MENTAL HEALTH. Its true meaning.

So before I start harping on, I have a few questions.

  • What is the first thing that enters your mind when you see or hear the words mental health?
  • Why are they so powerful?

When you come across those words I bet for the majority of people that if we played ‘word association’ we would be greeted with a whole range of negative words, negative perceptions, and for some, misconceptions about its meaning.

It is interesting that mental health – two words that affect every person on Earth have become so feared. Unnecessarily I might add!

  • If we were to play ‘word association’ with physical health, would your answers be any different? How about if we say social health?

I have been wanting to write about mental health and mental illness for a while because there are (in my eyes) big issues around the wording and terminology we have in our society. And not just with these, but with many other words associated to health and wellbeing every single day. Before I go on it is really important I point out the difference between mental health and mental illness.

Mental health ‘is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’ WHO. Mental health is something we all have, it can be both good and also not so good. And it moves, it changes, we may have ups and downs with mental health the same as we might with physical health.

Mental illness is ‘a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.’ –NAMI.

So I thought I would do a poll, my own little social experiment of word association and the responses were albeit very honest, but a reflection of how culture and society has led to us having a big misconception and lack of understanding of the word.

Some responses included;

Stress, depression, illness, fear, weak, not enough support, unstable.

How does this happen?

Why are we so drawn to negatives when talking about these words? And for those who clearly saw the tweet and status but didn’t respond, why didn’t you? Was it through fear of being associated with it? Was it because you don’t think it matters to you? Was it worry over whether you said the right/wrong thing?

I am fascinated with how this has become such a misunderstood term.

Let’s talk physical health. Everyone has physical health, one might have an accident and chronic pain, that required treatment and management but is (for many conditions) treatable. One might have a cold or flu, a little bug and physically feel unwell, but then a few days later and a small intervention i.e. antibiotics etc and they get better. We accept this in society because it happens to everyone right? We have all felt a little poorly at times, probably all visited the doctor or gone home for some tlc, and that’s fine.

We also have a HUGE boom in culture around physical health and working to get active, improve physical health both from government and health agendas but also social media getting involved. Crossfit gyms, personal trainers, various walking and exercise groups, Instagram pinterst and other social media platforms getting involved and suddenly it is cool to look after and work on physical health. Because at the end of the day, a good active balanced lifestyle has an impact on long term physical health right?

So why the hell aren’t we doing this with mental health?

We understand that physically, certain foods, exercise and/or physical activity, sleep, limited alcohol etc are all protective factors, they look after our physical health and have been proven to prevent the onset of many health conditions.

So with our mental health what can we do? It is NO DIFFERENT!! I find it very frustrating both professionally and personally. I have always, since the day I set up my company, tried to encourage the proactive side to our work. Yes, there is a place for a reactive service. But there is an even bigger place for PREVENTION, being PROACTIVE, and actively looking after our mental health.

The protective factors link in with physical, social and financial health. They can be as simple as;

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting sufficient daylight
  • Having quality time with friends and family,
  • Making the time to do your hobbies and have some time for you.

It isn’t rocket science, but we don’t always encourage them and we certainly don’t prioritise them in our own lives.

I don’t think it is always a lack of education or awareness, because we all know ourselves more than anyone else could. Sometimes we may need the support of others to identify them and put these factors in place, but I think the real issue lies with society, our culture. The fact that we go around cringing whenever we hear those words, we try to avoid engaging in those conversations in case somehow we get tarnished, or draw attention to ourselves. When actually what we need to do is start talking more; not about mental illnesses, but our own mental health. We see so many posts and pictures on social media for completing a big walk, hike or run, why don’t we do it when we have done an hours meditation? Or had an hour to self reflect? Why don’t we talk about our own mental health more to actually promote this aspect of health.

We need to stop being scared of these words and realise them for their true potential. Our mental health is fundamental and an essential part to our overall wellbeing, so why don’t we start acting like it! We know we can promote and improve mental health, the same as we can physical health, so let’s make a conscious effort to break down those misconceptions and start putting us first. We do that, and slowly we’ll start to change that unhealthy culture and have an environment where mental health is being talked about and prioritised the same as a person’s physical health.

I am going to kick start this off by leaving my own statement about my mental health;

‘Today I am going to spend some time at my allotment. Because my brain needs a rest and the fresh air always makes me feel better. And for me this a really important part of maintaining my own mental health’

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!

Raising awareness between adults on participation in sport, exercise and physical activity among children in time for the summer

Summer 2012 was the UK’s summer for sport. As millions tuned in to watch the European Football Championships, Wimbledon, the Test Match Cricket and of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The enthusiasm shown towards sports is staggering, but the problem is that we are either there sat watching it live or sat watching it at home on the TV, and unfortunately some of us still rarely actively participate ourselves.

Over recent years, participation in sport has improved dramatically; however, we can still do a lot better. I believe us adults, as our time has been and gone, should create an environment where children are not afraid to try new things and actively seek to participate in sports.. We need to concentrate on ensuring children are aware and educated on the many benefits of exercise. Hopefully, in years to come our children will be actively participating in physical activity, with the aim to get their children actively involved, and their children, and their children, and…. you get the idea!

Current department of health and children’s guidelines recommend that children and adolescents should participate daily in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity five days per week (DHC & HSE, 2014) in order to avoid being inactive. Inactivity constitutes a major public health threat by increasing the risks of chronic disease and disability (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). This not only causes serious and unnecessary suffering and impairs quality of life, but also comes at a significant economic cost. The direct costs to the NHS, and the indirect costs to society as a result of inactivity, totals to more than £8 billion each year (WHO, 2014).

Raising levels of activity and participation in sports not only improves health outcomes and reduces costs to the NHS and to the wider economy, but can also contribute to a range of positive behavioural outcomes.

Directly below is a brief description of the benefits to be gained from regular participation in sport, exercise or physical activity, which can be divided into three areas of life.

Physiological

We all know that physical activity is important to children’s current and future health, and to follow the physical activity guidelines produces a range of direct and indirect benefits. Firstly it assists in the control of body weight by increasing energy expenditure and helps to avoid developing adult obesity (Pate et al., 2002). It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some site specific cancers (Anderson et al., 2006). Weight resistance physical activity is important for bone formation and remodelling (Field et al., 2001).

Psychological

Participation in regular health enhancing physical activity may also mediate psychological states. It can reduce depression and anxiety (especially in shy children), enhance mood, self-esteem and quality of life (Tremblay et al., 2000). It is also known to reduce rule-breaking behaviour, to improve attention span and classroom behaviours, and can positively affect academic performance (Castelli et al., 2007). In addition, it was found that students who engage in moderate-vigorous activity had significantly higher grades than those who reported doing no moderate-vigorous physical activity (Coe et al., 2006).

Social

Participating in regular physical activity can also have positive social outcomes including crime reduction and more cohesive communities (Biddle & Mutrie, 2003). Moreover, the Ecological Model (Sallis & Owen, 1997) remarks that individuals affect and are affected by their physical and social environments. In particular, children’s behaviours are primarily influenced by family and school environments. More specifically, having access to programmes and facilities such as physical activity; influences a child’s behaviour (Davidson & Birch, 2001; Sallis et al., 2000).

What are the reasons behind participation?

There is a significant and growing evidence base that is devoted to understanding sports participation and how to increase it (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001; Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2005; Weinberg & Gould, 2011).

A review of the evidence suggests that there are four main determinants of participation: physiological, psychological, socio-cultural and ecological.

Before discussing these determinants in further detail, it is worth noting a couple of important points:

  1. The determinants of participation do not work in isolation; they interact and influence each other as they contribute to the behavioural outcomes (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).
  2. The mix of the determinants vary across the lift-cycle of the participants (Biddle & Mutrie, 2003), and indeed within particular lifestyle stages (Prochaska et al., 1992).

In support, the Transtheoretical model (Prochaska et al., 1992) argues that individuals progress through stages of change and that movement across these stages is cycle, rather than linear position, because many people do not succeed in their efforts at establishing and maintaining lifestyle changes (Marcus et al., 1996). With this in mind, they argue that information and interventions need to be tailored to match the particular stage an individual is in at the time.

Physiological

Physiological determinates of physical activity among children and adolescents include age, gender and ethnicity. Specifically, girls have been found to be less active than boys, older children and adolescents less active than younger children, and black girls less active than white girls (Adams, 1995).

Psychological

Psychological determinants include confidence in one’s ability to engage in exercise, perception of physical or sport competence, having a positive attitude toward physical activity, enjoyment of physical activity, and perceived benefits from engaging in physical activity.

In contrast, perceived barriers to physical activity such as lack of time or feeling tired are negatively associated with physical activity among youth.

Socio-cultural

Socio-cultural influences include support for and participation in physical activity in peers and siblings, parental levels of physical activity, parental support, and parental income.

Ecological

Ecological determinants include access to play spaces, facilities, availability of equipment, and transportation to activity programmes.

Something for the parents

Encouraging your children to play sports is one of the best ways to help them develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. However, some parents take that support too far by focusing on winning rather than the development of skills and enjoyment. The line between encouraging your child and pushing him/her beyond his/her abilities can be somewhat easy to cross. Youth sports parents occasionally need to be reminded of some of the basic elements to help children become happy, healthy and confident young athletes.

  • Encourage your child to try and play any sport he or she enjoys.
  • Support your child’s decision to not play a sport if he or she does not want to.
  • Let your child make mistakes.
  • Enjoy what your child does and can do.
  • Encourage your child to set goals and measure their progress.
  • Encourage your child to develop their own self-awareness of the skills they have gained.
  • Remind your child of the health benefits of playing sports, and encourage him or her to focus on positive health behaviours.
  • Encourage your child to compete against him/herself, and use competition as a way to improve his or hers own abilities.

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.

Mental toughness. Are we sexist with our assumptions?

IMG_4310If you caught Susie Wolff on the Clare Balding Show last week you would have seen the interview where she explained a comment made by Sir Stirling Moss. That comment suggested that women do not have the mental skills to race in Formula 1, the former driver followed by telling the BBC “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”

Now as a woman with personal experience of sport at the highest level as well as professional with expertise in psychology and cognitive development I find this a very misleading comment. Working through current literature there are of course certain gender differences in men and women. For example, we know that we process information slightly differently and through the general population we find that males are more logical in their processing approach whereas women are typically more emotional and follow a ‘feeling’. But how much does that really matter to mental skill development and performance?

|f we follow the concept that mental toughness (aside from natural personality factors which also play a key role) are mental skills, then surely Ericson’s theory of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance may apply because mental skills are after all, skills. The theoretical evidence presented by Ericson suggests that in most domains of expertise individual differences even among elite athletes are closely related to the amount of deliberate practice. Therefore what’s not to say that one person displaying more mental toughness than another is not related with gender but more because they have the awareness and strategies in place to execute that particular skill and more importantly have practiced it so it has a positive impact on their performance when required

Another element to consider on this topic is that many studies will discuss the benefits of mental skills training however the research does not necessarily measure mental toughness as its own specific variable, studies may also study slightly different aspects within this area, so how can we truly know what mental toughness is? How effective it is? Or even the variables of?

On a more practical level during any work with an individual, self-awareness is at the heart of what we do. This is because in order for somebody to develop effective mental skills which are appropriate and specific to that person they first have to understand how they work, what their emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses are to certain situations. Now we do know that traditionally women are typically more likely to seek support in most health related fields because the social norm is more accepting, however, that does not necessarily mean that they are more self-aware. I have seen both male and females who are equally self-aware and emotionally intelligent. At the same time I have also worked with males and females who have really struggled to self-reflect and build that self-awareness therefore the development of mental strategies and application of has really struggled.

Coming back to the term mental toughness and what it actually means, I personally dislike the term mental toughness as it implies a sense of someone being mentally strong and mentally weak which I find dangerous territory in today’s society. If we delve down the route of assuming that someone not classically mentally tough is therefore ‘weak’ then there is a risk of preventing people from speaking out about their own problems both emotionally and cognitively in case they are viewed in a negative way. This may also impact on help seeking behaviours for mental health problems, something which the field is working very hard to eliminate current stigmas with. So is mental toughness the appropriate word to use? Is there a more suitable and accurate way of describing it? And can we assume that there are such great gender differences when it comes to mental skills, resilience and emotional intelligence?

It is clear from current research that there are certain gender differences in a person’s cognitive abilities, we know there are differences in physical attributes, but there are also a wide range of other factors which may contribute to one individual developing greater mental skills than another which may not be gender specific such as personality, life experiences, practice, adherence and overall self-awareness.

Therefore I would encourage professionals and athletes to first consider the impact of the word ‘mental toughness’ and reflect on exactly what they are developing within such a broad field. And secondly in conversations or practice rather than having set assumptions and gender generalisations actually consider the individual differences. On this, it is the differences of one person to another which makes them unique so work to explore their areas of development, their strengths and empower that person to be the emotionally intelligent person they are capable of being.

We are all creatures of habit, mental skills are successful when the matching of appropriate skills is combined with applied practice, adherence and the belief that they will work. I truly believe that any individual, from any walk of life is capable to develop these skills and be empowered to reach their potential, it is our job as practitioners to help make that possible.

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.

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.

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.