Tag : sports-science

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The Basics of Sports Psychology

As a continuation to my previous Sports Science based articles, I wanted to put an article together to summarise the basics of sports psychology, giving an over view of the subject, an outline of its importance, and a little guidance on how you should incorporate Psychological Skills Training (PST) into your routine.

It doesn’t matter what sport or even instrument you play; psychology is a key element which coheres your performance to create the desired impact. The higher the level you reach, the more emphasis good psychology plays on performance, until you reach the level of ‘elite’ where simply being physically gifted is not enough.

Of course, if you’re at the elite level in your chosen area, you will most likely have the luxury of a psychologist (along with your masseur, physio, nutritionist, tactical coach, physical coach, shopping assistant and bath water temperature checker) which is great. But for the majority, a psychologist is an extravagance usually out of the question. Fortunately, like most things, you can practice psychology yourself because after all, no one knows your own mind better than you do; you just have to be honest!

Psychology is quite a broad church with many different theories and opinions, all of which can take a lifetime to learn and master. And because psychology is one of the least understood areas of research, there are rarely wrong answers, which makes understanding this strange but nevertheless vital subject quite a challenge.

There are many examples of situations you may find yourself in which could be improved through psychological intervention. Examples include:

  • Bike racing – a time trial, where you push yourself to the limit. Everything hurts but somehow you need to push through that huge pain barrier blocking your way.
  • Mountain climbing – ever been caught in a whiteout on your own on a snowy plateau? This isn’t fun, but you need to think clearly to make the correct choices in an otherwise dire situation.
  • Public speaking – as you stand on stage, 200 people are all looking at you. Other than remembering your lines, you need the self belief to stand on that stage and captivate the audience.
  • Tennis match – you’re about to play an unseeded player in the first round of a national tennis tournament. You need to manage your anxiety levels to maintain focus.
  • The gym – outside it’s raining, there’s a hurricane and intense lightening. It’s your running day and this is now destined to be on the treadmill. How can you possibly do that hour run in doors?

Clearly there’s an immeasurable number of situations where psychological training would be a distinct advantage to performance, be that physical such as sports performance, more art based such as musical performance, or even career based such as the work presentation you need to deliver.

I’m sure everyone can either relate to one of the above, or at least can think of a situation where psychological weakness may let you down.

This is where PST (psychological skills training) comes in. PST is a collection of many techniques used to improve psychological strength. For this basic introduction, we’ll look with the most widely discussed facets, starting with everybody’s favorite:

  • Arousal regulation (self awareness, anxiety reduction techniques, adversity coping and arousal inducing techniques).
  • Imagery (where, what, when and why).
  • Self confidence (expectations vs. performance, self-efficacy (believing in reaching goals/own ability) assessing self-confidence and building self confidence).
  • Goal setting (effectiveness, principles, development, design, periodisation).
  • Concentration (attentional focus, concentration vs. performance, types of attentional focus, self talk, attention skills and improving these skills).

I have my own personal way of looking at psychology for performance which is a common sense approach and is easily implemented.

Firstly, PST is a collection of psychological/coping strategies. The ‘skills training’ part of PST is an effort to encourage athletes and the like to practice the coping strategies, just as they would practice the physical aspects of their event. A coping strategy as simple as maintaining motivation after a loss, if practiced enough, becomes a skill which can be relied upon in competition.

We will use Arousal Regulation as the first example – this means that before any big event where there is pressure and stress, such as a big tennis match where all eyes are on you, you will be somewhere on the arousal scale. The scale starts at ‘laid back, uninterested’ and goes all the way through to panic which is associated with anger and violence. At the start of the competition, you are aiming to be right in the middle: confident and alert, but not irritable or extremely nervous. There will be nerves of course, but these have to be managed so that they do not interfere with what counts. For a tennis match, this would be your game plan. In an interview this could be your background research on the employing company. Nerves help keep you alert, however when they cause you to forget or deviate from the plan, coping strategies need to be put in place.

In the next article, I will give examples of coping strategies from a very specific scenario (bike racing), however for now, I will give a brief outline with general examples you can use and adapt for your next event.

Arousal regulation: this is all about maintaining composure. I use tennis as an example because you see a broad spectrum of emotions, from McEnroe smashing his racket, to Roger Federer regularly gracing around the court. There are always exceptions to the rules where someone excels with a ‘poor’ technique, and McEnroe is a great example, however there is always the question, would McEnroe have been any better had he had greater composure, or was his temper the thing that pushed him onward?
For the mere mortals, composure should be the aim. Adversity coping such as after losing a point/game/match/job prospect from a poor interview etc, is all about quickly learning from that loss with an analytical mind and without too much emotion, then bouncing back to the next challenge.
A technique for this is using positive self talk (thinking). This is a key strategy, and you already almost certainly use self talk, but perhaps more negatively than you should. For an injured athlete, self talk usually starts at “this is career ending/I’m not going to improve/get to the level I aspired to. Instead, the simple solution is to use positive self talk “I’m feeling down today, but I’m still on track with rehab, I need to be patient and I will make it back”.

“Winners see what they want to happen, losers see what they fear”
Linda Bunker

Imagery: this is my favorite aspect of PST. It is the one where you can truly see the power of the mind and the distinction between the psychological and physical aspects of performance, specifically pain. Pain is a perception which can be turned on and off at will. Hypnotherapists demonstrate this well, however more typically we’ve all been in the situation where you burn or cut yourself accidentally, but only feel the pain once you see the injury. This is one facet of imagery, and I will use a personal example of indoor training to help give an insight to how the pros use it to enhance performance. Imagery is a skill which takes a while to master, and where the final aim is to have one or more ‘scenarios’ you can use during a tough training session or competition. Whilst on the stationary bike trainer (think treadmill but for cycling – an equally unappealing prospect), I have a particular race which I run through mentally. The aim is to have the scenario playing in your mind like a projector playing a film. The more you allow yourself to become immersed in the imagery, the more powerful it becomes. Eventually, you will be able to use more senses than just sight alone. You will start to hear what the crowd are shouting, and the instructions you are receiving on race radio, maybe even the smell of the air. Essentially, to quote Eminem, you loose yourself in the moment.
Physiologically, this is a powerful tool and during sessions where I have used mental imagery, I have always sustained a greater power output than when simply gritting the teeth and hoping to get through the session.

Self confidence: how you see yourself as an athlete, performer or candidate is very important. All the best elite athletes have endless self confidence and self efficacy (belief in reaching goals and belief in your own ability). Projecting a confident persona is critical in close quarter situations ranging from boxing right through to a sales meeting. Some people have limitless confidence which leads to the attitude of “winning was the only option; how could I possibly lose?”, whereas others may display a more realistic confidence. A lightweight boxer is always going to be confident in their ability, but put them against a heavyweight champion, and you would (hope to) see a more realistic attitude that the outcome may not be favorable. The key here is matching expectations to performance, and using slightly elevated expectations to raise performance.
One PST strategy for self confidence is the easiest and least used tool to access. Simply, sit on a chair in a quite room, straighten your back, and broaden your shoulders. This is commonly known as a ‘power pose’, and is debated to evoke physiological responses such as a release of testosterone. The hypothesis is that low confidence, nervous people make themselves as small and unnoticeable as possible, whilst confident people consciously or subconsciously want to take up as much space as possible and let everyone know they are present.

Goal setting: everybody needs and uses goals in some form or other. Hopefully everybody has also heard of Smart or Smarter goals (specific, measurable, agreed, realistic, timed, ethical & recorded). There isn’t too much to add here, except for this should be the first PST you get right, or at least practice. Once you have your goals, you can then work on your confidence, imagery and coping strategies to meet those targets. The rules here are also quite slack, especially considering ‘realistic goals’. What is realistic to me may not be realistic to you, so let yourself make the final decision about what you deem to be realistic. Sure, listen to people along the way, but personal goals are your own, so make sure you and you alone make the all important call. Lionel Messi’s doctors probably wouldn’t have thought top flight football was a realistic goal when he was 13 and suffering from a mild form of dwarfism due to a growth hormone deficiency, for example.

Concentration: finally we come to concentration which is hopefully not too ironic given that we’re now nearly 1800 words down.  Concentration ties in with arousal, and the two almost go hand in hand. If you are overly nervous or uninterested, then concentrating on anything which demands attention will be difficult. There are many skills for developing attentional focus such as self talk which we have previously mentioned. The key to concentration is understanding when concentration is most often lost. Usually, it is at the point of tiredness, when the level of physical exertion allows for a depleted mental capacity. This is perhaps the major culprit, however others include momentum shifts in the game, bad decisions affecting your focus, and unexpected obstacles, such as facing an opponent who turns out to be a lot better than their ranking suggests, thus drawing your thoughts away from your game plan and towards their flashy technique. I will use a technique from squash to demonstrate, however this could easily be applied to any racket sport, or any sport in general with some subtle alteration.
In squash, the referee has the power to decide who wins the point. In some cases, you may not agree, and at crucial times in a match, this is sure to knock your concentration if the call goes against you. The simple refocusing skill is to put in a long rally immediately after a bad decision. The aim is to expend a little energy in order to forget what has just happened, and start to concentrate back on your game plan. As anyone who has played squash will no doubt attest to, you will be far too tired after a 50 shot rally to even remember what the score is, let alone what happened in the last point.


Hopefully this has given a introductory insight into psychology for the benefit of performance. In my next article, I will give very specific examples of the above for a high performance athlete, but in the meantime, see how many strategies you can implement in order to knock a second off that pb, or simply finish the dreaded morning run with a smile on your face.

Bonne chance.

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Heart Rate A Barometer Of Health


This article is inspired by an athlete you’ve probably never heard of, yet was at one point the greatest athlete in his sport, in addition to being analogous to the greatest athletes of all time. David Palmer, a professional squash player from Lithgow, Australia recently retired from the sport at the beginning of November, having had one of the most illustrious careers ever seen.

David’s story is a lengthy one; however the focus of this article is a period in his life from 1992, where he had to choose between the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) and Joe Shaw, a coach who pioneered the use of, at the time, highly advanced methods for the development of elite athletes. David chose Joe to the annoyance of the AIS, and subsequently became one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Joe used many methods to monitor David’s progress, and whilst these are now mostly common practice among elite athletes such as using binaural beats to alter the brain wave zone and implant positive affirmations, at the time they were revolutionary, and some still are.

The Resting Heart Rate

A key training aid which can be employed by a variety of athletes (stretching from recreational to elite) is that of the resting heart rate (RHR). Most people who exercise can tell you how to measure the pulse, and also that a low pulse can in theory denote a good level of fitness. Most people however are unaware of the full potential of the RHR to describe the current and future states of their body.

Joe Shaw used this expression to explain the reasoning behind measuring the RHR:


If we take the example of most exercisers from above, most can measure the pulse, however most people’s knowledge of that system stops at understanding.

The pulse rate can be thought of as not just an indication of fitness, but also as an indication of vitality. It’s essentially a barometer of the body.

There are limitations however and these need to be understood in order to realise the importance of the RHR.

Firstly, it is natural for some people to exhibit symptoms of arrhythmia. Arrhythmia is a condition whereby the heart beats faster than normal (tachycardia), or slower than normal (bradycardia). This point shows the main limitation of using RHR as an exclusive measure of fitness. For example, you may test untrained subjects at random, and find that some have a RHR of around 50bpm. You may then test well trained subjects, and find some of these also have a RHR of 50bpm. Whilst this is an extreme example, it shows that RHR’s are highly variable and specific to the individual.

Levels of Fitness

So whilst it may not be scientifically accurate to compare between subjects, the RHR can be used very accurately to measure within subject fitness (the fitness of an individual). Many formulas exist to determine various zones of heart rate, and also as a predictor of fitness based on the RHR, however the most important measurement is the starting RHR; that is the very first RHR that you take and record. With this number, fitness can be measured very accurately providing several factors are met. Firstly, the RHR should be recorded daily, and secondly, the heart rate should be measured (preferably when you wake up) at the same time each day to ensure consistency.

On taking the RHR for a period of around 4 weeks, you can begin to understand your own pulse rate better, and even pre-empt and prevent overtraining which is explained later.

A trap many people make the mistake of falling into, especially at the beginning of a training programme, is expecting the heart rate to fall down too quickly. When no decrease is noticed after a week, they get disheartened and stop their training.

A lowering in RHR is brought about through long term training, resulting in athletic bradycardia/ventricular hypertrophy (enlargement in the heart muscle). This can often take many months, with shorter term changes such as increases in red cell volume occurring first. Once the RHR starts to decrease, it’s important to always refer back to the initial RHR value, since this will show your true progress, and be much more informative that a generic heart rate zone table used to describe the general population. These should generally only be used as a rough guide.

A Barometer of Health

Another feature of the RHR which is relatively unknown by the majority of athletes is that the RHR is generally very stable, and usually fluctuates only, and very precisely, at the onset of illness, so the RHR in this respect can be thought of as a barometer of health.

An extract from Joe Shaw’s journal illustrates this:

“I cannot stress the importance of this measurement strongly enough. The RHR is an indicator and a barometer that informs you of problems before they occur. If his RHR rises from 37 to 40 overnight then there has to be a reason. David assesses what he did yesterday, how he feels, tired or whatever, what he ate, and establishes a reason. If he cannot, then he monitors the RHR the next morning and it has risen to 42.  He immediately stops training because he has an illness about to commence, or it has by now commenced, and he requires medication or rest.”

Whilst this may seem a very extreme example (it must be remembered David made his living from sport), it illustrates the point that the RHR, when measured in a consistent way can advise on whether or not to train, and whether the current training regime is resulting in improvements to fitness.

Crucially for more regular exercisers, the RHR can give indications of the onset of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. It is important to note that contrary to popular belief, anyone partaking in regular exercise has a risk of developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, especially if the individual partakes in heavy bouts of high intensity, short duration sprint or power exercises. Another extract from Joe Shaw’s journal illustrates this:

“[David’s heart rate has risen from 37 to 42 in two days.] It may be that he is overtraining, and the warning signs have been given. You can bounce back from exhaustion in 2/3 days but overtraining is a state of prolonged fatigue and can destroy your athlete. One AIS pupil ran 400 meters in 75 seconds, 30 times in the morning, considering that essential to his fitness. He finished with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and in my opinion these runs did not help him at all.”

“Overtraining may be defined as a state of prolonged fatigue caused primarily by excessive training and characterised by decrements or stagnancy in performance despite continuous training (Costill 1986 & Kuipers and Keizer 1988). Overtraining is the result of short term balance between stress and how your body adapts to it (Michael Yessis Ph D .Sports Medicine)”

Using expression the if you can’t understand it, you can’t control it etc… through not understanding the actions of the RHR, an athlete could mistake a sudden increase in heart rate as a sudden drop of fitness, or conversely, could train exceptionally hard but not detect any noticeable decrease in heart rate. Both these situations require a thorough evaluation of the training plan:

1) Am I doing the correct type of training which is specific for my needs? 2) Am I giving my body enough time to rest and recover? (A fundamental part of training) 3) Am I eating and drinking to sufficiently replace the nutrients I have lost? 4) Is my training regime sufficiently varied? 5) Am I being realistic? (Remembering that it can take several months to notice a decrease in RHR)

From the above examples and current literature, it would appear that the monitoring of RHR is imperative if you are serious about maintaining health, and increasing fitness levels.