Retiring from sport. Finding your way when others won’t let you

So it’s now been a year since I returned from Glasgow after fulfilling a career goal of competing at the commonwealth games representing team Wales. It’s also now just over 6 months since I retired from Welsh netball and Celtic dragons and it’s been an interesting period of adjustment, re-evaluating and reflecting.

So what have I learnt? I have had a number of interesting responses from people most of which I took as being part and parcel of retiring but it is only now I have had some distance from the sport I look back and realise that actually, many of these comments may have a negative impact to others during their retirement. After that amount of uninterrupted years in the sport I was not only thankful for the journey and experiences I’d had, but in the latter part of my career also left craving normality. I really craved being able to take up opportunities and explore other areas of my life. I had spent so many hours of my life on court, at the gym, shooting, travelling, at squad training, in camp etc. all of those hours meant sacrifices made along the way were the norm.

But what if I was ready to leave that behind and wasn’t as prepared to that anymore? I had amazing experiences through my netball career but I was missing out on precious time with friends and family, I wasn’t being fair to myself by exploring hobbies and other interests I had and had to push aside, and I wasn’t able to focus entirely on my company. But when I retired, for the first time ever I found myself able to do all of those things and not worry.

Interestingly though the responses I had on retiring were things such as;
‘so what are going to do with yourself now?’
‘What will you do instead?’
‘What’s the next thing?’
‘You’re going to miss it terribly, you’ll be back’
‘what are going to do with all of these hours you have back?’
‘Should you be eating that?’
‘Didn’t think you would be eating that?’
‘Having a few days off are we?’
All possibly said out of politeness or interest but actually contain tones of expectation, criticism, pressure and sarcasm!

My response? Well where do I start; possibly the commitment I had made to the sport since the age of 13? Are people really saying that I shouldn’t change my lifestyle and enjoy things now, post training? Do I really have to do something else with my time or can I just enjoy where I’m at like everyone else? What is it about me, or any other athlete who has retired that makes people think there must be something after? Maybe there is, but maybe there isn’t. Maybe we all just want to enjoy and appreciate what was done in the past and just enjoy things as they are now.

For years I have lived by the book from a sports performance perspective but it was done because it was part of performance. I didn’t always enjoy it, I didn’t always want to be that way and at times would have loved to ‘veg’ out, have a binge, not do anything but I didn’t…
Now that’s not to say that these things have massively changed however, it is so good to have total control and say over what I do without having to worry. Without having to consider netball, training etc. as a consequence.

I’ve realised that people are so used of me being ‘Cara the netball player’ that there’s an expectation now that whatever standards I had in place now continue.  It is one thing to readjust and become ‘Cara’ but to do that whilst having those expectations still in place is another thing altogether!

I personally feel that I have adjusted really well and that has a lot to do with the support I have around me, knowing I made the right decision and that decision being made on my own terms, but also because netball was something I love but I always knew my career and company would take over the sole focus.  But for others it may not be so easy, we all hear about so many athletes who since retiring have found it really difficult to adjust in to their new lives and whilst this has a lot to do with the individual I genuinely believe that those around the athlete, the expectations of others and social norms make it all the more difficult.

Going back to those questions and statements I mentioned earlier, I genuinely believe that they made it much harder for me to adjust and put the pressure on how I live, they made it harder for me to find a balance because whenever I felt doing nothing I felt guilty, whenever I felt like eating and drinking what I liked I felt that it wasn’t appropriate behaviour and somehow was letting myself down. But I realise this is nothing to do with my own beliefs, it’s others!

I think that people need to realise that when you perform to a high level in sport it is a choice, but one which takes up time to your life so when you stop you don’t suddenly have an abundance of time which needs to be filled, it’s there to enjoy, to relax, maybe do something else but it doesn’t have to be to the extreme again. Similarly, if those around us can eat and drink what they like and have days off from training, why can’t the rest of us? If we have spent ‘x’ amount of time training on a programme we may not want to do anything for a while, but that’s not a bad thing, it may actually be a really good thing. I guess the point I am making is that an individual’s journey and transition out of sport in to retirement is very personal and one which must be dictated by the individual because it’s their journey.

For those around them, support in whatever way that you can but be mindful that how you discuss life after sport may be misinterpreted so step carefully, be supportive and positive and help guide them to where they want to be without holding them back in the ‘athlete role’.

So my story in to retirement? I can look back and appreciate everything I achieved and I am very proud of that. But for me, I am enjoying having a balance, concentrating on building my company, spending time trying new things and taking up activities I enjoyed as a child, spending time with my partner friends and family but most of all, I’m enjoying finally being me!

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Mind in Snooker, My Story Part 3

After months of abusing my body with junk food, I decided that enough was enough. In order to combat my eating disorder, my initial objective was to solve the root of the problem… snooker. I had to ask myself why I was allowing snooker dictate my emotions, and the answer was simple. I wasn’t achieving what I knew I was capable of.
In hindsight, I was too lackadaisical, I had no structure to follow or goals to motivate me, I was simply hitting balls around a table.
Consequently, I decided to set myself targets for the upcoming season accompanied by a reward based system to keep me motivated. Having specific targets has made me feel like I am playing for a purpose, a feeling which has been redundant for some time.
Since target setting, my eating habits have been controlled significantly. I have substituted junk food with exercise as a tool to handle my emotions. Exercise is a brilliant form of escapism which gives me the same endorphin comfort eating once did, but with a feeling of achievement rather than disappointment afterwards.
Changing my thought process about snooker has made a positive impact on my performance and life in general. I am no longer using junk food as a comforter, which means I am happier, healthier and financially better off.
All in all, I feel like I am in a good place mentally and I am looking forward to the start of the 2015/16 season. I am working hard everyday to eradicate errors on and off the table, hopefully this will be a season to remember.

The Mind In Snooker – Part 2

I used to be very conscious about my health prior to using food as a comforter, I would exercise daily and monitor everything I consumed. However, within a matter of weeks I went from being a fitness fanatic to having an addiction to junk food and I firmly believe that snooker was the primary reason for this.

Have you ever found comfort in something because there is something that you want so badly but you can’t have it? That’s the feeling I was having on a daily basis. Although I was doing something that I loved, I wasn’t content with the standard I was playing to. This resulted in me finding comfort in something away from snooker and junk food gave me the endorphin I needed. Comfort eating was a form of escapism that I couldn’t find anywhere else, it was a fixation that helped me to relieve anxiety caused by the feeling of not being good enough.

Eating made me feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered my comfort eating were still present afterwards… except they were made much worse now I had consumed unnecessary calories. I was gaining weight rapidly and losing my confidence in the meantime… I was simply punishing myself!

In my mind I would say to myself ‘it doesn’t matter about today, I’ll start a fresh tomorrow’, I was waiting over a year for ‘tomorrow’ to happen.

The Mind In Snooker – Part 1

If anybody reading this article before has ever played snooker, you will know how mentally challenging the game can be. Watching the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan make the game look so easy on television is a false representation of how difficulty snooker really is, both on and off the table.
I have been playing snooker since the age of 12 and I have recently decided to play full time in order to give myself the greatest chance of competing at the highest level. However, I have self-admittedly suffered from the high pressure which comes with playing elite sport and I used food as a comforter. I noticed this was becoming a serious problem due to the amount of weight I had put on, but it was a habit I didn’t feel I could control. Everyday I was punishing myself by eating as much junk food as possible because of the dissatisfaction I felt with my performance that day. I knew I was being mentally weak by listening to the little voice in my head which was telling me to eat when I was stressed, but I couldn’t overpower it.
Thankfully the little voice in my head which previously told me to eat when I was stressed is now a silent whisper. The techniques I have developed whilst working alongside Mind In Sport have allowed me to control my emotions rather than being controlled by them.
Written by Jack Bradford, Athlete Ambassador Mind In Sport Limited

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.

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!!!!