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.
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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

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

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.

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.