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:
It often said ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But we all react to adversity in different ways. While some seem to be able to push through hardship, for others it can be more of a struggle. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and the use of personal qualities to withstand […]
It often said ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. But we all react to adversity in different ways. While some seem to be able to push through hardship, for others it can be more of a struggle. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and the use of personal qualities to withstand pressure 1. In a stressful fast-changing world it can help inoculate against mental illness while boosting performance 7. So how can athletes and coaches train these skills to withstand the ‘pressure-cooker‘ of the athletic environment?
The athletic domain breeds a ‘win at all costs’ attitude. However, what many don’t realise is that winning often has much to do with sacrifice and vulnerability as it does toughness and mental resolve. Individuals sceptical of psychology may think athletes are simply endowed with exceptional genetic gifts and super-human qualities, but athletes know better than anyone that winning is all in the mind 5. Thus like the physical components of sport, coaches and athletes need to monitor, train and develop athlete’s psychology skills.
In sport, adversity is usually associated with competitive performance, sports organisation within which the athletes operate and personal ‘Non-sporting’ life events 2. The continuous training, performance and selection, brings significant mental resilience challenges for both athletes and coaches as well as the burden of stressors common in everyday life 3. However, recent issues surrounding the duty of care that sport has towards athletes has led to the acknowledgement that mental resilience is not something that athletes and coaches innately possess and should be developed with the same consideration that physical resilience is built 3.
In light of the importance of the environment in building resilience, this blog intends to encourage the use of practices that facilitate the development of psychological resilience to produce desirable outcomes such as:
Resilience & the environment
Although psychological resilience is, by definition, a mental and emotional construct displayed in individuals actions, it is profoundly influenced by an extensive range of environmental factors such as social, cultural or occupational sources 4. Thus, rather than being viewed as a fixed trait, resilience should be looked at as a capability that can be developed through person-environment interactions. Athletes do not live or compete within a vacuum; due to this, the environment in which a player grows and develops requires particular attention. As demonstrated by the below quote:
“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower” – Alexander den Heijer
If we use this analogy of comparing an athlete to a flower, it is easier to understand why certain athletes do not achieve full potential. If a flower was placed in an environment with no light, sun or water, it would not grow. In the same way, if an athlete has no support, challenge or guidance they will not develop. Thus, although resilience is a well known ‘Hot-topic’ within psychology it is only recently that the environment in which this is developed has received specific attention. For example, in a BASES expert statement, Dr Sarkar recently discussed the role of the environment in developing resilience (See link). Henceforth, the aim of this blog is to extend upon this information and translate resilience research into a practical tool for athletes and coaches to apply.
Challenge & Support:
Drawing upon the work of Dr Fletcher and Dr Sarkar in their study of mental fortitude training, of fundamental importance to developing high levels of resilience and subsequently performance, are the notions of challenge and support1. But what do these mean to athletes and coaches?
Figure 1: A challenge and support matrix for developing resilience1
As shown in figure 1, there are 4 identified environments that can be created by leaders:
Each environment is characterised by different features, but for a development of resilience, optimal performance and wellbeing, a facilitative environment is pivotal.
What does a facilitative environment look like?
World-class hockey coach Ric Charlesworth perfectly summarised what the ideal coaching environment looks like for optimal performance and welfare for athletes, stating:
“The interesting thing about coaching is that you have to trouble the comfortable, and comfort the troubled”
The aforementioned statement perfectly aligns with the ideal characteristics of a facilitative environment. Suggesting that in order to facilitate both excellence and welfare in elite sport, the environment must balance both high levels of support and challenge. Therefore, coaches need to have an exceptional awareness of their athlete’s as an unrelenting environment can be detrimental to an athlete’s well being. However, for many coaches there is still a question of whether welfare should come before winning? Due to this, academics at Loughborough University have identified the following characteristics of a facilitative environment 1:
Pressure is an inevitable part of sport. Let’s use the Olympics for example; you have 4 years of preparation for, in some cases, a 9-second performance in order to get a gold medal. However, it is how these athletes cope with this pressure and overcome adversities along the way that separates those who medal and those who do not. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 live Andrew Strauss, a top English Cricketer talked about learning from other players in order to deal with pressure:
“The first guy was Justin Langer from Australia because the way he was able to deal with pressure was by leaving nothing to chance in his preparations, so he prepared so thoroughly that anything that he encountered on the cricket pitch he was ready for”
This type of preparation to deal with pressure and adversity alludes to the techniques suggested by Dr Fletcher and Colleagues 1 surrounding pressure inurement training. Through the manipulation of the environment in training to increase stress and pressure athletes develop the skills to maintain functioning and performance under pressure. A coach who stands by this technique is Dennis Bergkamp stating in an interview with the Guardian:
“You put a right-footed player who can’t do anything with his left side and force him to use his left foot. Of course in that game, you will probably lose because you don’t use your strongest position, but in the end, you have a player who used his left foot when he was 12 and 13 and 14, and he can use both feet when he comes into the first team”
In line with Bergkamp’s coaching strategy pressure inurement training involves a gradual increase in pressure on an individual via challenge and the manipulation of the environment. This takes place in two main ways:
These adaptations should create an environment that drives peak performance. Simultaneously the environment should be adapted and manipulated to increase the support provided. When the pressure surpasses available resources, the chances an individual reacts with a negative outcome are increased. Hence, motivational feedback and support should be provided 8.
Nevertheless, sport is not the only domain advocating this ‘courage to try, resilience to fail’ mind-set. Businesses such as Fail Forward help organisations learn to deal with pressure and failure in order to build resilience. Similarly, the U.S Army has developed the comprehensive soldier fitness (CFS) programme, in order to develop resilience in the soldiers, family members and Army civilians 6. Therefore, developing the psychology skill of resilience can buffer against the adversities experienced in all aspects of life.
University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete. Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount […]
University and being a student-athlete is a great experience that many people reflect on with fond memories. Use this article and other resources or support available to you to help you start your journey on the front foot and take control of your experience as a student-athlete.
Student-athletes can be subjected to a substantial amount of pressure to successfully balance their academic studies with their sporting commitments. This greater level of stress may in part be due to the decreased amount of time that they are warranted to complete their responsibilities. Although our discussions are predominantly aimed at those individuals who are at University and studying full time or part time depending on their level of sport competition, many of the challenges and benefits outlined may also be relevant to secondary school and college level athletes.
‘A time of transition’
Transitions such as the move to University can have an impact on a person’s self-perceptions, motivation and moral development. They have been defined as “events or non-events which result in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world and require a corresponding change in one’s behaviour and relationships” (Schlossberg, 1981, p.5). The Athletic Career Transition Model (Stambulova, 2003) reveals that the transitional challenge starts for athletes with the demands posed to them to progress in their development. This stimulates them to mobilise resources and find ways to cope. The effective use of resources to overcome demands will determine the extent to which athletes are able to cope with the challenges they face.
Demands faced by student-athletes
Scheduling / time management
University is a time of significant change in the athlete’s life and with the increased demand of balancing academic deadlines with regular training and competition; student-athletes are subjected to a large amount of stress. It is a full-time job (and more) if you truly want to get the best out of yourself in both your sport and your academic studies. With this comes a huge level of organisation, scheduling, communication and time management.
The same as with any sport participation there are the usual sport stressors and demands on you:
Social / athletic identity
Identity development will be something that many student-athletes don’t think about but your time at University will play a part in shaping yours.
Resources available to student-athletes
An ideal balance of sport and education commitments will take time to develop:
Understand the support available to you as soon as possible
As well as the demands and challenges outlined above there are clearly many benefits to being a student-athlete. Student-athletes often have positive self-esteem and body image; may have a built-in support network through teammates, coaches/athletic department staff and may feel very connected to the campus community.
Here are just a few more benefits to being a student athlete:
Champion or defeated? Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure. But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life? […]
Sports constantly presents challenges and adversity, exposing athletes with enough grit and gratitude to overcome adversity and those who will crumble under the pressure.
But what distinguishes the champions from the defeated? What can we do to cultivate grit and resilience to optimize performance in sports and all other areas of life?
Positive Psychology often references the Broaden and Build Theory, which suggests that a positivity can actually increase brain functioning. It suggests that a positive attitude broadens ideas and actions and builds resources by developing new skills and relationships.
One way to increase positive emotion, and therefore broaden our abilities, is through gratitude. This involves realizing the value of a person or situation, whether positive or negative.
Generally, inherent gratitude is related to higher optimism, life satisfaction, well-being, prosocial behavior, and social support. It is also related to lower negative feelings, (Gabana, Steinfeldt, Wong, Chung, Svetina, 2018).
But, specifically in the world of sports and performance, this prosocial behavior that dispositional gratefulness fosters is related to improved team cohesion and life satisfaction in elite athletes, (Chen, Kee, & Chen, 2015). Appreciation can even reduce athletes’ tendency to want to avoid uncomfortable situations during high levels of competition. These uncomfortable situations could include negative thoughts like, “I’m not good enough”. Athletes might also want to avoid unwanted emotions like failure, or negative physical feelings like injury.
This experiential avoidance often gets in the way of athletes reaching their goals and full potential. But, athletes high in gratitude avoid uncomfortable situations less if they also feel they have more support from their coaches. In other words, gratitude combined with coaching support can help athletes see adverse experiences in a positive way, and face challenges head on rather than avoid them, (Chen & Wu, 2016).
But, if we don’t already have dispositional gratitude, can we develop and practice it to improve well being and performance?
A study recently published in the Journal for Applied Sports Psychology explored this idea. Researchers used a Positive Psychology Intervention (PPI) that included a 90 minute Gratitude Workshop to college athletes. The researchers measured gratitude, life and sport satisfaction, perceived social support, psychological distress, and athlete burnout before, immediately after, and four weeks after the PPI. They found that gratitude was related to increases in well-being measures like state gratitude, sport satisfaction, and social support. It was also related to decreases in ill-being like psychological distress, athlete burnout after the intervention (Gabana et al., 2018).
So, if athletes and coaches can find more ways to incorporate appreciation and social support, or help develop gratitude beginning in youth sports, athletes may be able to overcome injury, defeat, burnout, and other challenges that come with elite performance. The more we are able to find the positive in difficult situations, the more we will be able to rise above adversity.
What is it? There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? […]
What is it?
There are many reasons people give to being stressed. Trying to balance work and a social life, meeting deadlines, preparing for a big event. These are examples of chronic or long-term stress, the kind you feel for an extended period of time. But what about those sudden, unexpected moments that cause stress? The ones that take you by surprise. Before you were feeling calm, confident and collected, now you’re engulfed by a sudden sense of dread. This is known as short-term stress or acute stress. Acute stress induces physical and emotional responses that help to ready the body and the mind to deal with a threat (Cole, 2007). We experience acute stress when we feel threatened or someone we care about is under threat. Think of the last time you watched a scary film, you knew something scary would happen you but didn’t know when. Your heart was pumping, your muscles were tensed and your body was ready to run or ready for combat. You were ready to fight or to flight. However, once the film was over there was no more threat and so the stress reactions went away (Cole, 2007). This is what makes acute stress different from chronic, once the threat is no longer there the stress responses fades.
When does it occur?
Every athlete from the elite to the casual, from international competition to the 5 aside friendlies will know the feeling of pressure to perform and the stress that can accompany it. No one who has ever played sport can say they haven’t faced stress and very few can say they’ve never fallen to it. When we’re performing it can feel like we’re the only one who suffers from stress but when researchers have looked into the area they’ve found similar causes of stress appearing that can be generalized to a whole range of sports. Researchers Nicholls and Polman (2007), asked players from the England Under-18s Rugby Union team what stressors they faced. The most commonly report sources of stress were 1) physical error 2) criticism from coach or parent 3) mental error 4) sustaining an injury and 5) observing an opponent perform well. Not one of the top 5 causes of stress was related directly to rugby. These could all be applied to other sports and have just as much relevance. In any sport one can feel stressed when they’ve been criticised by the coach or the dread of making a mistake and feeling it’s impacted the whole game. Even Ander Herrera, in an interview with FourFourTwo, commented how the pressure was stepped up when he moved to Man United “You have more pressure on you. I told you before everyone is going to talk about you. Everyone is going to watch your games.”
Why do we succumb to stress?
Why is it that only some situations cause stress? Or the same situation can be stressful for one person but not another? Imagine this: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You love dogs and instantly feel happy and relaxed. You even go over to say hello.
Now rewind the situation: You have gone out for a walk in the park. The weather is warm and you’re enjoying the fresh air. Suddenly a woman comes towards you with her dog. You are terrified of dogs. You begin to panic. Your heart is beating faster and your muscles have become tense ready to sprint in case the dog decides to run at you.
The difference between the two situations was that in the second your fear made you view the situation as dangerous. While stressors themselves are bad they aren’t damaging until we judge them as having the potential to be damaging to us. When a person is met with a specific event they decide if this event is threatening to them or if it is relevant to their well-being (Folkman, Lazarus, Dunekl-Shetter, DeLongis & Gruen, 1986). This is cognitive appraisal. If we don’t view the situation as threatening we don’t become stressed. Looking back at the cause of stressors discussed above (Nicholls & Polman, 2007) one can see how an opponent playing well could threaten how we view ourselves as the better player, or on a more practical level a good opponent can mean we risk losing. Once we’ve viewed a situation as threatening, unless we know how to handle that stress, the outcome can be detrimental to our performance.
Failing to cope
Failure to cope effectively with stress in a sporting environment can cause people to engage in behaviours that negatively affect performance such as poor decision making, misguided attentional focus and self-defeating thoughts and emotions (Anshel, 1990). Misguided attentional focus can lead to self-focus which occurs when a player pays too much attention to the explicit parts of a skill to make sure it’s done correctly (Hill & Hemmings, 2015). Have you ever paid too much attention to how you walk and suddenly walking became difficult? Overthinking the things we can do automatically, along with self-defeating thoughts and poor decision making can lead to a sudden decline in our performance, also known as choking.
“Choking in ‘sport is an acute and considerable decline in skill execution and performance, when self-expected standards are normally achievable, and which is the result of increased anxiety under perceived pressure” (Mesagno & Hill, 2013). In the 2011 Masters Rory McIlroy experienced the full effects of stress on performance. After a week of playing well and gaining a comfortable lead, his performance on the final day spiralled and he finished with a score card of 80 tied for 15th place. Rory McIlroy’s drop in performance exemplifies how stress doesn’t have to be a constant factor and doesn’t have to build over time. It can come on us suddenly and while we may have been playing well before, once stress hits it needs to be managed before it can take control.
Dealing with stress
While the common suggestions for handling stress may be to take long bath or relax with a film these won’t do when you’re mid match. Instead people use a coping strategy, a technique that will allow them to quickly deal with and relieve the stress so they can perform at their best. Researchers have looked into the area of coping and found two coping styles, avoidance coping and approach coping (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001; Anshel & Anderson, 2002; Wang, Marchant & Morris, 2004; Nicholls & Polman, 2007; Anshel & Si, 2008; Hill & Hemmings 2015). When using approach coping you pay attention to whatever it is that is causing you stress and you actively take steps to deal with the issue to decrease the intensity of the stressor (Anshel, Jamieson & Raviv, 2001). In sport approach coping can be used to address problems like executing a specific skill. Imagine you’re a rugby player. You’re having a great game except you are having trouble catching the ball properly. You’re quickly becoming stressed as you know this is a skill they can do well in training. You could ignore the problem but instead you wait until half time and go speak to your coach. They remind you to keep your hands up ready to catch. Armed with this knowledge you catch the ball without issue and the stress melts away. Other forms of approach coping techniques noted in the research are questioning, arguing, imagining the stressful event or reflecting on a previous error to come up with a solution to decrease the possibility of it happening again (Anshel & Anderson, 2002).
Avoidance coping is as it sounds. Avoid the stressor to stop it impacting your game. Avoidance is when a person tries to ignore the stressor or psychologically distance themselves by seeking out other people to act as distractions or moving on to the next task at hand (Anshel et al., 2001). Imagine your team is playing well in your football match and you’re one ahead of the opposition when the ref decides to give them a penalty. You disagree with the call and know it may mean the score is tied if they make the shot. However there is nothing you can do about the call or the outcome of the penalty so instead you focus on your next job in the game. Other methods of avoidance coping strategies include ignoring the stressor, discounting it as unimportant or engaging in another, unrelated task (Krohne, 1996).
How to cope when it counts
Both coping styles can have advantages and disadvantages. Knowing when to use approach or avoidance coping is rarely black or white, more often it depends on the stressor itself and the situation one is coping with. A general finding across research is approach coping is more effective in times when we have high controllability over the situation and there is a source of information we can draw from to fix the problem (Anshel, 1996). Thinking back to the example above when you were having problems catching the ball. Fixing the skill was in your control. By going to the coach at half time there is time and a good source of knowledge you could use to improve. Where approach coping wouldn’t work is in instances of high pressure with little controllability. If someone were to choose to focus on specific elements of a skill, like catching a ball, at a time of high pressure, in the middle of a ruck, this distracts them from more relevant elements of the game (Beilock & Gray, 2007) like where the ball is going next.
In these times of high stress, avoidance coping can be more appropriate. Avoidance coping is far more advantageous in situations where we have low control over the cause of the stress (Anshel et al., 2001). Looking back to the previous example when the ref made a call you disagreed with although the call caused stress you had no control over the situation. Therefore ignoring that stressor and moving on to your next job in the match is a more appropriate way to cope.
Knowing which method of coping to use and when may sound clear cut and obvious, but that isn’t the case. Often, athletes will report using a combination of both to deal with stress. For instance, Hill and Hemmings (2015) interviewed golfers to see what forms of coping they had employed in situations when they choked and when they played well. In terms of choking the most common coping strategies were avoidance coping, hoping, venting and self-focus which is a form of approach coping. In terms of playing well, the coping strategies most commonly mentioned by players were approach coping strategies of a pre- and post-shot routine, cognitive restructuring, and simulated practice as well as using the avoidance strategies of acceptance and withdrawal, walking away from uncontrollable stressors, to help their performance. Good performance wasn’t dictated by one form of coping, it took elements of both, just as choking was the result of using inappropriate avoidance and approach strategies. Mesagno and Marchant (2013) reported netball players who were more susceptible to choking in high pressure situations used approach coping, whereas players who were more resistant to choking used avoidance coping to handle the stress. However when they interviewed the netball players they described using elements of both coping styles, similar to the golfers.
The key is to know what coping strategies to use and when. Golf is a slow and technical game, by trying to avoid the stressor by mentally distancing themselves the player rushed the shot. It was the wrong avoidance strategy to use. As we saw a more appropriate response to stress would be to use a pre-shot routine to keep them calm and focused. An appropriate avoidance mechanism was withdrawl as it allowed them to walk away from sources of stress like a verbally abusive opponent. Netball is a faster game than golf and there is less time to use techniques like routines or look for information to fix a problem. Therefore using avoidance strategies to prevent over thinking on uncontrollable stressors aided performance. Nevertheless players did also report successfully using some approach coping techniques like cognitive restructuring, which is replacing negative thoughts and statements with positive ones (Silva, 1982). Neither the golf nor the netball players used all one and none of the other method to cope. In times of good performance appropriate elements of both styles of coping were used.
Stress doesn’t have to be long-term and building to cause problems in our performance. Often it can be that sudden feeling of threat that can impact how well we play. Once we feel threatened if we fail to cope or don’t cope well there is the risk we choke. Approach and avoidance are two methods of coping often employed in the world of sport. Approach coping helps us to tackle stressors by giving them attention and dealing with them head on. These are most applicable when sources of stress are controllable and we have time to fix them. Otherwise avoidance coping can suit us best. When we have little control over the cause of the stress it can make more sense to walk away or ignore it. Usually to perform at our best we employ strategies from both types of coping. This requires a balance of using the right strategy at the right time, like using a pre-game routine to focus our thoughts and withdrawal to ignore a stressor that is outside our control.
Stress is a common attribute and trigger that we all suffer from on a daily basis. This stress is normally attributed to high levels and is based on external influences. However, we also need to be mindful that stress can actually be a positive mechanism and it not always purely negative. This article will purposefully […]
Stress is a common attribute and trigger that we all suffer from on a daily basis. This stress is normally attributed to high levels and is based on external influences. However, we also need to be mindful that stress can actually be a positive mechanism and it not always purely negative. This article will purposefully look at negative stress and how we can manage its symptoms through the use of purposeful strategies.
There are 4 key stages to stress:
1) Causes of stress – An emotional demand places physical or psychological pressure
All stress will have a cause that is formed from factors beyond our control. Stress is normally caused by factors that are external and predominately humans react to these negatively as they cause distress. Based on these influences humans will suffer both physical and psychological symptoms of stress as it is the inability of not coping under pressure.
Reflective practice is a useful strategy that can help overcome symptoms and causes of stress. We should all appreciate our strengths and also become aware of limitations. Further, reflective practice enables us to develop self-awareness which enables us to become more empowered. Indeed, empowerment enables our physical symptoms of stress to alleviate. The use of setting smart and measureable goals is also important because this leads to focus and clear direction. Indeed, most of our stress is based on being disorganised and therefore goal setting will also help alleviate stress.
2) Individual perception of the demand – The person produces an individual view of the situation and whether it is threatening to them
Based on the causes of stress we react either positively or negatively. This reaction can be formed on experience and maturity. For example, sitting an exam for the first time will arouse different levels of stress to one where you sit a different exam for the 5th time.
Simply put the situation that one finds themselves in could be the difference between fearing the situation and meeting with its demands. Much of this is placed on the human mind and reaction. Perception is a vital ingredient in meeting with stressful demands.
It is suggested that to develop perception one should be clear of what they are attempting to achieve. Somebody who has a task to complete for a deadline is more likely to be less fearful if they have planned accordingly. Conversely, if somebody has not planned and is not aware of the task demands they are more likely to be fearful of the situation.
3) Stress response – Production of physical and psychological changes in the individual
Stress does produce physical and psychological changes in all individuals. These physical changes relate to feeling nervous and jittery, increased heart rate levels, stomach churning and general appearance changes on the skin. Psychologically one can suffer from negative thinking, lack of concentration and lost in thought. The production of these symptoms can only add to further stress and worry.
Strategies to overcome these responses are based on patience and resilience. Some symptoms of stress once they arrive take longer to leave. However, exercise (light, moderate or intense) will help the bloodstream produce positive chemicals that will alleviate stressful symptoms. Listening to music is also known to help the mind and body relax to a certain degree. The introduction to therapies such as mindfulness, yoga and meditation are strategies that can help decrease levels of stress and should be practised consistently. The case with these strategies is that not all will agree with the individual concerned and therefore trial and error is suggested.
4) Behaviour consequences – Any positive or negative changes in performance resulting from the perceived threat
Our behaviour is a manifestation of our own ability to cope. Behaviour that is irrational and negative will result in irritability, verbal language that is harmful, physical harm and overthinking. Our minds are programmed by a computer and alongside this we have a chimp and a human mind. The chimp and human will clash if there is a disagreement. As the chimp is more powerful the human will not win. Therefore, the human mind must slowly appraise the situation once the danger has passed. For example, there are many times we lose our temper only to regret it after. The temper is actually the chimp, the regret is the human.
One way to facilitate behaviour consequences is to appraise the situation on reflection following the event. Ask yourself some key questions and how you would handle the situation differently in the future. The key of behaviour consequence is based on a simple rule. Following your own appraisal have you learnt? If the answer is yes, then you as a person will be in a better position to deal with in the future as self-awareness has increased.
In summary, stress is an on-going battle that we cannot switch off. What we can do is develop strategies to enable us to cope when the pressure is on.
Introduction “What a liberation to realise that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle When Michael Jordan was asked how he was able to transform his on-court leadership and lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, he attributed it […]
“What a liberation to realise that the “voice in my head” is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that”. – Eckhart Tolle
When Michael Jordan was asked how he was able to transform his on-court leadership and lead the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships, he attributed it to a pretty unsuspecting character. George Mumford, his mindfulness meditation teacher, who has also worked with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on optimising their sporting performance (Mumford, 2015). Since the late 1990’s, there has been an exponential rise in published research on the topic of mindfulness-based interventions. Eighteen million Americans now have a meditation routine, and 44% of all U.S. companies offer mindfulness training to their members of staff (Kotler & Wheal, 2017). What started as an alternative approach within mind/body medicine, has now breached the domains of the mainstream, with major developments being seen in clinical and sport psychology, cognitive therapy, neuroscience, education, law, business, and the military (Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2011). This article will seek to understand the eastern origins of mindfulness practice and highlight its key characteristics, before examining how it has been secularised and developed to form interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Finally, differences in cultural ontology between east and west, particularly in relation to the self, will be used to examine the difficulties in operationalising mindfulness within a dualistic scientific setting and incorporating mindfulness techniques into reductionist interventions.
What is Mindfulness?
“The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it. Until this moment. Now I see that I will never find the light unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel”. – Bruce Lee
Mindfulness originates from Buddhist philosophy and acts as the central tenet for many of its meditative traditions, such as Zen, Shambhala, and Vipassana (Khusid & Vythilingham, 2016) and has been defined as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003; p145). Translated from the Pali word sati, mindfulness encompasses an array of meanings, but the most important relate to “clear awareness” and “memory” (Dreyfus, 2011; Harris, 2014). In Buddhism, the origins of suffering (dukkha) are thought to be caused by our ignorance of the impermanent nature of the universe (anitya), and our patterns of attachment and resistance towards pleasant or unpleasant experiences (Vago & Silbersveig). Through formal meditative practice, which entails sitting or lying still and placing awareness on a particular aspect of experience, such as the rhythm of breathing, physical sensations, or a chosen mantra, or participating in mindfulness-based movement activities such as yoga, tai-chi, and qigong (Crane, 2017; Lucas et al. 2016), the individual is able to practice becoming aware of, and disidentifying from, their habitual unconscious cognitions and develop a sense of familiarity with the feeling of clarity and calmness that arises (Vago & Silbersveig, 2012). The cultivation of this state of awareness allows the individual to adopt a much more accepting, non-judgemental attitude; a kind of ‘go with the flow’ mentality, towards both internal and external stimuli, which can cause drastic improvements in general well-being (Shapiro et al. 2008). These experiences are validated by studies in neuroscience, which show the ability of mindfulness meditation to elicit structural changes in the brain, specifically, increasing the density of white matter in the anterior cingulate cortex; responsible for self-regulation, and reducing the density of grey matter in the right hemisphere of the amygdala; responsible for the expression of negative emotional states (Hölzel et al. 2009; Tang et al. 2010). Mindfulness has been shown to demonstrate broad utility across a vast array of clinical settings, including predicting the efficiency of attentional networks (Di Francesco et al. 2017), enhancing adaptive affective processing (Dixon & Overall, 2016; Kang et al. 2017), building cognitive resilience in high-stress populations (Jha et al. 2017), increasing divergent, creative thinking capabilities (Berkovich-Ohana et al. 2017), reducing depressive ruminative thoughts (Perestelo-Perez et al. 2017), addressing emotional eating problems in bariatric patients (Wnuk et al. 2017), improving smoking abstinence programs (Davis et al. 2017), and even promoting political compromise in areas of prolonged intergroup conflict (Alkoby et al. 2017). The benefits also translate to many dimensions of sporting performance, with research demonstrating the ability of mindfulness to reduce perceived stress and subsequent rates of athlete burnout (Gustafsson et al. 2015), improve pain management, enhance self-esteem (Carlisle 2017), as well as facilitate the experience of flow (Kee & Wang, 2008; Kaufman, Glass, & Arnkoff, 2009; Bervoets, 2013).
“As MBSR teachers, we cannot teach someone their insights; at best, we create the space in the MBSR classroom for insights to bubble up from awareness, naturally on their own”. – Allan Goldstein
Although mindfulness practice originates from spiritual traditions, the key premises can be easily transferred to a secular setting (Harris, 2014). This has seen the development of two key mindfulness-based interventions, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBSR was first developed in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts as a holistic method for treating patients with a wide variety of physical and psychological problems. The program consists of eight 2.5 hour weekly sessions of extensive mindfulness practice with each individual encouraged to do 45-minutes daily practice on their own accord (Crane, 2017). Although MBSR has seen significantly positive treatment effects in populations such as breast cancer survivors (Christensen & Marck, 2017), war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (Cole et al. 2015) and adolescents with mental health concerns (Van Vliet et al. 2016), the holistic nature of the practice has made it difficult for science to isolate the specific mechanisms of action. This seems to highlight friction between cultural viewpoints, as the scientific community demands that all interventions be evidence-based from randomised controlled trials, where cause and effect relationships can be isolated and established, which leads to doubt over the empirical basis of a lot of the mindfulness research. Conversely, mindfulness practitioners see the cut-throat reductionist analysis of something so complex and multi-faceted as a disservice to the heart and spirit of the teachings, and worry that the authenticity of the practices are being lost in translation (Fennell & Segal, 2011). Kabat-Zinn himself voiced his concerns over the cognitive therapy community’s implementation of mindfulness techniques into interventions such as MBCT, over fears that it would be “plugged into a behaviourist paradigm with the aim of driving desirable change, or fixing what is broken” without respecting the unique essence of mindfulness as an ongoing practice or a lifestyle, rather than a temporary treatment technique or exercise.
Nevertheless, the development of MBCT, which was specifically designed by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002) to prevent patients recovering from serious depression from engaging in thought patterns that may increase the likelihood of relapse, attempted to bridge the gap between the purely acceptance-based MBSR and the more control-oriented Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Unlike MBSR, participants in MBCT are taught the techniques of mindfulness meditation in a group-based setting and the teachings of non-judgemental acceptance are placed within a more control-based cognitive framework. The program consists of eight weekly 2-hour sessions, including one silent whole day of mindfulness practice. Throughout the course of the eight weeks, students are taught body-scan meditation (moving awareness through various regions of the body), mindful movement (maintaining present awareness of all sensations associated with each movement pattern), sitting meditation and ‘the 3-minute breathing space’, which is a mini-meditation practice that can be implemented in particularly stressful situations (Crane, 2017). Participants are taught to use their enhancements in attention to try and notice the origins of their depressive ruminative thought patterns, but the ability to decentre from their thought patterns is only implemented at times of potential relapse. Teasdale elucidates the incompatibility of mindfulness and relapses in depressive mind-states and suggests that the process of “shifting” into a mindful mode of being can be used to interrupt the chain of negative feedback loops and prevent the onset of depressive episodes (Segal, Williams, Teasdale, 2012). A meta-analysis by Perestelo-Perez et al. (2017) examining the efficacy of MBCT on reducing ruminative thought patterns in participants who had suffered at least one major depressive episode, included nine randomised controlled trials and revealed a significant moderate effect of MBCT when compared to treatment as usual. Evidently, MBCT provides an extremely potent alternative for helping people with their psychological issues, but the question remains: is MBCT a true representation of mindfulness practice? Or has is just been “plugged” into a behaviourist paradigm as Jon Kabat-Zinn feared? In order to better understand these questions, ontological differences between eastern and western culture must be considered.
The Self: East vs West
“Imagination builds the image of the self, and thought then functions within its shadows. From this self-concept grows the conflict between what is and what should be, the conflict in duality”. – Jiddu Krishnamurti
In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to attain Nirvana, which translates to “blowing out”, where the cessation of suffering (dukkha) is finally realised. One of the key realisations along this process is that of “non-self” (anattã), which means that nothing exists independently; everything in the universe is in a dynamic web of interrelatedness. This includes the notion of the self, and roots Buddhism in an ontology of monistic idealism, as opposed to the material dualism that permeates the majority of western culture. By realising the “illusion of the self”, the propensity for desire, craving and attachment (tanhã) is also transcended, which contributes to the cessation of dukkha (Kabat-Zinn, 2011; Teasdale & Chaskalson, 2011). Academics have tussled with this idea, as Norman (2017) likens deeply mindful states to metacognition, where an individual’s identification with thoughts and emotions is broken, and they begin to view them with greater objectivity, rather than as facets of the self. Many other terms have been coined to describe this process, such as decentering, deautomisation, detachment, and reperceiving, all alluding to a fundamental shift in perspective, where one escapes the limiting parameters of their own subjective point of view (Shapiro et al. 2006). Thus, mindfulness can be thought of as the tool that is used to become aware of awareness, to “use the mind to see through the mind”. This deconstruction of the self is essential to overcome what Van Gordon et al. (2016) calls ontological addiction, which has been defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the impaired functionality that arises from such a belief”. It is posited that the belief in a separate self is a logical fallacy and scientifically impossible, considering the multitude of conditions that the human being is reliant upon, such as air, water, food and so on. This is supported by recent developments in neuroscience research, which calls the phenomena of consciousness the “hard problem”, and suggests that, although people tacitly assume that there is a unified, central agent to all of their experiences, this cannot be proven (Hyland, 2015). However, dualist science is predicated upon the perspective of subject/object observation, so it is understandable that this perspective is difficult to incorporate authentically. This is most evident in research by Xiao et al. (2017) who introduces the concept of “the mindful self” in an attempt to integrate Buddhist psychology with one’s self-schemas, suggesting the development of another self, rather than the transcendence of self-concepts entirely. So, does this highlight a fundamental disconnect in the way Western psychology has adopted the use of mindfulness when compared to its Buddhist origins? Buddhist texts treat mindfulness as a constant practice that progresses through multiple phases of development, starting with the awareness of bodily sensations and advancing to clearer awareness of deeper cognitive processes, emotional states, and finally an altered view of self in relation to the universe. Systematic practice is required for its gradual refinement, rather than it being implemented as a symptomatic remedy once psychological issues arise. Conversely, Western psychology seeks to label mindfulness as a stable psychological skill that ignores the developmental and contextual facets of its Eastern origins. Mindfulness is operationalised from intellectual knowledge and contemporary measures of self-reported assessments, rather than from direct phenomenological experience, which does not account for the gradual refinement of the practice, the subsequent increases in experiential vividness, or the difficulty associated with implementing mindful awareness into everyday life (Grossman & Van Dam, 2011). Although the aforementioned scientific studies demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for alleviating psychological issues in a vast array of settings, further research must aim to reach consensus on the definitions, characteristics, and cultural nuances of such a multi-faceted phenomenon, to ensure that the construct is not misconstrued.
Assisting youth and professional athletes outside of the sporting environment has been a challenge for many years. There has not been an accepted specific name for the industry or a blueprint for curriculum design. We are missing guidelines for practical applications focused on helping the youth and professional athletes in their personal, social and professional […]
Assisting youth and professional athletes outside of the sporting environment has been a challenge for many years. There has not been an accepted specific name for the industry or a blueprint for curriculum design. We are missing guidelines for practical applications focused on helping the youth and professional athletes in their personal, social and professional development. These three ingredients are the pillars of personal development and when administered correctly produce a fruitful and sustainable athlete.
Mental health has become an everyday term for ordinary people, which is why I focused on becoming a mental health professional. Over the course of an athletic career, I quickly learned mental health is personal development for athletes. But few athletes are receiving personal development and pushed in the direction of mental health. Due to an athlete’s lifestyle, consistent pressure to perform and behavioral expectations away from sports eliminates athletes from the category of ordinary people. Neglecting the need for personal development and replacing it with common mental health principles can explain why we are witnessing so many athletes move from mental health to mental illness.
Personal development for athletes is currently called different things throughout the global sporting community. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, British University and College Sports, National Football League, National Basketball Association and Premier League all have different names for professionals working with athletes in the area of personal development. The link connecting the above helping professionals together is the job they are all attempting to accomplish. These teams and organizations seek to take a personal approach to a player and develop that player. Resulting in Personal Player Development (PPD).
The biggest challenge for helping professionals working in the PPD industry is deep rooted in accepting the need to be trained in the PPD field. A Sports Psychologist is highly trained in delivering maximum performance of athletes. Athletic trainers are also highly trained in keeping athletes fit and key on recovery maintenance. But what type of PPD training do Welfare Officers, (UK) or Life Skills professionals (USA) receive? Most often the qualifications of these helping professionals don’t match the job duties as they pertain to the personal, social and professional development of the athlete.
The lack of qualified professionals working with athletes can be blamed on 1) the lack of curriculum focused on PPD of the athlete and 2) the investment and the return on investment, is in its infancy stage. Currently very few dare to make the leap to fully embracing PPD. More importantly, they are not sure of the value a PPD professional brings to an organization or an athlete. A PPD professional works with athletes on the daily personal, social and professional issues athletes encounter.
The backbone to PPD is a unique understanding of athletic identity for this generation. Athletic Identity for this generation of athletes involves more than identifying as an athlete or retiring from the sport. It’s an everyday phenomenon athletes experience. Athletes require this daily phenomenon to be explored and maximized to achieve ultimate success in and outside of the sporting environment. Being an athlete is not what we do its who we are because of our unique daily belief system.
Why is PPD so important to all of us? To universities or professional organizations, real PPD provides significant brand protection. For the coach, PPD assists in the overall performance of an athlete. For the parent, PPD is the essence of developing an athletically gifted child to become a fully functioning successful adult. The helping professional becomes prepared with actually developing an athlete for long term success. PPD allows athletes to develop a skill set in which they are infrequently introduced. Ultimately, it will prove valuable during and after their sporting experience. It is of particular importance to understand athletic identity, decision-making, and coping skills as athlete’s experience a multi-level platform of transitions which include the post-athletic phase of their lives.
The operationalised definition of sports injury differs within the existing sport psychology literature often owing to the differing severities and durations of injury (Nicholl et al, 1995), this variation in definition can therefore result in discrepancies regarding empirical results (Pargman, 2007). However, despite this debate regarding operationalisation, there is no debate that sports injuries can […]
The operationalised definition of sports injury differs within the existing sport psychology literature often owing to the differing severities and durations of injury (Nicholl et al, 1995), this variation in definition can therefore result in discrepancies regarding empirical results (Pargman, 2007). However, despite this debate regarding operationalisation, there is no debate that sports injuries can have a significant psychological effect upon elite athletes, especially young, elite athletes. Studies that investigate the temporary psychological mentality of injured and uninjured performers have consistently found injured athletes as having a lower psychological affect than uninjured athletes as well as lower self-esteem, higher levels of depression and more incidences of negative thoughts (Chan & Grossman, 1988; Johnston & Carroll, 1998; Leddy et al, 1994; McGowan et al, 1994; Pearson & Jones, 1992). The effects of injury are not limited to one aspect of the athlete’s life, and consequences can impact athletes’ psychological, social and biological domains (Wiese-Bjornstal et al, 2008).
These negative effects cause understandably significant psychological issues for adult athletes, however, for a young elite athlete trying to improve and excel in their sport only to be knocked back by an injury, it can be catastrophic (Weiss, 2003). For example, Newcomer and Perna (2003) stated that adolescent athletes suffer from injury related distress long after the injury has been recovered from. Moreover, Manuel et al (2003) found that depressive symptoms in injured adolescent athletes showed a negative correlation with the age of the athlete, further supporting the theory that younger athletes experience a greater negative psychological response to injury. This article will examine the psychological effects of sports injuries on elite athletes, why these effects may occur, and attempt to explain why these effects can be magnified in specifically elite, young athletes.
There are differing models that attempt to explain the psychological impact that sports injuries can have upon young athletes. Some models are based upon existing theories relating to negative mood and depression, an example of this would be the Grief Model which centres itself upon the idea that the injured athlete will feel as though they have lost a major part of their ‘self’, potentially leading to the onset of negative thoughts and beliefs. The Grief Model of injury uses the Kuhbler-Ross Model of Bereavement (from the 1969 book ‘On Death and Dying’) to try and explain the effects of this loss of ‘self’. This model sets out five stages that will occur for a person dealing with loss; Disbelief and Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and, Acceptance and Resignation, and it has been argued that an athlete experiences each of these stages in some form whilst recovering from injury. A young professional football player from Premier League team Bournemouth FC, showed a clear example of the Disbelief and Denial stage during a recent interview following a severe cruciate ligament injury. The player was quoted as saying ‘I can make a return before the end of the season’ despite the club doctor informing him that he wouldn’t be physically fit enough to play again until the following campaign. This denial of the seriousness of his injury could cause psychological issues and potentially prolong his rehabilitation. If the Grief Model of injury is to be believed, then it is clear as to why young athletes can react so much worse psychologically to injury. It has already been discussed that injured adult athletes can respond poorly to their ‘loss’, therefore, with their greater immaturity and their inability to express and identify their grief as coherently (Moody & Moody, 2007), a child or adolescent’s psychological response can be disastrous. When going through grief and loss, a child can also develop depression and anxiety both at the time and throughout later life (Koblenz, 2016), implying that the effects can continue to affect a young athlete’s career long after they have physically recovered.
Limitations of the Grief Model of Injury (Heil, 1993; Udry et al, 1997) led Brewer (1994) to propose the ‘Cognitive Appraisal Model of Psychological Adjustment from Athletic Injury’, which argues that an athlete’s response to injury is based upon how they cognitively appraise their situation. The theory builds upon the Stress and Coping Models of Lazarus and Folkman (1984), with the athlete having to assess the stress that the injury is causing them and then evaluate the severity of that stress, whilst also understanding the effect it could have upon them. It is these cognitive appraisals that will determine the athletes’ emotional response to the situation. For example, Brewer (1994) argues that an athlete’s fear of re-injury can cause anger and depression, a finding also supported by researchers such as Leddy et al (1994) and McGowan et al (1994). This fearful emotional response can in turn affect the behaviour that athletes show, such as their adherence to a rehabilitation programme, leading to an increase in recovery time. The inability for children and adolescents to respond to stress in a calm and reasoned manner (Varni et al, 1991) is a factor that could explain the increased negative effect that sports injuries can have upon them. The negative stressors that an injured young athlete experiences can also lead to an increase in negative emotional responses such as depression (Masten et al, 1988), which as Brewer states, can then affect behavioural responses and ultimately recovery time.
With injured athletes suffering the psychological effects discussed above, there is no doubt that psychological support is needed to help them not only recover from injury physically, but mentally too. However, in adult sport this support is not always delivered effectively or timely, arguably often due to the negative stigma attached to mental health, throughout youth sport on the other hand, there should be no such excuse for this provision not being promoted and encouraged. A positive sustainable attitude from coaches and parents alike regarding psychological support during injury could direct elite young athletes onto a sensible path towards recognising when to use the psychological support at their disposal. Psychologists working with coaches to institute measures that can aid youngsters in their psychological recovery and development is therefore a necessity for youth sport. This support could simply take the form of teaching young athletes basic stress reduction and relaxation techniques (Smoll & Smith, 1990) to reduce their negative emotional responses (Schwab-Reese et al, 2012) and help them to cope better with the heightened stress caused by injury. The interventions introduced by sport psychologists must be utilised, as their importance with regards to both young athletes’ physical and mental health is patent. More must be done to encourage young athletes to seek help and to ensure they receive the help that they require and deserve. Injury for an elite athlete is a major cause for worry and concern, but for elite young athletes who are still developing psychologically and still trying to grow and mature, the effects can be disastrous.
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.
What is resilience? Resilience is your ability to adapt to and overcome negative emotional responses in a given situation. Or is it? A general academic/peer-reviewed search of resilience results in hundreds of thousands of articles. Results are even higher among non-peer-reviewed articles. So which one has the true definition of resilience? The answer varies. In […]
What is resilience? Resilience is your ability to adapt to and overcome negative emotional responses in a given situation. Or is it? A general academic/peer-reviewed search of resilience results in hundreds of thousands of articles. Results are even higher among non-peer-reviewed articles. So which one has the true definition of resilience? The answer varies.
In recent years, resilience has received a lot of attention among athletes and coaches trying to gain a competitive edge. Unfortunately, due to the saturated interest of both academic and non-academic sources, a common definition of resilience has not yet been established. Some individuals have based the definition of resilience on personal experience, while others have based it on varied empirical evidence. As a result, athletes may not be getting the information they need that will enable them to excel. For the purpose of this review, resilience will be broken up into five categories: 1) resilience in empirical based approaches, 2) an example of performance outcomes based on an empirical approach 3) resilience in non-empirical based approaches, 4) an example of performance outcomes based on a non-empirical approach, and 5) things to consider when looking at general research articles. By the end of this article, one should be about to research and define resilience based on what is applicable to them and supported by empirical based/peer-reviewed research.
Resilience in Empirical Based Approaches
Empirical means the way in which one can measure an outcome that has both validity and reliability. Validity, in simplistic terms, refers to whether or not researchers are measuring what they intend to measure. Reliability is also known as consistency over time (e.g., your height/weight throughout the day). Both are equally important in research and a researcher’s ability to measure an outcome determines whether or not something may be effective or ineffective.
Generally speaking, empirical research defines resilience 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 assess these components and their impact on performance, researches have been seeking new and innovative ways of measurement. One of the more well-known measures of assessment is the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC), a multi-faceted scale which utilizes self-report measures related to performance. While self-report scales have limitations for clinical application, they provide valuable information regarding how the individual perceives performance influences. That is to say, coaches can take these assessments and compare them to other athletes in order to develop a performance plan that works for the team.
An alternative measure of resiliency is the Characteristics of Resilience in Sports Teams (CREST). CREST has shown to have increased reliability between players and between teams (Decroos et al., 2017). In other words, CREST is a valuable tool for those who wish to compare the results of one team vs. another. Similar to CD-RISC, CREST assesses multiple facets of resilience. However, unlike CD-RISC, CREST utilizes team measures (e.g., ‘the team shared a common goal’). These types of measures enable researchers to not only look at the individual and his/her success, but it enables researchers to look at the team as a whole and make predictions of success based on measurable values. These values can then be utilized to help foster further team development and future performance.
The CREST and CD-RISC are just two are a wide variety of assessments currently being used by professionals to predict performance. These assessments can help provide a valuable foundation from which to build a successful team environment for success.
Performance Outcomes Utilizing an Empirical Approach
Decroos et al. (2017) assessed 1,225 athletes across 4 separate studies and revealed that CREST helps to identify performance outcomes on numerous measurable scales. Of the scales, the most significant (p < .01) revealed that not only is a team’s ability to display resilient characteristics important, but individual acknowledgement of vulnerability may actually improve long term performance and adaptation. Based on this type of evidence, the CREST assessment may be a great way to improve team communication, synchrony and performance.
Resilience in Non-empirical Based Approaches
Non-empirical approaches, while valuable on a ‘personal belief’ or ‘common sense’ level, are immeasurable. Therefore, non-empirical sources (e.g., non-cited media reports, non-peer reviewed articles, blogs) should be viewed with caution.
Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of non-empirical ‘research’ articles related to resilience. This over-saturation of ‘research’ has the potential to not only present non-factual information, it also runs the risk of harming others. Let’s look at an example:
Title: “Improve your performance with these 3 simple tricks”
First and foremost, with a title like this, one should be hesitant. In research, there is no definitive way of saying one thing will produce another. The phrase ‘correlation does not equal causation’ is a rule that researchers know very well and work hard to avoid when writing up their study results.
Content: Researchers from highly recognized US institutions have found that if you don’t eat meat, you have a significantly longer lifespan (no source)!
Second, this statement is definitive in the sense that is states, if you do x…the result is y. Remember, correlation does not equal causation. Furthermore, there is no source from which to check this statement. What if there is a source? If a source is provided, you can use any common search engine to attempt to find it. More common than not, results from studies will have a results and limitations section from which to draw conclusions from. This is where one can see the difference between: 1) ‘this study helps show that meat may or may not be a factor in longevity, but other factors such as lifestyle, career, and family support should be considered moving forward’, and 2) ‘eating meat decreases your life span’.
Another common non-empirical way of presenting information is through general literature reviews. While literature reviews are a great way of looking at the literature related to a specific topic, more common than not, they fail to break down empirical research in their entirety. This has the potential to have individuals make definitive and non-evidence based statements centered on personal belief rather than measurable statistics.
Performance Outcomes Based on Non-empirical Approach (Consequences)
A good example of some of the fallout related to a non-empirical/non-peer reviewed research method was the creation of the US Army Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program in 2009. In 2012, psychologists revealed that the US Army was utilizing a resiliency program which was developed on proven principles from other fields (e.g., academic, sports, business) and combined to make one large resilience strategy. While acceptable at face value, further investigation revealed the resiliency approaches had not gone under any type of combined controlled experiment. As a result, the impact of resiliency training was called under question across the research community.
In 2015, a follow-up report revealed that of the over half of the 400,000 US Army service members who took the US Army resiliency assessment were below the positive resiliency threshold. While a general search of CSF in peer-reviewed journals from 2012 – 2017 reveal numerous review articles of the structure of CSF, no articles were shown to have any empirical support. It is important to note that while no studies in this search revealed CSF to be effective, no articles were found to prove that it is ineffective either. Still, psychologists point to rising numbers of suicide and PTSD rates among personnel in recent years as considerations for future CSF effectiveness research (Griffith & Bryan, 2015). This type of resilience program not only casts doubt on future programs created by the organization, but it also runs the risk of putting others at risk for increased harm and/or decreased operational performance
Other Things to Consider Regarding Articles
The following are some general questions to consider when looking at articles of interest. While this is a basic list and professionals go through an extensive amount of training to help identify article origin and application, this list can help others who are not as familiar draw their own conclusions based on critical thinking.
Empirical/peer-reviewed approaches are the best way to quantifiably measure and state a claim. While empirical evidence is helpful, it is not considered definitive. Not all empirical evidence is conducted the same, and therefore a certain amount of skepticism can be held based on how the study was carried out. However, when it comes to the non-empirical/non peer-reviewed approaches, high amounts of skepticism should be used regardless of how big or recognized the organization is. Large amounts of report saturation may inhibit future research due to some of the controversy surrounding background research and implementation plans. And lastly, use your judgment. If something isn’t backed up by numbers that are cited and credible, it is most likely that the article is making exaggerated claims.
As coaches and athletes, we are responsible for the well-being of each other. By knowing basic research skills we can assist in the development and implementation of proven performance strategies. This will enable us to have better confidence going into future competition and create an environment that is highly adaptable, measurable, and successful.
“I am feeling lost and with no direction, no purpose, no career, no identity and who the hell do I go to?” and “How can I train myself for this? I’m in a world I don’t know.” (Gail Emms, 2017) Lots of athletes talk about their athletic career and the retirement process once they’ve been […]
“I am feeling lost and with no direction, no purpose, no career, no identity and who the hell do I go to?” and “How can I train myself for this? I’m in a world I don’t know.” (Gail Emms, 2017)
Lots of athletes talk about their athletic career and the retirement process once they’ve been retired for a few years, as shown with the recent quote from Gail Emms. It would be beneficial to bridge this gap and ease the process in some way for athletes.
Retirement from elite sport is considered a career transition amongst the majority of the literature (Alfermann, Lavallee, & Wylleman, 2004). The process can also be somewhat stressful, exciting and considered a period of confusion for elite athletes (Dacyshyn & Kerr, 2000). Thus support is imperative at this point in an athlete’s career.
Research shows that athletes have a very strong athletic identity (Lavallee & Robinson, 2007), which is therefore impacted upon during the retirement process. Those individuals who identify strongly with their athletic identity, are more likely to be vulnerable to difficulties with the transition out of elite sport (Grove, Gordon & Lavallee, 1997). Similar results have found that identity is a common theme amongst the findings and that athletes felt lost post retirement (Lavallee & Robinson, 2007). Despite the initial identity issues, athletes appear to commit to other identities and succeed in making a smooth retirement once they have reached one year of retirement (Lally, 2007).
There are multiple reasons why an athletes career may come to an end. Previous research has demonstrated how the retirement from elite sport can be due to a variety of reasons. Evidence demonstrates that retirement is primarily due to injury (Heinonen, Kettunen, Kujala & Ristolainen, 2012). Athletes are often used to coping with niggling injuries but one that ends their career is completely different. Relationships, family and career satisfaction have also been found to be influential in the decision to retire (Japhag, Stambulova, & Stephen, 2007)
Regardless of how the career terminates, retirement from elite sport does not necessarily mean that all sporting involvement will cease. Research has found that upon retirement, athletes may relocate their involvement in the sporting context by becoming coaches or commentators, for example (Cruz, Boixodos, Torregrosa, & Valiente, 2004).
Mental well-being is becoming a real priority in the sporting world which is perhaps driven by the openness of retired athletes. It is commonly noted that athletes experience periods of low mental health during the career exit process, especially if the exit was unplanned. Experiences of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress (Wippert & Wippert, 2008; Wolff & Lester, 1989) are especially cited in the literature. It is pivotal that athletes are provided with support during this period to minimise any periods of low mental health and encourage them to seek help. It would be ideal to provide the athletes with psychological support during this time to process their thoughts and changes in their identity.
With athletes frequently leaving school and going straight into a career as a professional athlete, it is unsurprising that goals and achievements out of sport often aren’t considered. However, this can be hugely beneficial to the athlete if the career exit process is forced upon them (from injury for example) as it means they have other identities and self-concepts which they can draw upon as they make the exit from a career as a full time professional athlete.
I would encourage athletes to look for goals out of their athletic career as well as in sport as it can often lead to beneficial transferable skills that can even help in their sport. This could be related to sport in the form of a coaching qualification, drawing upon your current skillset or it could be totally separate, for example doing a marketing course. This could provide the athlete with beneficial skills for their own self-promotion, as well as a skill they can utilise when the retirement process occurs.
The Australian swimmer’s association does this well in terms of having a personal excellence (PE) program which focusses on three key areas of the athlete’s life: dual career, sport/life and progression. The dual career element provides guidance to their athletes, in terms of encouraging lifelong learning through achieving qualifications in and out of their sport (Swimming Australia, 2017).
The career exit process can be a period of uncertainty. We can facilitate this process by having an identity which is not isolated to sport, through achieving skills outside of sport during one’s athletic career. This will hopefully minimise the effects of being thrust into a period of unknown when that career exiting process occurs.
Sports related head injuries (e.g., concussions) affect one’s ability to concentrate, make decisions, foster learning, and perform both individually and collaboratively as part of a team (Asplund, C., Mckeag, D., & Olsen, C., 2004). Furthermore, head injuries have the potential to become more dangerous over time if not understood properly and taken care of in […]
Sports related head injuries (e.g., concussions) affect one’s ability to concentrate, make decisions, foster learning, and perform both individually and collaboratively as part of a team (Asplund, C., Mckeag, D., & Olsen, C., 2004). Furthermore, head injuries have the potential to become more dangerous over time if not understood properly and taken care of in an appropriate manner (Senthinathan, A., Mainwaring, L., Psych, C., & Hutchison, M., 2017). While the threat of personal injury is overwhelmingly important, many coaches and/or athletes may lose sight of this by sacrificing recovery over return-to-play [RTP*] (Wallace, J., Covassin, T., & Lafevor, M., 2016). This sacrifice not only puts the athlete at risk for more severe injury but puts the coaches, affiliated school/organization and team in a position of responsibility should anything happen to the injured athlete. As a result of this threat, a mutual understanding of what head injuries are and how they affect performance is imperative. In addition, a better understanding of the rehabilitation associated with head injuries may assist in reducing future unintended harm and reduce repeated rehabilitation. This, in turn, may increase athletes’ self-confidence, expedited return to optimal performance, and create greater team cohesion.
Before getting into a discussion regarding RTP, it is important to gain a basic understanding about brain injuries. Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI), more often referred to as concussions, occur when there is a sudden acceleration and deceleration of the head. This results in one’s brain moving with an abnormal force. Subsequently, the brain will experience what is called axonal shearing (Asplund et al., 2004). Put in simple terms, a concussion is a force, either internal or external, that results in one’s brain moving in a sudden and rapid manner which commonly results in internal damage to the brain (Kissick & Johnston, 2005). As with all injuries, there are symptoms. Common symptoms associated with traumatic brain injuries include, but are not limited to: amnesia, loss of consciousness (LOC), headaches, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and visual impairment (Asplud et al., 2004). There has been debate over which symptom has the most influence regarding the severity of TBI an individual may have sustained, but for the purpose of this article, we will not be addressing debate.
The main dangers surrounding TBIs are that the majority of the symptoms are not external. This means, as coaches, we must trust the athlete to report any uncomfortable symptoms after sustaining a head injury. Granted, there are exceptions that coaches can see in order to make more sound judgment calls (e.g., heavy hits, falls, and penetrating injuries). This process of revealing possible symptoms to a coach or trainer is what is called the initial reporting process. The reporting process is the timeframe from which an athlete may have initially sustained an injury, but the symptoms may not yet severe enough to be overly apparent. Common symptoms in this category are headaches, dizziness, and/or nausea. This time is crucial because it gives coaches the opportunity to remove the athlete from activity that may compound the injury and make it more severe.
What is to say my athlete will hide these symptoms in order to avoid losing ‘play’ time? This question is a primary obstacle that coaches may face when it comes to self-reported injuries. The first thing to consider when trying to develop a remove-from-play (RFP) strategy may be by simply asking oneself: “are my athletes aware of the dangers that head injuries pose?” If the answer is no, than the answer may be as simple as exposing your athlete’s to what TBI(s) are and the dangers they pose. Moreover, educating athletes about compound concussions resulting from underreported symptoms may hold the key in getting athletes ‘on-the-fence’ of reporting to come forward. It is a coach’s responsibility, to help educate athletes both on and off the field. This includes information about the sport of which they play, and the dangers of which the athletes will be exposed to.
Another way to approach the difficulty of unseen injuries is through continuing education for coaches and staff. There are a wide variety of sources one can use to educate their coaches and staff. Sources include, but are not limited to: online education, seminars, workshops, and medical training. These approaches, while more time consuming, may enable coaches to identify some of the smaller external factors that pair with TBI(s) (e.g., stumbling, slurred speech, abnormal eye movement). In the end, the end goal of continuing education should aim at providing coaches with a broader knowledge of the symptoms of TBI. This, in turn, may enable coaches to make better decisions regarding RFP and RTP moving forward.
So what about an RTP plan? Currently, there are no universal RTP plans that are in place specific to brain injuries. The main reason is due to the complexities that are associated with head injuries. How hard one hits his/her head, susceptibility, repeated concussions, and post-concussive syndrome (PCS) are just a few of the factors that have shown to have an influence on TBI severity (Asplund et al., 2004; Senthinathan et al., 2017). When it comes to head injuries, it is up to the on-site medical provider to provide guidance from which route is best for the athlete. However, this is not to say coaches are helpless in assisting his/her athletes.
As a coach, a potential starting point for determining whether or not to address a potential TBI is to ask the following questions:
When in doubt, the best thing a coach can do if he/she is concerned about an athlete is to consult a medical professional. Athletes are the first line of defense in protecting themselves. Coaches are there to provide authoritative guidance when necessary and ultimately have the power to initially remove athletes if they are concerned. However, most coaches are not medical professionals or experts in the field of TBI. As a result, it is their responsibility to report an injury regardless of the consequence to team performance. Concussions remain dangerous regardless of the stage/severity. Research and media reports show that TBI(s), if gone unchecked, have the ultimate severity of, in rare cases, death (Senthinathan et al., 2017).
In the end, the expectation that athletes are supposed to be tough and perform, regardless of circumstance, may be harmful. Athletes should be expected to perform, but they should be expected to perform by the safest means possible to maintain their performance. In other words, athletes should not be placed in a situation where the game/competition/practice comes before personal safety. After all, an athlete who has cognitive performance deficiencies related to a head injury is not an effective athlete. We, as coaches, owe it to our athletes to assist them in performing to their fullest potential by keeping them healthy and educating them about how to keep themselves healthy in the future. Our ability to perform pends on their ability to perform. Optimal performance begins and ends with optimal health.
* RTP refers to the process of rehabilitating individuals who have suffered a head injury and returning them to full sport participation (e.g., practice and competition).
Muscle Dysmorphia, or Bigorexia as it is commonly known, is a body dysmorphic disorder which affects 1 in 10 male gym goers. The disorder revolves around an individual’s desire for a larger or more muscular body (Pope et al., 2000). When this concept was first investigated, it was originally diagnosed as ‘reverse anorexia’ in a […]
Muscle Dysmorphia, or Bigorexia as it is commonly known, is a body dysmorphic disorder which affects 1 in 10 male gym goers. The disorder revolves around an individual’s desire for a larger or more muscular body (Pope et al., 2000). When this concept was first investigated, it was originally diagnosed as ‘reverse anorexia’ in a population of male bodybuilders who had previously been anorexic. Interestingly, their thought patterns had changed from feelings of being too big, to feelings of being inadequate and weak (Pope, Katz & Hudson, 1993). Consequently, Pope, Gruber, Choi, Olivardia and Phillips (1997) proposed a diagnostic criteria, with individuals suffering from muscle dysmorphia relating to at least two of the four criteria:
1) Giving up important social, occupational or recreational activities due to a compulsive need to exercise
2) Avoid situations where his or her body is exposed to others.
3) Pre- occupation about the inadequacy of body size or musculature, causing significant distress or impairment in social occupational or other important areas of functioning.
4) The individual continues to work out, diet or using performance- enhancing substances.
Within the media, the consumption of performance-enhancing substances (anabolic steroids) and extreme dieting have received attention. With startling statistics showing steroid use to have increased by 600% over the last 10 years (Telegraph, 2017), which coincides with the rise of social media and the large volume of males engaging in resistance training. Thereby, to several gym goers developing an unhealthy obsession with how their body looks, with muscle dysmorphic individual’s becoming dissatisfied with their degree of muscularity. For instance, the average gym-goer typically spends an average of 40 minutes contemplating their physical development, in relation to muscle dysmorphic individuals who spend 5 hours a day considering their physical under development (Zubcevic- Basic, 2013). Consequently, this dissatisfaction can drive males to take anabolic steroids, which, in its basic form, enables the individual to achieve desired strength and size by delivering an increased supply of oxygen to muscles, boosting stamina and aiding the production of lean muscle (Joubert & Melluish, 2016).Whilst the short-term benefits are well documented, the dark side of steroid abuse can be catastrophic, with several debilitative short and long term consequences identified (Mosley, 2008). However, these are ignored as gym goers search for self-gratification and praise from their peers regarding their appearance.
Closely linked with the consumption of anabolic steroids is eating disorders, with the term bigorexia based on the idea of reverse anorexia- eating a large number of calories in a bid to put on muscle mass (Pope et al., 1993). Here, it is important to differentiate between a regular gym goer and a muscle dysmorphic individual. For example, whilst a regular gym goer is happy to eat out and indulge in food as part of a healthy, balanced diet, muscle dysmorphic individuals are unable to do so, leading to them declining social events involving food as they feel uncomfortable eating outside of their strict dietary requirements (Morgan, 2008), which can lead to an eating disorder (Segura, Castell, Baeza & Guillén,2015). The most common eating disorder associated with muscle dysmorphia is a form of bulimia nervosa (Segura et al., 2015), with individuals over eating on a regular basis due to a fear that a lack of calories will result in them looking smaller, inadequate and weak. However, further research needs to examine this eating disorder to gain a greater understanding.
As previously touched on, the rise in anabolic steroid use and eating disorders coincides with the emergence of social media with platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook giving users the opportunity to post pictures presenting them in a favourable light, whilst the speed and ease with which you can post a picture leading to ready and multiple comparisons that gym-goers up and down the country engage in (Tiggemann & Miller, 2010). Consequently, research has noted young men are becoming dissatisfied with their appearance (Mosley, 2008). This satisfaction has been intensified by the praise the media gives to the muscular male body ideal (Pope, Phillips & Olivardia, 2000) , with the role social media now plays cannot be underestimated. For instance, recent research identified 57% of 1,000 boys noted to feel pressure from social media to look a specific way. Whilst social media can be used as a useful platform to promote a healthy, active lifestyle, research has shown males who observe muscular images of men on social media to report negative body dissatisfaction (Olivardia, Pope, Borrowiecki & Cohane, 2004), with this relationship intensified by how long an individual engages in social media. Whilst the images may be aiming to inspire individuals, it can be suggested it is in fact doing the opposite, leading to the rise in anabolic steroid use and eating disorders. With the long-term effects of body dysmorphic disorders unknown, the next decade will generate a greater understanding about how harmful muscle dysmorphia can be to an individual.
This is an important period for those who are taking exams. Most people who take exams during this period can be categorised as GCSE, A Level and Undergraduate students. During exam period there is no doubt that students will encounter stress and anxiety. This blog will outline strategies from the field of elite sport that […]
This is an important period for those who are taking exams. Most people who take exams during this period can be categorised as GCSE, A Level and Undergraduate students. During exam period there is no doubt that students will encounter stress and anxiety. This blog will outline strategies from the field of elite sport that can be used to reduce stress and anxiety.
Taken together, the exam period is an intense situation that evolves over 6-8 week period. The process can be effective providing one can develop positive habits and maintain a sense of semblance related to preparation.
Each and every day athletes are trying to gain an edge over their competitors. Regardless of how an athlete trains (e.g., diets, exercise, or studying film), the idea remains the same: be at the top of his/her game. Athletics is highly competitive and athletes will do what is necessary to succeed. As the intensity of […]
Each and every day athletes are trying to gain an edge over their competitors. Regardless of how an athlete trains (e.g., diets, exercise, or studying film), the idea remains the same: be at the top of his/her game. Athletics is highly competitive and athletes will do what is necessary to succeed. As the intensity of training increases and competition becomes more aggressive, the potential risk for personal injury becomes greater. Because of this risk, it becomes imperative that coaches have the knowledge and proper training to help identify and facilitate the safest and most effective ways of competitive training. Overall, athletics should be a vehicle that fosters personal growth and development.
Obviously physical development remains one of the primary focuses of athletes. It is not uncommon for individuals to fall short in other aspects of training such as proper diet and academic goals. As a result, it becomes increasingly important for coaches to guide their athletes to be well rounded and promote excellence in all areas of personal development. While this may be many coaches’ intent, it is up to the athletes to fully grasp and apply the concepts which the coach encourages. The relationship between an athlete and a coach should be one of professionalism and respect. Additionally, it should be a relationship that provides a foundation of values and core ethics of which an athlete can draw upon retrospectively.
In order to assist in the development of an effective and balanced coaching strategy, this article will focus on the concept of visualization or the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). In examining visualization, this article will be broken up into three main components: 1) visualization in research, 2) practicing visualization as a soft-impact practice alternative, and 3) practicing visualization as a non-impact practice alternative.
Visualization in Research: A Brief Case Study
Recently, there has been a large push in visualization related research. Universities, government organizations and sport institutes have been at the forefront of some of the most significant gains regarding how visualization is interpreted and how it relates to other cognitive components [e.g., mental toughness, cognition, relaxation, and concentration] (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).
Athletes spend a large amount of time training and the risk of injury has the potential to increase as the demands of competition become greater. As a result, it would be to the athletes’ benefit to find additional training methods to supplement his/her practice regiments. It would also be to the coaches’ benefit to familiarize him/herself to alternative means of training and the research supporting and/or negating that method. This style of planning can assist in the development of a well-balanced practice plan that incorporates both the physical and mental components of training to keep athletes healthy. Familiarizing oneself with empirical based research can eliminate any predisposed notions coaches or athletes may have about training methods they are not familiar with.
For example, a coach unfamiliar with visualization training may believe positive visualization techniques will yield positive motivation and sport performance. While this may be a good argument, empirical research has found limited support between the positive thoughts resulting in positive motivation (MacIntyre & Moran, 2007).
Some of the most significant visualization research relates the association between cognitive training exposure and mental toughness. Results from a case study conducted by Sheard & Golding (2011) revealed positive associations among 49 elite athletes’ positive cognitive, visualization, total mental toughness, and feeling of a challenge related to performance outcomes in international competition. While there are other factors to consider (e.g., weather, game tactics, injuries) this study provides valuable insight of how cognitive training could positively influence performance.
With this in mind, these results may not represent each and every athlete. Personal coaching experience and observational coaching are valuable skills and powerful tools for success. However, for those lacking experience, sport research can be a great place to start developing training plans. The evidence supporting positive psychological development in athletes is encouraging (Sheard & Golding, 2011). Furthermore, the continuing education of athletes related to supplemental training styles is also encouraging (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991).
Currently, there are large amounts of information surrounding the use of visualization in sport. Results have shown that visualization has the potential to be a valuable tool for success in athletics (Sheard & Golding, 2011). However, there is minimal evidence that definitively states how visualization should be applied. Furthermore, the use of visualization with elite athletes is lacking. Visualization should therefore be used as a supplement for coaches looking to create more diverse practice plans.
Visualization as a ‘soft-impact’ Practice Alternative
Competitive athletes undergo a gauntlet of training methods throughout their ‘peak’ seasons. During this period of time, the risk for injury and over-working an athlete increases. As a result, coaches need to be aware of the emotional and physical feedback their athletes exhibit. If an athlete begins to show signs of increased stress or fatigue, it may be a good time to rest the athlete.
Rest periods should be considered time the athlete takes away from the constant physical demands of competition and training. However, this does not mean all activity the athlete undergoes has to cease. Typical rest days may be filled with stretching or mild aerobics in order to induce relaxation and promote recovery. While these are great physical alternatives to methods such as running or weightlifting, they have the potential to fall short in preparing athletes for competitions mentally. This is where visualization techniques have the potential to be an effective alternative.
Visualization can be a valuable asset to any training regimen in the sense that it can be utilized both on and off the field. As previously stated, visualization is ‘the practice of harnessing the body’s senses to create imagery‘ (Ungerleider & Golding, 1991). The body’s senses comprise of five major components: 1) sight, 2) sound, 3) smell, 4) taste, and 5) touch. In order to get the maximum effect out of visualization, it important to engage, during practice, as many of the senses the athlete may experience in competition. Let’s look at a soft-impact example:
A track and field athlete is tasked with running a 4×100 meter relay with three other athletes. The weather has been a consistent 70 degrees, but it is expected to rain the following day during the competition.
In this example, touch and sight appear as the primary senses a coach may want to look at. The athletes hands are going to be wet and their eyesight diminished due to the rain. A coach in this situation cannot control the weather, but they can prepare their athletes for the elements through the senses. To engage a sense of touch, a coach may pour water over the athletes’ hands during hand-offs or in their shoes to simulate poor weather conditions.
A second sense, sight, could be manipulated through the use of darkened sunglasses in an indoor training facility. This, in turn, can foster a greater understanding of how to adapt to alternative conditions.
The other three senses (sound, smell and taste) are slightly more difficult to engage. Perhaps the competition area has a specific smell or plays music. These other senses, while more difficult to simulate, are not impossible to create. Overall, this should be a preparatory stage just like a common impact practice.
Visualization as a non-impact Practice Alternative
Similar to soft-impact practices, non-impact practices are meant to foster recovery and provide a break from high intensity training. The main difference between ‘soft-impact’ training and ‘non-impact’ training is how the technique is applied. Looking back at the previous example, soft-impact training usually involves a pre-competition practice component (e.g., jogging, stretching). Non-impact training is meant to engage an athlete’s mental understanding of the sport. In other words, non-impact training involves placing an athlete in various positions he/she is expected to be during competition and having them visualize his/her reactions to specific stimuli. This visualization, coupled with verbal feedback, can be a powerful tool in assessing the overall competency of an athlete and their understanding of their body in space.
To recap, visualization is a promising supplement for athletes during training sessions and during rest periods. Research surrounding this type of training, while still being developed, has revealed a variety of additional factors to consider when developing training plans. With this in mind, it would be to both the coach’s and athlete’s benefit to explore these supplemental training methods to enhance overall performance.
Coverage of mental health has increased in both popular press and academic research. There is no doubt that mental health is on the increase and may reach proportions that will stretch services. Whilst there has been much work with the area of mental health nobody should be in doubt that more is required. Mental health […]
Coverage of mental health has increased in both popular press and academic research. There is no doubt that mental health is on the increase and may reach proportions that will stretch services. Whilst there has been much work with the area of mental health nobody should be in doubt that more is required. Mental health can strike anybody and it does not consider age, gender, culture or profession. There are many reasons why mental health can occur and no one case can be considered to be the same.
In this blog, I am proposing the use of emotional intelligence in supporting strategies to help people with mental health. However, this blog post is no substitute for receiving actual medical advice and therapy. Further, this blog is arguably proposing something for people who may believe they are suffering at the lower ends of mental health. The purpose of this blog post outlines how the use of emotional intelligence could help with the onset of mental health. In consideration, emotional intelligence can be modelled with self-awareness, regulating emotion, motivation, empathy and relationship building.
Self-awareness is the ability to assess own emotions and understanding the impact they can have on oneself. Through self-awareness one can identify their own strengths and areas to improve. This alone can provide somebody with mental health issues to appreciate their current position. Self-awareness is a core component of emotional intelligence and has been tested in many fields. Within mental health it is deemed that at the lower levels if one can become aware of their emotions it may allow recognition of issues much earlier. Mental health is an important topic and reality would enable us to deal with issues earlier. In other words, prevention is better than cure. Therefore, the implementation of self-awareness becomes integral for own mind and balance. For example, if I am self-aware of my actions and can identify that these are not helping me control my emotions I have started to develop awareness. Based on this recognition, I am able to develop strategies to control my emotions. For example, I may not take on more tasks as they increase stress leading to poor emotional control. In addition, I can also identify areas that I am performing well and use these to build self-confidence. Indeed, it is through building self-confidence that one creates positivity to enhance mindset and feeling of happiness to facilitate balance.
The ability to regulate emotion could be integral for dealing with mental health. Our emotions can fluctuate throughout the day and their very nature can dictate whether we can control these emotions. When experiencing mental health it can be deemed that minor issues become major due to inability to cope. Regulating emotion is not easy and is something that should be practised consistently. Common strategies to regulate emotion include setting goals, mindfulness, deep breathing, meditation, positive self-talk, listening to music and reflective practice. Through setting goals one can regain focus and direction to complete tasks. Having achieved these goals one can start to regain emotional control. Mindfulness enables us to stay in the present moment. Humans have a tendency to focus on past and future events/possibilities. Crucially we do not spend enough time on the present. In other words the present is in our control and we can do something about it. The past has gone and the future isn’t here. Therefore, with mindfulness it is suggested that people see their current situation and start to set those small goals that can be achieved. Mindfulness can help people to appreciate their current situation and find ways to deal with each aspect. For example, deep breathing enables people to stay in the present and provide more control to regain balance in mind and body. Meditation is a practice that not all people will feel comfortable with but can be effective if used well. Meditation does not have to be religious based but can also relate to other forms of practice. Meditation can help mental health sufferers by offering scope and focus as one can practice deep breathing and bodily movement to provide energy. Indeed, a lack of energy is a common factor associated to mental health. An increase in energy can also be important as some people with mental health lack energy and motivation. Positive self-talk is an ability to replace negative thoughts but must be believed and comes from within. Clearly, somebody with mental health may not feel positive to change their thinking. However, some small changes can lead to positivity and one example could be from ‘I can’t do this’ to ‘I will do this.’ Music is a subjective strategy but one that has been proven within research to help lift mood and emotion. Aligned to all these strategies the use of reflective practice is vital. Reflective practice will facilitate and support processes. Mental health patients require encouragement that they are doing well and reflective practice provides them opportunities to self-assess their own progress.
To enable growth, motivation is a necessity and need that has been proposed by theorists. We all have intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) needs. These needs can be physical, physiological, mental, nutrition and normally a combination of all. Motivation can be more effectively directed through the use of process goals. Within mental health one of the key drivers to support people is the use of motivation as it can create the required energy. Arguably, a lack of motivation can be related to one aspect of mental health. Therefore, the use of motivation strategies (e.g. goal setting and positive self-talk) could reverse this trend.
Empathy is placing one in another person’s shoes. People should practice the art of empathy as it prevents the isolation and seclusion that one can feel. However, there are opportunities with empathy that can be utilised. It is recommended that empathy enables one to assess and examine things from another’s perspective. Somebody with mental health can recognise empathy if they associate with a fellow sufferer. Indeed, joining groups or meeting others can actually be useful to build empathy.
The ability to build relationships can be the cornerstone of developing opportunities to support mental health. Relationship building is an opportunity to meet new people and to perform on tasks that build cohesion. Of course the nature of mental health may render this difficult but within time and space it can be possible. Building new and developing existing friendships can enable people to open up and further achieve coherence of trust. Indeed, a cornerstone of mental health is to open up and talk to people through relationship building.
The key aim of this article was to develop the purpose of how one model of emotional intelligence could support people with mental health. To summarise, one should not substitute this blog article for important medical advice. However, people with lower levels of mental health could benefit with the incorporation of emotional intelligence.
Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem. This Mental Health Awareness Week, we are going to look at mental health from a new angle. Rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving […]
Good mental health is more than the absence of a mental health problem. This Mental Health Awareness Week, we are going to look at mental health from a new angle. Rather than ask why so many people are living with mental health problems, we will seek to uncover why too few of us are thriving with good mental health (Mental Health Foundation)
Recent increases in media coverage and public knowledge have shed light on Sport and exercise as key contributors to our mental health. However, the contrast between discussions in each of these areas is clear:
• Discussions around sport and mental health link to the concerns for athletes in the pressure environments of high level competitive sport
• Discussions around exercise and mental health link to the benefits of exercise to improve mental health
Mental Health – What is it?
Mental health is ‘a state of well being in which the individual realises their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community’ (WHO 2001, 1). Therefore, in contrast, mental health problems are characterised by alterations in cognition, emotion or social behaviour associated with distress or impaired functioning (Sawyer et al. 2000).
Mental Health and Exercise
There have been many publications citing the mental health benefits of physical activity. There are benefits from the social interaction and mutual support resulting from participating in group exercise (Peluso & Andrade, 2005, p. 62); the improved mood, self-confidence and self-esteem resulting from engaging in challenging physical activity (Biddle & Mutrie, 2008); and the distraction that physical activity provides from day-to-day stressors (Morgan, 1985).
Other suggested reasons for taking part range from the sense of autonomy that comes from self-selecting the exercise and doing it voluntarily and solely in one’s own interests and the importance of the effort expended in exercising through to the improved sense of relatedness created by engaging in physical activities with others (Deci and Ryan, 2002 ; Sylvester et al., 2012).
Mental Health and Sport
Elite athletes are not immune to developing a mental illness and are often at the peak of their competitive careers during these high-risk years (Allen and Hopkins, 2015). Moreover, elite athletes experience unique stressors that can have deleterious effects on mental health including sport-related stress (Noblet and Gifford, 2002), injuries (Smith, 1996; Appaneal et al., 2009), living away from home (Bruner et al., 2008), and burnout (Gustafsson et al., 2011).
Mental toughness in sport has always been a buzz phrase. However, it has been proposed that mental health and mental toughness are contradictory concepts in the world of elite sport. Accordingly, mental toughness – ‘an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity’ (Middleton et al. 2004) – has long been valued in sport and is an important factor in determining sporting outcomes and success. Athletes with greater mental toughness cope more effectively with adversity and pressure, possess increased resilience in the face of challenges and deliver more consistent, cognitive and physical performance in sport (Crust 2007). This link provides motivation for coaches to play a role in the promotion and practice of psychological skills that are beneficial to athlete mental wellbeing.
Behind the attention on the Mental Health challenges that many athletes face we have lost the focus on the many positives that playing competitive sport can bring to athletes. The sports environment fosters positive athlete development (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, and Deakin 2005) by facilitating the self-esteem, identity formation and feelings of competence, and encouraging positive peer relationships, leadership skills, teamwork, commitment and discipline (Danish, Forneris, and Wallace 2005). The reciprocal social support that occurs in sport is also an important factor in promoting physical and mental well being (Carless and Douglas 2008).
Good mental health is not ‘one size fits all’…
For some sport and/or exercise is the activity that helps them overcome mental health issues. While for many it is the social network from these environments that help them. Therefore, Within sport, multidisciplinary sport science and medicine teams play an important role in achieving an optimal balance between preventing athlete ill-health and optimizing well being and performance. The role of support staff is reinforced by the fact that when people do reach out, they prefer to seek help from someone they already know and trust. This is a form of guidance from trusted connections in order to seek appropriate professional help for their mental health problems (Rickwood et al. 2005).
‘Whether you opt for competitive sport or exercise, find the activity and support network that helps you establish and maintain good mental health’
The relationship between perfectionism and sporting excellence is often endorsed into many athletes; in order to be the best you must strive for perfection. A precursor for sporting success can be perceived as obtaining the ‘ideal body’. For example, dancers/gymnasts are expected to be small and compact, whereas swimmers are expected to be tall and […]
The relationship between perfectionism and sporting excellence is often endorsed into many athletes; in order to be the best you must strive for perfection. A precursor for sporting success can be perceived as obtaining the ‘ideal body’. For example, dancers/gymnasts are expected to be small and compact, whereas swimmers are expected to be tall and broad. By achieving the ‘ideal body’ required by your sport, you will in turn have a greater advantage of winning. But what if your body isn’t naturally made like this? How can you obtain this body image in order to excel ?
On the basis that athletes are driven to perform well, the goal-orientation in defining success differs between individuals. Some see success as winning and outperforming their competitors whereas other see success as beating their personal best. The Achievement Goal Theory by Duda & Nicholls (1992) focuses on two goal orientations: ego-orientation and task-orientation. Task-orientation can be defined as self-referenced goals, such as mastering a skill, therefore he/she feels competent when made progress. Alternatively, ego-orientation is to demonstrate ability in relation to the ability of others, these athletes therefore feel competent when relative to their peers.
The drive to succeed can also be related to the underlying personality trait of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a trait often found in high achievers but also a key risk factor in the development of an eating disorder. Perfectionism can be split up into: self-orientated perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-orientated perfectionism involves setting unrealistic and overly high standards for oneself. In comparison, socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that external factors (family, friends) hold excessively high standards for oneself; thus creating an extra pressure for that individual as they feel the need to meet with those expectations (Polivy & Herman, 2002).
The onset of disordered eating patterns can therefore be explained through goal orientation and perfectionism interactions. Athletes who are highly ego-orientated and socially-prescribed perfectionists could particularly be at risk, due to the concept of social comparison. These athletes are driven to engage in disordered eating with an intent in altering the body’s size to meet the requirements of social external factors. Particularly, the interaction between athletes who are highly ego-orientated adopt the “win at all costs” philosophy, and often embrace the idea that winning in the end, justifies all means (Roberts, 2001). As these highly ego-orientated athletes are also high socially-prescribed perfectionists, they will not only have concerns about one’s appearance, (Hewitt & Flett, 1991) but also evidently recognise athletes that fit the ‘ideal body image’ more then themselves. These athletes will then associate this body image with the contribution to success, and therefore result to pathogenic eating methods in order to meet these rigid body requirements.
Given that athletes are also high perfectionists in setting exceptional standards for oneself and dealing poorly with small failures, these individuals when immersed in a competitive environment will in turn increase their risk of developing disordered eating patterns (Fosbery & Lock, 2006). As a performance climate inhibits the view that ability is predetermined and demonstrated by achieving superiority (Theeboom, De Knop & Weiss (1995). Coaches/teachers who therefore clearly emphasise the differences between ‘the best’ athletes and the ‘less able’ due to their natural ability or physique; may lead their pupils resorting to pathogenic weight control methods in order to fit within this perceived ‘ideal body’. Thus it appears the coaches’ opinion or view is important to the athlete, but also related to success.
So how can a coach help to reduce an athletes risk of disordered eating?
Throughout the literature, mastery climates have been found to have negative correlations to dieting and coach/peer pressure, suggesting that when performers perceived their climate as mastery there was a reduce in risk. Coaches that provide a supporting, co-operative environment that does not compare dancers/gymnasts on ability, seem to reduce the disordered eating risk which in turn decreases the weight-related pressure perceived by their pupils (Smoll, Smith & Cumming, 2007.).
In summary, it can be suggested that goal-orientation, perfectionism and motivational climate are all risk factors in the development of disordered eating. Athletes who are socially-prescribed perfectionists and highly ego-orientated seem to be at an increased risk. Highly-ego involved athletes want to outperform others by consistently comparing themselves. This in turn may lead to social comparison; an individual who sees success in others related to body image, will hypothetically compare that body image to others and themselves. This will then be used as basis to succeed within their sport. Environmental factors can be changed in order to reduce eating disorder risk within athletes. Examples of additional factors, that could also contribute to an athletes disordered eating that are not explored within this article are self esteem, injury/illness, and biological/genetic.