Friday, 18 May 2012

What separates the great from the good? Dan Gould on the Psychology of Olympic Excellence BPS 2012 conference keynote

A month ago, after a whirlwind trip to Japan and meeting Dr Matt Buman (the leading hitting-the-wall researcher in Sport Psychology) in America, I was lucky enough to attend the BPS annual conference in London. The British Psychological Society (BPS) is the professional body for psychologists in the UK that covers all divisions, from clinical to educational, occupational to sport, forensic and health. This year’s annual conference was themed around and focused on Sport, with the conference being held in this year’s Olympic city and showcasing to other colleagues from across the psychology spectrum some of the advances in our field.

My personal favourite talk was a study that introduced a yoga and mindfulness intervention to a group of swimmers, to see improvements in performance and flow states by researchers from Liverpool John Moore. It was the last 10 minute lecture of the last day (usually the graveyard slot) but a lesson in staying to the end at these events, when most delegates are keen to slope off to beat the traffic.

The heavy hitter for the conference though was Professor Dan Gould of Michigan State University who gave an hour talk on the Psychology of Olympic Excellence and its development over the past 40 years. Gould has worked with many US Olympic teams, across different disciplines and is one of the most respected Sport Psychologists. His book with Lew Hardy and Graham Jones is a standard textbook for all the Masters Sport Psych students I've ever known!

His talk started his talk looking at the role of psychology in the history of Olympic excellence and then drew our attention to 3 themes. 1) The psychological characteristics associated with Olympic success. 2) Psychological preparation and performance; and 3) Emerging research on the psychological factors and athlete talent development.

Starting with Sport Psychology in the home of the Olympics, Gould mentioned evidence from Ancient Greece, where (apparently) Self Talk in sport is referred to as far back as 776BC (didn’t catch the citationJ). Prof Gould bought things up to the modern day by referring to Taylor, Gould and Rolo (2008) and a study that aimed to look at the psychological differences of Olympic medallists and non-medallists.

Using the test of performance strategies (TOPS) tool, it was found that medallists reported greater emotional control and mental automaticity than non-medallists, who were shown to have (overall) more negative thinking. Medallists displayed better use of psychological skills in practice and in competition than non-medallists. In addition it was found that medallists more frequently used psychological strategies. So far, nothing reported was that surprising. But one confound to this was that of imagery, which is often seen as a skill characteristic of the best athletes (Paula Radcliffe and Michael Johnson oft cited) which wasn’t found to be any better in this group of Olympic athletes. That is not to say imagery is not an important factor. It is such a well-quoted skill in Sport Psychology  (e.g. that I take it for granted. There are always areas though that deserve your attention as a professional, and it is an area I’m interested in exploring in more depth next year. I’m interested in the sports that the skill is most useful in and what the current leading research advises about the subject.

Moving to his second theme, Dan talked about the ‘Athletes and coaches project’ (Gould et al 1998, followed up in 2001 and 2002, then again in 2009), where his team looked at the factors that positively or negatively affect Olympic performance. By conducting surveys, focus groups and interviews, the team found that successful performance can easily be disrupted at Olympics by different distractions. After countless hours in training by athletes preparing for major competition, researchers have found that coaches and athletes need to pay minute attention to detail in order to achieve medal success. At the same time as also taking a flexible approach. He stated that talking to 100s of athletes across different Olympics games, the expectation of athletes behaviour by significant others is akin to taking a child to Disneyworld, throwing open the hotel window to see the park below, and then asking the child to do their homework!

Gould believes that everything at an Olympic games is a performance issue, from the transport, the food, sponsors, family and friends, to the tiniest detail. From research, athletes who have been the most successful have dealt best with these distractions, having a single minded focus, drawing energy from the excitement whilst not getting caught up in it. As Olympic Games progress, and athletes get nearer medals, pressure mounts. As dull as it sounds, the best advice is to take refuge in the routine, and stick with what you know. Advice that seems simple but at each Olympics, things will change.  

Prof Gould touched on overtraining, citing a study ran after the Atlanta games of 1996 that 28% of US athletes felt that they completed too much physical preparation. After running an education programme to reduce overtraining, researchers found the percentage of those who felt they over trained after the Sydney Olympics (4 years later in 2000) dropped to 14%. This is a lesson that all Sport Psychologists can take on board, to pass on to athletes preparing for big events the world over. Is doing those extra sessions just prior to an event doing more harm than good?

After 2000, Gould’s team found that those individuals in the US team who achieved most had the best education programmes not just for athletes, but their families – mainly to control their expectation. The best coaches give excellent physical training, mental preparation, support and confidence and are organised. Findings from athletes who didn’t fulfil expectation, showed they over trained, handled pressure less well, had less media training and were overall less well prepared.

Improvements encouraged to follow as Sport Psych professionals to study athletes were:
  • ·       Study individuals longitudinally over the lifespan of their careers
  • ·       Use in depth observational and intervention studies.
  • ·       Reflect and compare progress across different competitions.

This way, the field of psychological preparation for big sporting events can be honed.
Whilst looking at the lifespan, Gould touched on Athlete Talent Development, stating that modern research findings point to talent being sport specific, complex and multivariate in nature. It is a delicate blend of physical, psychological and cognitive factors that interact to determine performance. Genes go so far to determine ability but environmental factors are required. Deliberate practice (10, 000 hours anyone?) is required, e.g. doing training when athletes don’t want to and making hard work as fun as possible from an early age to encourage motivation. By ‘learning to train, compete and complete,’ rather than win, research shows athletes stand a better likelihood of achieving success.

Finally, in addressing the psychological characteristics of Olympic champions, Gould’s research has found that the most successful feel little pressure to win, have a can do/optimistic attitude and have had early exposure to high-level competitors who have inspired and provided vicarious learning and motivation. I was reminded of Andre Agassi saying he met Jimmy Connors as a young boy. David Beckham famously spent a summer at Bobby Charlton’s soccer school (as did I, but our paths went in different directions :-) and in these instances additional motivation was provided.

Early exposure often comes about being promoted by family, and Gould flagged that parents and others play a central role, at best emphasising hard work and not winning or achievement. Gould’s studies have shown that the most successful athletes have parents who focus on values and mastery, not success – which if you work at the former, the latter will follow. Winning doesn’t need to be reinforced. Interestingly, from an early age, unlike Agassi’s family, research has shown it is recommended to advocate a multi-sport approach. Not just aspiring to get your child to the top in one discipline.

Another improvement to the field that Gould recommended professionals use was utilising theoretical explanations in research more. Such theory he stated should guide research and applied work. One such tool to consider is Martindale et al’s (2010) Talent Development Questionnaire to explore athlete’s progress in more depth.

Overall the keynote was a slick hour of a lifetime’s research that gave a great insight into findings that has been refined over 8 different Olympics with different athletes, of different disciplines to find consistent advice and practice for athletes, coaches, organisations and individuals. How much the elite medal winners of all countries competing in London utilise of these findings will be of interest to me, given it is unlikely I will work with anyone in any depth prior to the event. In fact, Gould recommended not introducing any sport psych interventions at this late stage to avoid interrupting performance, but as I progress next year in the field, I will be interested in capturing the psychological characteristics of 2012 athletes to compare against the existing research in order to guide mine and others research in the field (regardless of medal success). Gould and co have a sizeable body of work to add to, and as with all scientific endeavour, it will only benefit by being tested and refined.


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