Deliberate Practice Theory tells us everything we need to know about how a novice athlete becomes an expert athlete

In past years many researchers have focused on the processes that make it possible for an individual to become an “expert” in certain domains such as science, medicine, music, sport, and art (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). For example, Galton (1896) first attempted to focus on the notion that individuals had an “innate natural ability” and believed that many “experts” were biologically similar. However, the chosen topic has since been the cornerstone of a great and lengthy debate with numerous researchers dismissing Galton’s theory (Bridge & Toms, 2013). Furthermore, Watson (1930), a major contributor within the field of behavioural psychology, also dismissed Galton’s claim by famously stating:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents” .

Who and What is an Expert?

Throughout sporting literature there have been many definitions for the term “expert” which, in order to gain a true understanding, is beneficial. On the other hand, it also results in inconsistencies throughout literature in terms of producing a solid definition. Numerous papers have considered international athletes to be expert performers (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). Although, others have only considered World Champions and Olympians as experts in their chosen sports (Law et al., 2007). In order to know who is an expert performer, it is important to know what an expert performance is.

Again, there are a number of researchers that claim to have defined ‘expert performance’; however, Ericsson’s et al. (2007) definition is sufficient. Ericsson et al. indicated that true expert performance can involve three significant aspects: (1) Expertise should lead to consistently superior performance over that of other experts. (2) True expertise should generate “concrete results”. (3) Expertise can be simulated and measured in a laboratory.

Deliberate Practice Framework

The framework for deliberate practice was a developmental model which was based upon learning effectiveness and as a result, Ericsson et al. (1993) introduced deliberate practice as a major influence on an expert’s development. Ericsson et al. pioneered a study that focused upon the area of expertise. Within the study, the practice record of expert and non-expert violinists and pianists were compared. It was hypothesised that the level of performance generated by the musicians would have direct correlation to the hours spent partaking in deliberate practice. To note, at this point deliberate practice was acknowledged to be an activity that performers are involved in for the sole reason of improving specific skills and abilities that contribute towards performance. The results of Ericsson’s et al. study significantly supported their hypothesis. In line with Simon and Chase (1973), expert musicians were found to have engaged in considerably more practice time (10,000 hours by the age of 20) than non-expert musicians (5,000 hours by the age of 20). However, Ericsson et al. established a difference to Simon and Chase’s findings, in that not only did the expert musicians practice for more hours; but they also participated in a specific and purposeful type of practice, so named deliberate practice. Ericsson et al., also indicated that the activity the expert performer participated in required sizeable effort and concentration (Baker et al., 2005), and were said not to be naturally enjoyable. On a significantly positive note, research within the sporting domain argued this point by stating that many of the aspects of deliberate practice were, in fact, enjoyable (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). The literature provided directly shows support for the deliberate practice framework by providing evidence of a relationship between deliberate practice and performance. Ericsson et al. confirmed the theoretical framework was established.

Since establishing the original deliberate practice framework, many researchers have supported the relationship between deliberate practice and expert performance and has been done so in numerous specialist areas including: wrestling (Hodges & Starkes, 1996), ultra-endurance triathlon (Baker et al., 2005), chess (Charness et al., 2005), long-distance running (Wallingford, 1975), and even in areas such as teaching (Dunn & Shriner, 1999) and medicine (Ericsson, 2004). The deliberate practice framework was first introduced into sport by Hodges and Starkes (1996) with their interest in wrestling expertise. The study followed the methodology of Ericsson’s et al. (1993) in terms of comparing the practice history of international level and club level wrestlers. They concluded that the expert group engaged in lengthier quantities of deliberate practice compared to the non-expert group. These findings further support and validate the deliberate practice framework in its entirety. Although, another significant factor emerged that had previously been dismissed, which was that the expert wrestlers dramatically increased their practice hours earlier within their career as opposed to the non-expert wrestlers who did not (Hodges & Starkes, 1996).

More recently, the theory has since achieved a extensive level of support with Kaufman (2007) stating; “The expert performance approach championed by Ericsson et al. provides a scientific way forward for research on giftedness, and offers exciting new ways to further our understanding of the determinants of high ability within a particular domain of expertise”. Equally, the research has been criticised with Winner (2000) explaining that “Ericsson’s research demonstrated the importance of hard work but did not rule out the role of innate ability”. However, due to the framework being loosely developed from Galton’s (1896) “natural ability” theory it would be un-ideal to dismiss this claim entirely. In order to explore natural ability, this would lead into a different approach entirely and possibly even a different area of profession. In contrast, it was explained that when including individual differences within performance, deliberate practice is a necessary factor (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011).

Although Ericsson et al. (1993) suggested that individuals who specialise earlier in their life gain a considerable improvement compared to those who do not, they did not find it a necessary aspect of the framework. Since then, however, the aspect of early specialisation has been deemed a contributor within the framework and suggests that individuals who specialise at a later point in their life are unlikely to surpass the performance levels of those who specialise at an earlier stage (Williams & Ford, 2008).

Due to the research in early specialisation, this has created a belief that in order to become an expert in any domain it is vital to specialise in the deliberate practice needed to become expert in that domain as early as possible. The concept of early specialisation has been subjected to harsh disapproval by numerous researchers in the sporting domain, explaining that early specialisation can lead to many negative consequences. Negative consequences such as significantly increased injury risk (Law et al., 2007), eating disorders (Anshel, 2004), burnout, and dropout (Gould et al., 1996) in young athletes. However, further research has contradicted these claims by stating that the population of athletes who experienced these negative consequences was insufficient compared to athletes who benefitted from early specialisation without any consequences, and thus was suggested that it cannot be significant in predicting future actions (Ericsson, 2013).

The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP)

With these criticisms in mind, another model was developed from and concurrent with the deliberate practice framework. Cote and colleagues (Cote, 1999) highlighted the importance of early specialisation and produced The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP). The DMSP is a theoretical framework that combines the athlete alongside their environment. It has also produced additional developmental pathways which include a path for athletes who do not become expert but continue to participate therefore resulting in recreational athletes. With further addition, an early specialisation path was also included, which acknowledges the deliberate practice theory. Recent investigation studies (Bruner et al., 2009) highlighted that the DMSP is the foremost conceptualisation of athlete development in the sporting literature.

To start, Cote conducted a qualitative assessment of four elite athletes, including their families. Derived from the results, he then introduced three chronological stages (years) of talent development with some major alterations. The stages introduced by Cote included the aspects of deliberate play and deliberate practice, are specific to sporting domains, and set a time span from early childhood to late adolescence, in turn drastically increasing the importance of youth development. The stages introduced by Cote were the sampling, specialisation, and investment years. Firstly, the sampling years were suggested to have occurred between the ages of six and thirteen, following the Critical Stages of Talent Development, the first stage was playful activities by nature. However, he discovered that these playful activities integrated into multiple sports. In addition, the presence of deliberate play; which is an aspect defined by Cote et al. (2009) as participating in sport for their own sake, is enjoyable and does not require adult involvement. Secondly, the specialisation years occur between the ages of thirteen and fifteen (Cote et al., 2012). Athletes at this stage were suggested to be focused on only one or two sports and they are involved in frequent and structured deliberate practice. Finally, the investment years are suggested to occur from the age of fifteen and onwards. At this stage the athletes are involved in substantial amounts of deliberate practice, along with offering a considerable amount of time and effort to this stage.

Application

The Deliberate Practice Framework and the DMSP combined can be offered as an explanation for the development of expert performers in multiple sporting domains. Future research using the relevant developmental pathways as a channel may be able to inform and applied to practices and policies within sporting programmes and National Governing Bodies. Further investigation into the developmental history of athletes will highlight vital information about the ideal conditions for learning and practice. Therefore, coaching staff, trainers and parents may be able to utilise this information in order to direct the athlete/performer to take full advantage of their development potential.

How Useful is Your Gut?

When presented with a choice, many people may experience a ‘gut feeling’, and it is at this point whether we choose to follow that feeling or make a logical decision using our brain. Many of us will choose to utilise the power of our brain and take the logical route, and why not? Why should we let our gut make important decisions for us? Where does this feeling even come from? Furthermore, what are we actually experiencing when we get this feeling?

What if I were to tell you that we all have, what scientists have nicknamed, a ‘second brain’ in our gut? Yes, we all have masses of neural tissue filled with important neurotransmitters embedded within the lining of our intestines. Technically, this ‘second brain’ is known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), and astonishingly it contains some 100 million neurons, which is more than the Peripheral Nervous System and the spinal cord. The ENS can control gut behaviour independently of the brain. Simply, the gut has its own senses and reflexes.

These neurons found in the gut communicate with the brain via the Vagus Nerve (VN) and the brain can also send signals back to the gut, creating a feedback loop. The VN is the longest out of 12 cranial nerves. It extends from the brainstem and all the way down to the abdomen, via many of the major organs including the heart and lungs. Interestingly, 90 percent of the fibres in the VN were found to carry information from the gut to the brain and not the other way around.

Why does our gut need to communicate with our brain? Our second brain informs our state of mind in other more obscure ways. For example, feeling butterflies in the stomach is signalling that we are under physiological stress (all to do with our flight or fight response) and these feelings start in the gut only to tell our brain, not the other way around. Another example, stomach pains seem to affect one’s mood, everyday emotional well-being may rely on messages from the gut to the brain above. Furthermore, electrical stimulation of the VN, noted as a useful treatment for depression, may be able to mimic these signals and therefore taking a step forward in mood disorder treatments.

While on the subject of depression treatments, depression medicine developed to target the brain may unintentionally impact the gut. The ENS uses more than 30 neurotransmitters, just like the brain, and approximately 90 percent of the body’s serotonin is found to be in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for maintaining mood balance and social behaviour. Not only does our gut digest food, but it also plays a vital role in the maintenance of our moods, emotions and social interactions.

Many believe that rational decisions cannot be made if emotions are involved, but emotion and reason are actually deeply interrelated. If you are going to make a rational decision, you need to have first done prior accurate emotional processing. If you have done such processing, then your emotions can accelerate your decision making in the form of intuitions, hunches and gut feelings. Basically, when presented with a choice, difficult decision, or a hostile situation, and although we may not consciously remember, our brain would have stored these memories on our behalf without our knowledge. In the future, when we are presented with the same or similar situations, our gut has the capacity to tap into our brain’s memory bank (via the VN) and utilise these past experiences and make us feel drawn to a certain answer. So, technically going with our gut feeling is not guess work, but rather unconscious processing.

To sum up:

  • We have a second brain in our gut
  • Our ‘gut brain’ communicates with our primary brain via the Vagus Nerve
  • Majority of information is transferred from the gut to the brain, not the other way around
  • The gut has the ability to control moods, emotions and social behaviours
  • Emotion and reason are interrelated
  • The gut can access the brain’s memory bank and use past experiences to signal us for a preferred situation, without us knowing

I would argue our gut is very useful indeed.

Depression in Sport

As we commemorate the 3 year anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, we are reminded of the stark realities associated with depression. Whilst football still has a long way to go before tackling the stigma of mental health issues, the untimely death of Speed has brought about active change in tackling one of football’s biggest taboo subjects. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a fluctuation in footballers openly sharing their battle with depression; Lee Hendrie (former Aston Villa midfielder), Leon MacKenzie (former Norwich striker), Stan Collymore (former Liverpool striker), Paul Gascoigne (former England midfielder), Neil Lennon (Celtic FC manager). The Daily Telegraph reported that over a quarter of footballers suffer from depression, with ex-professionals forming the majority of that statistic. Sporting Chance clinic received phone calls from 10 footballers after the death of Gary Speed.

However, depression is not just a football-centric phenomenon. Sportsmen and women are perceived to be placed on a pedestal, immune from the grips of depression, however, they too are humans and victims to this oppressive mental health issue. Countless athletes have battled and continue to battle their way through depression; Dame Kelly Holmes, Iwan Thomas, Freddie Flintoff, Markus Trescothick, Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe to name a few.

So what factors contribute to depression in professional athletes?

Whilst exercise is commonly associated with the release of positive endorphins in to the system, the conventions of professional sport can be detrimental to the human mind. Confinements of victory and defeat, the bitterness of injury, the pressure to retain/regain position on the team, concerns over ability to perform, internal/external pressures and sacrifices, and the relentless spotlight of the media can very often lead to a breaking point in mental resilience.

As previously mentioned, former professional athletes are increasingly predisposed to suffering with depression. This can be the outcome from a variety of factors; extreme change in environment (from adrenaline fuelled competition to an empty void and loss of routine), loss of identity, cessation of elite demands, and biological factors (significant decrease in serotonin levels).

Tackling depression in sport.

The death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 after losing his battle against depression, sparked the creation of the Robert Enke Foundation, which provides 24 hour support to players who are experiencing mental health issues. Not only this, the PFA released a 36 page document about depression to ex-footballers after the death of Gary Speed in order to provide additional support and advice.

Other forms of support can be found in a variety of places. Utilizing your expertise in your sporting area, such as coaching and a supervisory role can help to alleviate an onset of depression. Consulting a sport psychologist is also a very good and specific route to apply techniques (check out our website to see a range of services that we can offer you; www.mindinsport.com ).

At this point, it would seem apt to quote comedian Jason Manford as he commemorated Robin Williams, in saying “The world needs you even if you don’t think it does. I promise, we need you here, now.”

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90

An athlete’s story: Clean eating and intense training– where do we draw the line?

I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …

Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?

I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!

Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…

Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.

What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!

In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….

Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.

Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…

Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.

So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.

For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!

I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…

There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;

  1. Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
  2. You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?

Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!

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.