Latest research: Sports Psychology

The Sports Psychology conference which took place just before Christmas had masses of research to listen to and digest. The previous blog posts consider specific areas but here are the quick take-aways on six areas: behaviour change, learning and using mental skills, working in extreme environments, supporting youth athletes, improving endurance performance and personality traits.

On behaviour change

  • Working memory can only remember a few points at a time. Never try to sell more than four.
  • Attention span has gone from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds now.
  • When information is cheap then it becomes expensive to get attention. So you must think what are you prepared to pay to get attention. Attention is at the heart of all behavior change issues
  • Strangers and new places are threats – so when trying to get people’s attention we need to do it in places which feel safe to them.
  • Studying motivation in sport is important as it helps us increase our theoretical and practical knowledge so we can change behaviour.

On learning and using mental skills

  • Interventions which have been found to enhance endurance performance are: Goal setting, Imagery, Pre-performance routines, Relaxation and Biofeedback and Self-talk.
  • Goal setting, Self-talk and Imagery have all been found to increase motivation.
  • A Parachute Regiment platoon who had mental skills training improved their mental toughness scores significantly more than those without the training.
  • Self-talk can significantly improve the performance of ultra runners and soldiers.
  • Your ability to do imagery influences how effective you can be at it.
  • Building your confidence before going into a competitive environment and having intrinsic motivation will help you succeed.

On working in extreme environments

  • Before going onto any type of expedition fully prepare for the physical and social environment by identifying and discussing potential expedition scenarios (including personal differences) and agree on a plan as to how to respond and support one another if required.
  • Key areas of growth for someone taking on a polar exploration can be in problem and emotional, solving, coping, positive interpretive processes, hardiness, optimism, conscientiousness, reflection and resilience.

On supporting youth athletes

  • Teach youth athletes coping skills to help them manage the tension between school and sport.
  • Help your youth athlete communicate how they are feeling around their dual role.

On improving endurance performance

  • Avoid mentally draining activities before endurance performance.
  • To improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort. To reduce your perception of effort think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself.
  • Follow a pace or a pacer when you run to lower heart rate and potentially improve your performance.

On personality traits

  • Athletes with a long term injury who were optimistic reported fewer negative emotions, felt more in control, used more appropriate coping strategies, had higher levels of intrinsic motivation and stuck better to their rehab programmes.
  • Those who are high in mental toughness have an enhanced capacity to experience flow.

Latest Research: The Yips

Choking in sport is horrible for an athlete. An element of choking is known as The Yips. This is a psycho-neuromuscular disorder, which affects sports where fine motor precision skills are required for success, such as Tennis, Archery and Golf. The yips can cause an athlete to twitch or jerk and not make the move they intended. It often occurs in mature athletes who have years and years of experience. Not only does it impact their performance, but can be incredibly mentally frustrating for them as they cannot understand why it is happening. A team from the University of Derby (Sally Akehurst, Philip Clarke & David Sheffield) have been working with Tennis players, Archers and Golfers to uncover who is most likely to experience the Yips and have found that those at risk of suffering with it have high levels of social anxiety, perfectionism, self-consciousness and low levels of conscientiousness. These people will have the desire to be perfect in front of others, won’t tell people when they are having trouble, have a higher need for validation and need to prove their self-worth.

Latest research: Endurance athletes

Research to help endurance athletes is high on the agenda at the moment. Endurance sports (definition: whole body dynamic exercise, that runs with continuous effort and lasts for 75 seconds or longer) are unique in that they require significant motivation and effort from the additional commitment and boredom, the discomfort, pain and fatigue and the pacing. Samuele Marcora (Uni of Kent) has been considering if endurance performance is limited by perception of effort and potential motivation rather than muscle fatigue. Over the years a great deal of research has been undertaken from the perspective that people stop endurance exercise when their fatigued neuromuscular system is no longer capable of producing the required speed/power output. This means most research has focused from a physiological perspective and has looked at muscle fatigue. However, muscle biopsies have shown there is about another 7 or 8 minutes energy in them once we have got to VO2 Max. So instead, Marcora and his team of researchers are looking at the role of cognition and motivation in endurance performance. Working from a Psychobiological model, they suggest that maximum effort is what people are willing to exert on a task, highlighting they will disengage with a task when they no longer feel willing to put the effort in, i.e. they have either lost motivation or if feels too hard. This implies that to improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort.

A piece of research on this area I really loved was from Alister McCormick from the University of Kent. He worked with 21 runners taking on a 60 mile ultra run. The participants were matched by their estimated V̇O2max and randomly assigned one of two workbooks; motivational self-talk or concentration. They found both groups were similar before the event on the level of control they felt and their self-efficiency but those who used self-talk during the race finished 25 minutes quicker than the control (concentration) group. As self-talk can be taught to an athlete in less than an hour (and can be more effective when personalized – which it wasn’t in this group) it seems a small amount of investment here can make significant gains. If you would like to learn how to use self-talk there is a worksheet here.

Dominic Micklewright (University of Essex) has been looking at judgment and decision making in pacing. He found:

  • Those who perceive that there is risk are more likely to have a conservative pacing strategy.
  • Experts and novices use different decision-making information. Experts know what info they want and look for it and, once found it, look at it for longer.

He concludes however that endurance sport takes place in such a highly complex external, internal and social environment that it will be highly susceptible to individual differences and this has not yet been explored in much depth.

Another piece of research on pace control from Noal Brick (Ulster University) highlighted that if you want to improve your performance without feeling like you were increasing your perception of effort then think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself. However, focusing on your breathing or movement actually reduces your performance. These researchers ran treadmill time trials to understand what athletes were thinking about while working on different pacing strategies. They found:

  • If you have frequent internal moderation taking place (i.e. continually checking how you feel to match a specific perception of pace) you will go slower.
  • If someone else sets your pacing for you then you will have a lower heart rate (when going at the same speed).
  • The more you focus on how you feel internally, the harder the TT will feel.

This indicates that if you follow a pace or a pacer when you run, it should be cognitively easier, may give you have a lower heart rate and thus may improve your performance.

Finally, researchers from Ulster University have been looking at the psychological and physiological factors that influence performance in ultra-endurance runners and found no difference in levels of mental toughness or personality traits between ultra and non-ultra endurance runners.

Take away points:

  • To improve endurance performance we either need to increase motivation or reduce the perception of effort. To reduce your perception of effort think about your cadence, about relaxing and finding ways to distract yourself.
  • Those who used self-talk during a 60 mile race finished 25 minutes quicker than a control group
  • Follow a pace or a pacer when you run to lower heart rate and potentially improve your performance.

Latest research: The importance of social support

Social support is known to be really important in sport, when dealing with injury and in helping you succeed in day-to-day life. It has become increasingly recognised as a key resource for athletes, and has been linked with enhanced coping with organisational stressors, youth sport participation, self-confidence, and lower levels of burnout. Some really interesting pieces of research presented at a recent sports psychology conference tell us more about how social support can impact us.

Highlighting how important it is to have supportive people around you, Adam Coussens from the University of Exeter looked at how athletes perceive the support they get from those around them. He found that when athletes perceive certain individuals to be conscientious, open, and sharing a common identity, they also perceive them to be particularly supportive. Further, if athletes perceive certain individuals to be supportive, athletes will also feel confident. Not only can you get confidence when surrounded by supportive people but your motivation can be improved too. Bryn McCann looked at the impact on athlete motivation and found Peers, Coaches and Parents are three social agents who can impact on an athlete’s motivation.

Finally, some fascinating research from Andrew Cruickshank from the University of Central Lancashire who has been looking at the factors that separate Super Champs (Multiple World or Olympic Medalists) from Champs (GB team) from others (those who are good but may quit before senior selection) and found it comes down to commitment, preparation and reaction to challenge, reflection and reward and the role of coaches and significant others. Specifically on the theory that Talent needs Trauma (i.e. the idea that in order to succeed you must have built strength and resilience by overcoming significant hurdles along the way) they found that the hurdles encountered need to consist of structured challenge that helps athletes develop social and psychological skills. A lovely phrase Andrew used was “It needs to be a plaster, not an amputation” so athletes are not necessarily learning new stuff from trauma, just proving and reminding themselves that they have good psychological strength and skills.

Latest research on supporting junior athletes…

Supporting young athletes so they flourish in their sport but also have doors left open academically if they become injured, or don’t make it in sport is essential but tough. A number of researchers round the UK and abroad are studying youth athletes and their social environment to understand how they can be best supported. Some of the latest findings were presented at a sports psychology conference in Leeds last week.

Researchers at Victoria University in Australia found that there are difficulties experienced in dual careers (e.g., school and sport) of junior elite athletes that could have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing. They found the use of productive coping strategies had a direct, positive effect on life satisfaction so suggest it is important to teach and optimise coping skills to help them manage the constant tension between school and sport.

Taking this a step further, researchers Camilla Knight (Swansea University) and Chris Harwood, (Loughborough University) looked at specific ways that those around youth athletes (parents, coaches and peers) can support them in these dual roles. They found all the supporters seemed to understand the demands of upon the youth athletes and placed great value on education, supporting their sporting and academic engagement, providing integrated support, educating athletes regarding the demands they would encounter and trusting athletes to guide their development but that where additional support would be valued was around financial assistance and further integration and communication.

Finally, three researchers from the University of Stirling looked at what may stop youth athletes dropping out of their sports and found that social support from those around them raised their intention to carry on with their sport.

Take away points if you are supporting a youth athlete:

  1. Teach your athlete coping skills to help them manage the tension between school and sport.
  2. Remember it may well be the social support you and others are providing which keeps the athlete doing their sport
  3. Help your youth athlete communicate how they are feeling around their dual role and any stresses this is causing them.

Latest research on those performing in extreme circumstances….

Researchers will often look at a large group of people to find the similarities or differences between them to link together why something does or doesn’t happen. Some researchers however study very specific and specialist groups of people, often doing something quite extreme, to see what we can learn from their exceptional experiences. A group of researchers at the latest Sports Psychology conference in Leeds in December showed their research on those in the military and taking on polar exploration for just this reason. As a result we learnt about stress in difficult situations, about personal growth, about success and what motivates people to climb mountains.

On stress in difficult situations…

Polar explorers have certain stressors they expect. These are around the environment, operations, role related goal differences and the social side. How well they deal with them depends on how well they had planned, the routines they use, their previous experiences and the social support they have. The main problems they had though were unanticipated and came from personal differences between team members and caused significant tensions. Those  going into environments like this need to discuss and consider how they will deal with personal differences before they begin their trip. A separate piece of research by the University of Portsmouth backed up this idea. They studied 10 members of the military during a 2 month Antarctic expedition and as a result recommended that time should be set aside pre-expedition to fully prepare for the physical and social environment that they are moving into. In particular, identifying and discussing potential expedition scenarios and agree on a plan as to how to respond and support one another if required.

On personal growth …

In studying a polar explorer preparing, doing and recovering from a 105 day polar expedition, researchers at the University of Northampton found that the key areas of growth for someone taking on this extreme type of journey were in problem and emotional solving, coping, positive interpretive processes, hardiness, optimism, conscientiousness, reflection and resilience. Further research suggested that those with high levels of conscientiousness and openness would have higher levels of growth from experiences like this.

On being successful…

Researchers at the university of St Mark & St John and Ulster University looked at those who completed and those who withdraw from a specialist military training course. They found that the successful ones had high levels of determination and a perceived ability to cope. Those who withdrew were more likely to lack confidence and had limited intrinsic motivation. They figured that the process overall could be more successful if the trainees’ confidence was enhanced.

On feeling a lack of stretch in day to day life…

Researchers at Bangor University examined why some people choose to go high-risk mountaineering. They found that mountaineers are not motivated by sensation seeking but are actually continually striving to reach their ‘limit’ (either physical or mental) and feel they are unable to do this in their everyday life so they take on mountains instead. They found the mountaineers were seeking out, experiencing, and the controlling the intense fear as a way of freeing themselves from their anxiety in everyday life.

Three take away points…

  1. Before going onto any type of expedition fully prepare for the physical and social environment by identifying and discussing potential expedition scenarios (including personal differences) and agree on a plan as to how to respond and support one another if required.
  2. Key areas of growth for someone taking on a polar exploration can be in problem and emotional, solving, coping, positive interpretive processes, hardiness, optimism, conscientiousness, reflection and resilience.
  3. Building your confidence before going into a competitive environment and having intrinsic motivation will help you succeed.


The psychology of doping: latest research

Attending a sports psychology conference this week I was drawn to a symposium on the latest doping research. It seems hard not to be fascinated by the psychology behind doping; what is the trigger point to starting, how are some athletes able to resist it when others around them dope? How does it impact their performance mentally; an additional boost in knowing they should be faster, or damaging due to anxiety and fear of being caught? Does the testing and fear of testing have a performance or training impact? So many questions in a subject that has previously been clothed in silence. Questions which, for a long time, have not been answered. Now a group at Leeds Beckett University, lead by Susan Backhouse have started to delve much deeper, using qualitative research to understand and capture the lived experience of athletes and support personnel in relation to doping. Four of the pieces presented are summarised here:

Faye Didymus interviewed 10 high level Rugby players about their stressful experiences, their coping resources, and their use of chemical assistance. Half of the participants suggested that they had used, or considered using, banned substances to cope with chronic stressors such as injury, pressure to perform and pressure to increase muscle mass particularly if their personal and social coping resources had been depleted and if they appraised the stressors negatively.

Kelsey Erickson used interviews with 28 student athletes to understand the role of those around them in shaping their moral beliefs on doping in sport. Positively, the athletes stated that the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) in sport is ‘wrong’ and ‘cheating.’ This stance seemed to have come from parents and coaches, with the parents being most important in childhood and early adolescence and the coach influence becoming stronger in later adolescence.

Lisa Whitaker worked with a professional team athlete to understand his perspectives on doping. She found that the athlete was aware of players who were using, or rumoured to be using, a prohibited substance, and he himself had had a coach suggest he should use it. This made him angry as he believed he had been denied sporting success (both in terms of making teams and maintaining contracts) because of the cheating behaviour of his peers and felt helpless as he could do nothing about it. The athlete had considered doping but his father had highlighted how anxious this was likely to make him which may actually harm his performance so he chose not to. Whitaker concluded that athletes can develop a willingness to dope from stressors, pressures and others doing it but family can provide protective support and key life skills like self-control and resilience.

Laurie Patterson interviewed 12 rugby and football coaches to look at their roles in anti-doping. She found they were supportive of anti-doping but not willing to lead on it. They were doing it but didn’t know they had formal guidelines and when they heard the formal guidelines thought they were doable but not realistic. They were also fearful about getting it wrong so always tried to bring in an expert rather than tackling things themselves. She found the coaches were very protective of their own sport and their clubs and their players and said that if they found something going on they would deal with it ‘in house’.

From this research it seems the next steps for doping officials to consider would be:

  • To work to understand the links between psychological stress and chemical assistance in rugby so that coping interventions focusing on chronic stressors (such as injury) can be designed and players can be educated effectively.
  • To target athlete support networks (especially parents and coaches) with anti-doping education and interventions such as signposting support mechanisms, providing accurate prevalence info, providing more guidance, showing how anti-doping activities can tie into performance and to increase coaches’ confidence by developing applied knowledge and skills.

Can ‘imagining success’ make you more successful?

To be a successful athlete there are thousands of individual elements, all making a difference. The basic physiological attributes you are born with, the sporting skills and techniques you learn, the personality traits that push you towards perfectionism, mental toughness or resilience and the social environment in which you grow up and develop your mindset on how much you can achieve. Some of these are fixed, and some can be developed and adapted with the right support, training and education. There are also a set of mental skills you can learn which everyone can benefit from; whether for sport, for work, for other hobbies. One of these, tested in depth by sports psychologists, is imagery.

Imagery is known by a number of terms (so you may hear it talked about as mental practice, visualisation, covert practice, mental rehearsal or symbolic rehearsal) but all describe a form of stimulation that allows you to recreate positive elements from memory to prepare for a performance. The stimulation can be through sight), hearing or even smell but one of the most important for athletes is thought to be kinaesthetic (tactile) as it involves feeling the body in the patterns and shapes that are required when you perform.

Imagery can work in two ways:

  • Motivational – used to visualise goals and goal orientated behaviours around performing really well, to relax or psych up and the specifics of your sport.
  • Cognitive – focuses on motor skills, games plans and strategies.

Both can improve self-confidence and then ultimately performance.

Researchers trying to understand why imagery works have devised a representational theory suggesting that, through imagery, neuronal groups interactively fire in defined patterns, structurally modifying themselves in a way that makes them more effective. Through this it is suggested that we gain functional equivalence with the same areas of the brain firing whether a skill is actually performed or just imagined. So while imagery can’t replace physical practice, only supplement it, this functional equivalence means an athlete benefits from the extra ‘imagined’ practice but without the additional risk of injury or fatigue.

The use of imagery has been found to work particularly well for those wishing to improve their self-confidence. In 2012 Williams and Cumming published a study of 207 athletes where they found that those using motivational imagery had higher confidence. 2002 research from Abma and colleagues split 111 athletes into those who had high confidence and those with low confidence and found those high in confidence used all types of imagery significantly more than those with low confidence. Both these studies highlight that athletes wanted to boost self-confidence will benefit by using imagery.

But there are some caveats you need to keep in mind if you planning to try imagery to build your self-confidence. The more skilled and experienced in your sport the better you tend to be at using imagery for the right effect. The type of imagery you use is also important. Research by Callow and Hardy in 2001 found that doing imagery around game strategies was only effective in lower standard athletes and imagery related to the emotions of playing can impact confidence negatively. Research has also found that using imagery focusing on a negative outcome is detrimental to levels of confidence and to levels of performance so it is essential you imagine what you want to happen, not what you are trying to avoid. Finally, the better your imagery skills are, the better you will be at using it effectively. So like everything – practice!

If this has tempted you to try imagery there is a worksheet here which explains how to go about it.

To read more about imagery…

  • Abma, C. L., Fry, M. D., Li, Y. Y., & Relyea, G. G. (2002). Differences in imagery content and imagery ability between high and low confident track and field athletes. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 14(2), 67-75.
  • Callow, N. N., & Hardy, L. L. (2001). Types of imagery associated with sport confidence in netball players of varying skill levels. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 1-17.
  • Holmes, P. S., & Collins, D. J. (2001). The PETTLEP approach to motor imagery: A functional equivalence model for sport psychologists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 13(1), 60-83.
  • Moran, A. P., & MacIntyre, T. (1998). There’s more to an image than meets the eye: A qualitative study of kinaesthetic imagery among elite canoe-slalomists. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 19(4), 406-423.
  • Vealey, R. S., & Walter, S. M. (1993). Imagery training for performance enhancement and personal development. In J. M. Williams (Ed.) Applied sport psychology, 2nd edition (pp. 220-224). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
  • Williams, S. E., & Cumming, J. (2012). Sport imagery ability predicts trait confidence, and challenge and threat appraisal tendencies. European Journal of Sport Science, 12(6), 499-508

A challenge: Two words to lose from your vocabulary

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 20.58.39

I’ve written before on how goals need to be positive. Allowing you to achieve something, not block something. But there is one exception that I’m going for in my 2016 goals. I am banning myself from using two words… Just and Only.

Between them, just eight letters but every time you use them you give the impression that you are apologizing for being you, for your ideas, for your presence. That your views are not worth the air time.

How many times have you stuck your head round the door of someone at work and said ‘only me, just wondered….’ or piped up in a meeting with “I know I’m only…’ Instantly identifying yourself as someone who doesn’t think they have the authority or validity to be there. How many emails have you started with “I just wanted to…” Instantly indicating you don’t think you really have the right to be asking. Apologizing for being you, for doing your job. If you don’t think you deserve a voice, why should anyone else?

An article earlier this year from former Google executive Ellen Petry Leanse discussed the ‘just’ issue. She noted how much, when she started working in a fairly female environment, the word Just was banded about extensively, as if everyone was asking for permission. And she noted how much more it is used by women.

So try one week picking yourself up every time you say or write ‘only’ or ‘just’. I didn’t think I did it too much before I realized I was having to delete it in almost every email I wrote. It is enlightening. And removing those eight letters, those two words, doesn’t make you seem rude, or that you are toe stepping. It makes you look like your value your voice, and so should everyone else.

Compression kit: Are you squeezing yourself out of strength

I love training and racing in triathlon, running and cycling and love the psychological side of those sports. I know and understand far less on the physiological side. But am always interested in watching the way new trends in these sports fly through the community. I’m fascinated by how equipment which seems really unusual one season is suddenly everywhere the next. With more people travelling to races round the world, and the massive increase of Ironman and 70.3 races making the ‘tri season’ almost continuous and the increased use of social media, it often seems that new trends, equipment, theories for triathlon spread quicker than ever.

Many spring to mind. Speed tools like TT bikes, areo helmets, deep rim wheels, racing trainers, £500 wetsuits, nutrition supplements like drinking cherry or beetroot juice and covering every dish in chai seeds and recovery strategies such as ice baths, odd trouser shaped things with electricity running through them and a various array of compression kit. I’ve always wondered how much research is behind each, and if each athlete looks that up, or simply logs onto wiggle and buys the new hot thing because everyone else does?

Compression kit is one trend you just can’t miss in the triathlon world. Every colour can be bought. Every bit of the body can be covered. So many ironman athletes seem squished into it. So I was really interested to chat to Dr Charlie Pedlar of St Mary’s University a few weeks ago about the pros and cons of compression clothing.

In summary, his research, and the research of other experts in this area has found that compression and other related areas like ice baths work really well for recovery. But perhaps so well that they can cancel out some of the benefits of training. He says:

“There are three thoughts behind the use of compression: They say by compressing the tissue you might be influencing blood flow in some way, by applying pressure you are preventing swelling which may have an impact on muscle function and if you wear it during exercise you reduce the amount muscle oscillation with everything moving around less. However, if you are reducing the process of damage and inflammation, then the stimulus for adaptation is reduced. You will recover faster, but you will not be adapting as effectively as you could. There is a trade off that if you reduce the amount of damage that is being caused then you also reduce the potential for adaptation.”

So Pedlar advises if you are only trying to strengthen your cardiovascular function (and are not worried about strengthening your muscles) then it might be useful to wear compression. It may also be good to wear it when you have lots of races back to back (like multiple day events like Marathon De Sables or Disney’s Goofy challenge, Modern Pentathlon or Heptathlon) as it will help reduce DOMS. And again maybe good to wear after your last race of the season when you are not looking for adaptation but pain-free legs to go on holiday with. But day to day training, throughout the season, after races mid season when you are looking to continue building strength and speed, they may actually do you more harm than good and waste soms of that effort you are putting in.