Sport Psychology

SSA Blog: Clutch Performance

2019’s summer of cricket will live long in the memory of many England and maybe a few Australian and New Zealand fans. The World Cup, for the first time, was decided via a super over and incredible innings from Ben Stokes and Steve Smith saw the Ashes series swing one way then the other over the course of 5 test matches. 

It is often these high-pressure situations that draw fans into the game and take them to the edge of their seats. Thousands watched and shared the emotional roller coaster as Jofra Archer, a relative rookie, took the ball in England’s most important one day over ever. After a first-ball wide, he recovered his composure to finish with three very tight balls seeing out England’s win. 

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Switch to the Test arena, and Ben Stokes produced one of the greatest ever innings when the series was on the line to score 135 and complete the most improbable run chase. The next match, with an expectant nation behind the England team, Steve Smith took to the crease with his side 28-2 and promptly made 211 match-winning runs ensuring the Ashes would remain in Australia. 

But how do these players produce such clutch performances? How are they able to rise above the pressure and produce match-winning results when others would succumb to the occasion?

Sport Psychologists have identified six mental characteristics that underpin clutch performance. These were identified by Swann et al., 2016 as: 

  • intense and deliberate focus,

  • intense effort,

  • heightened awareness,

  • heightened arousal,

  • absence of negative thoughts, and

  • automaticity of skills.

Stokes’ 135 run match-winning innings at Headingly as an interesting example of deliberate focus. Often clutch performance takes place when only a limited number of options are available to the performer. In this case, as his partners lost their wickets, Stokes was forced to focus on his performance and execution. This reduced any additional technical or tactical considerations, which may have previously caused extra cognitive load. The absence of negative thoughts also came across in his post-match interview when he highlighted how he didn’t get nervous until the chase was reduced to single figures. By this point, it is likely he was in a flow state or ‘the zone’ with additional psychological characteristics further supporting his performance.   

Michael Atherton, during the post-match interview, asked Stokes if his performance was part of his character and then proceeded to separate it from the skill and challenge of the innings. 

The ability to reach preferential psychological states is a skill. It’s something elite athletes need to master to produce the physical skill, moments of brilliance and game-winning performances that we all revel in.

Interest and understanding of the mental side of sport is now at an all-time high. The increased ability to measure and influence cognitive skills, emotional responses and various mental processes offers sponsors and partners a new dawn in sponsorship activation. Paring the improved psychological understanding with technological developments such as augmented and virtual reality will allow increasingly engaging activations throughout sport. These developments could, like Stokes, Archer and Smith have done in cricket, take the sports marketing industry to new levels. 

 

Sport Science Agency uses its insight and expertise to tell performance stories and unlocks their value for brands, broadcasters and rights holders. If you want to know more about what we can do for you, drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com, and we can arrange to go for a healthy vitamin-packed drink. 

SSA Blog: Warm Weather Training

This weekend sees the Premier League make way for the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup. Only 7 Premier League teams have reached this stage leaving a number of clubs with the opportunity for a winter training camp.

England hosts the only major European league without a winter break, for those teams no longer in the competition FA cup weekends are increasingly used for that role.

Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle and West Ham have taken advantage of the extended break before their next fixture, while Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United are considering a trip to sunnier climbs in the next few days.

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For Liverpool this will be the second warm weather trip since the turn of the year. Jurgen Klopp justified the getaway when saying “There’s nothing good about going out of competitions, but if you are out you can suffer or you can use the time”. So why do clubs value these mini camps so highly and what are the supposed benefits?

There is very little direct research on the topic in Premier League Football. However, the proposed benefits can broadly be broken down into 3 categories, Mental, Physical and Tactical.

Mental

In 2016 a study by Smith et al, showed mental fatigue having a negative impact on running, shooting and passing performance in football. A training camp, even for a few days, allows players to remove themselves from the pressures of performance and possibly wider lifestyle concerns which can support mental recovery and therefore performance.

As we all know a change of environment can be enough to help impact our mood. When that change includes a perceived benefit, such as sunny warm weather, the response is often positive.

A training camp also offers a controlled environment with less distractions. Players and coaches can benefit from extra focus and use it to reinforce positivity among the group, remove negativity and deal with stress in order to prepare for the final few months of the season.

Physical

In 2012 a study of Premier League players found that 65% of the sample were deficient in Vitamin D in the winter months (Morton et al 2012). A warm weather training camp with greater exposure to sunlight will help alleviate this problem and the related decrease in performance almost immediately.

The increased sunlight and warmth also helps maximise training times. With less time needed for warm up, more time can be devoted to training with the goal of improving or maintaining players fitness levels. Linking back to the mental benefits, it is often easier to run double sessions, players being motivated by warmer conditions. With longer daylight hours, less warm up time, the quantity of work can be improved.

When away on these trips the club has greater access to the players, for example, they are not driving home after training. This gives the club enhanced oversight of players’ recovery, ensuring they are maximising the value of training.  

Tactical

Southampton Manger Ralph Hasenhuttl, pointed to better weather conditions making it easier to train tactically because “you can work in a good atmosphere”. If players are not distracted by trying to keep warm and dry, they have greater mental capacity to take in tactical messages. The warmer weather also makes it easier to spend time on relatively static or slow-moving blocks of tactical drills.

Developing team cohesion also plays a large part in training camps. Research has consistently shown a link between cohesion and performance (Filho et al 2014). For new players coming into a side via the January transfer window or players stepping up to first team level, these camps provide an opportunity to create bonds at a personal level and adjust to the tactical demands of a new team in a less pressurised setting.

Warm weather training camps are much more than a chance to get away and top up a tan. For clubs, they provide a chance to prepare players for the remaining months of the season. For players it’s a welcome relief from the pressures of Premier League life and for staff they create a conducive working environment aimed at maximising performance needs - whatever they maybe.

With the Premier League introducing a winter break from next season, expect to see all clubs jet away for an extended break in the sunshine. With the need removed to find an artificial gap in fixtures, hopefully it will be a catalyst of more than 7 Premier League teams to make it through to the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup…     

 

Sport Science Agency uses its insight and expertise to tell performance stories and unlocks their value for brands, broadcasters and rights holders. If you want to know more about what we can do for you, drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy vitamin packed drink. 

SSA Blog: Sport Science in 2017

With 2017 drawing to a close we look back at three significant stories that shaped the sport science year and will continue to have an impact into 2018, both inside and outside the performance arena. 


Nike Breaking 2
Without doubt the biggest sport science story this year was Nike’s attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier. The 2 hour barrier is one of athletics last great challenges. Indeed, it was postulated as long ago as 1991 that a time of 1.57:58 was possible under perfect conditions. Nike’s project was four years in the making and brought together some of the best minds in sport science as well as an interesting group of 3 athletes who had been drawn from an initial 60 strong cohort. 

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The combination of Nike’s financial backing, scientific excellence and some of the world’s elite performers lead many to believe a sub 2 hour time would be possible.   
As the project developed, it became clear that this would not be a legitimate world record attempt during one of the major marathon events. From a sport science point of view, this didn’t matter. If anything, it makes it more exciting as it allowed the sport science team to think the unthinkable and take the athletes outside the usual constraints of racing in order to seek the limits of human endurance.


Every aspect of performance was examined with an obvious emphasis on the training and preparation of the athletes.  Areas such as VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy were all evaluated at the start of the project to identify who the researchers thought were the athletes with the physiology capable of sustaining the training load and having a realistic chance of hitting the sub 2 hour goal.  


But physiology is only part of what makes an athlete great. Other areas the researchers looked at included the course, environmental temperature, humidity, altitude and obviously, being Nike research, the shoes. The researchers also became increasingly interested in the psychology of their runners. Ultimately the effort didn’t manage to produce a sub 2 hour performance - Eliud Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of achieving the goal. That is less than a second per mile.


When evaluating the effort, the main performance benefit seemed to come from the drafting formation, developed using support runners throughout the record attempt. Nike commissioned wind tunnel research to ensure they positioned support runners in the most effective formation to maximise the drafting effect. This finding may have huge potential for distance running in the future. In cycling, drafting and protecting the GC rider is a long-established principle. Running has always been seen as a more individual sport and while runners will often train together, rarely do they compete in such a strict team formation.


Nike’s Breaking 2 didn’t manage to achieve athletics' last great barrier, but with its drafting and team formation research, it has provided a model for how it might be achieved both in a scientific experiment and ultimately in a major city marathon.         

The Rise of the Aging Athlete
As human beings live longer, and medicine and sport science continue to develop, it should be no surprise that athletes have been able to take advantage and extend their careers. Roger Federer, Tom Brady, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Serena Williams have all dazzled fans, media and fellow performers this year despite their relative age, which has left people searching for the secret elixir of these supposed super agers.

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As with much in sport at the elite level, an athlete’s ability to maintain performance into their 4th decade is a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors. Generally, the key anabolic hormones associated with muscle growth and maintenance begin to decline in the mid to late 30’s. This can have a particularly profound effect on an athlete’s ability to produce power which inevitably has an effect on performance elements such as sprinting, acceleration, striking force and change of direction speed.


New developments regarding training, diet, injury prevention and recovery strategies have allowed more athletes to maintain their careers into their early to mid 30’s. However, the ability to perform at the highest level needs to be supported by a strong motivational drive to train and also the emotional intelligence to accept limitations and plan in order to peak for specific periods during the year. 


Sport science will continue to elongate athlete’s careers. Better understanding of the genetics, training responses, diet and recovery will combine to support the physiological demands. But the greatest elements in the near future will be development of psychological and intellectual understanding to further help athletes develop the mental skills needed to cope with managing the latter stages of sporting careers.


This generation of athlete, with the support of developing sport science, has proved that age is no longer the barrier it once was. This has altered perceptions as to the impact older athletes can have. It will pave the way to extending athlete contracts and the age profile within which elite sport operates.
       
Welfare and Winning
Athlete welfare hit the back pages this year following a number of allegations made by athletes within the Olympic sport system. The cyclist Jess Varnish lead the wave of criticism directed at National Governing bodies funded by UK Sport and subscribing to the so called ‘no compromise’ strategy focused on Olympic and Paralympic success. 


The treatment and culture within which athletes were expected to perform began to come into question. Had the ‘no compromise’ system that has seen unprecedented Olympic success over the past decade been at the expense of athlete welfare? Or is an elite performance environment just that and not everyone can handle the demands they are faced with?


Athletes and coaches were asked for their opinions and experiences with many defending the systems that had helped them achieve their sporting goals. But the allegations kept coming.  


National governing bodies have employed performance lifestyle experts for a number of years in order to support the wider lifestyle aspects of athletes. The goal was to support athletes in developing world class performance habits while they are away from the track, pool or velodrome. However, for some, when the sport becomes all encompassing it can easily become too much, pressure builds, motivation dips and performance inevitably suffers. 


Across sport, coaches and athletes will have different approaches, views, interests and motivational strategies. This is no different from any workplace. In the major professional sports, players have the ability to move and perhaps find a team that ‘fits’ their outlook and personality. Within the Olympic system in the UK, each sport generally only allows athletes one major training environment within which they have to adhere to the culture and expectations that are often entrenched. 


Performance systems are key to producing success. The continuity that exists across the British system has turned Team GB into a global sporting powerhouse (compare this with the relative reactionary approach seen within football). However, these systems need to continually evolve and develop in order to support athletes from a broader talent pool, often that broader talent pool is a consequence of their own previous success. 


Elite sport is tough. Many with the physical talent, simply don’t have the psychological resilience, drive or desire to sustain the training load and lifestyle sacrifices needed. Pushing athletes mentally as well as physically is part of the selection process. It allows coaches and performance managers to assess how athletes perform under pressure and ultimately evaluate if they are developing the required skills to win on the biggest stage. This will mean athletes taken out of their comfort zone, it will mean pressure to perform in training and it will mean being able to meet high standards across everything they do, with consequences if these challenges cannot be successfully met. 


The challenge of sport science is to recognise the individuality of athletes and create systems that can dial up or down the support and challenges that athletes need in order to progress their careers, be that within the sport or leaving it to focus on other challenges.


As we look forward to an Olympic year in 2018 the trajectory for sport science is only upward. The increase in financial rewards across professional sport, the global attention an Olympic Games brings and the continuous health challenges we face, all look to sport science for support. The development in technology, the increased interest in psychology and advances in genetic medicine will provide new avenues for sport Science to explore in the coming years. Who knows what 2018 will bring, but you can be sure sport science will be at the forefront.