New research, technology shine light on the psychology of sport

As the 2012 Olympics kick off, all eyes will be on the athletes’ prowess and speed as they compete for coveted gold medals. Less attention is paid to the psychological skills needed to function at such a high level, and the mental toll of staying on top. New research and technological developments shine the light on this overlooked issue.

Researchers from Loughborough University in the United Kingdom have been investigating what it is that enables elite athletes to function and thrive under intense pressure. They found that Olympic-level athletes share a unique mental resilience that helps them remain focused and calm during performance.

Their recent study, “A Grounded Look at Psychological Resilience in Olympic Champions”, studied 12 Olympic champions – eight men and four women – from different sports, to see how they withstood pressure during their sporting careers.

The report found that the athletes shared a combination of five key psychological attributes – namely a positive personality, confidence, motivation, focus and perceived social support – that helped them cope with the high stress of events like the Olympics.

“Olympic athletes experience considerable adversities during their preparation, training and competition, often over long periods of time,” said Mustafa Sarkar, a PhD student in sport and performance psychology at Loughborough University, and co-author of the report.

While these challenges have potential negative effects on athletes’ mental health, “the world’s best athletes develop and maintain a specific combination of psychological attributes that enable them to thrive on such pressure and perform at their best in Olympic competition”.

Sarkar said his department had seen an increase in the number of athletes seeking help in dealing with the expectations of performing at such a high level.

He advises athletes to develop and hone strategies such as goal-setting, self-talk and emotional control, to function at the elite level. These strategies, however, will differ from athlete to athlete, depending on their sport and temperament.

“These strategies should be tailored to an individual’s needs rather than adopted in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach,” said Sarkar.

Mobile app for performance sport

Practising the strategies on a regular basis could get easier with the recent release of a new mobile app that aims to help athletes develop the necessary psychological skills to cope with high pressure environments.

The iPerformance Sport & Performance Psychology Mental Skills Trainer app, developed by the renowned sports psychologist and former University of Denver professor, Steve Portenga, gives athletes the chance to regularly work on areas of psychological weakness in a systematic way.

On the elite level, the challenge is getting the athletes to remain focused on the task at hand, said Portenga in a phone interview from London, where he is working with the US track and field team as they prepare for Olympics events.

Sprinters, for example, have been doing the same 200-metre race for years, yet it’s easy for them to get distracted and stressed, and think they have to change their technique.

“It’s quite odd that the actual physical challenge is exactly the same as they’ve been doing since grade school,” he said. “The real trick is getting them to not buy into the hype, and not do something different, keep things the same and keep it simple.”

On game day, the app helps athletes keep their attention on why they are there and what is most important to them – questions they have worked through in the weeks, months and often years prior to the day.

“At games it’s so easy for people to forget what they want to get out of the experience,” he said. “It’s so easy to lose yourself and lose what’s really important to you.”

The app offers a practical, hands-on approach. Athletes complete assessments in seven key areas such as attention control and composure, and then receive feedback on how they rank compared to other athletes’ answers. Depending on the score, the app provides exercises that will help the athlete improve any weak areas.

The app provides a methodical approach often lacking in traditional therapy, said Portenga.
“I’d have people go away for a week and hope they would practise certain things, but it’s very hard in a systematic way to find out if they did it or not,” he said.

Portenga, who holds a masters degree in kinesiology and a doctorate in psychology, said the app’s means of assessment is based on his many years of studying and teaching, as well as his work with high-performing athletes.

Dealing with retirement from sport

Dealing with the mental stress of high performance is difficult, but according to another study, retirement brings with it a whole new set of challenges for elite athletes.

The report, Preparing Olympic Athletes for Lives outside of Sport, found that the competitive and self-centered nature of elite athletes made it difficult for them to adjust to life beyond sport.

Once athletes retire, the settings they enter – such as work and family – may require different kinds of behaviours than what they are used to. For example, one common behaviour found in elite athletes is submissiveness, a quality that will likely not be useful, as a retired athlete may now need to make his or her own decisions.

The athlete therefore needs to adapt and modify these behaviours, which can prove to be difficult, Natalie Barker-Ruchti, senior lecturer in sport science at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study, told University World News.

“This adaptation may be considerable and thus involve substantial effort,” she said. “It may further mean that the way in which the athletes had seen themselves is lost, which can cause confusion, disappointment, loss of sense of self, and even illness.”

The study found that those athletes who were able to maintain some form of distance from their sport, or who were able to critically reflect on their experience, were more likely to develop a more flexible, mature self.

“Our results suggest that critical self-reflection seemed to relate positively to their adjustments post-sporting career,” she said.

Other strategies to mitigate these problems post-career include awareness of the unintentional learning of certain behaviours inherent in sporting environments, said Barker-Ruchti.

A one-size-fits all approach to the transition to a life beyond sports is also not useful, she stressed. Rather, a more contextual and individualised approach is what’s needed to adequately prepare athletes for retirement.

As the Olympic Games kick off and athletes are awarded for their physical accomplishments, these studies show that the psychological rigour needed to reach such high-level performance is an achievement in itself, and should be recognised as such.