All in the Mind – Sports Psychology
The more I get into being active, the more fascinated I become by the science of it all. In the run up to the Etape, I was really focusing on how I would get through it mentally. I knew it would be a tough challenge physically, but if I couldn’t find a way to pull myself through it mentally, I would probably still be stuck on one of those mountains. Sports psychology is a pretty fascinating field. I decided to have a little email chat with Dr Rita Oliveira who works in that field at London South Bank University to find out what makes athletes and active people tick.
Firstly, can you explain the kind of work you do at LSBU?
I’m a senior lecturer of perceptual-motor control and course director for the BSc Sport and Exercise Science. Half of my time is spent in teaching and the other half doing research. My background is on Sport sciences (BSc Hons), Sport Psychology (MSc), Human movement science (PhD), developmental psychology (Postdoc), and higher education (PGCHE).
Does the mind of an athlete operate differently to that of someone who isn’t physically active? If so, how?
Everyone’s brain is different. Athletes’ are different because tend to have developed a series of strategies to cope with the demands placed on them by their sport, and because they have refined the link between their visual perception and their actions (this is especially the case in ball sports).
What characteristics make someone a good athlete?
Many characteristics are required to be a top athlete. In terms of psychological characteristics: discipline, motivation, perseverance would be three of the top ones. In terms of physical, physiological, technical, and tactical characteristics and even genetic makeup they depend very much on the sport.
As a runner, I’m interested in the difference in mentality between sprinters and distance runners, or indeed, if there is one at all – what are your thoughts on that and in a wider sense, if there is a difference in mentality between sports?
The main difference between sprinters and distance runners is actually physiological: in top level athletes we find that quantity of different muscle fibres differs. In terms of psychological skills I’d say the specifics may be different but the general characteristics I mentioned above are similar. For instance long-distance runners need to learn and develop psychological strategies to cope with pain and boredom during training whereas for the main psychological effort for the sprinter may be to respect the resting periods because some of their training is only effective at near-maximal effort so a night out often means a wasted training.
What are some common tools athletes use to mentally psych themselves up before a big event?
It varies a bit with sport but athletes use music before events and this is effective especially if the rhythm of the music matches the intended heart beat or the intended pacing – this is also true for its use during training. One very effective strategy is to establish and follow a routine. This can sometimes be mistaken by a superstition (and sometimes it turns into it), but the benefit of a routine is that it focuses the athlete on given tasks and while they focus on that they don’t focus on feelings of anxiety that might otherwise be creeping in. This is used for instance in triathlon where transitions do also require an amount of preparation. Athletes also use visualisation which is an effective tool to focus and in sports like sailing, gymnastics, racing it provides a good mental training. Athletes experienced in visualisation can go through it in almost exactly the same time as the actual race.
Does the difference between success and failure in sports lie in mentality?
The main difference lies in physical preparation and in some sports genetic makeup. But at the level of the top 5 in the world then things like nutrition and psychology can make a difference.
I think there is a moment in any sport (but particularly in distance running) where you feel as though you can’t do it, everything in your mind is telling you to stop. How can you overcome that?
I’m not sure, honestly. I think some of the dreaded wall is down to nutrition as well as preparation. I think it’s very important to be well aware of your body signals. Sport is essentially an aggression to the body; one that should be measured to allow the body to adapt to that aggression. If the aggression is not measured we’ll see things like over-training, injuries, etc. A good training should allow the person to get to know the physical symptoms of their body and what they mean.
I find the current levels of inactivity and our attitudes to exercise in this country to be really scary. Is there anything that people who aren’t currently active can learn from sports psychologists? For example, if their internal dialogue is telling them they’re incapable, hence they don’t exercise, is there a way to change this mentality?
I wish I can answer this but I’m afraid we don’t know. What we do know is that children’s positive experiences with exercise correlates strongly with how active an adult they become. This isn’t children’s sport and it isn’t children’s performance; just how much fun they have with it, how much praise they get, etc.
For adults I have the suspicion that this is a problem of goal setting. If you read a magazine it tells you how to completely change your life around and start running 5Km every other day, this is probably alienating for someone who barely walks 500m a day. If media were more sensible and less sensationalist – or indeed people were more informed – we’d be making very small non-scary steps towards change that people could see themselves do.
I believe it’s just as important to train the mind as it is to train the body. Can you share some common, effective visualisation techniques you use to help athletes perform at their best?
Some useful tricks is to actually know the course, study it, experience parts of it, know the likely weather conditions, in fact anything that would allow you to have a very good vivid picture of the location and course; uphills, downhills, timing for each of those, noises from motorbikes or cars or audience, even smells. Then the trick is to run the movie as if you’re holding the camera yourself. Up to here it’s already quite difficult but after you master this you can start playing out specific scenarios that are likely to happen. Here you need to actually know what the best strategy in each scenario would be, so again studying. Once you know the right strategy you can incorporate this in the movie. It goes without saying that repeatedly visualising a catastrophe isn’t going to help much, so if this happens you need to think about the script, and then refocus on the movie that you want to play.