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Psychology of Sport Performance

Mission Statement

My mission as a Strength and Conditioning Coach is to develop the power and efficiency of athletes in order to maximize athleticism and promote safety. Interventions to achieve this growth include logical stimulus from resistance and aerobic training paired with adequate rest.  My overall belief is that improving the athleticism will increase performance, thus increasing the athlete’s enjoyment of the sport.

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Strength and Conditioning Philosophy

Professional Philosophy
The basis of all strength and conditioning programs should begin with assessment of the athletes’ abilities to determine what they are capable of doing and to see where improvements need to be made. The primary goal of any program should be injury prevention through ground based strengthening exercises. This is the most important component of an athletes program in order to ensure the safety of all athletes. The best way to set a quality foundation for athletes is to continuously reinforce proper form for all movements.
For athletic development, the main variables that play a role in overall athleticism are power and efficiency. There are many sub-categories that go into these two variables such as speed, strength, and motor patterns. Motor patterns are along the same lines as technique feedback, which is why this should be the first component any strength coach looks at. If a motor pattern is flawed, many more problems can arise in the athletes development. In a training program, it is important to develop muscle mass before progressing to more powerful movements with higher intensities. This is to ensure the athlete has an adequate anatomical foundation prior to increasing the speed and intensity of the movement. Running speed can be developed separately using sprint interval training specific to the demands of the sport
Strength and conditioning programs should be athlete specific, weighing the needs of the sport in terms of muscle groups and metabolic systems. Program design will also take the assessment of the athlete into account in order to build upon weaknesses and maximize strengths. Once athletes have developed safe and efficient motor patterns, as well as a quality strength base, Olympic lifts and plyometrics can be implemented in order to progress the athletes’ power output. In order to achieve optimal results from any kind of training, athletes must be educated on how to properly apply sleep and nutrition habits for maximizing recovery.

Target on your back: Performing when you’re expected to win

It has been a growing trend in professional sport for fans to join the bandwagon and cheer or the team expected to win.  It makes sense, why wouldn’t you want to root for the winning team.  Although this seems like the obvious thing to do when you don’t have any previous allegiance to a team in the sport, but the pressure this puts on the athletes is often overlooked.  When teams are doing well for an extended amount of time, there is added pressure to reach certain outcomes, such as winning night in, night out.  Along with expectations from the viewers, this status as “the man (or team) to beat” puts a target on your back for other teams.  When you are identified as a standard of excellence, there is an expectation to maintain this standard and continue the high level of performance as long as possible.  There have been research studies looking at the effects of success and failure on the perception of threat in a competitive situation.  The studies have shown that athletes with a recent history of success perceive threats at a greater rate than the groups that have achieved moderate success or failure (Scanlan, 1977).  This increased stimulus may cause athletes to be over-aroused, thus causing them to lose their composure and perform less than optimally.

This topic comes to mind because of the recent record-breaking hot start of the Golden State Warriors. Since the Warriors began their season with the longest win streak in NBA history, people are now talking about the possibility of them sustaining this pace and achieving the feat of breaking the record for most wins in a season.  If the players on the Warriors start thinking too far ahead of themselves, they may run into trouble by focusing too closely on things that are out of reach.  The best way to approach this situation and avoid over-thinking the matter is to keep events in perspective and remember that only one game can be won at a time.  The Warriors got into this situation in the first place because of their strong and composed leadership.  Research supports the claim that the more success occurs, the more likely it is for followers to have increased morale and perceive commendable leadership function (Furukawa, 1975).  Due to these findings, it is likely that with the continued success, role players and bench players will have increased buy-in, as the captains continue playing at a high level.

Usain-Bolt-Winning-Another-Race-440x265
(Justin Grayer)

This topic is somewhat of a continuation of my previous blog post, as it talks about running from the front of the pack with a target on your back, and trying to reach the expectations placed upon you by either yourself or others.  Although I agree that it is important to set goals that will be challenging and not easily obtained, it is also vital to make these goals realistic.  In addition to making the goals attainable, it is vital that the athletes do not put overwhelming pressure on themselves to accomplish these goals.  There is a certain level of arousal needed to be considered at an optimal level, and if the athletes are outside of this range performance outcomes may be detrimental.  If an athlete is too excited, they might over-think things, if they are too relaxed they might be caught flat-footed.  In situations such as these, it is important to be alert and composed.  There is evidence based literature that states that this is the best way to overcome unforeseen incidents in any environment, whether it is athletic, medical, or any other kind of pressure situation requiring an adaptation (Chikvashvili, 2011).  This phenomenon is important to apply to the field because there will always be athletes or teams who are favored in matchups. Being favored comes with advantages and disadvantages, and in order to properly prepare athletes, they must be ready to act on both of these cases.  The best athletes in the world who have managed to stay there with longevity have mastered this art by controlling everything they can control in order to give them every advantage possible, and this includes this competitive, yet humble mindset.

References

Chikvashvili, J. (2011). Overcoming unforeseen incidents: what to do when an unlikely event occurs. Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, 32(5), 44-48, Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21755894

Furukawa, H. (1975). The effect of success or failure evaluation upon followers’ morale and perception of leadership function. Japanese Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 11(2), 133-147, DOI: http://dx.doi.org.pioproxy.carrollu.edu/10.2130/jjesp.11.133

Scanlan, T.K. (1977). The effects of success–failure on the perception of threat in a competitive situation. Research Quarterly, 48(1), 144-153, Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.pioproxy.carrollu.edu/psycinfo/docview/616303943/C5102DD111754614PQ/2?accountid=9187

Don’t Choke: Facing Elimination

There are many situations where athletes encounter having their backs are against the wall, being on the brink of elimination from tournament play.  Coaches have varying philosophies on what to do in these situations in order to swing momentum into their team’s favor.  Some coaches attempt trick plays to catch the opponents off-guard, other coaches stay the course and trust the preparation that their team has put in up to this point, there are even coaches that resort to being brutally honest and telling the players that they are choking and playing terribly.  Comeback performances are obviously versed with more adversity than when circumstances are going as planned, but when put in these situations, what is the best way to deal with things and create a turn of events?

In this past baseball post season, there was the case of the Toronto Blue Jays playing against the Kansas City Royals for the American League Championship Series, in which the Blue Jays found themselves down in the series and on the verge of elimination.  The article that specifically pertains to this situation references three controllable factors to focus on in order to make an attempt at mounting a comeback including:

  • Stick to your usual routine
  • Narrow focus
  • Confidence is key

These areas seem to be generally agreed upon by sport psychologists (CBC Sports, 2015).  The article uses the example of doing activities that will put each individual athlete in their comfort zone such as listening to their preferred style of music before a game.  The article by CBC Sports emphasizes that the best thought process to use in approaching situations such as this 3-1 deficit previously mention is blocking out the big picture.   Many coaches follow this technique by using cues such as “win one game at a time” and “give 100% right now”.  If the Blue Jays tried to get ahead of themselves and thought about the fact that they had to win three games in a row, they would be focused on that and not able to shift their attention towards things that mattered in the present such as hitting the pitch or catching and throwing a ball.  It is not possible to win three games at once, therefore it is futile to worry about future events, rather than control things that are currently happening.

[By Alex Brandon | AP]
[By Alex Brandon | AP]
The aspect of mental performance that confidence is key states that many times when teams find themselves in a choking situation, they are “playing timid”, and continue to do so, thus failing to dig themselves out of the hole.  These teams and players got in the hole by using this negative thinking in the first place.  In order to achieve better results than currently being experienced, athletes must shift their mind frame into a positive thought process.  The example used in the article talks about the confidence level of Michael Jordan in crunch time of important playoff games, and that fact the he approached these situations the same way he approached shots in practice (CBC Sports, 2015).  Just one year prior to the Blue Jays situation, There was a similar occurrence with the Washington Nationals during the playoffs.  In the Nationals case, they had the best regular season record in baseball, and then ended up losing to the Kansas City Royals in the first round of the playoffs.  There is the possibility that the Kansas City Royals have figured something out and caused both of these teams to choke in consecutive years, but odds are that choking is becoming more and more common as a result of poor mental skills training or just lack of knowledge.  Regardless, this form of faltering in sports has to be addressed and improved in order to improve sports performance.

One situation in professional athletics where a head coach deliberately went against the suggestions of the team sport psychologist is head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, Terry Murray, blatantly telling his players that they have been in a ‘choking situation’ (Bowen, 1997).  Perhaps this was a circumstance of the time period because sport coaches in 1997 may not have had as complete of an understanding of the world of sport psychology as they do now, but it is certain that there is still plenty of room for growth in this department.  Regardless of the most recent game outcome, this is a poor way to handle a team that played well enough to make the playoffs and has been experiencing some difficulties in the offseason.  Looking back at it, this stunt backfired and caused the players on the Flyers to play even worse.  This technique seems to be used less and less by head coaches in present day, but in order to optimize overall performance, coaches must be receptive to using strategies that have been proven to be effective.

References

Bowen, L. (1997). What a choke facing elimination Murray doesn’t exactly fire up Flyers by saying they have been in ‘choking situation’ Murray pours salt in wounds.  Daily News Sports, Retrieved from: http://articles.philly.com/1997-06-07/sports/25524962_1_terry-murray-flyers-coach-eric-Desjardins

CBC Sports. (2015).  What the Toronto Blue Jays can do mentally as they face elimination: some players thrive on the stress, but for most it’s best not to think about big picture.  CBC News, Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/sports/baseball/blue-jays-mental-preparation-facing-elimination-1.3278680

Lovable Losers: Why do we root for the underdog?

There have been many situations in the past where no-name teams end up coming out of nowhere to defeat the team that is expected to win with ease.  It seems that everyone loves to see a “Cinderella Story” or a “David versus Goliath” situation, but why is this?  If people tend to take pleasure in winning competitions, why would we chose the participant expected to lose?  Studies have consistently proven that fans cheering for the winning team report higher self-esteem.  In addition to increased self-esteem, these winning fans predict their own success in the future more frequently (Hirt, E.R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G.A., Kennedy, C., 1992).  This is often referred to as “basking in reflected glory”.  It surprises me that there is such definitive evidence showing that supporting winners makes fans feel like winners, but I am also guilty of these allegiance tendencies.

On the other end of the study showing that people enjoy being associated with winning is the premise of this blog post–people prefer cheering for underdogs.  The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin conducted a randomized survey on the general public, asking which team they would prefer to see win in an Olympic swimming setting where one team is at a clear advantage prior to the event.  Almost all 71 survey participants said that they would prefer to see the lower-ranked team defeat the higher-ranked team (Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A., 2007).  This tendency was proven without predisposed bias towards team loyalty, essentially meaning theoretical teams were used to avoid preexisting devotion to any real team that the conflict.  In additional research, there is definitive evidence showing that people find the individual who happens to be an underdog “more attractive” in the eyes of the audience (Michniewicz, K.S. & Vandello, J.A., 2013).

On the surface, analyzing the relationship between these two ways of thinking–enjoying winning and preferring underdogs–seems completely backwards and counter-productive.  If this correlation is not simply taken at face value, however, it begins to make more sense.  One of the big reasons why underdogs are cheered for is because they require more effort for success, therefore typically give more effort.  This trait resonates with fans more than simply putting up uncontested victories.  If the victory was earned by effort, then it feels more deserved and high-quality.  Athletes or teams who are ranked higher are expected to have more abilities

Getty Images
Getty Images

and skills, but the general belief by the participants was that those with a smaller skill sets were inclined to try harder (Vandello et al., 2007).  This reasoning may explain the public’s fascination with athletes who are expected to lose, but fight in a valiant effort to maintain their hopes of victory.  Although I cannot speak to the work ethic of elite professional athletes, I am certain there are plenty high-caliber professionals who continue the strive to get better everyday.  This level of elite play likely plays a big role in them getting to the highest level of their sport that the world has to offer, while getting paid ridiculous amounts of money to do it.  With these incentives of fortune and fame, professional athletes should theoretically have talent and effort at all times.  These traits and this belief may be difficult to measure, as well as not entirely true.  The has not been a proven “golden rule” to finding the most athletically gifted athlete who also gives incredible effort at all times.

One of the more interesting developments in my eyes when it comes to underdogs is that of the Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years, however they perennially have one of the largest followings in all of Major League Baseball.  Despite being mediocre for so long, fans remain loyal and never lose faith in their consistently back-of-the-pack team.  The saying that all Cubs fan learn from a young age is “Next year is our year!”.  This season must have been a refreshing change of pace for Cubs fans, with the Cubs having their best season in recent history.  This young, exciting Cubs team finished third in the MLB for the regular season, and advanced deep into the National League Championship Series (the semi-finals of the playoffs).  After conducting a literature review about underdogs, one thing that interests me about the Cubs’ story line is what defines their status as an underdog.  Although this team has not won a championship in over 100 years still, they are one of the clear rising teams in the league that appears to be here to stay.  Following an impressive showing in the regular season and playoffs, the Cubs are statistically ranked by Las Vegas odds as the favorite to win the 2016 World Series.  This ranking puts them at the exact opposite of the underdog persona they have worn for many long seasons.  Will this decrease their novelty and cause them to lose fans who prefer cheering for underdogs or will they continue to be defined by their lack of a current championship?  How will the players adjust to having higher expectations on them than they have ever had before?  Are the Cubs going to shake their nickname of “The Lovable Losers” or has that become their destiny?

References

Hirt, E.R., Zillmann, D., Erickson, G.A., Kennedy, C. (1992).  Costs and benefits of allegiance: changes in fans’ self-ascribed competencies after team victory versus defeat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(5), 724-738. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.63.5.724

Michniewicz, K.S., Vandello, J.A. (2013).  The attractive underdog: when disadvantage bolsters attractiveness.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(7), 942-952. doi: 10.1177/0265407513477629

Vandello, J.A., Goldschmied, N.P., & Richards, D.A. (2007).  The appeal of the underdog. Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin, 33(12), 1603-1616. doi: 10.1177/014616720730748

Believe: Spirituality in Sport Psychology

Some athletes are very religious, others are superstitious, some chose to believe in research based training strategies and nothing else, but which is the best route to go? Is there a correct answer or is it solely based off preference? I believe there has to be more extensive research on this topic to make a clear-cut informed decision.  I also believe that spirituality involves a more integrated model, rather than putting faith in only one body of thought.  Based on my experience, it is important to put your faith in a higher power that you genuinely believe in, as well as the hard work you put in for yourself.  I personally have thrived on partaking in team implemented or self implemented superstition beliefs.  Among these superstition driven beliefs, I have developed a routine, which has increased my sense of consistency, further improving my mental ability to perform well on a repeated basis.  I do not necessarily think that the superstitions themselves carry real weight unless the athlete genuinely believes in it.

Athletes from a religious background have been known to say quick prayers before games, before plays, after good plays, and after the performance to name a few.  This may help them keep a calm, regulated mind and avoid being over-aroused.  The belief in a higher power may motivate athletes to “control the controllable” aspects of the sport and not stress too much over things that are beyond their influence.  On the other side of this way of thinking there is believing in yourself and your own preparation.  It is vital for athletes to put in work to improve their athleticism and skills, thus earning the right to be confident.  Combining both of these aspects of spirituality is important in obtaining the mental skills necessary to perform at a high level.  A quote that I heard from my parents quite a bit while growing up that embodies this way of thinking is:

“Control what you cannot accept, accept what you cannot control”

(Bill da Flute)
(Bill da Flute)

In an interview with 14 time billiards world champion, Pankaj Advani, he speaks about the factors that play a role in his confidence and spirituality when approaching his game.  The mental side of Advani’s pool shooting clearly plays a huge role in his success due to the nature of the game.  In the interview he mentions that he has won many of his world championships on holidays or days that are important to him, including Diwali, Eid Mubarak, his mother’s birthday, Independence Day, and Children’s Day (Satya, 2015).  These occurrence have led him to believe in superstition to a certain extent, but not put all of his faith in the day his competitions fall on.  After this part of the interview, Advani was asked to elaborate on how much weight he currently puts on superstition such as lucky charms and spirituality such as religion or separate personal beliefs.  He replied with the following comment:

“I am spiritual in my faith and believe in a superior force. I used to be superstitious but then realized that I was placing my faith in things that really had little or no relevance to my performance. I’ve started to believe more in my own ability and of course something far greater out there that is looking after us, (Satya, 2015).”

In a literature review on the topic of spirituality in sport performance, sport psychologists looked at a wide array of articles in order to see the effect of four key areas that have been thought to play a key component in how athletes execute their game plan in real game situations.  The four categories looked at include

  • How spirituality may be reconciled into the athlete-centered model
  • The integration of spirituality and religious observances into mental skills training
  • The relationship between spirituality and positive psychological states such as flow and peak experiences
  • The role of spirituality in counseling

Spirituality in sport psychology has been a slowly developing topic in the field that does not have enough in depth research to understand holistically.  Most of the progress in topics relating to spirituality have come from standard psychology, not sport psychology.  The applications of the literature that was reviewed primarily supports its importance in being integrated into research and consultancy work (Watson and Nesti, 2007).  Limitations in this review that were addressed include both performance enhancement and life skills development.  These areas both lacked the research necessary to have sufficient evidence to implement these strategies consistently in practice.  It is alright to use these strategies if you are an athlete and they are in line with your beliefs, but in terms of sport psychologists, other methods should be used to increase confidence and self-efficacy in clients.  If more research is done directly applying spirituality beliefs to sport psychology, then i believe it will be a very useful tool to use to optimize sport performance from a mental aspect.

References

Satya, R. (2015). My big wins usually happen on auspicious days: Pankaj Advani. The Times of India, Retrieved from: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/sports/more-sports/snooker/billiards/My-big-wins-usually-happen-on-auspicious-days-Pankaj-Advani/articleshow/49167132.cms

Watson, N.J., Nesti, M. (2005). The role of spirituality in sport psychology consulting: an analysis and integrative review of literature, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17(3), 228-239, doi: 10.1080/10413200591010102

You had one job!: The scrutiny of highly specialized positions/skills

In light of the crazy finish to one of the longest running rivalries in college football, Michigan versus Michigan State, I decided to look further into the amount of pressure placed on players who have highly specialized positions, or are expected to perform at a certain level in specialized statistical categories.  In this case, we are talking about a punter being able to do something he does hundreds of times each day.  In case you have not seen the final ten seconds, Michigan was winning by two points and all their punter had to do was not turn the ball over to Michigan State, in order to secure the victory.  The link to the video will do a much better job explaining the results of this play than I will.



Clearly this mishap appears avoidable and should not have been an issue considering how many repetitions punters take everyday during practice, but there also appears to be a significant influence from the pressure and importance of the situation itself.  It is incredibly difficult to replicate an atmosphere comparable to the final ten seconds of the rivalry game when the score has a two point difference.  This brings me to my question: Are these players under increasing amounts of pressure to perform due to an increased supply of players who have the skills to replace them?

I am going to focus mainly on kickers, because this is the easiest position in sports to isolate into one specific skill.  However, this phenomenon also applies to fundamental skills such as shooting free throws in basketball, making close putts in golf, among many other things.  Kickers and punters get a lot of hate in the football world because their position is so much different than the other positions in the game.  Many people make claims that kickers and punters “aren’t real football players” because all they do is practice kicking.  This criticism is especially high after they miss a field goal or have a bad kick.  Since the outcome of their skill is so easy to isolate, it seems to be looked at under a microscope more often than other positions and stats.  In the NFL this year, extra point percentages have dropped from 98-99% conversion since 2000, to 94.6% this season due to the change in distance (Shilstone, 2015).  Current NFL kickers say that this change in distance caused an increase in defensive effort on extra points, while this makes the game more competitive as a whole, it may also lead to more injuries.

Morten Anderson, current all time leading scorer in the NFL, stated that although the physical parameters of being an elite player continue to increase, the mental aspect is the part that sets elite apart from average (Shilstone, 2015).  In order to combat this mental side of kickers performance, coaches have adopted a strategy that was first introduced by Mike Shanahan of

(sportsgrid.com)
(sportsgrid.com)

the Denver Broncos in 2007, widely known as “icing the kicker”.  Icing the kicker refers to calling a timeout right as the kicker is beginning their approach in order to throw their timing off and make them overthink the kick.  This tactic may have worked at first by surprising the opposing kicker, but once this strategy became commonplace, kickers began to expect it from opposing coaches.  From the statistics gathered since icing the kicker began, it has been proven that there is little to no effect from it, and it may even help kickers set up their approach better by having more time to pay attention to environmental details such as wind (Moskowitz and Wertheim, 2012).

Since kickers are evolving into better physical specimens, they are left with two choices: improve performance at the same level as the standard, or get left behind.  It is apparent as to why the pressure to perform in this position is at an all time high.  It does not help that the increased length of extra point field goals has been increased, and is subject to potentially be increased again in the near future.  I believe that the fan base over-simplifies the demands of being a highly specialized athlete who has to fine tune a very select skill set.  I do not think it is fair to say that some positions are more difficult than others because athletes have different interests, strengths, and weaknesses.  It is our job as coaches to realize where these interests, strengths, and weaknesses lie in order to optimize their performance and control what can be controlled.  I believe the best way to have an athlete reach their full potential in select skill sets is to use deterministic models to narrow down what areas in terms of athleticism can be controlled and need to be worked on.

References

Shilstone, M. (2015). Optimum performance: NFL kickers under more pressure to perform. The Times-Picayune, Retrieved from: http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2015/10/optimum_performance_nfl_kicker_2.html

Moskowitz, T.J., Wertheim, L.J. (2012). Scorecasting: the hidden influences behind how sports are played and games are won. Three Rivers Press, ISBN: 978-0307591807

More Than Just a Game: Athletic Identity

Modern culture seems to be shifting towards a state where we idolize athletics more and more with each passing year.  If you ask any kid who their hero is, chances are they will respond with their favorite athlete.  There are charities that allow terminally ill children to “grant their wish,” essentially letting them meet their hero or attending any event they want.  In many cases these wishes involve meeting professional athletes or going to a sporting event.  I am by no means implying that this is a bad thing–I think these charities give people a world of inspiration and hope.  I also believe that it is a good thing for professional athletes to strive to be role models for younger generations.  On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there may be a point when our culture is going too far by pressuring athletes by putting them on a pedestal.  One of the potential negative effects our culture has on the psychology of professional athletes is applying the pressure to perform while they are healthy and in their prime because of the extent of competition that now exists.  To use an extreme example of athletes reacting to this stressful situation adversely is turning to illegal performance enhancing drugs, despite knowing the implications of consuming them.  The pressure to perform well in the short average career-span is at an all-time high, making products such as steroids and human growth hormone appear acceptable.

All of the factors of our culture tying in with the competitive nature of sports, it is easy for an

(bigbignews.wordpress.com)
(bigbignews.wordpress.com)

athlete to get caught up in all of the hype, including the feeling that the sport is their entire life.  Athletic identity can be defined as the degree to which a person identifies with the role of an athlete (Symes, 2010).  A strong sense of athletic identity can either cause the athlete to thrive in the sport they identify with, or send them into a long road of regret and disappointment if they are injured, benched, or eventually retired.  Many elite athletes experience this when they become so immersed in their sport that they don’t know what to do without it. Prime examples of athletes in this category include Brett Favre and Michael Jordan who both came back out of retirement multiple times.  I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to give up doing what you love at the highest possible level, so I commend these athletes for having the strength and determination to pursue their dreams with as much success and longevity they can.  On the other side of things, it is a shame that the athletes had to seek fulfillment by returning to what they are good at because they lacked a holistic quality of life.

In order to completely understand the degree of each individual’s athletic identity, there has been research about a model that will quantify and predict this phenomenon.  The largest study with this program in recent history is a Greek sample looking at a 7-item 3-factor model out of all the data that was collected.  This particular study included 305 participants who participated in competitive sport and recreational activities.  The author of the research article states his clear description of what it means to have the self-identity,

The notion of self-understanding encompasses all that an individual can articulate about his or her self. Our self-definitions tell us who we are, as well as how to think and act — it provides the teleological values that inform goal-directed behavior and the deontological guidelines that regulate interpersonal relationships. It is in this way that self-understanding enters the moral domain (Proios, 2012).

The first article that I referenced describes the same thing in a way most people are inclined to understand more than the scholarly description.  This description  emphasizes the difference between being an athlete and playing a sport (Symes, 2010).  This apparent disconnect can be applied and detected by closely listening to the phrasing used by a speaker while talking about their sport.  Someone with a higher athletic identity for the example sport of running is more likely to say the statement “I am a runner,” whereas someone who runs and enjoys it, but does not identify with it is more likely to say “I enjoy running.” Both of these sides of athletic identity have the ability to make the athlete better or worse depending on how they react to it.  This kind of psychological outlook definitely has the ability to make or break an athlete’s career (Symes, 2010).

Since the most fundamental aspect of science as a whole is the fact that it is evidence based, experimental research is vital to the advancement of our general base of knowledge.  Due to this, I felt it was important to read one of the more comprehensive research designs looking at perceived determinants of athletic identity.  Although there was not much concrete evidence of what determines such strong cases of athletic identity, especially because the research was qualitative with a very small sample size, this research design sets up the future of researching this topic by laying the foundation and presenting more questions to be looked at.  Some of the findings that were found include the increased risk of sport injury or career termination in athletes with higher athletic identity, (Stephan and Brewer, 2007).  Some statements that

(Proios, 2010)
(Proios, 2012)

athletes had to consider when taking the Athlete Identity Measurement Scale are pictured at the right.  These topics should be addressed by all athletes, just to see where their baseline is.  Further research could potentially be built upon these findings as well.

Athletes experience an increased sense of identity when they devote their time and effort to competing at the highest possible level.  When they get to this level, it is a matter of responding to the pressure that is placed on you by friends, family, coaches, fans, and all of society in general.  In order to use this phenomenon to the athlete’s advantage, athletes must find separate interests outside of the sport, as well as channel their positive energy at the optimal time.  Athletes need an overall well-balanced approach to the topic in order to remain on the positive side of things.  In the future, there should be more research on this specific topic in order to accurately prescribe mental exercises to maintain the athlete’s state.

References

Proios, M. (2012). Factor validity of the athletic identity measurement scale in a greek sample. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10 (4), 305-313

Stephan, Y., Brewer, B.W. (2007). Perceived Determinants of Identification with the Athlete Role Among Elite Competitors.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 19 (1), doi: 10.1080/10413200600944090

Symes, R. (2010).  Understanding Athletic Identity: ‘Who am I?’  Podium Sports Journal, Retrieved from:http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2010/05/24/understanding-athletic-identity-who-am-i/

Practice makes perfect… or does it?

Every coach who has ever existed, not to exaggerate, has uttered the words “practice makes perfect,” at one time or another in an attempt to motivate their team to focus on the skill at hand.  Coaches say this in hopes of their athletes concentrating on all of the fundamentals in practice, making it easier to apply what they learned perfectly to a game situation.  These three simple words are much easier said than done.  Despite the popularity of this age-old saying, there are still a great deal of people who believe that talent is the sole defining factor that determines success at a high level of sport performance.  Neither of these cases are the absolute correct answer, but they both play a role in producing optimal athleticism.  Since sport performance has variables involving innate ability, the more accurate cliche quote to describe this would be, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”  I believe this portrays a more holistic view of what goes into optimizing sport performance because it shows the importance of practicing well, but does not neglect the truth that there are other factors that influence performance at a certain level.

(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)
(AP Photo/Jim Cowsert)

In order to become a successful athlete at the highest attainable level, a large volume of quality practice of skills and attribute development are necessary in addition to a certain degree of natural ability.  In the field of strength and conditioning, coaches are mostly focused on attribute development, while leaving the practice of skills to the head coach.  Natural ability includes areas such as being “gifted with vast intellectual ability, eagerness to work, and power of working,” (Ericsson, et al., 1993). Most people think of natural ability as physical talent regarding body movement, but without the intellectual capacity to process surroundings or willingness to improve any flaws, the athlete is not likely to reach their full potential.  This is where the practice to game transfer comes into play.  It is not strange for players to thrive in practice situations, but struggle in games, especially high pressure moments.  In many cases, this phenomenon can be attributed to lack of focus or purpose by the athlete.  In a study about the efficiency of human performance, findings show that adults perform far below their maximal level, even at tasks they frequently complete.  This research article states the following:

“It is that we have too many other improvements to make, or do not know how to direct our practice, or do not really care enough about improving, or some mixture of these three conditions.” (Ericsson et al., 1993)

The above quote includes three parts that are all controllable mental aspects that are specific to game performance.  If an athlete has too many improvements to make and does not know how to direct their practice because of this, they can focus on one thing at a time in order of importance in order to have a more structured approach, allowing a clearer mind.  This notion of having a clear mind in practice is applicable to game performance if the athlete maintains a similar clear mental state in that situation.  Athletes run into problems when they are overstimulated by the unfamiliar environment of a packed stadium or something of the sort.  This over-stimulation causes athletes to pay attention to unimportant environmental stimulants, such as crowd noise, chants, lighting, and other distractions.  Whether the lack of focus on the athlete’s part is voluntary or involuntary, it takes away from their ability to devote general & fine motor skills, coordination and reaction at that moment (Baldwin, 2012).  The idea behind this is that performers practice so often that their skills become second nature, since thinking is unproductive to the overall goal.  Practice players play well in practice because there is not the same level of environmental stimulus.  They falter in games because they cannot effectively regulate their mental state.  Before games or high pressure situations, there should be an emphasis on being confident and focused because that close to a performance, the performer is not going to learn a new skill and implement it without trying it in practice, but they can control their mental state (Baldwin, 2012).

Different strategies of gaining the intense level of focus game situations require vary slightly depending on the coach or sport psychologist.  Similar to how the article by Baldwin clearly stated that the two things to focus on pregame in a basketball context, Dr. Cohn outlines his three big teaching points for players to develop their mental game from the context of tennis:

  1. Fear of failure

    (skysports.com)
    (skysports.com)
  2. Trying too hard to win
  3. Lack of confidence (Cohn, 2008)

It is apparent just by looking at the list that the presence of any one of these can cause a highly skilled athlete to falter in a performance-based setting.  Both models presented on game-focus have a fair share of overlap, just different way to approach similar issues.  It is difficult to say which method is more effective towards specific groups or individuals utilizing them, but it is safe to take away broader mental skills to focus on.  Confidence is obviously the direct overlap between both of the coaches models.  This being said, athletes must become skilled at finding their optimum level of confidence, without exceeding a certain level of over-stimulus.  Fear of failure and trying too hard to win are both factors determining the focus of the athlete.  If the athlete is worried about the outcome (winning or losing) more the game itself while it is being played, they will not have the capacity to excel in sport performance.

Athletes and coaches in the past have found effective player specific ways to clear the mind before and during games.  These athletes and coaches have been the most successful because their reflexes work significantly quicker than processing every minor detail of the game.  In order to develop players and train them to perform at the highest level of their potential, coaches must understand the concept of regulating game time mental state.  Once this is accomplished for good, there will no longer be players who play well in practice settings, but flake in real games where it matters.  To finally address the age-old question of ‘does practice make perfect?’, I believe that this is true only if the practice simulates game settings to an extent and includes teachings of how to control mental state effectively.  Practicing is a vital component to developing a successful athlete, but if that athlete is not mentally sound, all of the physical skills are put to waste.

References

Baldwin, D. (2012). Dominate in practice, but freeze up during games? read this. The Mental Handbook, retrieved from: http://dreallday.com/2012/10/10/nerves-during-games-why-it-happens-and-how-to-fix-it/

Cohn, P. (2008).  3 reasons you underperform in matches.  Sport Psychology for Tennis: Powerful mental game strategies for success, retrieved from: http://www.sportspsychologytennis.com/?p=749

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R.T., Tesch-Romer, C. (1993).  The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.  Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406, Retrieved from: http://www.mockingbirdeducation.net/uploads/5/4/0/7/5407628/ericsson_1993.pdf

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