Rational beliefs: “It will be pretty tough for me for the next few days, but I will get over it, I will be fine…There are a lot worse things that can happen in your life. Shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people […]
“It will be pretty tough for me for the next few days, but I will get over it, I will be fine…There are a lot worse things that can happen in your life. Shooting a bad score in the last round of a golf tournament is nothing in comparison to what other people go through.” Rory McIlroy after the 2011 US Masters.
“I said it before, the real pressure is watching my mom you know work three jobs trying to
make ends meet for Christmas. This is football I’ve been injured for three months it is what it is we keep working I’m never going to shy away from the challenge.” Troy Deeney after being asked about his lack of goals and the pressure his team have been under.
“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Bill Shankly, Manager of Liverpool Football Club, 1959–1974
“I must win,” “I have to play well,” “I have to always play my best,” and “the coach must like me,” are all common phrases that are said and thought about frequently in an irrational emotive mindset. The thoughts are very rigid and offer a thought pattern that there is no other alternative.
Humans are irrational, especially in moments that matter most to us and irrational belief’s (IBs) can be related to dysfunction of emotions, for example, increased anxiety, embarrassment and anger. Additionally, it can be correlated with conditions such as depression and types of anxiety states which could lead to thoughts on suicide. Furthermore, this could produce certain behaviours as severe as self-harming, violence and a poor use of medication as well as displaying social maladaptive behaviours like procrastination and avoiding social situations.
These maladaptive behaviours could easily have a negative affect performance. It is clear that winning for a player/athlete is vitally important and an opponent who is very difficult to play against will make that victory more difficult to achieve. Yet, the accumulation of irrational beliefs similar to those mentioned earlier in the article may make the player too anxious to be successful and fulfil their potential whatever that is to the individual. Therefore, the challenge for someone delivering the psychological support in sport is to help athletes avoid using these irrational and unrealistic beliefs, and to foster rational, realistic and logical beliefs.
Currently, rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) in sport is receiving greater interest within the sport and exercise environment. REBT seeks to identify, challenge and substitute IBs with Rational Beliefs (RBs) to foster emotional goal achievement and well-being. Its philosophy is illustrated by an ancient proverb which states, “men are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them” (Epictetus, 55- 135 A.D.).
A sport psychologist could help guide their conversations with the athlete by using a framework called the ABCDE approach, shown by the diagram below.
A: Adversity. This is any event that happens right before you feel yourself experiencing an emotion for example anxiety or other emotions mentioned previously.
B: Irrational Belief. Refers to one’s irrational belief about the event at point A. The story we tell ourselves about what has happened.
C: The Emotional and Behavioural Consequences. Point B leads to C. The consequences could be behavioural or emotional, and could be external e.g. lashing out at someone or they could be internal e,g, greater anxiety of feeling sad.
D: Disputes. (or arguments against irrational beliefs). This involves the practitioner being dynamic with challenging their IB’s, by examining, questioning and challenging the athletes views.
E: New Effect. Promotes more effective emotions and behaviours that results in more rational, reasonable and logical thinking about the original event.
The disputation phase is the most important phase of the process and having a good relationship with the sport psychology practitioner would be more effective as well as it being on a one to one basis as well. This disputation could take around 3 sessions around the 45 – 1-hour mark and is a process that will take time to allow for change. This can be a sensitive process and is important that the consultant can deal with the situation and can include elements of self-disclosure to normalise the situation.
Here are some questions to consider when trying to facilitate the disputation phase and separate realistic thoughts from dysfunctional ones.
By the end of this process a rational belief statement should have been communicated and agreed by athlete and practitioner. Once this has been done you may be able to see an alternative way of thinking built on logical, rational and reasonable beliefs.
A lot of the information in this article has come from research by Dr Martin Turner, Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Andrew Wood, therefore a big thanks to their research in the area. This article aims to promote the information around irrational beliefs and use of REBT to combat them.
For further resources please explore:
Smarter Thinking 2 – Mobile App.
Book – Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy in Sport – Martin Turner and Richard Bennett.
How an athlete can turn unhealthy into healthy perfectionism Perfectionism is logical. The highly competitive nature of the sport environment accompanies a variety of stressful circumstances such as, injuries, pressure, interpersonal conflict, and an evaluative atmosphere where athletes must deal with others’ and their own personal scrutiny of performance [1, 2]. Your response to these […]
How an athlete can turn unhealthy into healthy perfectionism
Perfectionism is logical. The highly competitive nature of the sport environment accompanies a variety of stressful circumstances such as, injuries, pressure, interpersonal conflict, and an evaluative atmosphere where athletes must deal with others’ and their own personal scrutiny of performance [1, 2]. Your response to these factors can be adaptive or maladaptive, and this explains the ‘fine line’ between healthy or unhealthy perfectionism. Consider Serena Williams for example: She has admitted herself to be a perfectionist. Her comment below reveals how she can use her perfectionism to her advantage, but it is also an example in how someone can fall into the trap of unhealthy perfectionism.
“If I’m not playing well, I do get down on myself because I am a perfectionist…no one takes a loss harder than I do. In any sport. I hate losing more than I like winning.
…But I channel my frustration toward losing into a motivation to learn from my mistakes and use that newfound knowledge to improve for my next match”.
-Former world No.1 tennis player Serena Williams
So what is the theory behind perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a multidimensional personality represented by a strive for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s self . Hence, why perfectionism can be described as a ‘double-edged sword’ holding both positive and negative characteristics . On the one hand, it can be used as a facilitating factor to boost motivation and develop athletic expertise. On the other hand, it can seek to promote a dysfunctional mindset and self-defeating outcomes characterised by worries, and a fear of failure [5, 6].
The ‘2 x 2 Model’ of Perfectionism  is based around these two comparative features of perfectionism and proposes these are differentially organised in each individual:
Evaluative concerns’ perfectionism (ECP):a socially prescribed tendency to perceive significant others as exerting pressure to be perfect, in conjunction with evaluating oneself critically and doubting one’s capacity to reach high standards.
Personal standards perfectionism (PSP):a self-imposed tendency to strive towards perfectionism by establishing high standards and aiming for achievement.
Within the model ECP and PSP interact to create four subtypes that help predict motivational processes and adjustment outcomes.Each of the four subtypes have a differing dominanceof ECP and PSP:
*As the focus is on perfectionism we will disregard non-perfectionism. Also, because the evidence suggests mixed perfectionism (high PSP, high ECP) share similar process and outcomes to pure ECP, we will just refer to pure ECP throughout the blog with our main goal being to reduce athletes’ perfectionistic concerns*
Pure evaluative concerns perfectionism (low PSP, high ECP)-perceive pressure from the external environment (for example contingent rewards and controlling interactions) to pursue perfectionistic standards, but do not value or internalise the standards.
Pure personal standards perfectionism (high PSP, low ECP)-personally valuing and internalising perfectionistic standards, without perceiving external pressure from the environment to achieve these standards.
Characteristics, processes and outcomes of pure PSP and pure ECP
The model proposes that pure PSP is associated with positive characteristics, processes and outcomes, and pure ECP is associated with negative characteristics, processes and outcomes.
Figure 2:Spectrum of perfectionistic characteristics . Moving towards the right represent pure PSP characteristics and moving towards the left represent pure ECP characteristics
Pure ECP are associated with low levels of self-determination, fear of failure, avoidance-oriented goals, competitive anxiety, negative affect and an increased likelihood of athletic burnout compared to pure PSP [7, 11, 12, 13]. In contrast, athletes with pure PSP adopt more approach goals to performance and a ‘hope for success’ motive, fuelling their desire to demonstrate normative and interpersonal competence e.g. striving to master a task and do better than others [8, 14]. These findings can be explained using various mechanisms including stress appraisal, coping styles and perceptions of success and failure . In terms of stress appraisal, because pure ECP reflects motives to avoid failure, athletes with this style are more likely to see competition as threatening, and less controllable and challenging than an athlete with pure PSP. When trying to deal with the stress, pure ECP perfectionists tend to use maladaptive strategies e.g. ignoring the stressful situation and not dealing with the problem (avoidance coping), and actively trying to reduce the negative emotional thoughts such as fear (emotion-focused coping). Pure PSP perfectionists are more likely to use problem-focused coping aimed at resolving the stressful situation to foster achievement. Finally, pure ECP perfectionists are also more likely to judge performance in terms of absolutes. If they don’t win, it is seen as a complete failure, and anything positive about their performance is discounted(for example finishing 3rdcompared to their previous performance where they finished 5th).
It is understandable that pure PSPmay form a part of a ‘healthy pursuit of excellence’ . With a low presence of ECP, athletes open up opportunities to make additional efforts and achieve the best possible results . In contrast, high levels of ECP accompanied with low levels of PSPmay contribute to a more problematic motivational quality for achievement, and most importantly, represent a serious risk to athlete’s well-being and mental health.
How do I know if I am a healthy or unhealthy perfectionist?
You may be thinking that it’s normal for someone to try to achieve their demanding goals or there is no way to progress by being a slacker. This is true, but it is only one half of the story. Take a look at the example statements below and try and answer them as honestly as you can. Once you have finished, add up how many A’s and B’s you answered.
If you answered more B’s than A’s this may suggest an over-dependence of your self-worth on striving and achievement. This does not mean to become a healthy perfectionist you have to stop striving for standards, instead, the goal is to weaken the dependence of your self-esteem on striving and achievement [6, 10].
The techniques underpinned by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy  support you to:
To make it a habit of monitoring immediately after the problematic situation, it is useful to keep a diary/log-book somewhere close at hand such as in your sports bag.
2. Questioning personal beliefs will provide you more meaningful information regarding which consequences of your thoughts and behaviours are real. Behavioural experiments are a useful way to identify your unhelpful concerns by testing out predictions about a thought or behaviour. For example, if you are an athlete who believes training to exhaustion is the only way to achieve more, which is very physically demanding, alternatively, planning out a reasonable schedule balanced around training and recovery would be more beneficial for long-term results. Other forms of experimenting include how might others react e.g. team-mates after a loss, or how distressed you will be in a deciding match. To put this into action, a good way is to follow the path below and write down each step:
3. Challenging perfectionistic thinking patterns will help alter the way you evaluate your goals and increase your ability to think and behave in more flexible ways. Strategies to achieve this include turning rigid rules into guidelines and noticing the positive:
Rigid rules to guidelines
High levels of perfectionistic concerns tend to accompany rigid and strict rules to measure performance. These rules are often caused by ‘all or nothing’ thinking in which standards are judged in extremes e.g. a complete failure or a complete success, leaving no room for average performance. Even when an athlete does achieve their standard they are likely to not think much of it i.e. no effort was required, and so set an even higher goal. Thus, it is important to develop a new way of evaluating the self to reduce the damage these rules have on self-esteem. We can do this by replacing rigid rules with flexible guidelines and using these as new standards for excellence. The steps below aim to achieve this:
The more you practise your all or nothing thinking the easier it is to see that performance does not fall into one of two extreme categories. This will help you feel more relaxed in your thinking processes and offer you a sense of freedom to enjoy your athletic life. Top tip:to determine whether the goals you set yourself are achievable, ask a friend or team-mate what they think and how they cope when they don’t achieve their goals.
Noticing the positive
Athletes high in perfectionistic concerns get into a habit of paying excessive attention to the negative aspects of their performance e.g. a sprinter getting through qualifying but noticing they had a very poor start and should have been quicker. They also tend to depreciate their efforts when a goal is reached e.g. winning a race but stating it was too easy. These examples can be seen in someone with a healthy strive for success but won’t be regular thinking patterns that lead to a general criticism of oneself. This is because they are more likely to notice equally the negative AND positive aspects of performance despite the outcome. So the aim is to balance out what went well and what you can improve on. To help you do this keep a diary of events over the next weeks and note the following:
Step 1. Identify a situation which would generally cause you negative thoughts i.e. finishing 3rd in a race instead of 1st.
Step 2. Ask yourself are there any positive aspects of my performance that I am not attending to which I can take away e.g. team-mates congratulating my efforts, coach praising me for my good running technique, winning a bronze medal. Also note the lack of negative evidence e.g. no one judging me for coming 3rd.
Step 3. Write down extra information from the situation to broaden your attention, such as the details around you (conversations, weather, canteen food, equipment).
Step 4. Determine the main flaws from your performance and try to change them into areas for improvement e.g. I lost a bit of energy towards the end of the race so I should work on improving my cardiovascular endurance.
Step 5. Evaluate the outcome of having not just focused on the negative aspects e.g. when I reflect upon all the evidence, the race was a success overall and I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Attending to what went well and external stimuli helps broaden my attention.
4. To help deal with setbacks
After all, don’t be harsh on yourself! Remind yourself how well you dealt with the slippage and the failures and applaud yourself for that.
Take home messages:
Recognising that ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean stronger and wiser, is a pathway towards a healthier and more meaningful life
Athletes are considered heroes to many, often representing strength, resilience and mental toughness. Despite these qualities benefiting sport performance, there is a connotation that an athlete must always be OK and that expressing any suffering, doubt or negative thought is considered a weakness, especially for male athletes. There is often confusion among fans, coaches and […]
Athletes are considered heroes to many, often representing strength, resilience and mental toughness. Despite these qualities benefiting sport performance, there is a connotation that an athlete must always be OK and that expressing any suffering, doubt or negative thought is considered a weakness, especially for male athletes.
There is often confusion among fans, coaches and peers when an athlete says they are feeling depressed, especially when they are at the pinnacle of their sporting career. This mentality was highlighted when Andrew Luck, a distinguished quarterback for the Colts in the NFL announced his retirement due to being trapped in a tormenting cycle of injury, pain and rehab. Social media erupted with outrage at how he could be so foolish to walk away from millions of dollars and a dream career that most can only fantasise about. Although, on the surface that is what is seemed, listening to interviews from Luck over the past year attested to the amount of suffering he was experiencing, with phrases like “I feel no worth as a human and the world is a dark place to live in”
Many people overlooked the fact that Andrew Luck is a person alongside being an American Footballer; he is a husband, a son and a brother. Those alternate identities are often forgotten when an individual is an acclaimed athlete. There is often little empathy towards injured athletes as it is expected within sport. However, Roderick’s research (2003) highlighted that an athletes sense of self is deeply invested in their physical body; consequently, a bad injury is a disruption of the self that is equivalent to the trauma of a chronic illness. The concept of injuries affecting athletes has been accepted to the degree that athletes are encouraged to normalise pain and silence the amount of their suffering.
It is crucial that athletes approach the taboo topic of mental health, the same way that society is approaching it by speaking out, seeking help and having a trusted environment to admit when they are struggling. It is paramount that Sport Psychologists refer on when an athlete is experiencing a mental health problem, but early interventions during an injury and encouraging athletes to speak openly and honestly about their experiences and feelings can dramatically increase a player’s experience during and after injury. Sport Psychologists can also encourage coaches’, players and parents to allow patience for the athlete and express empathy as it vital that athletes have a trusted environment to express themselves in.
Do you sulk if you lose a pub quiz? Have you ever kept going until you are sick in order to win an eating competition? Or passed out trying to hold your breath in a tunnel? And what about parenting: are you one of those people screaming ‘kick it in the net, Tabitha’ at your […]
Do you sulk if you lose a pub quiz? Have you ever kept going until you are sick in order to win an eating competition? Or passed out trying to hold your breath in a tunnel?
And what about parenting: are you one of those people screaming ‘kick it in the net, Tabitha’ at your daughter’s Saturday morning football club?
Competition exists in every part of life. We are called the human race. From an early age, we’re competing for the best seat on the school bus; competing to get a place at a top university; competing for promotion within the pyramid structures at most firms.
Competition is part of the rhythm of life and it’s a fundamental human thing to do. But does it bring out our best side, or our dark side?
The intensity of competition is what inspires us to breath-taking performances. Athletes don’t set world records on a blustery March morning in training, with a spectator and a dog for company. They set them in an Olympic final, roared on by 80 000 spectators and racing against the rest of the world.
Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer don’t play their best tennis in the first round of a minor tournament. They only hit those heights in the fifth set of a Wimbledon final.
In the workplace, it’s the impending deadline which ramps up productivity; and the pitch to the big client will bring out the best teamwork far more than a regular Wednesday staring at a spreadsheet.
But is it possible to be too competitive; and to experience too much competition?
In life, we’re told to have everything in moderation. Yet in elite sport, it is perceived that moderation isn’t desirable. Obsession and extremes are the behaviours that are rewarded. We hear this in the marginal gains mantra that has made its way from sport across to the boardroom.
But the reality is different.
When researching my book Mind Games, a study of how mental skills are trained, not innate, time and again the elite athletes and coaches I interviewed told me they didn’t consider themselves particularly competitive. They cared deeply about doing their best, but that was a specific state of mind relative to the training session or the race. Once that was over, they turned it off.
You hear coaches saying they like competition for places on a sports team because it pushes everyone to be better.
I disagree. Sometimes you need to feel like you’re not under the microscope, and are left to simply do your job to the best of your ability.
More competition isn’t always better. There’s no linear relationship between competitiveness and success. It’s nuanced, complex and individual.
It’s possible to reach ‘peak competition’. Too much competition can throttle creativity. It can leave people on edge. It can retard collaboration.
Perhaps the answer is that we’re all different.
We all know people who don’t just want to be the best – they want to beat everyone else. They take particular pleasure in having ‘won’ a promotion at work, and will know who they ‘beat’ to get there.
Other people will be driven by the love of what they do, and how good they can be at it. We are all on a spectrum of how we are fuelled by competition.
What’s your competitive edge?
Annie Vernon is the author of Mind Games: Determination, Doubt and Lucky Socks: An Insider’s Guide to the Psychology of Elite Athletespublished by Bloomsbury Sport (2019), £16.99. Available in all major booksellers including Amazon: https://amzn.to/2oqDqa1
Mental Health and the Whole Athlete The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. […]
Mental Health and the Whole Athlete
The mental health epidemic among adolescents has been causing us to really become aware of how to prevent these issues for the future generations. NYS having mandated mental health education and social emotional education among schools within the past year, brings us to a better place if handled effectively. Therefore, providing a facility that focuses on the whole child in conjunction with their athletic motives for success is imperative.
To reach total wellness for both adults and adolescents, we need to target fitness, the mind, and their social emotional behaviors. This delivers a necessary mind-body connection leading to self-awareness of the individual. Once an individual can achieve self-awareness, accurate self-perceptions and self-confidence is gained leading to responsible decision making in all aspects of their lives.
Adolescents often act on impulsivity due to the brain not being fully formed. Therefore, the mind-body connection is often disconnected and leads to them lacking the self-awareness skills to identify their feelings. They are in need of that reconnection and in order to do that they have to become a work in progress athletically, in their mind, and socially. Within our facility, we draw the adolescents in based on their desire to become better in their sport, but even that is not possible without fully developing the whole child. Yes, they may experience athletic progress toward their goals, but to make it consistent and above all of the rest, it is completely necessary for them to find that mind-body connection. With this connection, their ability to achieve a growth mindset, self-motivation, and self-confidence to overcome any obstacles that come their way during their athletic journey can now be achieved.
Meet Gabby. A 14-year old softball player and consistent member of my athletic performance facility. She came in as a strong softball player looking to achieve strength and perform better in her sport. However, she has had underlying mental health issues that have been creeping in on her. She was unsure of what she had been experiencing, but having had the exposure to the relationship between fitness and mental health, allowed her to continue her athletic journey and achieve. “I never really knew how serious you were about how working out and being active helps your mental health until I stopped.” Gabby, like most teenagers was learning to manage her time with school, sports, and training. She took a break from training for about a month and unfortunately, experienced the disconnection between her mind and body. As she has been predisposed to mental health issues with a family history of them, she had found that they were creeping in. “I wanted to thank you because when I look at it as a whole you really are the reason I started to step back and say to myself “are you okay” and I wasn’t.” Due to her ability to be self-aware and her exposure to the mind-body connection, she took the necessary steps to help herself and get her through the hard time eventually leading her way out of that athletic training break. Gabby was recently diagnosed with adjustment disorder and anxiety and is now working on identifying those feelings and developing additional coping skills. She realizes that the mind-body connection is a necessary part of her lifestyle and overall wellness. She has been back to training and working on her mind with additional support for now. Although, one day she may not need that service, she recognizes how it can assist now. She also recognizes how her training and consistent work on her mind-body connection at our facility is a lifestyle that she is unwilling to break from. This lifestyle not only has helped her achieve her athletic goals as a freshman Varsity athlete, but is now allowing her to achieve overall success where no obstacle can stand in her way.
A bit of background on identity… If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values […]
A bit of background on identity…
If we start with the wider idea of self-identity, it is a clearly delineated self-definition…comprised of those goals, values and beliefs which the person finds personally expressive and to which he/she is unequivocally committed (Waterman, 1985). Take a moment to think about this idea, what are the goals, values and beliefs that you are committed too? Are they just in sport or do they link to other areas too?
Most young athletes will find that they have some level of athletic Identity which is the degree to which an athlete identifies with the athlete role (Sinclair and Orlick, 1993). As we look more closely at identity there is a concept called identity foreclosure, this is the commitment of one’s identity to one area without exploration of alternatives (Murphy, Petitpas and Brewer, 1996). This can mean that some young people have an ‘Exclusive’ athletic identity and derive their self-identity exclusively from the athlete role (Brewer, Van Raalte & Linder, 1993).
Identity and adolescence…
Adolescence is a transitional period between puberty and adulthood which extends mainly over the teen years. It has been Identified as a stage in life during which individuals form a true self-identity (Chickering, 1969; Erikson, 1968).
If we look more specifically at adolescence and identity, for those involved in high level participation in one sport this comes with a lot of sacrifice & dedication. This can lead to two potential challenges for these individuals:
Athletic Identity Positives
There have been positives linked to athletes having a high or strong athletic identity:
Exclusive Athletic Identity potential risks
However, there are some potential risks to be aware of:
How can we support young people in their identity development?
And for those thinking that this may take their focus away from their sport I would argue it’s quite the opposite.
Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, […]
Every 4 years, athletes from across the globe look to make their dreams of becoming an Olympic champion reality. This often rests on one chance to show the world what they have been working on their whole lives. Imagine the pressure of knowing this could define your life’s dedication. For some, this pressure is debilitating, whereas for others it surges them on to achieve greatness.
In the run up to Rio’s 2016 Olympic Games, Team GB put together a group of Performance Psychologists to help their elite athletes and teams deal with this exact pressure . Their mission: design a resilience training program that is backed by scientific evidence to develop their athlete’s and team’s ability to withstand – and even thrive on – pressure. Fast-forward to Day 16 of the Games, and Great Britain has delivered their most successful performance for more than a century, winning a total of 67 Olympic medals . One piece to that success may lie with the evidence-based training program used by the team of psychologists to build resilience . A key part of this includes Pressure Inurement Training that can be used by coaches and leaders looking to improve their own athlete’s and followers performance under pressure.
After reading this blog you should be able to:
So, what is Pressure Inurement Training?
After learning a skill, the next step is to perform it under pressure to learn how to deal with the stress of competition. Obviously, it is difficult to replicate the exact same pressure of an Olympic final, but training under pressure means athletes can learn how to cope with the feelings of pressure in a non-threatening setting and transfer this to competition. Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually changing the training environment using specific strategies to increase the level of pressure individuals face . Although it is tempting to place your performers under extreme stress and see how they cope with it, this often misrepresents what resilience actually is and how it should be developed.
Put simply, resilience refers to the ability to withstand – or even thrive on – pressure to enhance performance . Resilient qualities seen in elite athlete’s include positivity, determination, competitiveness and commitment, persistence and passion . Pressure Inurement Training includes specific ways to show how coaches can structure their training sessions to get their performers to use these personal qualities and build resilience. Feelings of pressure is achieved through specific ways to increase feelings of challenge, while continually balancing and adjusting levels of support over time.
What does a high challenge and high support environment look like?
A high challenge and high support environment involves having trusting and respectful relationships with your athletes, where athletes are encouraged and expected to be involved in both learning and development. It should be clear that both high challenge and high support helps your performers to learn in an environment that facilitates the personal qualities needed to build resilience. Essentially, this creates a psychologically safe environment that encourages sensible risk taking, where team members will not be scared to make mistakes and success will be recognized and celebrated together .
How can I increase challenge?
Pressure Inurement Training involves gradually increasing pressure by putting in place specific changes to the training environment to evoke a stress-response . There are two main ways to evoke a stress-response during training that will help to increase challenge: a) firstly, by increasing the demands of training so that it is similar to competition, and b) knowing that individuals only feel pressure during events that are important, relevant to their goals and involve playing for certain consequences.
Step 1) Increase the demands of training:
Coaches can introduce some of the types of stressful events their athletes are likely to face during competition, known as competitive stressors, into training sessions to increase challenge . Some examples include manipulating the rules of play or competing against better opponents . It is useful to divide competitive stressors into the four corners of ‘mental’, ‘technical’, ‘tactical’ and ‘physical’ play . For example, coaches or leaders can make a session more technically challenging by focusing on only one aspect of technique for the entire session while playing against a tough opponent.
‘‘Sometimes…you put a right footed player who can’t do anything with his left foot on [the] left side [of the pitch] and force him to use his left foot… so the player can use both feet when he comes into the first team’’– former professional football player, Dennis Bergkamp on using technical challenges in training.
The second way to increase the demands of training is by manipulating the properties of the competitive stressors, including recreating the uncertainty of competition. Athletes often experience the most pressure when they are competing in a different situation, under different rules or new environments because of feelings of uncertainty . Coaches can create novel situations in training to increase the uncertainty of events, which may involve training with a different set of rules, on a different surface or with different equipment. A great example of this is by Coach Bob Bowman, coach to the most successful Olympian in history, Michael Phelps 
In a training session, Bowman once purposely stepped on Phelps’ goggles and cracked them without him knowing. Phelps was forced to swim with his googles filling with water. This challenging demand during training paid off, as in the 2008 Olympic final of 200m butterfly, disaster struck and Phelps goggles cracked. Because of Bowman, Phelps knew what to do and he overcame the problem by counting the number of strokes he needed to get to the other end of the pool. Phelps won Gold.
Lastly, to increase challenge coaches can look to increase the frequency, duration and/or intensity of competition demands during training . Athletes feel pressure when competitive stressors are physically and mentally more intense, experienced more frequently and for different lengths of time that it usually lasts for. An example of a competitive stressor that lasts for a short length of time may include hearing an unpleasant comment from a spectator during a match. Coaches may increase the frequency of this short-term stressor by simulating negative comments from an audience more often in training.
Step 2) Increase feelings of pressure:
While competitive stressors themselves are bad, they don’t always lead to feelings of pressure. Coaches must understand that pressure is only experienced when athletes judge the competitive stressors as having the potential to threaten their personal goals of high performance . Understanding the goals of your performers will allow coaches to create specific training demands that are relevant to his or her goals. For example, an athlete who wants to perform better in front of crowds would feel more pressure when being watched by a large audience in training. Hopefully it is clear that putting in place any ‘coach-led’ methods to increase pressure may not actually increase feelings of pressure as it may not be relevant to their athletes goals
The final way to influence feelings of pressure includes using consequences in training. This can include rewarding athletes by winning something positive, athletes receiving a forfeit for not meeting the expected standard, or being evaluated by others that judge their performance . For example, circling everyone around two people who are being watched will increase feelings of pressure. It is important athletes do not feel ridiculed or scared to make mistakes, as an unrelenting environment with too much challenge and not enough support will lead to athletes avoiding taking future risks and fear failure .Remember, to create a high challenge and high support environment, athletes must trust their coach and believe everyone is valued.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”– Former Olympic hockey player, Wayne Gretzky on taking healthy risks.
Use consequences that involve forfeits, rewards or being judged by others
How can I increase support?
While coaches must increase challenge using the methods described above, a key part of Pressure Inurement Training involves increasing the support provided to individuals to enhance their personal qualities (i.e. positivity, determination, passion etc.) to build resilience .To do this, coaches must increase and adjust levels of support to allow athletes to feel confident dealing with greater challenge. Firstly, athletes should learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure, and then be able to practice dealing with challenging events using these skills in a non-threatening environment. Secondly, before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, they must explain the reasons for increasing challenge at the start of each activity and review how their athletes dealt with the challenge at the end.
Step 1) Athletes must learn how to use psychological skills to cope with pressure and practice these skills during training
Athletes need to learn how to use psychological skills to deal with the added pressure, and if used correctly, can improve performance . This can include learning how to stop negative thoughts and promote positive self-talk strategies, or learning how to use mental imagery before a competition more effectively. Learning these psychological skills will help athletes to avoid the negative thoughts of pressure, that could lead to choking, into a more positive experience during competition to enhance performance. These skills can then be used in training sessions where athletes practice these psychological skills to cope with the added challenge. As the Manchester City F.C. manager, Pep Guardiola echoed during behind the scenes footage:
‘‘Pressure is a privilege, it only comes to those who earn it’’–Former World No.1 in tennis Billie-Jean King, on thinking positively about pressure.
Step 2) Brief and debrief your athletes at the start and end of each training session
Before coaches begin using Pressure Inurement Training, explaining to athletes at the start of training sessions why it is important they experience more stressful demands in training by helping them to learn how to cope with pressure . Briefing athletes helps to avoid feelings of unrelenting pressure that will compromise their well-being . For example, coaches should stress, ‘the drill is important to helping you make better choices with limited time to think, which helps with how fast you react to your opponent. If you can improve your decision making under a time limit, you’re more likely to perform better under pressure and reach your goal of winning more points’.
Following this, coaches should look to provide a debrief at the end of each Pressure Inurement Training session to review how their performers dealt with the added challenges and how they reacted to it (e.g. ‘How did you cope with the added challenge?’). It’s important to keep the discussion focused on how they dealt with the pressure and how it affected their performance. If athletes were unable to cope with the added pressure and they react with more negative outcomes, then coaches should temporarily decrease the challenge and increase support. On the other hand, if athletes react more positively then coaches should increase challenge further .
Summary of how to increase support:
How do I balance challenge and support?: Verbal Feedback
A key part of balancing challenge and support requires the coach to provide the athlete with the correct verbal feedback during Pressure Inurement Training. This is based on how the athlete is responding to the added challenge. Coaches must carefully monitor both the psychological responses and effects on performance to provide the correct forms of feedback.
Scenario 1) Too much challenge and not enough support leads to negative responses and performance and well-being suffers
When individuals are unable to cope with the added challenge, they are likely to react negatively. This may be in terms of actual behaviour (e.g. withdrawn, or aggression) or psychologically (e.g. anxiety, frustrated). In which case, motivational feedback and increased support should be provided. Motivational feedback includes encouragement, positive reinforcement of what they are doing well, and specific information on how to improve to promote learning .
Examples of motivational feedback:
Scenario 2) High challenge and high support leads to positive responses and performance improves
When an individual reacts more positively and shows they have adapted well to the added challenge (e.g. happiness, determination, willing to train harder), then developmental feedback should be provided with increased challenge. Developmental feedback involves informing athletes on how to improve further with the goal of developing his or her ability to cope with greater challenge .
Examples of developmental feedback:
Summary of how to use verbal feedback:
Take home messages from this blog:
Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is […]
Last spring, Swim England hosted its annual Sport Science and Medicine conference with the special topic of the female athlete. In hopes of gaining deeper understanding the female athlete, conference presentations paid special attention to the concept of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S). A brief overview of what was presented at the conference is highlighted below.
RED-S, as the name suggests, is caused by relative energy deficiency, which is when the caloric intake is too low to match the level of calories needed for swimmers in to reach optimal health and performance. RED-S has broad and far reaching impact on the body and mind with it impacting the cardiovascular system, gastrointestinal system, the menstrual function, the immune system, the metabolic rate, the growth and development of an athlete, menstrual function, bone health, protein synthesis, as well as psychological functioning.
Consequence of RED-S that coaches and support staff may see in the pool includes (but is not limited to) a variety of physical issues such as decreased muscle strength, decreased endurance, increased risk of injury, and is less responsive to training. There is also an increased risk of depression, impairment of judgement, and increased irritability. From a psychological perspective, it is important to understand a swimmer’s psychology can be a cause of RED-S, but RED-S can also cause a negative impact on a swimmer’s psychology. RED-S and psychology have a bidirectional relationship. For example, disordered eating or an eating disorder can mean a swimmer has a large calorie deficiency resulting in RED-S. Or a swimmer can experience psychological distress and depression due to RED-S.
When it comes to treatment of RED-S, increasing energy intake and a reduction of exercise should be considered in conjunction. However, if an athlete refuses to follow a treatment plan that involves increased energy intake and a reduction of exercise then it is likely that a psychological factor is present, with that athlete suffering from disordered eating or an eating disorder. It is important for coaches and support staff to not wait to see dramatic weight loss before talking to a swimmer about their concerns and seeking professional help for that athlete.
Early detection of RED-S is crucial to limit its impact on health and performance. Educating coaches and staff on the signs and symptoms and including screening for RED-S in annual health checks is key. Additionally, nutrition conversations should focus on how good nutrition can enhance performance and not weight loss. Comments on body shape should be avoided, and a general understanding that a “normal weight” and even good performance does not always mean a healthy individual. Creating an open and communicative coach-athlete relationship and team culture can allow for athletes who may be suffering from psychological issues related to RED-S to open up before physical symptoms manifest. Keeping a multidisciplinary team up to date on the RED-S research and collaborating openly with athletes is paramount to minimising the negative impact RED-S will have.
To book your place at this year’s conference held in March in Nottingham you can visit:
Charlotte shares her thoughts on why studying less may improve your grades – and your mental health. Have you ever had that feeling that you have no time to do the things you enjoy because of the looming pressure of studying? Maybe you’d love to watch a movie, hang out with friends, or just lie […]
Charlotte shares her thoughts on why studying less may improve your grades – and your mental health.
Have you ever had that feeling that you have no time to do the things you enjoy because of the looming pressure of studying? Maybe you’d love to watch a movie, hang out with friends, or just lie in a hot bath, but you can’t make space for it in your schedule. When you are struggling with your mental health, this feeling of taking time for yourself can feel even less deserved. For some, makes us feel guilty for doing anything other than university work, and can seriously impact our wellbeing and our productivity.
When I started Brunel University as a fresh-faced 18 year old, I told myself that I didn’t have time for any clubs or societies. I was going to focus on my education and get a kick-ass degree! Things didn’t exactly work out that way; because I had no hobbies, and nothing else to dedicate my time to, I spent way too long studying in the library, or late into the night. One of the biggest regrets of my university experience is that I didn’t take the time to make friends through clubs and societies. I didn’t find that social outlet that I needed to help with the isolation and loneliness that living away from home can bring.
This guilt over ‘me-time’ got worse when I studied for a Master’s degree at Bristol UWE. Being a distance-learning course, I had even more of an opportunity to isolate myself due to the lack of a campus community, and the content of the course being completely online. I started to worry if I began working later than 9am. I wouldn’t give myself a lunch break longer than half an hour, and I completely neglected the need to exercise or just chill out.
Of course, this didn’t make me any better at studying. In fact, I spent most of my time worrying about studying and generally being inefficient, because studying was all I thought about. This resulted in me developing an anxiety disorder and unhealthy work habits that have stayed with me to this day, over a year after finishing my studies. According to the American Psychological Association, ‘excessive or inappropriate guilt’ is a key symptom of clinical depression, so it’s not surprising that a lot of students with mental health issues feel guilty for taking time off from studying.
One of my fellow course mates had a part-time job, a netball coaching job, and various other hobbies and activities that she indulged in, always managing to spend time on her studies as well. That girl eventually really DID get a kick-ass degree!
As counter intuitive as it seems, taking time away from studying and spending a healthy amount of time on self-care is THE BIGGEST tool for success and wellbeing that there is! Everyone needs to recharge their batteries regularly. So, have a think about what you like to do to relax and unwind. Is it reading a book? Going for a run? Something that has really helped me is having a list of things that I know I enjoy readily available to me to look at when I feel I need a break. Another helpful tip is to make yourself clear, realistic, small goals every day. Something like: ‘today I will read 2 journal articles’. And then when you complete those tasks, don’t be tempted to give yourself more. You’ve done what you set out to do!
Too much studying can have a really big impact on our health and wellbeing, and can give us a distorted view of how much our grades mean in the grand scheme of things. Be kind to yourself and prioritise that me-time as much as you need.
Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity? The most obvious is […]
Sport is full of challenges; pressure and evaluation, injuries, plateaus, sport-life balance conflicts and relationship issues, to name a few. Conventional wisdom holds that the difference between a successful and unsuccessful athlete is how they respond to these challenges. But what is the best way to respond to setbacks and adversity?
The most obvious is the “think positive” approach. Focusing on our positive qualities can breed confidence, and allow us to build on our strengths. Thinking about the “positives” may create optimism. But equally, athletes will want to consider their weaknesses and shortcomings, to see how they can be improved. If an athlete is to evaluate themselves realistically, they cannot purely focus on their strengths and positive qualities.
Handling the side of oneself that falls short of the “ideal” isn’t easy. Weaknesses and obstacles are seen as threats to future success, and sources of frustration. And unfortunately, in the dog-eat-dog environment of competitive sport, the emphasis tends to be on pushing hard and being “tough”. Athletes can easily become excessively critical of their weaknesses or how they handle obstacles. They may see self-criticism as a “must” for motivation and improvement. But are these actually the best approaches to use?
Researchers have actually found self-criticism to be negatively associated with motivation and progress towards goals (Powers et al., 2011). Some athletes even quit sport due to self-criticism (Ferguson et al., 2014). A more constructive way of responding to challenges and weaknesses is by taking a self-compassionate stance.
Self-compassion refers to the ability to recognise distress in oneself, with the commitment to alleviate it. According to Neff (2003), self-compassion includes three major components:
Self-compassion is related to fewer negative thoughts and feelings in response to sporting challenges (Reis et al., 2015). Self-compassion interventions have also succeeded in reducing self-criticism and negative thoughts following mistakes in athletes (Mosewich et al., 2013).
Ferguson and colleagues (2014) interviewed female athletes about how self-compassion could help in their own sporting lives. They identified various potential targets for self-compassion:
However, athletes are often naturally wary of the idea of self-compassion. Self-criticism is seen as necessary for caring about improving and avoiding complacency (Ferguson et al., 2014). Self-compassion can be seen as self-indulgent or being “too nice”. However, research has found the opposite.
Self-compassion is negatively related to being passive, and positively related to taking responsibility (Ferguson et al., 2014). It means caring about one’s wellbeing and performance, and then encouraging oneself to take action to achieve their goals (Neff, 2003). Self-compassion provides an emotionally safe and non-judgmental context in which to consider one’s weaknesses and how to improve them. This affords more realistic self-evaluation (Breines & Chen, 2012). Without fear of self-condemnation, the athlete is freer to explore their weaknesses and gain greater awareness (Neff, 2003).
Breines and Chen (2012) found that individuals encouraged to be self-compassionate demonstrated better outcomes in various tasks over those encouraged to focus on their own positive qualities:
Self-compassion is neither a show of indulgence nor complacency, but one of courage. It requires an athlete to look at the reality of their situation, and decide how to move themselves forward. The take-home point is that harsh self-criticism is not necessary for improvement. Encouragement and realistic evaluation of one’s strengths and weaknesses is more productive.
So what does self-compassion look like in practice? Firstly, it involves noticing and engaging with whatever the difficulty may be; a mistake, setback, or the realisation of a weakness. It means recognising that the experience is tough, and allowing the natural uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that come up without judging them. This enables realistic self-appraisal.
Upon recognising this difficulty, self-compassion involves engaging with oneself in a way that helps, not hinders progress. This means speaking kindly to and encouraging oneself, like one would a friend. Providing this reassurance and honesty reduces the tendency to self-criticise, and offers the security to solve the problem.
Finally, self-compassion requires tapping into one’s motivation and committing to solving the problem. It means asking oneself: “what do I need to do to move closer to where I want to be?” A self-compassionate approach may provide the athlete with the resilience they need to face and overcome adversity.
Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas […]
Working in various youth sport environments and with several young athletes on an individual basis brings about numerous challenges in relation to athlete motivation and the motivational climate that is created by those supporting young athletes. The topics of this article are aimed at helping parents and coaches understand some of the theory and ideas behind motivation and motivational climates.
Firstly, Motivational climate is the psychological environment that the coach creates by designing sessions which provide instructions and feedback that will help to motivate the athletes in training / competition (Amnes, 1992). Secondly, motivation impacts on how we think, feel and interact with others. This is an essential prerequisite in sport for getting athletes to enjoy the process of fulfilling their potential.
Win at all costs (Ego) or learning (Mastery) environment?
There are two contrasting climates that have been discussed in previous literature. If a Mastery climate is being developed then the environment revolves around supporting effort, cooperation and emphasis on individual/team development, learning and mastery of the tasks that are being undertaken (Roberts et al, 2007).
An ego climate is one in which the main goal is winning, and success is defined as being better than other players or other athletes. These environments often rely on comparisons between athletes, and coaches punishing mistakes and errors (Roberts et al, 2007).
Understanding an athlete’s motivational orientation:
An individual athlete’s motivation in sport can also be linked to 2 contrasting approaches. An ego-oriented athlete is constantly monitoring their performance related to others and is interested in winning with the smallest of efforts. Such dispositions mean that these athletes are also more prone to withdrawing from challenging situations when their ability seems shortcoming (Nicholls, 1989; Roberts et al., 2007).
A task-oriented individual will be more focused on mastering the task at hand and giving enough effort in to this process. Task-oriented athletes` are more likely to persist in the face of setbacks, put in more effort, select more challenging tasks and stay motivated in the process of development (Roberts et al., 2007).
How do you motivate young athletes?
One of the main discussions I have with young athletes, coaches and parents is the fact that it is unrealistic to shift completely from the motivation to win as that is an inherent part of sport and an important goal. However, it is not the only or most important objective in youth sport.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Going in to detail on all these questions and how you can effectively approach the challenges that come about through each of them far exceeds the scope of this article. However, they do provide some food for thought the next you are supporting your child or the children you coach in a sport environment especially around competitions.
‘Children first, athletes second’
Although throughout this article we have used the term ‘young athletes’ one final point to remember is that they are ‘children first, athletes second’. There are so many great, physical, social and psychological benefits to children being involved in sport. Try not to lose these by focusing too much on winning (which can increase unsportsmanlike behaviours and lower levels of moral reasoning).
“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach) Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified results. The term […]
“Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.” – Dan Reeves (Former NFL athlete and head coach)
Resilience. It has become a buzzword of modern self-help inside and out of the sporting world. It is touted as necessary for success; but has been criticised heavily for the use of ill-defined terminology and unqualified results. The term seems to have become disingenuous, with every organisation and leader claiming to be building resilience. The whole murky business needs demystifying. What is resilience? Can it contribute to sustained high performance? Can we develop or teach it, and should we? Recent evidence would suggest that it can, and we should, given the right conditions.
The first thing to tackle then; what is psychological resilience? most simply, it refers to the ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). Otherwise known as mental fortitude, it encompasses the protective ability to maintain our well-being and performance levels under pressure; and the ability to bounce back from small challenges with a swift return to normal functioning.
How does this translate into world of athletic performance? Examples of sporting success through resilience are abundant. Baseball star Babe Ruth said,
“every strike brings [you] closer to the next home run” – Babe Ruth
and arguably the best basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan has been the first to hold his hands up to his own mistakes:
“If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” – Michael Jordan
As with many abilities, psychological or otherwise, resilience levels can change over time. At times of vulnerability, people are more likely to succumb to the pressure, and as a result their performance and well-being can suffer. To combat this, the role of psychologists, coaches, and other support staff is to seek to influence, and hopefully improve people’s psychological resilience.
However, before we delve into how to develop mental fortitude in athletes, a few words of caution; psychological resilience training is not the cure-all solution for any athlete performance or mental health problem. Researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) recommend that any training program for psychological resilience should be part of a holistic approach that includes other psychosocial support such as ethical awareness, emotional intelligence and counselling. The aim should be to develop well-adjusted, high performing athletes (for more research on these additional elements see Breslin et al. 2017; Laborde et al., 2016; and Longstaff and Gervis, 2016). There is a risk that comes with not giving enough consideration to these other psychological assets. On its own, psychological resilience can ultimately become a vice that undermines well-being and performance. We refer back to the wise words of coach ‘Irv’ Blitzer in the film ‘Cool Runnings’ (because… when is that not the answer?) who told his athlete:
“Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing; but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it”
Resilience is not about placing your well-being or your values at risk. It is not about being under stress and denying it in order to keep pushing on. It is not about being so single-minded and focused on performing that everything else falls by the wayside e.g. in the case of Derice, when he began to alienate his friends and tried to be something he wasn’t. At a team level, this can occur in the forms of rewarding or celebrating dysfunctional behaviour, such as trying to play through an injury, and mislabelling them as badges of honour ‘for the good of the team’. According to Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) these are considered weaknesses that should not be misconstrued as strength. On the flip side of this however, a lack of resilience should also not be misconstrued as weakness. Everyone can and will, at some point, give in to extreme pressure or hardship. This is not weakness. In fact, for some this adversity is the platform from which they spring forward to withstand and thrive on pressure at the highest levels. For example, Laura Bassett, an England defender who scored an own goal in the 2015 World Cup semi-finals has just joined a new club and continues to represent her country internationally.
How then, do we train to improve resilience in the right way? Last year, researchers Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) developed and published their evidence-based mental fortitude training program, aimed at sustaining success through developing psychological resilience. They created a three-pronged approach to increase mental fortitude for sustained success. We’re going to explain the three main elements, and make suggestions on how coaches, athletes and support staff can go about implementing them. Firstly:
Protecting against negative consequences starts, unsurprisingly, with the individual themselves. Personal qualities are psychological factors that are a combination of personality and skills, and we need to start with a quick run down of the difference. Personality is about people’s more stable characteristics that build the patterns in the way they feel, think, and behave. Practitioners should look to identify these traits to get a better idea of the athlete’s starting point. Examples of some personality characteristics to look for include extraversion, conscientiousness, optimism, perfectionism, and self-confidence. Also, being intrinsically motivated, which means enjoying doing activities and tasks; or task-orientated which relates to wanting to demonstrate competence through personal improvement.
We need to think about what Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) refer to as a person’s ‘resilience bandwidth’. Each individual athlete has their own potential of psychological resilience. Some start high in resilience, while others start low and each may respond differently to resilience training. This is crucial to consider before starting any intervention; remember we want to get each individual to his or her personal highest point of resilience potential, so we teach them skills.
Psychological skills are the mental and emotional processes people use to improve their functioning. These are much more malleable than the personality characteristics. For example, we can develop self/social awareness. This means having an awareness of oneself, others and the environment, and practitioners can recommend exercises such as daily self-reflection to work on it. Athletes (and anyone) can set some time aside each day to honestly look at yourself as a person and an athlete. This process can be aided by using a journal. Looking at yourself objectively can help you get a better idea of who you are and what you want. Directing thoughts, mental images, and attention are also important skills to master for resilience e.g. self-talk, imagery, mental rehearsal etc. We will give a few suggestions on ways to practice these a little later.
If we consider personality as the foundation, and psychological skills as the bricks we build with, the desirable outcomes are the overall structure we’re aiming to build. While developing psychological skills may be beneficial, it is important not to do so for practice’s sake. The desirable outcomes should be specific and measurable. We would like to develop individuals who are able to maintain concentration when it matters, who are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions, who are able to handle pressure and deal with distress, and who are able to recognise the support they have. For a full list of these qualities, see Fletcher and Sarkar (2016, p.139).
We know, of course, that aiming to develop personal qualities to help athletes resist any stressor at any given moment is rather aspirational. No matter what their personal qualities, in the end this alone is not enough, and anyone can reach their ‘breaking point’ under enough adversity. So, we need to look outside of the individual to their surrounding environment.
Our knowledge in this area originated in the field of education. In 1967, Sanford argued that for students to improve their academic performance, the environment must balance the challenge and support presented to them. Challenge refers to having high expectations of the athletes, and involves instilling accountability and responsibility for each individual role. For example, the goalie in football or the point guard in basketball are both very specific, well-defined and high-pressure roles. The challenge for these is clear and can be quite easily set out. Attention should be paid to others in the team to ensure their roles are clear, expectations are high, and accountability is upheld. This is achieved through developmental feedback, which informs athletes on how to improve and develops resilience.
This, however, must be balanced with support. Support refers to enabling athletes to develop their personal qualities (discussed above), and helps to promote learning and build trust. In this case, motivational feedback is most appropriate to encourage and inform athletes about what has been effective in the past and what is now working to develop their resilience.
Too high or too low in either, or both, of these elements and you can end up with environments that are highly ineffective for developing resilience. A facilitative environment consists of people thriving in a challenging but supportive environment. There are good relationships between athletes and coaches and people crave constructive feedback. There is healthy competition, and sensible risk taking is encouraged. People are supported to learn from mistakes and failure, and success is celebrated. To build resilience to help with sustained high performance, a facilitative environment must be created and maintained. Essentially, “comfort the troubled and trouble the comfortable” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We understand though, that no single individual can create or control a whole environment. Any practitioners who want to implement this training program should try to identify the main decision-makers and influential opinions in your organisation. These are key people to get on board, and to educate. Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) noted that the effectiveness of this program can depend on the amount of commitment from all personnel in a team. You should encourage open discussion and positive change.
The final ingredient of Fletcher and Sarkar’s (2016) psychological resilience training program is known as the challenge mindset. This is where we focus on how people react in different ways to adversity as a whole, rather than to the specific events themselves.
Wayne Dyer said, “change the way you look at things and the things you look at change”. This is the essence of the challenge mindset, and is crucial for developing resilience. The first concept to tease out here is known as appraisal. This is an ongoing psychological process where, in any situation, people assess the external pressures by asking themselves questions such as ‘how might this affect me, and do I care?’. This is known as primary appraisal. People then assess their own ability to cope with those pressures e.g. ‘what can I do about this and will it be enough?’. This is known as secondary appraisal. On top of this, people assess their own thoughts and emotions in any given situation, and this is known as meta-cognition and meta-emotion, respectively.
Keeping all this in mind, as practitioners we need to work on helping athletes to positively ‘appraise’ and interpret the pressures they experience, in relation to their own resources (secondary appraisal), thoughts and emotions (meta-cognition/emotion). For example, some individuals find it easy to evaluate experiences as a challenge, however for others achieving this challenge mindset is more difficult and the are more likely to evaluate events as threatening or harmful. This is where the psychological skills and facilitative environment discussed previously become particularly important. Psychological skills need to be practiced regularly. Athletes should have an awareness of any negative thoughts that make them more vulnerable, and they should be mindful that they have a choice in how they react to things that happen. Here are some of the top thought regulation strategies Fletcher and Sarkar (2016) outline to deal with negative thinking and improve the challenge mindset:
As with developing personal qualities, it is important to realise that everyone will, at times, engage in negative thinking. This is ok, and people should try to be accepting and non-judgemental of any negative thoughts they are experiencing, so they can begin to work on how to deal with such thoughts and beliefs.
A proper understanding of what resilience is (and is not), is crucial to create a productive training program. Coaches and practitioners can develop psychological resilience through a three-pronged program. This includes spotting and developing personal qualities in the athletes, creating a facilitative environment, and teaching techniques to encourage the challenge mindset. Get as many of your team on board as possible, and make sure any work you do is part of an ethical and holistic approach.
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.
Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive […]
Mindfulness is thought to be a tendency to be present in the moment and to mindfully accept naturally occurring events, emotions and thoughts. As a trait-like variable, some people are able to achieve this state more regularly than others. When considering a mindful, let it be, present moment approach it could appear to be counterintuitive to achieving success that requires persistence, grit, resilience against stress and pushing one’s limits/boundaries. However, to be ‘mindful’ is not a passive state but rather a deeply engaged state but one that accepts each and every moment exactly as it is. Understanding the motives, drives and goals of individuals’ is a complex and multi-layered process. In order to better understand the various layers of complication, an athlete can employ mindfulness techniques to be present with, reflect upon and change emotional responses and behaviour.
The use of mindfulness techniques originated in Eastern philosophy and culture and have more recently been incorporated into Western practices. Particularly in sport, mindfulness has grown in popularity as athletes strive to achieve a performance advantage. Perhaps an innovative approach to sport psychology consultancy should include the simplistic models of traditional psychological skills training, mainstream psychological practices such as rational emotive behaviour therapy and also incorporate mindfulness based acceptance practices. In doing so the athlete starts to develop a deeper understanding of their motives, drives, responses to competition (success, failure, set-backs, key transitions), has a clear observable focus and goals and engages with these processes mindfully in order to deepen and enhance learning and growth. It’s important that practitioners look beyond the use of psychological skills training and begin to integrate theoretical approaches and techniques from different philosophical domains and contexts.
I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing […]
I previously wrote an article on here titled, ‘why am I doing this at my age? Physical activity or competitive sport? Which looked at the contrast between why individuals over the age of 35 participate in one or the other. This article will focus more specifically on masters sport and the negotiation of the ageing process. The masters athlete population has become one of the fastest growing sport participation cohorts in Westernised countries (Bennett, Seguin, Parent and Young, 2014). You only need to look at the news sections on Sport NGB websites to realise that providing opportunities for these age groups has become more of a priority with events taking place at club, National and International level. For example:
In terms of a specific definition, Young (2011) defined masters athletes as individuals who participate in competitive sport, with organised events typically beginning at age 35 and extending into the 90s. Masters Athletes are characterised by formal registration to an organisation (e.g. club) or event (e.g. 10km road race), and a sufficiently regular pattern of involvement in preparation for an event (Young 2011).
Many older individuals still participate in mixed age group sport environments. However, participation in masters sport provides an indicator of what a person is capable of through competition against peers. The performance feedback received during competition is relative to the highest functioning members of the cohort and has been found to influence motivation for continued participation, or optimism for the ageing process (Horton, 2010).
There are key themes that are relevant to the continued participation of this age group and how they negotiate the ageing process (Dionigi, Horton and Baker, 2013):
Dionigi’s (2010) findings simultaneously presented stories of personal victories and private desperation, highlighting the perceived benefits and potential consequences for engaging and maintaining an ‘athlete identity’. The masters athletes who challenge the standard definition of ageing by competing in sport at elite levels beyond middle adulthood and into the later decades of life are resisting the ageing process by maintaining physical activity levels and gaining additional social and psychological benefits (Young, Weir, Starkes and Medic, 2008).
Masters sport is a beneficial environment for athletes to maintain an involvement in competitive sport after the age of 35, and experience opportunities to compete with and against their peers. However, this continued participation can link to contrasting approaches to negotiating the ageing process and how this links to the individual’s athletic identity that has developed through years of participation.
Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a […]
Imagine a time of which you had to overcome a significant challenge in your life. It could be a career change, personal loss, or even something small like choosing which route to take to work. With every challenge comes a consequence; and with every consequence comes an opportunity to learn, whether it is from a negative or positive outcome.
One of the most gratifying experiences about my job is hearing about the challenges faced by veterans recovering from injury. The most common type of injuries are cognitive based (e.g., brain trauma), but other injuries include personal loss or bodily injury. Regardless of the type of injury, each poses their own unique set of challenges. With this in mind, I have come to learn that the preparatory and application approach applied to a challenge ultimately that may make the difference between overcoming a challenge or falling short of expectations. Furthermore, the preparatory and application approach may assist in defining our character, assist or inhibit personal recovery, and/or set the foundation for how one allows or does not allow the challenge to govern our decision making. After spending time with veterans from the United States’ two longest conflicts in US military history, I have gained a unique perspective about how to embraces challenges as an opportunity rather than an intimidating obstacle.
Through observation and application, those approaching a challenge in a manner consistent with the betterment of one’s personal health will ultimately yield the most significant and beneficial results. In other words, taking ownership of the situation will enable oneself to approach a situation in a manner that is both achievable and, more importantly, approachable. One of the most impactful instances of this is when I witnessed veterans learning to walk again. The road to recovery for these veteran’s is both long and intimidating, but the one’s that chose to accept the situation, empathize with others, and lead their own recovery, ultimately had the most success.
Below are several common elements that I have gathered based on the testimony of others in similar situations:
In the end, these elements are strictly observational in nature. They do not possess some of the hard ‘empirical’ support of elements of which is normally sought after. However, for someone looking to begin goal setting, these are a good place to start. Approach a challenge as an opportunity, embrace mistakes as a learning experience, learn to adapt through hardship, and never be afraid to come up short.
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a mental disorder starting in early years which can go on to have significant negative effects on lives if not spotted and addressed (1). Often coaches and parents are unaware of hallmark features and can be reluctant to raise the issue as a problem due to embarrassment or ignorance. […]
ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a mental disorder starting in early years which can go on to have significant negative effects on lives if not spotted and addressed (1). Often coaches and parents are unaware of hallmark features and can be reluctant to raise the issue as a problem due to embarrassment or ignorance. Combined with this is the question about where to go for help, is there any treatment and also is it not good for hyperactive kids to ‘let off some steam?’ Given the above, here is some practical tips for noticing it and what help looks like.
Diagnosis of ADHD can be challenging, sometimes requiring more than one mental health professional and a variety of skills and expertise. The diagnosis takes time and shouldn’t be rushed into. GPs are equipped to asked screening questions and identify possible suffers, referring onto secondary care. There have been concerns expressed in some countries with regards over diagnosis and a knock on effect of overprescribing of stimulant medication (2). UK based doctors are therefore hesitant to jump into diagnosis or medication and therefore want to ensure they’ve got things right for the patient. Validated scoring systems (3) and multidisciplinary approach are at the core of assessment and treatment.
The classic triad for diagnosis is hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity. There are identifiable subtypes if one of these is predominantly seen. One can imagine how these are overlooked in a team sporting environment or passed off as being ‘normal.’ These signs and others should be evident in other settings, for example school, home and social events as well as in sport and have a significant effect on functioning. Around some team sports, hyperactivity especially at a younger age can be seen as a positive trait. A football coach’s dream is to have ‘an engine in midfield’ covering the work of 2 players, box to box until the fulltime whistle or indeed the openside flanker who makes twice as many tackles as anyone else. However when game plans and sticking to some instruction for betterment of team strategy comes into play, ADHD sufferers can struggle and in some instances fall away. Inattention and distractibility are often most apparent were requirement to engage in effortful tasks can be a major hurdle to overcome for the athlete. Coaches need to be mindful of this and some have reported benefit of giving ‘to the point’ messages and quick feedback to these players.
There is no singular cause seen for ADHD. Although there is a genetic component, this has only be partially located with the genome and any brain changes which may be seen require detailed imaging which doesn’t necessarily change long-term outcomes. Dopamine and in particular the D4 Receptor are thought to play a crucial role. Environment undoubtedly plays a role also and should be addressed if possible.
Features a coach might see in a child on a sports field would be difficulty staying on task, marked inattention on events, getting bored easily, reckless and prone to injury, cognitive delay when compared with peers and struggling with prolonged instruction.
As with any disease in medicine – non pharmacological methods of management should be trialled and considered first. This involves working to form positive relationships with the athlete, parents, extended family, carer and teachers. Sport specific management is an important aspect and coaches must contribute. It is easy for these players to become isolated in team sports, performance levels drop and interest wane. A coach should avoid any unexpected change, give basic feedback and instruction, encouragement 1 to 1 when possible and single messages at a time. Being able to be child specific with interaction style and responding to events in insightful ways can help too.
In summary, it is possible to spot ADHD with even some of the clues given above. Coaches often might see things that parents don’t and know that GPs and sports psychiatrists will consider all possibilities in good depth. There is no quick fixes for ADHD however their brains crave structure and sport participation has an important part to play not only in the physical benefits for these kids but social learning also.
Dr Thomas McCabe is a psychiatrist based in Glasgow with a specialist interest in sports psychiatry. He works with a variety of teams and organisations on the wider topic of mental health and is a key member of the Sports Psychiatry Royal College of Psychiatry Specialist Interest Group (#SEPSIG). He has carried out research into effectiveness of medication in ADHD.
Our drinking club has a rugby problem? There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and […]
Our drinking club has a rugby problem?
There is a long standing yet peculiar relationship between alcohol and rugby. Some of amateur rugby clubs throughout the UK and Ireland survive due to takings behind the bar on a Saturday night. At least part of these profits fund everything from away buses, management fees, equipment and pitch upgrades. Added to this alcohol plays a central role in most team bonding sessions and camaraderie around rugby teams. At an elite level, the alcohol industry sponsors the most prestigious European club competition and the national leagues in Scotland (1). Given alcohol is known as a depressant with little benefit on ‘on field’ performance or athletic prowess yet is still so popular, why is this so and do we need to be worried?
It is difficult to exactly pinpoint the reasons when or why alcohol and sport, specifically rugby, became so closely linked. In the short term alcoholic beverage produces feelings of pleasure, increased socialisation and escapism thought to be at least partly due to effect of alcohol on the dopaminergic regions of the brain. Following an often physical battle for 80 minutes, it is a vital part of downtime following tough games where emotions can be at their greatest and allows teams time to come together – spending time discussing what has went on before. In amateur rugby for some less focussed teams, winning a post-match ‘boat race’ can even negate and lessen the feelings of disappointment following a loss on the pitch! The drinking of large amounts has been linked to perceived masculine superiority within some teams when studied by psychologists in a UK cohort (2). Players and coaches can also use alcohol as a reward for training and working hard throughout the week. Rugby union is traditionally played on a Saturday afternoon, hours before what would already be a time when there would be increased alcohol intake (with or without rugby) particularly within the 18-30 age population and demographic. Although not exhaustive, these are some of the main points to consider when assessing why alcohol is part of the rugby culture.
There is a variety of classifications used to describe alcohol use and how to view it from a clinician’s point of view. As in other areas of medicine, I find the concept of viewing things from a spectral perspective to be most useful. At one end is the tea totaller and occasional drinker, through to binge drinking or hazardous use somewhere in the middle to alcohol dependence syndrome, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome at the other end. The order of these at the ‘heavier use’ side is still up for debate. From a sports medic, psychiatrists or psychologist’s perspective, it is vital to not only be aware of patterns of use, amount of units, on/off season, symptoms and signs of withdrawal and dependence but also take an holistic psychological evaluation of life events surrounding any athlete. It is not uncommon for alcohol to be used as a crutch for perceived relief from an underlying mental health disorder or indeed be brought on by the depressive effects of the drug. A well recognised vicious circle can result.
Recognising there may be an issue is not only the role of the sports medic, physiotherapist, sports psychiatrist and psychologist but also team mates and administrators. Indications that a player might be in need of help comes in many forms. Mid week drinking, regular ‘Sunday sessions,’ being the ‘last guy at the bar’ when team mates have left, gambling issues, following an alcohol related event (drink driving, fighting, regretful sexual encounter) might give some clues about hazardous use or early addiction. Concurrent cocaine or other drugs of recreation are prevalent in this population and should be considered likely if an alcohol related illness is identified. Administrators and coaching staff need to be sympathetic towards any issues, have honest conversations with players and be aware of the subject matter and understand clear pathways of referral.
The traditional forms of screening come by way of CAGE and Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) (3) which are usually carried out by GPs. Although these do not necessarily have validity in a purely sporting sense, do give a good starting place to proceed or otherwise with evaluation and assessment. Given less pressures on time, sporting insight, likely comorbidity and need for advanced risk assessment – sports psychiatrists are well placed to deal with this initial assessment and evaluation.
There may be no treatment necessary for some. However one of mainstays of treatment is motivational interviewing and should be at least broached with most. This involves a direct, patient centred approach usually attacking the barriers to or fear of change. I believe clinicians need to be focused and relevant when working with this age demographic. The player needs to be able to trust with whom they are working with and more than ever, a positive therapeutic relationship is necessary for positive outcomes. There may be no obvious underlying reason found, however the athlete should be given every opportunity and be assisted in exploring possible causes.
Sports psychiatrists are well equipped to assess for underlying mental disorder which commonly coexist. Medication specifically for players with alcohol addiction would be used sparingly however could come in the form of disulfiram (4) and acamprosate (5). It is important that any medication is used in combination with psychological and close supervision. After a period of being in favour with some, nalmefene (6) seems to have safety issues surrounding it but theory behind it is exciting looking into the future. Antidepressants may also be appropriate along with ‘simple things’ such as life structure or alternative activities. As with everything in sport, a wider MDT approach is best and should be expected from an athletes perspective.
Alcohol is used widely within many rugby circles. Despite the obvious dangers, many have enjoyed and benefitted from its use within this environment – it is difficult to see this changing in the short term although perhaps some reduction of use has occurred since the advent of professionalism within the game. Clear pathways of referral need to be established by management teams who suspect addictions issues emerging. Players need to be making educated choices with how they integrate into this culture.
Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions. Translating such physical determinants […]
Elite athletes are known for their exceptional physiology. Arguably, their superior strength, power, endurance and biomechanics all play a key role in enabling their success. However, these physiological factors tend to be relatively similar across elite performers, meaning that physiology is not the only piece of the puzzle of creating champions.
Translating such physical determinants into optimal performance outcomes requires something arguably more subjective. Indeed, when understanding the making of champions, we also may consider psychological determinants of performance. Specifically, personality traits have received a lot of attention in sport as they are known for their ability to predict behavioural outcomes, and thus can inform how individuals act, and perform within a sporting context.
One personality trait or disposition which remains controversial regarding the impact of its role in elite sport is that of perfectionism. Perfectionism is commonly identified in elite athletes, defined by Stoeber & Otto (2009) as a
“striving for flawlessness and setting of excessively high standards for performance alongside over-critical evaluation of behaviour”.
So, does perfectionism help, or hinder performance?
Its role is contentious due to its multidimensional nature. This means it is conceptualized as having some components which are adaptive, and beneficial to sporting performance and others which are maladaptive and detrimental to sporting performance.
These two different components have been named by researchers as perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns. Perfectionist strivings involve individuals setting high standards for themselves and ‘striving’ to attain these standards, accompanied by high self-esteem and life satisfaction. Arguably, these are necessary to perform at high levels.
A study of Olympic athletes found that perfectionist strivings were present to a much greater extent than perfectionist concerns. Alternatively, perfectionist concerns relate to a tendency to behave in ways to avoid making mistakes, and are characterized by doubting one’s actions and being excessively critical of personal mistakes, with failures presenting a threat to individuals self-worth. For example, in distance runners, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns may affect how they appraise an upcoming competition:
Athlete A demonstrates perfectionist strivings by suggesting “I have set a standard for myself in running under 20 minutes for a 5k, and I will do everything I can to achieve it”.
Athlete B, demonstrates perfectionist concerns by saying “If I don’t achieve a time of below 20 minutes in the 5km I will have failed and everyone will judge me”.
The relative presence of components of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns have been used to classify individuals as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are suggested to typically demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist strivings and unhealthy perfectionists demonstrate characteristics of perfectionist concerns. Healthy perfectionism is associated with high confidence, positive mood, and superior performance. Alternatively, unhealthy perfectionism has been associated with consequences deleterious to performance, namely; burnout, increased anxiety and poorer mental health.
But, it is not as simple as it seems…
The paradox of perfectionism…
Recent research suggests that we cannot assign athletes into single categories as either a healthy, or unhealthy perfectionist. The presence of perfectionist strivings typically correlates with perfectionist concerns and components of perfectionist strivings have been shown to interact with perfectionist concerns, making concerns more maladaptive in the presence of perfectionist strivings. So, Athlete A, will commonly demonstrate elements of Athlete B’s dispositions.
Perfectionist strivings may be misconstrued as inherently adaptive because the majority of research has omitted the effect of perfectionist concerns when reporting outcomes in individuals. This means that the beneficial effect of perfectionist strivings seems to be inflated. In summary, the conceptual meaning of perfectionist strivings appears to change depending on how it is measured. Indeed, it has been suggested that the combination of perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns…
“energise a pattern of overstriving which has pervasive and debilitating effects” (Hill, 2014)
This results in what is known as the ‘paradox of perfectionism’. If perfectionist strivings improve performance, surely, they should be distinct from factors which do the opposite? It appears that we cannot purely be a healthy perfectionist without the maladaptive components of perfectionism coming into play. As an athlete who wants to perform at the highest level, or for coaches supporting these athletes we need to develop strategies to promote facets of perfectionist strivings, and identify, and minimize the maladaptive outcomes to performance and mental health of perfectionist concerns.
The following section will identify evidence-based practices to minimize the negative implications of unhealthy perfectionism that may arise in athletes attempting to achieve high levels of performance.
A negative outcome of perfectionist concerns is burnout in athletes. Burnout consists of a triad of factors conceptualized by Appleton & Hill (2014) as:
1) Reduced physical or emotional capacity for sport
2) lower accomplishment
3) reduced value of participation in sport.
The incidence of burnout in perfectionists has been found to be mediated by the type of motivation athletes have. ‘Healthy’ perfectionists were found to have more intrinsic motivation. This means they partook in their sport for the pure enjoyment or love of it. Those who were unhealthy perfectionists were motivated in their sport to avoid negative outcomes, or for external rewards such as praise from others.
This suggests that promoting intrinsic motivation may be a means to reduce burnout in perfectionist athletes. According to self-determination theory, a ‘needs supportive’ environment can facilitate intrinsic motivation. This can be done through the satisfaction of three basic psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Indeed, athlete’s perception of the satisfaction of these basic needs within sporting environments has been associated with a reduced risk of athlete burnout.
Satisfaction of these needs in athlete’s environments can be done as follows:
Mental wellness is an antecedent to success in athletes. Therefore, it is imperative to identify strategies to promote this in athletes. Research has suggested that self-esteem plays a mediatory role in the relationship between perfectionism and mental health – with lower levels of self-esteem predicting poor mental health in perfectionists.
Researchers have done some digging into the components of self-esteem which predict negative outcomes in perfectionists. Baseline self-esteem is a component of self-esteem, relating to an individual’s perception of self-worth and is relatively static. A study of Swedish Olympic athletes found that those with higher baseline self-esteem typically showed attributes of perfectionist strivings, namely high personal standards. This was accompanied by low perfectionist concerns. Those with low baseline self-esteem scored highly on perfectionist striving, but also high on perfectionist concerns. This undermines performance as it increases competition related anxiety, resulting in excessive worry and fear of failure.
So – should we just focus our efforts on increasing baseline self-esteem? This may be challenging because research has suggested that it is something relatively static, informed by genetics, upbringing, and prior experiences.
However, using the critical confidence equation, we may be able to identify ways to overcome the negative implications of low baseline self-esteem. This equation suggests:
Self Confidence = Baseline Self-Esteem x Evidence
The self-confidence someone has for their performance is a function of their baseline self-esteem multiplied by evidence they have accumulated from performance and training. Those with low baseline self-esteem, typically have to ‘earn’ self-confidence for performance and based on this equation, we can do this by increasing the amount of evidence they have for their ability.
This evidence can be accumulated through creating what is known as a ‘preparation environment’. This involves the athlete deciding on their attitudes, standards and values which they will endeavour to uphold in training which will be conducive to the highest quality of training. In line with this, coaches should insist that the standards set should be upheld and not compromised. Within this environment, athletes should be encouraged to learn from own actions, continually set themselves shifting targets and kept accountable for upholding the self-selected standards. Creating such an environment may account for the negative outcomes of low baseline self-esteem in perfectionists through increasing self-confidence via accumulating evidence of ability.
Perfectionists typically set high standards for themselves. But, how perfectionists think about their goals can result in differing effects on performance outcomes. Perfectionist strivings have been associated with mastery goals. Individuals with mastery goals view competition or training as an opportunity to improve ability and skills, and failure to meet these goals as learning opportunities. Performance approach goals have also been associated with perfectionist strivings. These are goals orientated around proving one’s ability, and attempting to demonstrate that it is superior to others. Perfectionist concerns have been associated with performance approach goals, as well as performance avoidance goals. Here, individuals view training or competitions in terms of avoidance, they fear performing below their ability, or worse relative to others. Both types of performance orientated goals typically result in lower levels of performance because instead of “improving their ability, the focus is very much on proving ones ability” (Stoeber et al., 2008).
We know that we may not be able to classify individuals into healthy and unhealthy perfectionists so the focus of perfectionist’s goals may differ depending on the situation. Therefore, it is important to encourage techniques within high performing athletes to promote mastery-approach goals. Epstein’s TARGET framework is an acronym for a series of techniques which have been create a mastery-orientated environment in sporting settings:
Task – encouraging athletes to focus their practices on personal tasks, achieved through setting individualized goals with reduced opportunity for peer comparison.
Authority: allowing athletes to elicit authority in training and evaluative measures of their performance.
Reward success based on individual effort and not performance relative to others.
Grouping, involving collaborating with team mates and peers in a non-comparative manner which benefits all athletes.
Evaluation based on improvements on a personal level. This should focus, on the quality of mastery of a particular task as opposed to performance relative to others.
Timing of feedback and evaluation should be implemented in adequate time, flexibility is encouraged by the athlete and the coach.
It has been shown that adopting each of these principles can form a mastery-orientated environment, which is conducive to creating mastery-approach goals. Research has shown elite athletes have described as it being a predictor of their enjoyment of sport, and also improved performance. Additionally, it can reduce the likelihood of some of the consequences of maladaptive perfectionism; specifically, burnout.
Coping Responses to Failure
Facets of perfectionism affect how individuals react to failure. A research study of young elite athletes found that high levels of perfectionist concerns predicted negative psychological outcomes in response to failure, mediated by fear of shame and embarrassment. Additionally, perfectionist strivings and perfectionist concerns predict life satisfaction, indicative that those with high levels of perfectionist concerns struggle to cope with
The risk of negative outcomes of perfectionism is enhanced in those who experience failure. This may be unavoidable in elite sport where high standards are constantly set, and the margins for error are small.
However, “proactive” coping strategies can act as a protective mechanism, buffering to the negative outcomes of failure in perfectionists. One of these is called “positive reframing”. A study measured level of satisfaction following stressful events in athletes demonstrating high perfectionist concerns. The use of positive reframing was particularly effective for those high in perfectionist concerns, and increased their life satisfaction to a similar level to those low in perfectionist concerns.
So, how can athletes implement positive reframing into their sport? This can be done through writing down the negative thoughts and failures as a means to initiate conscious reframing of them. From this, we can try to draw positive aspects from these outcomes, and focus rather on what has been achieved, as opposed to what hasn’t.
Failure: I didn’t win a race I was expected to.
Positive reframing: I didn’t win the race, but I executed my race plan as I hoped to and I put my best effort into the performance.
Broadly, this technique essentially encourages the athlete to accept imperfection. Striving for perfection is not maladaptive, but insisting that one has to be perfect is, especially when self-worth is contingent on attaining exceptionally high standards. It is challenging to learn to accept imperfection in performance settings which are inherently evaluative, but this technique can help address that.
Some components of perfectionism are desirable and necessary in performing at the highest level in elite sport, but due to their high correlation with the maladaptive components of perfectionism, it is important to identify specific strategies to foster resilience to these negative outcomes. Conscious awareness of these, alongside implementing strategies based on research evidence to reduce these can act as a buffer to their impact and facilitate striving for success with a healthy and positive mind-set. In summary, these strategies involve: