bawden, (2009) found females described lower confidence compared to males potentially due to gender biases over other confounding variables. Females experience much lower media coverage in comparison to males, which could indicate a hierarchy of genders. Most recently, in the Womens Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF, 2009) women’s sport has been reported to occupy only 2% of their sports reported and Topping, (2012) estimates a total of 5% coverage throughout all media coverage. Due to the low levels of coverage for females, Harris (2005) believes this is the main contributor affecting females attitudes, perhaps causing a change in view towards sport and their overall participation levels. Although it was suggested the differences between genders could be due to gender biases, other research concludes there has been no definite conclusions found as to why females experience these low self-confidence and self-efficacy levels (Hays et al, 2009).
To portray good levels of self-efficacy, individuals need to believe ‘in their capabilities to produce given attainments’ according to Bandura (2006 as cited in Bandura 2012). This can be done through a variety of different methods, although there are four key factors which should be implemented to be the most effective. Firstly, the most important area is the use of experiences within the field. Drawing upon previous experiences can be extremely beneficial to athletes, as it determines what has worked and what needs improvement from previous game day or training situations. The other three areas are; watching other athletes in the same situation of which they will need to compete, verbal persuasion from others and physiological perceptions of the area (Gilson, 2010).
In order to work on self-confidence within sport, it is important to use the four areas mentioned above to ensure the athlete understands the key areas of which to focus upon. Alongside this, another method which should be considered is the use of goal setting. The main aim of goal setting focuses on increasing individuals’ motivational levels to achieve success by directing attention and applying energy levels into achieving the overall goal (Locke & Latham, 1990). With the combination of the knowledge of key areas, and goal setting, the athlete will go through an intervention process whereby as soon as they start to see themselves progressing, or achieving a certain goal, their overall self-confidence will in turn improve.
Dealing with Expectation in Sport This summer’s football transfer window saw a ‘crazy’ (Benitez, 2017) rise in transfer fees that few pundits could have foreseen. Despite eye watering figures in the 2015/16 season, Paul Pogba’s £89m move back to Man United and Gonzalo Higiuian’s switch from Napoli to Juventus for €90m for example, the transfers […]
Dealing with Expectation in Sport
This summer’s football transfer window saw a ‘crazy’ (Benitez, 2017) rise in transfer fees that few pundits could have foreseen. Despite eye watering figures in the 2015/16 season, Paul Pogba’s £89m move back to Man United and Gonzalo Higiuian’s switch from Napoli to Juventus for €90m for example, the transfers completed this year reached completely new heights. A loan deal for 18 year-old Kylian Mbappe, with an option for PSG to make the deal permanent next season for a staggering €180m, capped off a month which also saw Barcelona pay €105m for Ousmane Dembele, and PSG break the world record transfer fee to sign Neymar for €222m. Aside from these huge money signings, a number of British teams also broke their respective record transfer fees bringing in new talent, albeit on a smaller scale. Premier league teams such as Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal forked out more than ever before to bring match winners to their dressing rooms, and Premier League ‘new-boys’ Huddersfield and Brighton and Hove Albion opted to spend big to increase their chances of prolonging their stay in the top flight.
Suggested explanations for the wildly inflated prices now paid for footballers range from the influence of rich new clubs in the Far-East to specific unwarranted high transfer fees that skewed the market. However, the reason for the rise is not something that players, coaches or fans concern themselves with, instead, as soon as pen is put to paper the attention turns to performance on the field.
Neymar and Mbappe currently have 7 combined appearances for PSG and 7 combined goals, which seems to imply that PSG’s investment is paying off. However, throughout footballing history, big money signings all too often end in disappointment for all involved. Andy Carroll’s £35m move from Newcastle to Liverpool is a transfer that falls into that category. At the time, the fee Liverpool paid, made him the most expensive British player ever and the eighth most expensive player ever to play the game. Yet, unfortunately for Liverpool, Carroll’s performances (6 goals in 44 appearances) led many to brand him as wasted money (Daly, 2014). A player who had pressure heaped upon him, and was expected by many to be ‘world class’ for Liverpool (Spearing, 2011), turned out to be average at best and he was soon sold to West Ham United. For some players, the big money signing they have been waiting for their whole careers simply doesn’t end in the fairy tale they dreamed it would, and instead they succumb to the pressure that follows all big signings; the pressure of expectation.
Expectation is consistently addressed by journalists when interviewing new signings and the conversation more often than not ends with the player stating something similar to ‘it doesn’t affect me’ and ‘I just wish to win games at my new club’. Gylfi Sigurdsson gave a textbook example of this after joining Everton this summer for a club record fee of £45m. In response to being asked whether he felt any pressure due to his high price tag, Sigurdsson replied ‘personally it is not up to me how much the club has paid for me. I put the pressure on myself to play well for the team, create and score goals for the club. That’s all I need and that’s the only thing I focus on’. This is seen by many as a good mentality for a player to hold in response to the great expectation that is bestowed upon him, and for as long as players disregard pressure in this way, their club’s fans are happy. However, from time to time a new signings’ performance on the pitch may not always be as polished as the answer they give to journalists regarding the pressure they feel. For example, in the 479 minutes of competitive football that Sigurdsson has played for Everton so far this season, they have drawn two and lost 4 and the goal difference whilst Sigurdsson has been on the field has been 1 goal scored and 14 goals against. These poor results cannot under any circumstances be blamed solely upon the new signing, however, it does beg the question that maybe the pressure of expectation cannot be dismissed quite as easily as players often say it can.
Expectation can affect sportsmen and women in many different ways and can even sometimes lead performers to react in a positive way (Mothes et al, 2017), although often the reaction exhibited is negative (Mesagno & Beckmann, 2017). One very simple effect that the pressure of expectation can have upon an athlete is to cause that performer to dislike competing and playing their sport altogether (Husbands, 2013). A football player who thinks that when he runs out onto the pitch there will be 35,000 fans expecting him to score lots of goals and perform well, even against talented opposition, will instantly feel dread towards performing, and will play for 90 minutes with a great weight upon their shoulders. It has been shown that any player who attempts to play their sport without enjoying it will ultimately fail to perform well (Merkel, 2013), a phenomenon that Andy Murray arguably fell victim to during his early career.
Athletes that start to feel the pressure of expectation will have already started to imagine a negative outcome that is yet to occur (Cohn, 2017); ‘the manager has bought me for a lot of money and so the fans expect me to perform well but I am going to disappoint them’. In this instance, the player has imagined that they will perform badly before they have even set foot on the field. Despite the great benefits that imagination and mental imagery can have upon sports performance (Smith et al, 2007), it can also create major problems for athletes too. An athlete that focuses upon a preconceived outcome will ignore the reality that they still have control over their performance and the processes that can help them to perform well.
This focus upon the processes that make up good performance is the solution that a sport psychologist should encourage when working with a player suffering from the pressures of expectation. Often players focus upon the outcomes of matches, such as the result, which they have almost no control over, or they get too fixated upon performance goals such as scoring goals. Instead, players should focus upon the simpler processes of their sport which, when attained correctly, will eventually add up to playing well and winning games.
If we refer back to Gylfi Sigurdsson’s quote, it seems to be a perfect answer with a sentiment that any fan would be pleased to hear from their new signing. However, after deeper analysis of the words he uses, he clearly incorrectly fixates upon scoring and creating goals which are both performance goals. Sigurdsson doesn’t have control over whether he scores a goal a game, however, he has complete control over the processes that he completes in order to try and score. If Sigurdsson forgets about scoring and instead focuses upon, for example, making his forward runs as positive as possible or striking his long range efforts as cleanly as he can, then he will be able to feel his performances improving and eventually goals and assists will follow and he will soon forget about the expectation that that his high price tag created.
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).
Athletes suffering from the pressure of expectation must work hard to forget about outcomes and focus upon the process. An athlete that is perfecting the processes of their performance is very rarely an athlete that feels the weight of expectation upon them.
*All statistics and records correct at time of writing