Thursday, 4 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Day 4. Psychological breakdown

No, don't worry! I'm not losing my mind or going crackers! I've called today's post 'Psychological breakdown' so I can frame some of the concepts used in Sport Psychology so they can be applied to real life, by reviewing some of the things discussed by me on Tuesday, and Simon Freeman yesterday. By sharing what research in the field has shown will hopefully inform you in your training, or investigate these further.

First of all I'll write a bit on anxiety. Simon wrote: "I started to wonder how I had come 62nd out of 17,000 runners in a race that I was concerned I wouldn’t even finish" Before a race we all experience a rise in the symptoms of anxiety. This may be the butterflies in the tummy, or angst in your mind about whether you'll mentally 'turn up on race day' or maybe how you'll cope with the expectation you have set yourself for your performance. Research has consistently found that the best athletes embrace these cognitive and physical symptoms and turn them into a positive to psych themselves up (or down) for upcoming performance. I find this area of Sport Psychology fascinating, and really goes to show the power of a positive mindset. Some athletes already have the natural mental strength or fortitude that they know that a rise in pre-event anxiety is inevitable and naturally deal with it. Others need to work with their coach or a Sport Psychologist to restructure their thoughts to be more positive to have a performance best. Obviously, I'd advise in the first instance as a practitioner and coach that to be in the right mindset, you need to give yourself the best chance possible. If you're a runner, this means in the week before a race, get lots of rest. Make sure you've slept soundly in the couple of nights prior to the night before a race. On the actual night before an event you may not sleep well due to the expectation of the race has caused. You know that we all think better and more clearly if you're rested properly. If you're doing an endurance event, your mind needs to be as fresh as possible as the challenge will use up a lot of mental energy. I believe that eschewing drink during the last week is beneficial, as research shows that alcohol disrupts sleep, so you can't properly rest and recharge.

Simon also writes: "I think that to some extent I simply decided that I could cruise along at faster than six minute miles and catch the runner in front" Here, he is showing his 'self-efficacy' (or belief as normal people may call it!), in his abilities. The psychologist most associated with this concept is Albert Bandura, a leader in cognitive social learning theory. Bandura defines people high in self-efficacy as:

"People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided.

To have a high level of self-efficacy, an individual needs to have successfully performed an act previously. Given Simon's previous race record, I'd challenge him that it is not surprising he can churn out a time within 3 minutes of his PB. He's been there before in a similar situation, ran the same race, knows whats upcoming in his mind that he has to face (whether anxiety, coping with pain, having to run faster, that everything will be ok) but fundamentally, that he is capable of putting in a great performance. In addition, I felt I had strong self-efficacy for my performance on Sunday as I had completed 3 months worth of training. I only missed one session and had completed a big plan of intervals, hills, long runs, core and took strength from the fact that I had done everything within my power to prepare properly for the race, which would result in me setting a new PB. That's self-efficacy.

By distracting himself helping out other runners, Simon also shows us a technique called 'disassociation' (I covered this a few years ago in a write up of a talk by Dr Tim Holder here). By taking his focus away from himself, wanting to helping others and avoid any negatives, he was dissociating. Simon didn't write about whether he 'associated', focusing on how his performance was going (whether mental or physical). I tried to associate to the pain I was going through in the latter half of the race, though it didn't help me a great deal with going faster! All it did was tell me my blisters were bloody aching!

Joking aside, I did use a trick of association where I broke down the remainder of my performance mile by mile, trying to stay in the moment, and not think too far ahead by saying 'get through the next mile and make it your best - don't worry about anything more than that.' It's an old running trick that we've all done, but in the heat of a race, easy to forget. And takes a certain mental strength to remember. If I get enough interest I'll write more on association and disassociation, as for runners and endurance cyclists/triathletes, I think its an integral skill to aid performance.

So - there we go. Anxiety, Self-efficacy, Coping strategies.  I'm merely touching on some massive Sport Psychology topics, and not fully giving each of them justice, but I hope you are beginning to understand how they fit together to account for how you can improve your performance in whatever sport you participate in. Please do ask questions and what you want to know more detail on.

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