The 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympics were the most successful in history for team GB and the athletes weren’t shy in acknowledging the role that mental preparation played in their success.
Jade Etherington and guide Caroline Powell became the most successful British women in Winter Paralympics history after winning four medals. Etherington mentioned self-belief as an essential attribute for achieving such success, “I knew we could do it but to have success you have to believe you can do it” (“Sochi Paralympics: Fourth medal for Etherington and Powell”, 2014).
Furthermore, Kelly Gallagher and guide Charlotte Evans won the first ever gold medal for GB on snow. The gold medal winning pair attributed their success to working closely with their sport psychologist (“Sochi Paralympics: Kelly Gallagher turns tears into gold-medal triumph”, 2014). After disappointing results in their previous events, Gallagher and Evans said that their sport psychologist helped them to cope with that disappoint and motivate them for what would be their gold medal winning performance. The pair also spoke about the importance of developing confidence and trust with each other – qualities that are extremely pertinent for these particular Paralympic athletes.
The increasing popularity and interest surrounding these athletes therefore is not surprising. The journal of qualitative research in sport, exercise and health even produced a special issue recently (Volume 4, Issue 2, 2012) focusing on disability sport, demonstrating this increased interest is not just from the media, but also the academic setting.
However, what is surprising is that the existing research conducted with this group of athletes has not paid much attention to their psychological skill set. The hype around the 2012 Paralympics in particular brought about the coining of the term “super humans”. So what psychological attributes are required by these super humans? Do they differ to able-bodied athletes and if so, how?
Research conducted by Martin, Malone and Hilyer (2011) demonstrates the fine line between these “super humans” and those athletes who narrowly miss out. The authors found that the gold medal winning USA Paralympic women’s basketball team scored higher on scales of tough-mindedness and vigor and lower in anxiety compared to those not selected for the team in the final stages. Additionally Martin and Malone (2013) investigated the mental skill use of the USA elite wheelchair rugby team, who reported above average use of mental skills and techniques such as coping skills, confidence, peaking under pressure, imagery and self-talk.
Altogether, these examples from both the media and academic settings illustrate the influential role of sport psychology in this particular group of athletes. Similar to events for able-bodied athletes, winning times can be marginal so having that “psychological edge” can really determine the elusive “super human” status.
Martin, J. J. & Malone, L. A. (2013). Elite Wheelchair Rugby Players’ Mental Skills and Sport Engagement. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 7, 253-263.
Martin, J. J., Malone, L. A., & Hilyer, J. C. (2011). Personality and Mood in Women’s Paralympic Basketball Champions. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 5, 197-210.
Sochi Paralympics: Fourth medal for Etherington and Powell (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/disability-sport/26574646
Sochi Paralympics: Kelly Gallagher turns tears into gold-medal triumph (2014). Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/disability-sport/26516474
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About Mary Quinton
I am a final year Sport and Exercise Psychology PhD student at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences (University of Birmingham)