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Here you'll find my opinion regarding some sports stories with a sports psychology angle that I've written or commented on on TV or radio. These are from a while back, but still might be interesting to read.

Paula Radcliffe out of London 2012 Olympic Games marathon. How has that happened again?

With the not-to-surprising news that Paula Radcliffe has withdrawn from the Olympic Marathon due to a foot injury, I thought again about why this happens. For Paula’s fans, it is disappointing – though it will be much more gutting for Paula. Some of our most vivid memories of Paula are of Athens in 2004, where she stopped at the 36Km mark of the Olympic Marathon in floods of tears.

Doesn’t it seem obvious to us all that athletes should just avoid becoming injured, when injuries can rule them out of competing at their best, or even competing at all? If this is obvious for us fans, why then don’t athletes ‘get it’?

I believe the answer to this is that injuries aren’t always clear to an athlete and important factors get in the way of an athlete managing potential or actual injuries. Plus, this situation is compounded during an Olympic year.

First of all, what is an injury? An easy example is something that stops an athlete, such as a runner, from running. Okay, but what if the runner can still run, although they do so with slightly altered biomechanics, with some level of pain, or with a bit of tenderness that doesn’t seem quite right? Do each of these classify as an injury? We also need to bear in mind the normal states of an athlete’s body. Over time their body will feel a range of levels of fatigue, stiffness and soreness. This is normal for athletes, what they live with, what they train with. They don’t just train on days when they feel good or fresh. When then does an athlete decide that their sensation or niggle might indicate a risk of injury? If an athlete thinks this at the first sign of soreness or a niggle, they would spend more time inside a physio or doctors office than out there training.

The athlete needs to identify that there is a potential problem and then decide on how to respond. This again isn’t as straightforward as it first appears. If the athlete has a big injury, such as torn Achilles tendon, they need to seek a sports doctor for assessment and probable surgery. For other niggles or potential injuries the athlete needs to decide if their level of worry is high enough to seek help and if so to consider which person or profession is the best – a sports doctor, physiotherapist, sports masseur, podiatrist... The athlete also needs to consider whether their concern is significant enough to speak to their coach about modifying their training load, which the coach may or may not agree with.

I believe that in most cases the development of an injury is only really clear when an athlete looks back at the lead-up or when an injury develops quickly without much if any warning.

Let’s now go back a few steps and think about how an injury develops and why more seem to affect our stars during the Olympics, compared to other seasons. To get better in sport an athlete places a training load on the body, which the body recovers from and then supercompensates – rebuilds to a level that is greater than before the training load. The risk of injury increases if the load is too high for what the body can absorb, or if the body is under-recovered when a training load which should be fine is placed on the body.  As Paula puts it:
‘No-one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie, and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams.’

An Olympic year is the most important year to an athlete with chance of competing at the Games. Therefore, every forth year there is more motivation to train, to push, to be dedicated, to do more than before in the hope of a good performance at the Games. Only a very small percentage of competitive athletes manage to qualify for an Olympic Games. Fewer still make it to more than one Games. The chance of competing at a home Games is almost a likely as spotting a Yeti. Yes, it could happen, but you’d have to be very lucky to do so.

With the announcement 7-years ago that the Olympics are coming to London, GB athletes with the potential to compete in the Games have been training even harder than usual with the goal of qualifying for and competing in the Games. The motivation to be in shape and to take this once in a lifetime opportunity is sky high. The level of interest in GB athletes’ preparation, form, performance and personal lives from people in their communities and the media is higher than ever. This attention, hope and expectation from others creates a pressure for the athlete to cope with. The athlete may also be working with coaches who have stepped-up their game to help the athlete train harder and better for this big moment. All of this reinforces how important this Games is for the athlete and encourages training as hard as possible. The higher motivation and pressure will increase the chance that they train when their body is telling them that it is tired or is developing a niggle. They tell themselves that they push on because this is such an important year, that they must make the most of their time, follow this training programme to the letter, and fear backing-off as their competitors will no doubt be training hard at this time. This mental toughness, motivation and pressure clouds their ability to weigh-up the situation more objectively make good decisions when it comes to looking after their body and this is exactly what they need to do to excel.

Rain stops play: How the tennis elite stay focused

The British weather certainly provides challenges to the best tennis players at Wimbledon. Unlike other tournaments that are played solely indoors or in more stable climates, the rain seems part of the Wimbledon experience each year.

Athletes like to control as many of the variables as possible in the lead-up to and during competitions. This provides a sense of sameness, predictability and confidence, which is great as the more they can repeat those things that lead to good performances, the better.

We see this desire for control and routine in pre-match and during match routines - how players warm-up, how many times they bounce the ball prior to serving, how they use their towel after each point to ‘erase’ the bad shots and move on.

Rain forecasts and delays can affect routines earlier in the day, such as when the player eats their favourite or must-have meal ‘X’ number of hours before they start their match. This can send the less flexible into a bit of a spin, causing anxiety and doubt to increase.

With players that I’ve worked with, much time is spent increasing the flexibility players have to deal with change and the unpredictable. Helping them to consider and then test different pre-match dietary strategies, shorter and effective warm-up routines and ways to mentally get ready to perform - even if they aren’t following their ideal pre-match programme.

When rain stops play part way through a match, players need to manage their down time to relax (at least somewhat) and then get back into the right mental zone prior to the restart.

For some players, who emphasise the pursuit of momentum during a match, there is a risk, if they are on a good roll when rain stops play, that they will perceive the delay as disruptive and more personally detrimental than their opponent.

I’d back the players who have worked to need less control and predictability, who instead believe in their ability to face whatever is thrown at them, and those that know their short physical and psychological warm-ups. The clever players will have worked on these elements prior to important tournaments like Wimbledon.

Why do fans follow sport when there is so much stress and despair?

I was asked this question on BBC Radio Merseyside interview, following England’s exit from Euro 2012 football tournament after another penalty shoot-out.

When life is often routine and mundane, sport can bring colour to our lives. The highs and lows, the emotional rollercoaster, the stress and excitement of following a team can make our day, week and year more interesting.

Plus, when we watch sport with friends, family and fellow fans, there is a sense of being part of a group, a sense of belonging. We celebrate and commiserate together. It binds us together with other like-minded people.

Like the excitement a gambler feels when he is placing his bet, we fans would find it difficult to do without the thrills and spills of following our teams.

 

Depression in football: How can professional footballers become depressed?!

Written before Dr Victor Thompson’s appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live’s show on Thurs 8th December 2011 to discuss depression in football and sport with Michael Vaughan and Clarke Carlisle.

The tragic news towards the end of November that Gary Speed (ex-Wales football international, Wales football team manager) had hung himself sent shockwaves through the football world and beyond. I have been asked to comment in the media on why a man with so much going for himself would choose to end his own life. At first it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why would a man with a lovely wife, two young children, a multi-million pound house, a highly valued job, support from fans, a successful track record as a player and now as a manager, choose to end his life?

While I do not know details of Gary Speed’s life, his suicide does echo the story of Robert Enke, a goalkeeper, who played for various European teams as well as the German squad in Euro 2008. In November 2009, aged 32, Enke committed suicide when he stood in front of a train at a level crossing. He left a suicide note. Later, his widow revealed that her husband had been suffering from depression since 2003 and was treated by a psychiatrist. During this period his daughter, Lara, died of a heart defect and he struggled to cope with this loss. Enke’s story has been captured by his friend Ronaldo Deng, in the excellent book, A life too short.
Here are some stark statistics on the extent of the problem:

  • Depression is common, affecting 8-12% of the population each year (1).
  • It is more commonly diagnosed in women, but that may be mainly due to women being more likely to present for help and that doctors spot the signs in women (2)
  • Suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 35 years of age (3)
  • Approximately 5,500 people in the UK die from suicide each year (4)
  • Men are three times as likely than women to die by suicide (5)

What we see is them performing on the pitch or under the spotlight. There are pressures within the game, with struggles to gain and maintain form, challenges when out with injury. There can be difficulties with teammates and management. Critical ‘fans’ and comments in the media. Everyone seems to have an opinion on their performance.

Outside football these players can experience what anyone else can: problems at home, difficult relationships, loved one’s who fall ill or other misfortune.

Then these players might have been on a likely path to experience psychological difficulties anyway, whether they would be a footballer, tennis player, shop worker or unemployed. For instance, perhaps they were always an anxious child or someone who lacked self-belief.
A problem with depression is that when a person is struggling the most, when they would benefit most from help, they are least likely to reach out for help. The person’s outlook on life and the future is normally very bleak – pointless, hopeless, without change. Unfortunately, suicide can become entertained as a way to stop the suffering or to solve the problem. However, it doesn’t have to be this way as effective treatments exist for depression which can bring about improvements within days or a few weeks. I see sports and non-sports people every week, helping them to reclaim their life from the darkness of depression.

References:

  1. The Office for National Statistics Psychiatric Morbidity report, 2001
  2. Better Or Worse: A Longitudinal Study Of The Mental Health Of Adults In Great Britain, National Statistics, 2003
  3. The National Service Framework For Mental Health – Five Years On, Department Of Health, 2005
  4. Samaritans suicide statistics, 2004
  5. Samaritans Information Resource Pack, 2004

     

Robert Green – England goalkeeper lets in ‘easy save’ during England v USA game at the World Cup. How can he recover his confidence and perform well? My sports psychology tips for Green and Capello

How should Green cope with this error?

  1. Recall successes in previous matches, including times when he did well and recovered from setbacks.
  2. Learn from his mistake: what can he do differently, then develop a plan and follow this. For instance, he may conclude that his mistake was due to a lapse in concentration leading to the strike catching him somewhat unawares.
  3. Recall the entire match: note the successes in this USA match in terms of saves that he made.
  4. Seek out the support of others: teammates, England team support staff, friends, family.
  5. Blame the World Cup tournament ball – something other than himself.

What should Capello do?

Capello didn’t pull Robert Green off at half-time he has to play him for a while longer, or when he drops him from the team it will be difficult to put him back in the team. If Capello doesn’t play Green in the next match it will be difficult for Green to rebuild his own confidence or for the team to believe in him – his error in this first opening match will stick in everyone’s mind.

  1. Capello’s only real option is to keep playing Green so he either rebounds or if he doesn’t he’s dropped from the team, never to return.
  2. To ensure the maximum chances that Green will bounce-back, Capello has to communicate to Green privately and publicly in front of the team that he believes in Green and that Green will deliver. Then the ball is in his hands (we all hope).

 

Psychological tips for the lead-up to a marathon

Tip 1: go to the movies in your mind

Imagine for a moment that you are a move director, able to create any type of scenarios that you want. Think about how you want to run your race, how you will greet your marathon day, what you will eat, what you may wear. Think about how you will feel, the emotions of excitement and nerves. What types of thoughts will you have – positive, fearful, negative, or most likely some combination of all three. Now imagine the ‘race.’ How will you run it, what will you do to keep you on (not above) your race pace (heart rate monitor, GPS, time to each mile marker)? Think of what might get in the way of you having your best day out there – nutrition, poor pacing, giving space to your negative or stressful thoughts… Then work out how you might minimise each of these. Work these into your imagined scenes, with plenty of detail, make them as live as you can. Practice these scenarios and how you will overcome them, several times prior to marathon day.

Tip 2: Create three goals for marathon day

Goal 1: Dream goal, if all goes as well as it can (but still based on reality!)
Goal 2: Likely goal, if you have an okay day, challenging, mixed but not too much of a ‘mare.
Goal 3: Minimal goal, this is one of self-acceptance, even if the whole day turns into a ‘mare. You have done your best, but sometimes, well s*** happens.
Commit to being okay at the end of the day if you reach goal one, two or three.

Tip 3: You are doing long runs now in training, so use this to notice what is challenging about your running and how to overcome these with thoughts that are more helpful.

So, if you get bored, what can hold your attention? Perhaps you can inwardly singing songs (you don’t want to attract too much attention by doing it outwardly) or by counting certain types of objects that you see. If your thoughts turn dark, all about what a torturous experience this is, then what helps you counter this? Is it that you think of how other people’s struggles put yours into perspective (the terminally ill), or that others show you courage and fight (Lance Armstrong)? Learning these more helpful strategies helps you to get through training more easily and to try-out strategies that you can rely-on come race day.

“What a perfect series of runs from Amy Williams.”

Wrong.

Amy Williams had four competition runs in the Skeleton Bob (head first at up to 145 kmph down the icy track). She led at the end of the first run on day one, retaining this after the second run. The competitors then had 24 hours off until rounds three and four the next evening. Williams dealt well with this 24 hour period.

Each of her runs were not perfect, but well executed. Like a true champion, Williams focused on the process of how to execute well and get the best from herself on the track. Despite not being one of the favourites, she slid well in each run and focused on what she could do. After finishing her last run, she commented on how it wasn’t the prefect run, there were mistakes and places where she could have gone faster. At the finish she thought that she had dropped to third and was celebrating when her coach whispered in her ear that she had won gold.

Williams' performance this week as the underdog, was in sharp contrast to that of the local Canadian men and women skier teams (Downhill, Super-G) who seemed to crack under the pressure of expectation and crash out, not even making it to the finish line.

Could rugby star Brian Moore's career have been shaped by his reported child abuse?

Brian Moore, England Ruby’s ‘Pit Bull’ discloses in his second – and much more frank – autobiography, that he was sexually abused during childhood. Why should it shock us that it should happen to him? Is it because he was big, powerful and ferocious? Perhaps, but he wasn’t always. Like other children, when they are small they are at risk of being taken advantage of by bigger more powerful adults.

Could it be that what he experienced as a child fuelled him to become the rugby star later in life? Well, quite possibly. This is because as children, if we should get abused by adults, we usually end-up with a different mix of intense emotions than those with a more ideal childhood. The abused can grow up with more anger towards other people for having been taken advantage of, which can remain throughout life. They can experience more anxiety as they fear being taken advantage of again. Or, they may experience low mood or depression as they learned that they weren’t good enough or that there was something wrong with them – why else would they have been mistreated in such a way?

How do we know that someone like Brian Moore’s competitive career has been influenced by his abusive experiences? You can’t know for certain, but any of the following would indicate that they have been:

  • If the sportsperson believes that his or her childhood experiences are linked – e.g., they use these earlier experiences to get them fired-up and to motivate them.
  • If the intense anger emotions that are channelled into sport remain or even become more intense after retirement from sport.
  • If memories of these experiences from childhood become more frequent and troubling after retirement.
  • If the sportsperson engages in successful psychological therapy for these issues during their competitive career and the anger, drive, motivation and performance then drops.

This sports psychology comment was written following an interview that Dr Victor Thompson gave to the Independent newspaper following the release of Brian Moore’s autobiography in Jan 2010.

The suicide of German goalkeeper Robert Enke on 10 Nov '09. Should we be surprised when sports stars struggle to cope?

I was saddened to learn yesterday (10 Nov 09) about the suicide of Germany's goalkeeper Robert Enke, aged 32. He was struck by a train at a level crossing near his Hanover home and had left a suicide note.
 See BBC News website:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/sport1/hi/football/internationals/8353964.stm

Athletes, sports stars and footballers all are people too. What I mean by this is life still happens. Challenging life events or experiences still happen. So, just like the rest of us, they end up in challenging relationships, enter into marriages that break-up acrimoniously, have loved ones who get sick with nasty illness, cancer or mental health difficulties. They can experience accidents and get into car crashes like we all can. Just like the rest of us.
 What we see is them performing on the pitch or under the spotlight. What we don't see is their life outside those 90-minutes a week, when they are training, at home, with their family, at the hospital….

We see the composed, focused, coping, performing athlete.

We don't see the struggles, challenges, emotions, arguments, angst, doubts, fears…

Sports stars are able (mostly) to cope with competitive pressures and sometimes they can apply these same skills to other situations in life - well, up to a limit. For after this, they can struggle just like the rest of us.
So, although I was saddened to hear about the suicide of Robert Enke, it doesn't surprise me. We can all struggle and suffer in life. We are all human after all.

It takes a brave person, professional athlete or not, to seek help during their darker days, when they struggle to cope with life. Offer them the support they need and help them get in touch with the right professionals.

Caster Semenya’s gender test: psychological challenges and opportunities (from Dr Victor Thompson's BBC World News TV interview)

After being crowned last night (19th August 2009) as the 800m Athletics World Champion, Caster Semenya now faces another challenge in her short athletic career: facing the questions over her gender.

Here is the background, the challenges and my suggestions on how she can use this to become psychologically stronger:

The IAAF (the athletics governing body) requested that Semenya teenager take a gender test after she posted a world leading time of 1 minute 56.72 seconds at the African junior championships in Mauritius at three weeks ago. Prior to this she wasn’t known outside or even really known within Africa.

What is amazing is that this competitor with very limited competitive experience, no experience of competition outside Africa or at a previous World Championships won gold at her first attempt. Add to this the fact that held her composure and performed well at the tender age of 18-years. Also, she managed this in the context of gender tests to be conducted, competitors, coaches, media and supporters thinking and saying things about her. These three factors really impress me and show her psychological skills or mental toughness.

Semenya said about the upcoming gender testing that "I don't give a damn about it.” This may be true, though I doubt that this is really the case. Here are the likely scenarios:

  1. She as no questions about her gender (she grew-up as a girl, has all the ‘bits’ of a female): Then she is likely to feel anger and outrage, that it is not fair that she is being asked to prove herself, she may feel targeted, hunted, treated differently.
  2. She has questions over her own gender or identity, maybe because she has atypical female ‘bits’, male characteristics or has had medical investigations or interventions to do with hormones or her development: Then she is likely to experience a fair amount of anxiety and worry, about her past or medical history becoming public knowledge, or that these tests prove what she or other people have had suspicions about.

As we can see, these tests have the potential to really affect her. Although there is another way: to use the testing as something positive.

How can she use the tests to her advantage?

If she has no questions about her gender and the results will be fine (she’s a ‘female/woman’) then I believe that her best approach will be to do the following three things:

  1. Surround herself with a close, supportive, protective and tight-knitted team.
  2. Develop a show-them attitude, become motivated by this, use the anger to fuel training and future performances.
  3. Generate a helpful conclusion about why you were subjected to these tests. Do not view them as part of being persecuted, hunted, singled-out… as this will likely be destructive and unhelpful. Instead, think that you have been sent for these tests because you are such a hot talent, so good, with such potential that you have rattled them. They are scared of you. And that is good for you. You are ‘doing a Usain Bolt’ in woman’s track and field. That feels good and you can use it.

Success in the 2009 Tour de France brings challenges for Cavendish, Wiggins and Armstrong

The Tour de France has just finished with the best finishes by British riders in Tour history: Mark Cavendish wins 6 stages including the blue ribbon final stage on Paris’s Champs-Elysées, Bradley Wiggins finishes 4th overall, just a few seconds behind 7-time winner Lance Armstrong. Armstrong makes a reappearance at the Tour after a 4 year absence to finish 3rd. After the champagne has been drunk these three riders face very different challenges for their assault on the 2010 season.

Mark Cavendish has said for weeks that his goal was to finish the Tour for the first time and to win on the Champs-Elysées. Not only did he do this, but he won 5 other stages. He’s only 24 years-of-age and has won more stages in the Tour than any other British rider. He’s won the most famous stage in the world’s biggest cycle race, so what next? How will he keep his hunger for the rest of this season and focus on targets that will keep him working hard for 2010? In my opinion, what might help is to see the 2010 season as different, with 2009 in the past and irrelevant. Sure use the knowledge that he’s won to help his confidence, but no one is going to hand him any wins on a plate, plus some of his rivals are going to be more fired-up to knock him off his perch. Cavendish needs to use this to drive him to success in 2010.

For Bradley Wiggins, who has spent months preparing for the Tour like never before (his usual focus is on the track), with a big effort to lose body weight without losing muscle and power, he will face a struggle to step onto the podium in 2010. Why’s this? He knows that Armstrong with a team around him in 2010, will be a year older, but you can never count out the 7-time winner and a return to the race with a podium finish. This year’s winner, Alberto Contador was untouchable in the mountains and time-trials – a fact that Wiggins is well aware of. Wiggins needs to focus on his prep and performance targets for 2010. You can’t account for how your competitors will prepare and their condition, you need to focus on yourself and what you can control. Who knows, one of the Tour crashes may open-up the leader board before race reaches Paris.

Lance Armstrong, never likes to lose and this was clear in this year’s Tour – in interviews and his body language when standing next to Contador on the winner’s podium. It was apparent this year that when individuals were going head-to-head (the time-trials and mountain finishes) Contador was stronger. Even Armstrong at his best probably wouldn’t be at Contador’s level and Contador is 10-years his junior. The only real chance Armstrong has for 2010 victory is to use tactical teamwork to create breaks during the stages – probably flat stages to isolate Contador. This would be new tactic for modern Tour de France teams. The usual tactic is to gain time in the mountains and/or time-trials. Armstrong with confidence in his team and in a few tactical options will be hard to beat. Psychologically, he’s very strong and has all the mental skills to push himself, stay focused and confident throughout the three weeks of the Tour. Seven Tour victories give confidence like little else will.

Athletes stick to 'luck underpants' - superstitions in sport

Despite the science and multi-million pound budgets involved, superstitions or elaborate event rituals are alive and well at all levels in the world of sport.

Serena Williams, who plays in the final of Wimbledon this weekend, is no stranger to these rituals.

When asked why she had played so badly at the French Open last year, she said: "I didn't tie my laces right and I didn't bounce the ball five times and I didn't bring my shower sandals to the court with me.

"I didn't have my extra dress. I just knew it was fate; it wasn't going to happen."

So was it these objects? Well yes and no. It is her belief that she had missed taking something or doing something.

If you believe you are not going to do it, then you will be less confident and play in a less assured way. Performance suffers.

Andy Murray's coach Miles Maclagan apparently insists that Andy uses the same practice court, at the same time, every day.

Close observers of his game at Wimbledon will also have picked up that when Andy wins a point during his service game, he insists that he gets the very same ball back to use the next time.

Now, can that ball really be different to any of the other balls opened at the same time, on the court, from the same manufacturer? I doubt it.

Why do superstitions develop in sports?

These routines can develop for sportsmen and women in two different ways.

The first is that when the athlete has a better than expected outcome, they understandably search for the reason behind it so they can repeat the good result.

They will latch onto something, almost anything.

So instead of concluding that it was due to their good training or simply that they had been leading up to this performance, they incorrectly conclude that it was because they wore something different, spoke to someone different, watched some TV programme or listened to a particular piece of music.

The second is if they perform poorly they attribute this to the absence of something. Was it that they forgot to wear something or do something?

Or if they did follow their routine, was it that they followed it differently, too quickly, too slowly, or started it too early in the day?

So with time, routines become more elaborate, strange, removed from normality, and 'superstitious-like'.

Why do superstitions remain over time if they have nothing to do with the outcome?

Sports people need to do well, to feel confident, to manage stress, anxiety and uncertainty. Because they think their extreme routines can at least partly influence the outcome... then they better keep following them.

Not to do this, they reason, would simply be foolish. In other words, they follow their routine 'just in case'.

But there are some obvious problems with having deeply-held routines or superstitions.

When things get in the way of you following your routine - perhaps you cannot find your lucky shirt or underpants, someone else needs to be that last person out of the changing room, or your music player breaks so you cannot listen to your lucky pre-game album - this can create anger, stress, anxiety, and physical tension.

It becomes a distraction and causes a drop in confidence... all of which leads to a higher chance of performing poorly.

Also, if you are attributing your good or bad performance to these strange things, then you will not be looking at the real performance factors that could raise your games, for example strategy, skills, nutrition, confidence and focus.

And performing your set routines or superstitions can actually get in the way of a good performance and be a major distraction.

'Deeply-held routines'

So, what can be done to help athletes with these deeply-held routines?

I work with athletes to have flexibility in their pre-event, warm-up and during the competition routines.

They can learn to cope easily without their lucky underpants, favourite music or practice scenario. To remain confident in their performance, good at responding to change and fine with uncertainty.

I advise them to sit back and let their opponent unravel when external events get in the way and to capitalise on these times.

It has got to be better to attribute success to what you do, rather than how you put on your clothes half an hour before a match.

(This superstition article was published on the BBC and linked to Dr Victor Thompson's BBC Radio 4 Today Programme interview: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8132000/8132583.stm)

How smart goal keepers can alter their strategy to save more penalty kicks

Goalkeepers have it hard. While strikers take all the credit for scoring, goalkeepers only really get attention when they make mistakes. New psychological research has provided some fascinating insight into what goalkeepers do and ought to do when facing penalty kicks.

Azar and his research colleagues analysed 286 penalty kicks taken in elite matches and found that goalkeepers saved substantially more penalty kicks when they stay in the centre of goal, in comparison to when they jump to the left or right. However, in 93.7 per cent of penalty situations, goalkeepers chose to jump to the side rather than stay in the centre.

Goalkeepers saved 33.3 per cent of penalties when they stayed in the centre, compared with just 12.6 per cent of kicks when they jumped right and 14.2 per cent when they jumped left.

This is probably accounted for by the fact that goalkeepers will likely feel greater regret at letting a goal in after standing still in the centre and which is akin to not making an attempt to save it, when compared with choosing to jump (do something about the risk). This view seems to be backed-up by a survey of 32 top goalkeepers: Of the 15 who said their goal position would make any difference to how bad they felt about letting in a penalty, 11 said they would feel worse if they just stayed in the centre.

I also wonder if the arousal and stress in the goalkeeper just before the penalty, which prepares the body to move and in other situations helps us to fight or take flight, ‘tells’ the goalkeeper to move. Evidence for this would be found if goalkeepers who report experiencing greater arousal/stress move to the side more frequently than those who experience less arousal/stress.

There are a couple of implications of this research for intelligent goalkeepers:

  1. Stand in the middle more often and you are likely to be in the saving position more often. As long as other goalkeepers don’t modify their behaviour to stay in the middle more often, then your new strategy should pay dividends.
  2. If all other goalkeepers started staying in the middle more, with strikers and coaches noticing this, then strikers may modify their behaviour to shoot for the sides more often. If this happens it is time to review your strategy to stay ahead of the game.

Comments were based on research by: Bar-Eli, M., Azar, O.H., Ritov, I. & Keidar-Levin, Y. (2007). Action bias among elite soccer goalkeepers: The case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology, 28, 606-621

Can you be too mentally tough?

Encouragement in the media and sporting contexts to show mental toughness, hanging in there, show grit, dogged determination...is common. But is this always a good thing? Sure, being determined and remaining undeterred in pursuit of your goals is a good thing - especially if you are susceptible to being knocked-off track, or find it difficult to get going in the first place. However, I believe that there is a flip-side to this emphasis of rising to all challenges, quitting being for wimps...

Take the example of the runner who runs twice a day according to the schedule they have from their coach. They run no matter what. When they are shattered they don't do less or run at a lower intensity, they push it even more on these days because they fret that if they don't they are somehow a lesser athlete or not mentally tough enough, perhaps reminding themselves that "Winners never quit, quitters never win." They don't ease off on easier weeks, for fear of losing fitness. Perhaps they even get up in the middle of the night and sneak out for an extra one-hour run a couple of nights a week. You may think that this is extreme, but I've seen athletes who've done it.

What's the result? Faster running? Improved performance? Accelerated development? No, or at least not for long. Instead the result will be a mixture of overtraining, colds, aches, pains, injury, illness, a performance plateau or decline.

For other over-motivated athletes risks develop if they persevere during competitions when they should pull-out. They develop an injury or their body gets into difficulty during an event which can risk long-term consequences. Now, I can write from first-hand experience about this as in 2006 I developed gastric problems during an Ironman after 3.5 hours and continued for another 8 hours, then need medical attention (but received the opposite of what I needed), then needed adrenaline, my heart reshocking and 36 hours on a ventilator in ITU.

So what's the solution?

1. To prevent a similar situation developing as the runner's scenario above: (a) introduce regular reviews of training volumes, intensity and progress where honest feedback is received from someone in the know (e.g. a coach); (b) be on the lookout for performance plateaus, injury, and illnesses; and (c) schedule and follow periods of less activity and activities that boost recovery.

2. To prevent a similar situation developing during an event (as in my scenario): (a) have reviews throughout competition where you look at key performance indicators such as intensity, speed, power and low the body is functioning (stiffness, pain, stomach/gut function etc.) and consider if you can receive feedback from someone else at the competition (e.g. a coach, family member etc.); and (b) decide before hand what the likely scenarios will be where the best thing would be to pull-out of the competition in order to look after yourself and be able to have a better race on another day.

More Tour de France drug scandals: Why do riders do it?

Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was asked to leave the tour after questions over whether he failed to tell the drug testing authorities where he would be during his preparation for this years Tour. It has emerged that despite telling the press for over a week that he was training in Mexico, his wife’s homeland, he was actually in Italy. Suspicion has increased as to whether he purposely deceived the testers so he could take cycle of drugs or other blood doping (e.g. EPO) during this period, and only looks worse now there has been evidence that he may have lied.

Two other riders have tested positive this week for banned drugs and pre-Tour favourite Alexandre Vinokourov displayed traces of someone else’s blood – all three have been kicked out of the Tour. Worse still for British hopes, two entire teams have left the Tour along with their disgraced riders. So hopes of Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins finishing in Paris in less than a week are over.

So why do riders take the drugs or blood dope when the risks to them and others are so high?

  1. We are creatures of habit. We do today what we did yesterday. We do this year what we did last year. Riders too will generally follow the same regime and take the same performance enhancing choices as they did before.

  2. There is pressure to perform: From sponsors, team management, team mates, and the public/fans. Can you as a rider perform up to those expectations, live with the consequences on not performing up to those expectations, or will you give in to the temptation of taking something illegal to give you more confidence in your performance?

  3. There are personal needs to be satisfied. Riders are competitive. Some have a strong need to be successful, gain glory, be seen on TV, beat a key adversary, show that their training has been worth it, that they are as good as or better than before. It’s tempting then to take something that would give you an edge – or level out the playing field if you think the other riders are ‘on something.’

How can riders ride clean?

  1. Realise that taking banned performance enhancing products is a choice, your choice, no matter what pressure may be exerted on you.
  2. Accept that the probability of getting caught is high.
    Accept that the consequences of getting caught are prohibitive – whether this is loss of face, embarrassment, shame, dent in income, long-term ban or whatever is severe enough to be a deterrent to you.
  3. Accept that cycling is being cleaned up and you are playing Russian Roulette if you continue to dope.
  4. Choose to be a leader in this newer healthier cycling.
    Have faith that the cheats will be caught.
  5. Have confidence that if your performance drops you’ll be able to absorb this and won’t be crushed by it. Your performance is important, sure, but not life and death.

Tour de France: The ultimate suffering in sport.

For the first time since 1994 the Tour de France cycle race starts in England. The riders of this endurance event have to endure as much mentally as well as physically.

The race kicked-off with a 8 KM prologue around our capital. This translated into around 10-minutes of lung-busting effort for the riders, where they ride the latest twitchy, carbon-fibre, wind-tunnel tested bikes on tyres less than one-inch wide. The riders studied the course beforehand learning the twists and turns, using their powers of imagery to see themselves taking the fastest lines through the apex of the corners and accelerating out the other side. They will run through this a dozen or so times during their warm-up – which last for one-hour on their bike as it is held stationary on rollers. During their warm-up they will vary their effort using not just their perception of how their body feels, but also through heart-rate monitors across their chest and power meters attached to their cranks.

For eight minutes the riders are on the limit, when every bit of their body’s screaming at them to slow and make it more comfortable. For some riders, including our own Bradley Wiggins and David Miller, these ten-minutes would be the most important of their season. This one day. In front of their home crowd.

The riders who ride well, need not only a fine physique, trained body and peak shape, but the right mental approach too. Unlike the others, they will not dread the pain and discomfort that is a given, but instead use this as signs that they are at the right level. They acknowledge that the pain is temporary, are willing to experience it. Use their body’s reactions as a sign that they are ready. They’ll soak up the atmosphere and excitement. Enjoy the attention. In short, they will use each element of the day to their advantage.

The Prologue is used to seed the riders, to give an indication to the world of their form, to show who is in condition, a contender. Perhaps more than that, it is the only opportunity for the short time trial specialists to wear the coveted Maillot Jaune – the Yellow Jersey – the symbol of the leader on the Tour, a career highlight for all who are talented enough to wear it.
The next day is Stage One, the first of three weeks of mostly long road stages. In contrast to the prologue’s 8 KM, this stage lasts 203 KM - over five-hours of racing. Some riders will try to breakaway from the peleton trying to get some glory on the road, before being swallowed up by the peleton. Most will choose the most efficient strategy: to ride conservatively, not burning up too much energy so they will arrive within the main group at the end of the stage. Concentration skills will be tested as riders are rarely more than a foot from another bike or rider, often within a few inches, sometimes making contact and occasionally getting caught-up in a crash. Hitting the road at up to 40 miles per hour with only a single layer of lycra or naked flesh is always going to hurt. Crashes happen, bones break, skin is lost. Professional cyclists accept this risk and need to be able to ride relaxed but altert. For the first week of the Tour the peleton is twitchy, crashes happen most days, sometimes several times in a day – especially if there is wet and windy weather.

Day after day, cycling for up to six hours of at 60-95 % of maximum heart rate is tough. After a few days the body yearns for rest. It is stiff and tired – but the daily sports massage can only rub away so much of the fatigue. The body is constantly hungry and it is usually impossible to ingest the thousands of calories required to maintain body weight and power. Eating becomes almost a full-time job.

Mental fatigue can set in: the repetitive nature of riding, feeding, listening to team talks on strategy or other matters, sleeping with an aching body and in a different town each night is difficult to absorb. It’s certainly not a touring holiday.

Then there is the weather: the heat in southern France and the massif central, coastal winds, and thunderstorms to contend with.

Most riders must ride for other members of their team, for all or most of the race. Some will support their team leader to help his chance of winning the Tour overall. Others will help shelter and then drive forward their team mate until they are within the last hundred metres of the finishing banner where their teammate can be released to sprint for the stage win. The vast majority of riders don’t have the luxury of riding for themselves in the Tour, or even at any stage in the Tour. This self-sacrifice and suffering for someone else is tough. How many of us could be so selfless and do so with grace under such punishing conditions?

Every now and then there is a time trial, similar to the Prologue but longer, sometimes lasting over an hour, after days of long stages, when the body is no longer fresh. The riders focus now needs to be on maintaining a high level of effort, an aerodynamic position, the right gear ratio and best speed to turn the pedals, cornering fast, but not overcooking it and ending up in the barriers. All this happens while your manager chases you around the course in a team car shouting at you through your earpiece.

Each year it almost seems a surprise, that the vast majority of the riders - mostly those who avoided a major crash – will finish the Tour in the traditional finish, on Paris’ beautiful Champs-Elysees. Each rider is given a finishers medal and the right be a sporting hero. Surely, they have shown us the greatest powers of enduring physical and mental punishment.

Wimbledon – the mental tricks the pros and non-pros can use to deal with our British weather

It’s June and it’s time for what is arguably our best sporting event – Wimbledon one of the tennis grand slams. For most of us the current changeable weather – showers or a more intense deluge, or if lucky, a moment of sunshine – is an inconvenience, but doesn’t really get in our way.

However, for the professional athlete/sportsperson used to training and competing in pleasant climates where consistent sunshine is the norm, our showery weather can pose significant challenges. This is especially true for tennis. In tennis, rain stops play (as in cricket). This is unlike other sports like football, rugby or track and field athletics where competition continues come rain or shine.

Most tennis players train and practice in some of the more pleasant climates: Florida, Spain or Australia. Many players have access to indoor arenas when the weather isn’t so good. This is great as it allows players to spend more quality time practicing to hone their skills. However, come competition time the interruptions in play due to rain can really rattle a player. It is often said by professional athletes (including tennis players) that the difference between winners and losers is psychological. All the skills and physical fitness amounts to little if the player loses concentration, gets frustrated, develops tension, panics or loses self-belief.

The interruption of play due to bad weather poses the following challenges to players:

  • Uncertainty about when they will play (when rain will stop)
  • Uncertainty about how long they will continue to play (when rain will start)
  • How to regain positive momentum after a restart
  • How to manage the time when the aren’t playing

Dealing with the uncertainty of when they might be able to start or restart a match

The problem: If you don’t know how long it will be until you are playing, how do you know what to eat and how much? Do you eat something sugary as a snack or more starchy and that will take longer to digest? This can cause stress and worry. Also, there can be a problem with the prematch routines. The main purpose of these routines is to get ready for the match: to feel physically and mentally ready. Performing these routines several times might be difficult if it seems odd or wrong to do them more than once before a match.

The solution: Proper planning beforehand will help. If you know you are unlikely to play for 30, 60, 90 minutes and so on, then have a plan for what will be good to eat, and ensure you have ready access to these foods (have them in your kit bag). To help with the prematch routines, make sure that you practice doing and visualising yourself doing them several times a day in training or practices. Imagine different scenarios: different lengths of breaks in play, restarting after being ahead or behind before the break.

Dealing with the uncertainty about how long they will play before rain will interrupt play.

The problem: Uncertainty can create doubt and anxiety because factors are outside the players control. This is particularly difficult for the player who likes to believe that they play well when they are in control. Also, if they are playing well they can feel pressurised to win the match before the weather turns, because they might fear that the opponent will bounce back if there is a break in play and an opportunity to reflect on play.

The solution: Peak performance occurs when players are focused on the moment, what they are doing right now (not if 5 minutes), and on things that they can influence.

Regaining momentum after a restart

The problem: It can be difficult to start performing at the level that you left the court. You may have doubts about how you’ve lost the advantage or that your opponent has had time to analyse why they were losing.

The solution: Ensure that you are feeling ready, excited and up for the restart. Imagine coming out to resume play feeling good, confident and playing well. Acknowledge the things that you were doing that were helping you play well. Recognise that your opponent has a challenge on their hands to come out and try to turn things around. You’re ready!

Managing the time when you are not playing

The problem: Worrying about your performance, what you did wrong, the missed opportunities, how you were unable to finish the match with a win before play was stopped, doubting if you’ll be able to restart dominantly will be unhelpful. It can eat away at you during the break, lead to more doubt, worry, tension and burn off too much nervous energy when you could be relaxing.

The solution: Have a sheet of paper with you that you can write down answers to key questions e.g., What will I continue to do after a restart? What should I change in my play that will help? Then set this page aside knowing that you have noted the bits you need to. Then do what you know will work for you to relax. For some players this will be having a nap, listening to music, reading, doing sudoku, or catching up on email on your laptop.

Another tip is to remember that as a tennis player you are a restart specialist. Depending on how you look at it, you could see that you restart after every few games during your down time on your chair, after each game, or even after each point.

Lewis Hamilton – using imagery to imagine it happen

Lewis Hamilton won his first Grand Prix 2 weeks ago in Canada. (Then again the next week.) There are several remarkable aspects to his win:

  • It was his first win
  • He now leads the drivers championship standings
  • It was only his sixth Grand Prix race (quicker than any previous F1 driver)
  • He’d never driven round the track until the race weekend

It wasn’t an easy win – he had to deal with four restarts after a period behind the safety car and rebuild his lead each time from scratch. Also, it is a track with a high crash rate, as seen in the number of other drivers who crashed during the race.

So how did he do it?

  • He is very talented
  • He has high self-confidence
  • He drove the course before he even arrived at the track

Yes, before the race Lewis commented on how he was looking forward to the Canadian Grand Prix because he had only ever driven the course on the MacLaren simulator. I believe this was key to his success. This allowed his mind to run through the race corner by corner, from start to finish. In doing so, he was able to see in his mind how he’d drive the course, find the best racing line, work out his braking points, and so on. By using the simulator, imagining how he’d be and what he’d be doing, he had already driven the race several times before arriving in the country.

Now, not all athletes have the benefit of expensive mechanical simulators for their sport, and indeed, it wouldn’t be possible to build them for every sport. However, we all have the ability to use our minds as simulators to generate powerful images of performance. This allows us to practice many times without the risk of injury or the need to be at particular locations. For these simulations to be effective we need to create images which are not only visually detailed, but also create in our imagination the smells, touches, emotions, sounds and bodily movement patterns that we experience in reality. Once these images are created, we can then use them to imagine different scenarios. Using the F1 example, we could imagine getting a great start, poor start, getting a puncture, losing the in-car radio communication etc. Next, run through each of these scenarios in your mind, ‘seeing’ how you’ll deal with them and come out the other side after coping well with them. Then, should they happen in reality, they will seem familiar, you’ll already have a well thought through plan, which is ready to execute, allowing you to cope with the situation without generating the expected stress and other unhelpful emotions.

Developing effective imagery skills is just one of the skills I help all types of athletes with.

Staying top dog isn’t easy: The case of English Cricket, English Rugby, and Moto GP Champion Valentino Rossi

All sports people strive to be the best that they can be, to perform, and excel. The hungry and motivated athletes will persist in the face of setbacks and challenges. The talented ones, who work hard, will be in a position to win. Winning consistently brings tournament and championship success. Maintaining a winning position is difficult.

Perhaps your hunger and drive go. After all, you’ve achieved what you have likely dreamt of and had as your goal for years. It can be difficult to refocus after this. What do you have to prove? Perhaps you expect that it will be easier next time, or a given that you’ll repeat the success - as often this is the message that fans and the media gives to you. Sometimes the pressure of being seen as the favourite can be difficult to shoulder if you’d rather go about your preparation and competition without the extra spotlight.

There is another, no less significant hurdle to overcome – time. Time brings changes: changes in personnel, support staff, or team-mates, opportunities for injuries to develop (just think of how injuries have side-lined Jonny Wilkinson, the 2003 Rugby World Cup hero), time for competitors to improve, other life events that can detract from your preparation.

As the title says: staying top dog isn’t easy.

Michael Schumacher - what set him apart?

What sets him apart is not that he’s got one facet that other drivers don’t, but that the sum of his skills and abilities are a powerful combination.
What was easy to see on his arrival in F1 was his driving talent and his determination. This determination led him to work harder than anyone else seemed to be doing at the time. This meant that he was testing his cars, reading technical data and working on being the physically fittest driver out there.

But perhaps what sets him apart most of all as a driver, is not his physical attributes, but his emotional control and intelligence. He is able to keep his emotions in check when racing, so his anger and frustrations don’t cause surges in adrenaline that impair performance – through an altered sense of timing or taking greater risks. Yes, there have been some well known gaffes, but I believe these have been a product of his very high levels of passion and desire for competition and winning, rather than cold-hearted calculation.

Schumacher isn’t a machine, selfless and uncaring as he was portrayed over a decade ago. Perhaps he was more like this when he arrived in F1, or just that he was young and learning how to be an F1 driver. He has certainly evolved into a team player. We saw this in how he got the team behind him, working for him and the car’s performance. They see his commitment, hard work and passion and it rubs off on everyone at Ferrari. It is easy to see that this approach works in his favour as it quickens the development of the car.

There is evidence of how he’s a team player time and time again. When he celebrates he does so with passion, energy and hugs his team. In the penultimate round of this year’s championship when his car retired with mechanical problems, in effect putting him out of the drivers’ championship, it was he who was consoling the team when he made it back to the Ferrari garage – not them consoling him.

His emotional intelligence and ability to get the team dynamics working for him developed over his career as he matured. I believe it is this that set him apart and above the other drivers of his generation.

Other teams have great cars, aerodynamic packages, engines, tyres, strategies and drivers. But what they seem to lack at times is the cohesiveness and closeness that Schumacher developed at Ferrari. It is this that helps the whole team pull together and gets results. Other sports are littered with examples of having the best players and skills, but get beaten by other teams who work better as a unit. With Schumacher we saw both - the best driver and the best functioning team pulling for him. With this combination the product was record-setting winning and domination.

Effective · Tailor-made · Professional

Dr Victor Thompson

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