Gender Roles, Sport and Wellbeing … the link!

When you look at traditional, old-fashioned gender roles in UK society you might think of women as the house wives, the carers, nurturers, the stay at home and care for the young types….wear their heart on their sleeves. For men, you might think of the bread keeper, the ‘man of the house’, protector and provider of the home. Turns out that despite us now being in a very modern 21st century world these stereotypes in gender roles may not have moved on that far!
Turning our attention to sport, how do gender roles play a part? Do they exist?
Recent studies suggest that they do exist and are very powerful in both stigmas, conformity and individual wellbeing! Within sport there are clear gender norms of what is socially appropriate for males and females, these are known to add pressure on the athlete socially and emotionally. The male athletes’ ‘social norm’ might suggest that they are expected to take part in risky behaviours such as binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and aggressive behaviour (Liu and Iwamoto, 2007). Now, we understand that the modern man may not want to behave that way; more that they may want to take time to be with their family, actually show their emotions to others and be the ‘model athlete’ – clean eating, no substance misuse and a very hard and focused work ethic with their training. So what happens if you’re a male elite athlete and you suddenly find yourself in a team where these older masculine gender roles exist? First, let’s have a look at how females are affected by gender roles in sport!
The issue found with female sport is existence of the older stereotypical ‘femininity’ norms (Mahalik et al, 2005). But the difficulty for females lies not necessarily with these normal themselves but within the contradictions that exist between that and the reality of elite level sport. For example to be successful in sport a female athlete would need to show what are typically masculine traits such as competitiveness, aggressiveness and toughness (Beal, 1996) whilst also maintaining their femininity by displaying attractiveness, heterosexuality and maintaining relationships with others. These conflicting themes are not only confusing for the athlete to understand but they are difficult to achieve and cause further issues with self-esteem, physical health, interpersonal relationships and the onset of further mental health problems. Evidence from studies such as this found that females trying to conform to these norms either showed symptoms of, or had current eating disorders and deep issues around their body image (Green et al, 2008).
….So coming back to my earlier question – what happens if you are the athlete in an environment where these gender norms exist? Do you ignore those norms and live your life as you wish risking your social inclusion and acceptance of the team? Or do you conform to the group and the gender roles in place knowing that it will make you unhappy and may even affect your relationships with those you love and your own health?
Sadly although we understand that these gender norms are old-fashioned, out of date and a detriment to the athlete they do still exist and they are very powerful. Especially in the experience and fear of social stigma for those who wish to deviate and actually live their life as they please embracing their own norm as opposed to societies.
But how does that really impact on health and wellbeing longer term? Previous blogs by us describes the prevalence of mental health issues in sport generally, but also emerging from this literature is the relationship between gender roles and wellbeing. Good and Wood (1995) found that male athletes who felt the need to conform to gender roles appeared to hold negative attitudes towards support services because ‘real men’ have control over their emotions, are powerful and have a better self-reliance therefore there is no need to access support. This was also supported by the findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and a underutilisation of services within the male athletic population. Alongside these perceived gender roles, the athlete’s level of openness also has an impact on attitude formation and uptake of services. Generally speaking individuals who are more aware of their emotions and more open to the idea of counselling are more likely to access the support (Vogel et al 2007) but gender differences have also been found within levels of openness within the population. Women are found to have more favourable attitudes towards accessing mental health support than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Leaf, Bruce, Tischler, and Holzer, 1987). This is supported by Komiya, Good and Sherrod (2000) who also found that female athletes have a higher level of emotional openness, a more positive attitude towards mental health support therefore experience less self stigma and are more likely to access such support. Population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes.
Norms in society will take some time to change, but so long as media and the individuals in those sports teams continue to reinforce them they will never change and catch up with the real world! Female athletes can be both competitive and aggressive but remain beautiful and great nurturers at the same time; male athletes can be strong and successful without taking part in risky behaviours or being promiscuous.
The more these conflicts exist, the more we risk the wellbeing, health and performance of our athletes so let’s open our eyes to the changes in sport, society and the 21st century. Let’s embrace each athlete for who they are and rather than drag them in to the grey of the majority let’s push them and their individuality in to the limelight to celebrate their differences.

Attitudes towards counselling Services in Sport – does gender play a part?

Recently there has been another surge in media attention around the amount of individuals in performance sport with mental illnesses and the accessibility of counselling services due to more athletes and staff speaking out about their own battles with mental illness. The stigmas associated with seeking mental health support for those involved with sport has been well discussed and documented but how much does gender play a part in this? Is there a difference between how men and women feel about counselling services? Are certain populations more likely to access support?
Research in to counselling services and psychology support recognises that gender is a significant factor in how individuals perceive their need and use. A study which examined the attitudes towards male athletes who accessed mental health support reported that men were viewed more negatively than those who may have seen a sport psychologist for example, using terms such as ‘weak’ (Raalte et al, 1992). However when the study was repeated within a female athlete group there was no significant difference in attitudes towards others seeking mental health support (Brooks and Bull, 2001). This has also been supported by findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and an underutilisation of services within the male athletic population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes. Good and Wood (1995) focused a little more in depth on these gender roles and found that male athletes felt the need to conform to such roles and hold negative attitudes towards the services because ‘real men’ have control over their emotions, are powerful and have a better self reliance therefore there is no need to access support.
Alongside these perceived gender roles, the athlete’s level of openness also has an impact on attitude formation and uptake of services. Generally speaking individuals who are more aware of their emotions and more open to the idea of counselling are more likely to access the support (Vogel et al 2007) but gender differences have also been found within levels of openness within the population. Women are found to have more favourable attitudes towards accessing mental health support than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Leaf, Bruce, Tischler, and Holzer, 1987). This is supported by Komiya, Good and Sherrod (2000) who also found that female athletes have a higher level of emotional openness, a more positive attitude towards mental health support therefore experience less self stigma and are more likely to access such support.
What this research indicates is a clear difference in gender roles, how social stigmas affect males and females in different ways, and how there is an evidential backing of females being more open to access support services; whether that’s counselling or psychology in general. This means that for the professionals working in sport we need to be warm and welcoming and ensure any fears around such judgements are reassured and eradicated, but more importantly for the world of sport in general to ensure we keep working to tackle these stigmas, eliminate old fashioned gender stigmas which exist in sport and do more to encourage the uptake of relevant support for athletes.

Athlete Wellbeing

We hear the word ‘wellbeing’ being used more and more, but do we really understand what it is? How this relates to our athletes? I would hope that this blog provides a brief insight in to wellbeing and begin to broaden our perspective on the factors affecting athlete wellbeing at elite level.

  Wellbeing is a term more commonly used within discussions around general health and happiness. Bouchard and Shepherd (1994) describe it as ‘positive physical and emotional wellbeing with a high capacity of enjoying life and challenges, and possessing adequate coping strategies in the face of difficulties.’ Robertson and Cooper (2011) state that the term wellbeing is a combination of a good level of physical, social and psychological wellbeing’.

  On the most part wellbeing in sport seems more focused on psychological wellbeing however; there should be an acknowledgment of other factors that may impact over all wellbeing such as physical and social factors. In a diagram designed for the ‘Wellbeing’ Book by Robertson and Cooper called the ‘The Three Components of Wellbeing’ they attempt to demonstrate how these factors interlink. For example, ‘psychological wellbeing in the workplace’, in this instance professional sport we would expect a positive attitude, ability to handle stresses and feel a sense of purpose. The physical wellbeing at work would involve sleep and relaxation patterns, energy levels/fitness, smoking and alcohol reliance. Finally the social wellbeing aspect is having a positive and supportive network around the individual. They would argue that having these three positive avenues of wellbeing in place, individuals will have an overall positive wellbeing and be successful in their work places.

  Personality is an aspect of wellbeing which isn’t always acknowledged but some believe to be partly responsible for an individual’s level of happiness. The ‘Big Five’ personality factors are widely acknowledged as being 5 crucial aspects of personality; these include openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Personality factors are only partly inherited, but in studies conducted by Weiss et al (2008) they found how crucial genetic factors were for levels of personality and the impact personality factors had to individual wellbeing, i.e. low levels of neuroticism/emotional stability has a positive effect on wellbeing. Although predetermined by genetics, it is not necessarily defined for life as an individual’s behaviours, learning experiences and surrounding also have an impact on personality and wellbeing factors and so always room to improve wellbeing.

  Biddle et al (2002) also comment on the impact of exercise to wellbeing and how regular exercise can actually reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety and improve physical health. The Department of Health White Paper (DOH, 1999) targets mental health as an area of health to be improved – exercise being one of the key factors to help improve psychological wellbeing. Caspersen et al (1985) define exercise as ‘body movement produced by skeletal muscles and planned structured and repetitive bodily movements’. And whilst nationwide initiatives attempt to promote active lifestyles to improve wellbeing in the population many people associate exercise with being unpleasant and hard work, therefore are reluctant to engage. During much of the research surrounding wellbeing benefits from exercise it is worth noting that many studies involve and discuss exercise as low intensity, enjoyment based exercise as opposed to the intensity level and commitment required for elite sports people. Bouchard and Shepherd (1994) also acknowledge that exercise within competitive sport is not covered within the context of psychological wellbeing but more just the wider benefits of physical health in the community.  This is an interesting thought as it opens opportunity for studies to focus more on elite level sport and the impact this intensity of exercise has on athlete wellbeing.

 

  In summary, wellbeing is better known as being an umbrella term to cover social, physical and psychological health – with these three aspects closely linked to one another. Therefore, it is important for professionals involved with elite sport to understand that physical health (ie. Injuries/illness) may affect psychological health, social factors i.e. contract negotiations, moving clubs, or relationship difficulties can have a physical and psychological impact on the athlete and so on; as professionals we must open our minds to all facets of wellbeing in order to reach an appropriate diagnosis and to provide the best possible care for the athlete.

 

 

Perfectionism and its role in Athlete Wellbeing and Help Seeking

Perfectionism and its impact on wellbeing

Many believe that personality contributes to the way people perceive stigmas and their level of openness towards seeking psychological help (Miller, 2008).  Perfectionism is a facet of personality which may have both positive and negative consequences however; most research only focuses on its negative effects (Saunder, 2009). A broad definition of perfectionism is an ‘individual who displays a very high ambition for exceedingly high standards but also experiences harsh self-criticism’ (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990).

One might argue that in sport being a perfectionist is positive because of their desire to achieve, high motivation levels and always looking to improve or better performances (Saunder, 2009) However, it is because of those high standards; sometimes maybe unachievable standards, that they experience a lot of self criticism and low self esteem when targets aren’t met. Therefore research has found high co morbidity with mental health issues; typically depression, anxiety and eating disorders (Egan et al, 2010).

The difficulty with perfectionism is that it carries many admired characteristics as well as negative, Hill et al (2010). For example, the pursuit of high standards would be a very positive trait to carry particularly in sport where the focus is often on self improvement. However, on the other hand perfectionists also tend to have a preoccupation with harsh self criticism which may impact on wellbeing and therefore is associated with psychological imbalance (Hill et al, 2010)

Within sport the term ‘burnout’ is often used; in performance terms it would be characterised by experiencing physical and emotion fatigue, a reduction in their feeling of accomplishment and feeling undervalued (Raedeke and Smith, 2001). Raedeke and Smith also recognise the interplay between burnout and psychological effects, i.e. wellbeing; explaining that individuals at burnout stage may also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, with perfectionism being a key contributing factor. Jowett et al (2013) found that perfectionist athletes have a very high motivation and drive to succeed and avoidance style of coping. Therefore, seeking help or admitting they need support would lower self esteem and be an admission of weakness contributing to them trying even harder. In time, this potentially leading to burnout – or in this case, further mental health issues.

It is believed that certain personality traits are key contributing factors in the development of burnout and psychosocial distress experienced by athletes (Hill et al 2010). Hill goes on to explain that these personality factors can influence the athletes appraisal process and encourage a vulnerability to experience high levels of anxiety and pressure (Hall et al, 1998) Perfectionism for example can be associated with negative cognitions surrounding achievement and performance
therefore lead to further negative thoughts, increases in anxiety and decrease in wellbeing, what is interesting now is evidence suggesting that perfectionism may act as a predisposing factor to athletes developing burnout during their athletic career (Hill et al, 2008).

Perfectionism and its Role in Help Seeking

Alongside the role perfectionism appears to play in athlete wellbeing, it is also interesting to consider what role it may play in athletes then taking up additional support, or in this case, counselling.  Endler and Parker (1994) describe how there are two methods of coping, problem focused coping and avoidant coping. The two methods are set within the management of stress and attempt to explain the various ways individuals may perceive and effectively then manage their stress. Problem focused coping would be a more pragmatic and analytic approach where the cause of stress is identified followed by a series of steps of how to overcome, these are then practiced. So in effect this is an active coping approach.

Avoidant coping is exactly as it sounds, an individual who either acknowledges the stress exists and so is in denial, or loses interest or the motivation to combat it so they lower their efforts to overcome and simply allow the stress to take hold. Using these approaches to coping and it is interesting to link them back to perfectionism because how they interplay in an individual could be very different. On one hand there is the ‘problem focused’ person who may recognise they simply cannot manage alone and due to their perfectionist traits of self improvement and wanting to get better actively take up support. Or, the avoidant approach where although carrying the desire to improve the individual feels that the uptake of support is an admission of weakness therefore refuses to acknowledge the problem exists and may almost live in denial of the problem. What is interesting is that using the motivational factor of self improvement in perfectionist athletes we can see that there are still different approaches to how these individuals then choose to improve their situation and as with anything it is still up to that person whether or not they choose to engage in the help provided.

In terms of perfectionism and wellbeing, whilst for sport perfectionist traits are useful and desirable the constant striving for better and harsh self criticism when perfect performances aren’t obtained can have a real impact on physical health through over training and disordered eating and also psychological health of low self esteem and depression (Egan et al, 2006). As for the role of perfectionism and help seeking, what Endler and parker (1994) go on to explain is that is very much depends on the individual and the type of coping style they adopt. For some, perhaps those more open and self aware the use of an expert may be seen as a way of self improvement and reaching those goals, for another though it may be an admission of weakness and confirmation that they are struggling therefore an isolated and more self problem solving approach would be used (Endler and parker, 1994).

So, do you know your athletes? Are you able to identify which athletes have perfectionist traits? Do their perfectionist traits benefit or hinder them? Is support available and normalised so all athletes feel comfortable enough to access?

Empowerment within coaching

Empowerment? What is it?

 

Many coaches say they are familiar with the term empowerment, or are aware of strategies to implement empowerment, but what is it?

 

In 2001 Lynn Kidman published literature on ‘developing decision makers: an empowerment approach’ empowerment was defined as an athlete-centred approach which promotes a sense of belonging, as well as giving athletes a role in decision making and a shared approach to learning.

 

The definition focuses on the involvement of the athlete…..whether this be in the physical planning of the sessions or within the session. By the athlete being empowered it gives them the sense of responsibility, the athletes can feel their opinions are valued and it allows them to take responsibility of their performance development which can in turn create a greater amount of motivation Kidman (2001) describes it giving the athlete a ‘voice’.

 

However, from coaches’ perspectives if we can clearly see the benefits, is it always that easy to implement empowerment into the athletes?  Traditionally the coaching environment has been very prescriptive or autocratic environment, this is where the input of athlete’s opinions are often limited and the coach has complete control. Kimdan (2001) implies learning will be minimal if coaches always present knowledge and answers to their players.

 

However, if athletes have never been given power because the coach has always presented knowledge and answers to them then, the athletes may have an unwillingness to take this responsibility of power.

 

But contradicting this, the coaches role is crucial within the implementation of empowerment as their unwillingness to let pass on their power, coaches may feel that by not taking responsibility and not directly giving the athletes knowledge they are not doing their job, and that the ‘power’ of the coaches role is taken away from them.

 

At what age and level is empowerment applicable to be implemented? Jones (2001) suggests empowerment is not something that is just used at the middle ground of coaching, it is something that can be used at the elite level and with the beginner stage also with younger children.

 

For coaches that are resentful to implement empowerment, due to the worry of loosing their power, Jones (2004) increases confidence by suggesting power is given to the athlete’s but never taken. Which means that the coaches have the ability to control the situation and the measurement to how much power is delegated, for example within top level coaching, the coaches would give an illusion of empowerment, just enough to ensure their ‘buy in’ to the coach’s pre-set agenda.

 

However is the implementation of empowerment just for the elite level of coaching? Throughout current literature it suggest that empowering younger athletes is something that can be implemented into practice, but how many coaches who coach younger athletes (primary school) would attempt to empower these athletes. Some coaches may respond with ‘the athletes cannot take the responsibility’ ‘they are too young, to acknowledge this power’.

 

 

Nevertheless Thorpe and Bunker developed ‘The Games for understanding’ concept, which involved the implementation of simple small-sided games that allowed younger children to attain an understanding of tactical knowledge through participation and empowerment. Thorpe And bunker discovered an increase in motivation with achieving and affiliation, continued participation (which may be seen as the most vital outcome), deep rooted learning and lastly a feeling of accomplishment.

 

So therefore we can acknowledge that empowerment can be implemented at both ends of the performance scale, the elite and the younger (beginner) athletes. But of course as Jones (2001) states a coach empowering athletes at both ends of the scale will encounter different barriers, which will impact on the fundamentals of empowerment such as speed, method and means will vary on which athlete the coach faces. Furthermore Jones (2001) suggests if the coach attempts to implement empowerment that are not at the appropriate level will firstly struggle, and then potentially decrease in performance and significantly motivation. But what exactly is the ‘appropriate level’?  instead of this involving around the age of the athlete it should perhaps centre around the experience and intelligence of the player.

 

For a coach processing the implementation of empowerment into their practices for the first time Aral (1997) suggests these four stages to support the athletes in this process . (1) Becoming self aware, (2) connecting and learning (3) taking action/responsibility and lastly (4) Contribute to their own learning. The coach needs to remember, what level they are looking at, do they always have to be in control of their environment, there is no right or wrong way to implement this but a ‘good’ coach will recognise when elements of empowerment can be implemented. 

Life In The Fast Lane…Stressed!!!

Whether you are working full time, training full time or trying to do both; stress and burnout can be potential consequences of our own mismanagement! A certain amount of stress is healthy but often we are moving towards high level stress without even realising. Stress is like anything else, it builds up over time – whether that’s through a series of highly stressful events or a slow build up of smaller events which over time build to a point where it doesn’t feel manageable anymore and we want to break down.

Stress is a very normal response and everybody experiences stress at some point in their life. It is however very individual, so what appears stressful to one person may not be stressful to another. Whatever the trigger, you’ll find that it is those situations/events which seem out of the blue and are outside of our control which cause the most stress to us.

Whilst we can acknowledge that in certain situations some stress is inevitable, we can build our own resilience and make a stress plan! You may notice that the days you feel particularly tired and maybe haven’t slept so well you wake up and already it’s a bad day….from there even the small things seem to be getting to you. Feeling irritated, stressed, agitated, the day just builds and by the end of the day your mood is low, you feel stressed, irritated and drained!

So how do we build our resilience to stress? Well firstly, making sure we sleep and are resting enough is a good place to start! Sleep is absolutely crucial for physical health, but also psychological wellbeing. By ensuring we get enough rest we know that we have prepared both body and mind for the day ahead! This being said it may be useful to re-evaluate your sleeping hours and quality and look to improve this aspect.

Secondly planning ahead! It sounds simple, but quite often we are stressed by the things which we haven’t prepared for, that feeling of constantly rushing around, or something taking us by surprise…if we plan our time, activities, tasks and goals in advance, we naturally have to prioritise our time and decide on the methods to achieve those targets. This structure and organisation gives us some of the control back and eliminates some of the potential stressors.

Finally there is one more area that is absolutely crucial. Often when we are feeling stressed whether through traumatic/stressful events, or just a really busy few weeks, one thing which we tend not to prioritise and fit in is…..ourselves! On our list of priorities during these stressful periods we place our own needs last! We rush to finish that last piece of work, or make sure we’ve kept everybody happy whilst neglecting ourselves, but when is it time to look after us?

Our own needs are essential, we have to listen to them and pay attention because it has so many positive effects! Fulfilling our needs, whether through just taking time out to have a hot bath, building in an hour to do that hobby you have, or making time to have a coffee with a friend! It allows us to enjoy ourselves, have some time out, relax a little and do what keeps us happy. This not only reduces stress but supports a more positive frame of reference so we’ll actually become more productive and efficient afterwards!

To leave you with a final thought – stress is a normal physical response but by looking after own needs through building in time for us, ensuring we sleep well and finally have good time management skills we can drastically reduce the stress in our lives and be a lot happier in our self!

Contact us at Mind In Sport for more information, support and guidance around stress and stress management.

Negative Coping: Emotional Eating

This month Wales launched their ‘Live Longer Wales’ series discussing key areas of wellbeing and health amongst the Welsh population. Tonight the episode is all about obesity,click to view the link to the episode here;
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/bigscreen/tv/episode/b03cc2p1/Live_Longer_Wales
  This has all come about because of the demands on the NHS within Wales to provide health care where many issues may be weight related.

The Welsh Health Minister has recently said ‘The NHS should not be there to “pick up the pieces” after people fall ill because of their lifestyle choices’ so clearly the solution is within the statement…it’s our choices and lifestyle that need to be addressed!

So who’s responsibility is it? And where do we start? Well, ultimately we are in control of our own lives, our thoughts and choices but getting to stage where we are educated and self aware is sometimes a little tricky especially when we are running on habit and autopilot!

Lifestyle management is a key issue for physical health but also our own mental wellbeing! When we are busy, tired, stressed, rushing we tend to opt for convenience – usually this means negative coping strategies!

Negative coping strategies in this respect may involve relying on that glass of wine to unwind at the end of a long day, skipping our exercise regime to watch the latest tv show or stopping off at that fast food place because it’s easier, but is this the right thing to do? Are we actually happy living these lifestyles?
What would you want to work towards? What would you want your lifestyle to look like?

Whatever that looks like it is well within your reach!!!

Often the first step is to understand our own habits and reliance on those habits! Sticking with the concept of food and diet…quite often we eat either what is convenient, or what makes us feel good! These are usually the indulgences we really shouldn’t rely on but just can’t help reaching for!
Of course there’s nothing wrong with the odd indulgence but it’s when that becomes the habit we may have crossed in to negative coping!

Take a moment and think about how you feel when you select a meal option, is it for the convenience aspect? The feeling of having something naughty that you shouldn’t really be eating? Because you feel good after eating that meal?

Here at Mind In Sport we can help individuals develop self awareness and an understanding of their own habits and choices. Working together we can help you build more positive and healthy choices and lifestyles to not only improve you’re physical but psychological health!

Contact us for easy, simple and confidential advice. We are always here to help!!

How as coaches do we care for our athletes? Caring Agenda

How as coaches do we care for our athletes?  Caring Agenda

 

How do coaches care for the their athletes?

 

It can be argued that by coaches spending numerous hours before and after training practices or matches, planning and organizing the team that this demonstrates care for their athletes? But is this enough?

 

Jones, Armour and Potrac (2004) found that the elite level coaches invest high amounts of time and energy into their work, whilst carrying out their duties in a committed, caring and conscientious manor, this can be related to all coaches at all levels, but isn’t this what is expected of coaches, and if so does this mean by doing this they are caring for athletes at all times.

 

Jones (2009) also suggests caring occurs through connections and relationships and within these relationships caring can consist of dialogue and confirmation; dialogue can be seen as talking, listening and responding whereas confirmation entails encouraging the athletes. However, these elements of caring that Jones (2009) suggest seem to be commonplace in the coaching environment, and again are something that would be anticipated from a coach.

 

So what is this caring? Noddings (1992) suggest caring is about building a relationship between the carer and the cared for (coach and the athlete) taking time outside of the session to build upon a relationship. However is this as simple as this may see, Noddings (2003) wrote “to create a climate where it is likely that attempts at caring will be well received, the cared-for must feel that the one-caring has regard for him or her” this would imply that the athlete being cared for must actually feel like the coach is genuinely interested in them the athlete.

 

 

Agne (1988) provides an insight into the types of characteristics that a caring coach might exhibit,  ‘Caring is the orientation of those who tend to express a high sense of self-efficacy and who internal in their locus of control. These people who care depend on their own initiatives to solve problems in these efforts, rather than to mainly rely upon others. Caring coaches are less inclined to blame other for failure in these initiatives or to blame factors outside of themselves or their control.

 

Furthermore Tarlow (1996) developed a number of characteristics associated with caring. These were time, sensitivity, empowerment and dialogue, Tarlow points out that it does not matter if the dialogue given to the athletes is confrontational or empathetic, but what is important is the relationship in which this confrontation is in i.e a good coach athlete relationship. This can be related to coaches at the elite end of sport.

 

When thinking about caring the trouble most of us as coaches have is that we already think we care, which can be linked back to Jones, Armour and Potrac (2004) which suggested caring is investing high levels of time and energy into their work which is what every coach automatically does. However the issue we have as coaches, is what we actually care about, and the consequence this may possibly have on the athletes we coach.

 

Jones’s previous work drawed upon the distinction between caring about and for athletes, Certainly in many instances coaches seem to care about their athletes but to care for them implies a deeper level of involvement, it implies an engagement in the athletes welfare and development.

Caring can be given a social stigma as something that is soft or fluffy, it can be seen as something that is very one-dimensional and can lack real meaning, however it can be seen as something that is essential in building upon a coach-athelte relationship which can encourage the self confidence of an athlete.

Noddings (1992) proposed three key areas that can influence caring within the coaching practice, caring for and caring about, the relationship between carer and cared for and lastly cares and burdens.

 

Caring for and about an athlete are commonly what most coaches can relate to, as coaches do care ‘about’ the athlete and example of this would be the coach caring for the success of the team or that the athletes have an enjoyable experience, but this is not directly caring for the athletes, caring for the athletes can be characterized by action based attention to detail which focuses on the individual needs of the cared for (athlete)

 

However there are cultural barriers that face caring. Within specific sporting environments it is not always acceptable to care, this could be in a hyper-macho situation i.e international standard of coaching, but this raises the questions of caring covertly, caring doesn’t have to be as mentioned early a fluffy soft act, But a clear action.

 

Gilbourne and Richardson, 2006 describe how caring can be demonstrating within a football environment. “These people (coaches) possessed empathic, compassionate and altruistic qualities. These attributes appear to work effectively in soccer settings when they are contained within behavioural norms that constitute a culturally acceptable ‘way of being’. These thoughts should be expanded on a little. Soccer is often an abrasive setting, consequently the caring qualities, outlined above, often manifest covertly through ‘action’ rather than overtly via a demonstrably tender disposition.”

 

When looking at caring in your coaching environment, think about each individual athlete and how you could better demonstrate care, and do you as a coach act differently to those who you do not favor as much as other athletes.  

 

Sport – Protection from harm or a Source of Pressure?

Our athletes; individuals conditioned to their absolute physical peak and competing at the very highest level. As spectators and support staff the focus has often been on the physical attributes of our athletes, its only more recently that the focus has shifted to the psychological factors affecting performance. But are we still missing something? These approaches still assume that athletes are simply that; athletes. Maybe now the focus needs to shift once more to recognise that athletes are human beings, vulnerable to the same life pressures, susceptible to the same emotional problems and in some cases additional pressures to the rest of the population.

There have been many campaigns for improving  mental health and tackling the stigmas associated with seeking support such as ‘Time To Change’ and ‘It’s Time to Talk’,   with a focus on getting people active and using exercise as a vehicle to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But what about those who are already very active? Such as our elite athletes…

In sport many athletes, coaches and people involved take on the ‘no pain no gain’ attitude which creates a stigma around accessing support and the assumption that athletes are ‘mentally tough’ (Coakley, 2004). It seems ironic that a culture of mentally ‘tough ‘athletes has been created yet research suggests that athletes experience mental health issues like anybody else and could even be more susceptible to these issues during their lifetime than non athletes (Maniar et al., 2001, Martin, 2005; Martin et al., 2001; Watson, 2005).

One wonders whether the focus on physiology and performance amongst staff and athletes in sport may have an impact on the athletes’ own level of self awareness and recognition of psychological issues when it is reinforced as something very separate. Gulliver, Griffiths and Christensen (2012) recognise the vulnerabilities athletes have by stating that although adolescents generally fall within a high risk group for experiencing mental illnesses, elite athletes also fall within this group because of the physical and psychological demands placed upon them. During a study with College athletes in the United States, 21.4% of athletes self reported clinical symptoms of depression (Yang et al, 2007). This raises the question of how many athletes actually experience significant symptoms of depression because research suggests a limited uptake and awareness of symptoms, suggesting that the prevalence rate is actually significantly higher than 21.4%.

Research shows that there are a number of factors involved with elite sport which increase vulnerability to mental illness such as sport related stress, injury, living away from  home and high levels of risky behaviours i.e. alcohol consumption. (Reagen et al, 2007).  In performance sport in order to achieve high standards we expect athletes to commit to programmes at a young age; by their teens they are already on performance pathways, travelling away, in some cases living away from home and frequently exposed to the harsh world of ‘Performance’ sport at an age where they are still developing.

Once athletes reach this level of sport they may notice teammates, coaches and the public expecting results and excellent performances, not just once, but consistently. These external sources of pressure run alongside those already felt by the athlete. Research shows perfectionism to be a common trait of athletes with their own preoccupation of achieving high standards and continuous self improvement. Those that cannot meet their own standards may even link their self esteem and confidence to how they perform…this makes you wonder firstly whether we are doing enough to support individuals with their own pressures, and secondly whether we do enough to alleviate the pressures placed upon them?

Aside from the social pressures involved there are the physical factors such as injuries during athletic careers and head injuries which can play a role in the formation of depressed mood states (Jorge et al, 2004). During any athletes career one thing that seems almost inevitable is the occurrence of injury – minor or very serious, injuries occur. If somebody building a career around their sport experiences injury how does this affect their motivation levels, their self worth, and their level of positivity? Do these individuals start looking for other means to ‘cope’ or meet that adrenalin rush they have from competing? Do they lose their identity? Risky behaviours such as alcohol consumption, drug taking and gambling are all common and for some the starting point of a very quick downward spiral.  We also know that head injuries can be a contributing factor to the development of mood disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, so again, is this something we monitor? Are we even aware of this ‘on the ground’ when working closely with our athletes?

All of the areas discussed today are very brief and only a small sample of the pressures our athletes experience. The purpose of today’s blog is to widen our thinking to realising that maybe athletes aren’t quite so ‘tough’, maybe they aren’t just ‘machines’ who perform on cue. Maybe athletes are just like everybody else where they also need to be seen and treated as human beings. Ultimately these very special people also need a different kind of support because of the very unique set of pressures they deal with on a daily basis.

Now there is more coverage in the media on mental illness prevalence in sports, why not all follow suit and promote this even more? There is support available and one by one athletes are beginning to speak up and access this support, but we need more of it!  More support is needed for health promotion amongst athletes and the treatment of mental illness but more importantly more work needs to be done around normalising this whole topic –

and that can only come from us!

Mental Toughness: Can it be developed

Picture this, for any sporting fanatic, over recent years there have been a number of dates in the calendar that would have been pencilled in and dedicated to sport. These could include the 2010 Football World cup final, 2011 Rugby World cup final, and more recently the 2012 Olympics in London, and within The Olympics the 4th August (Men’s Rowing four’s final).

For anyone watching each final, the first few seconds after the final whistle or finishing line would notice one significant difference between the athletes. Both New Zealand and Spain were ecstatic as they had just won their respective World Cup finals, picture back to images pure ecstasy. Contrary to this, the four rowers who won gold at the finish line couldn’t even turn and congratulate each other, complete exhaustion. They had the capability to push themselves to complete exhaustion for success; to be able to do this must require psychological characteristics of mental toughness.

To be successful in sport, coaches need to understand how to provide the correct sporting environment to promote performance. Coaches and athletes alike understand the importance of the mental side to sports coaching. Scholars from society’s such as International Society of Sport Psychology (ISSP) and the Association of for the advancement of Applied Sport Ppsychology (AAASP) till this day are still researching for the optimal environment or behaviour in which an athlete or sports team can be at their optimal levels of performance. (Murphy, Shane, & Dawsonera, (2004).

As well as once finding the right environment, researchers are exploring how coaches peruse training practices to create this ‘right’ environment in different sports teams, furthermore the possibility of coaching to create a certain characteristic within a performer that produces this optimal level of performance. As Weinberg, Butt, and Culp (2011) have suggested, “The interest in reaching one’s potential in sport from a mental perspective has more recently spurred research” (p. 156).

“Regardless of the level of training and competition over a few years, most athletes and crews are making a similar physical investment.” The question that then arises from this statement is what determines which crew will get to the finish line first. As Secher and Volianitis (2007) suggested one important factor could be ‘mental toughness’. This characteristic was seen key to Eric Lamontagne of Plant High Rowing Association stated in an internet article that “Rowing is 80% mental” “If you think you can do it, in rowing you can”.

Rowing is both anaerobic and an aerobic event , The Olympic final was a 2000m race Saporito (2012) describes it as the opening 250m is a flat-out sprint (anaerobic), the middle 1500m is aerobic, as the athletes nears the finish line, the acid levels will peak at about 20 millimoles per 100 ml of blood. Saporito (2012) states this is when the painfest begins “When you get to 20, you are in never-never land,” “You wish you were dead, and you are afraid you won’t be.”

Goldberg (2012) asked the question ‘What does it take for you to reach your potential as an athlete and as rower?’ His answer to this question supports the concept that elements of success in rowing can be down the mental capability to endure pain. “The true challenge in rowing and other endurance sports is the competition between you and the race course, you and the clock, but primarily between you and your mind. Success in rowing is all about your mental ability to handle the pain and fatigue of oxygen debt, about your ability to master the limits that you think you have”.

Furthermore previous research into mental toughness suggests it can be developed, Crust and Clough (2011) indicate that mental toughness is seen as an essential psychological characteristic to be successful within sport, they also indicate that it can be developed.

If Mental toughness can be developed, how do coaches develop this?