Published May 17, 2017
When most people think of sports, they think of traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, American football, soccer, etc. When people think of sport psychology, they often think of these same sports plus Olympic disciplines such as gymnastics, track, and swimming, etc. For me however, when I think of sports, I think of auto racing. I grew up with my dad at the drag strips in Iowa and then married a drag racer. For the last twenty-five years my husband has driven a rear engine dragster in NHRA classes and I have been the pit crew. As a professor of psychology at McKendree University and an AASP certified consultant, I have been able to identify unique aspects of the sport psychology in auto racing. Many of these aspects are not completely unique to auto racing, and when I work with bowlers, equestrians, and gymnasts we are able to talk about some similarities.
Below is a brief glimpse inside the helmet of auto racers, and specifically those who participate in drag racing. It is my hope that this brief summary will be beneficial to athletes involved in extreme sports and consultants who may work with these athletes.
- The first aspect that is essential for understanding auto racing psychology is the difference in practice time. Auto racing is expensive and auto racers have little practice opportunity. Unlike a sport such as basketball, auto racers don’t have the option for hours in the gym practicing their sport. Most racers don’t have the time, money, equipment, or location to practice very much, in fact, many will be allowed only a few time trials or practice laps and then have to be ready for competition. This means that auto racers must take their practices extremely seriously. The old adage of “practice like you play” is essential. In addition, racers may be more likely to need to use visualization or simulators. Many auto racers use various simulators (e.g., practice reaction time equipment) to help with their practice. If racers tried to adhere to the “10,000 hour rule” that states you need that many hours to be world-class in any field (Gladwell, 2008), then they would have to use visualization and simulators.
- In auto racing, like in sports such as gymnastics, there is very little room for error. In some sports there are chances to make a mistake and recover and move on, whereas in auto racing a small mistake will likely make you lose or even worse cause an accident. In drag racing, drivers have to react to a light at the start and a thousandth of a second can be the difference between winning and losing – consequently reaction times are critical. Losing by such small margins can also be difficult on an athlete and can lead to burnout, especially if they focus entirely on winning Weinberg and Gould (2011). Working with auto racers (and other athletes) that can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by the consultant, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
- In most sports, there is some degree of danger and risk of injury. In gymnasts, equestrians, and auto racers, the risk of injury is almost always present. Once again, this risk needs to clearly be identified and discussed. Most athletes are keenly aware of this potential for injury. Discussions about safety precautions, avoiding unnecessary risks, handling emergency situations, mentally preparing for injury, and simply acknowledging that the rewards of the sport outweigh the potentially negative outcomes are essential for racers.
- In auto racing, there is a partnership between the car and the driver. For those who are not “car people” this anthropomorphism of the car may seem unusual. I recently posted this question on a sport psychology list serve and this anthropomorphism does happen in other sports such as sailing and even with some golfers and their special clubs. However, there is a particularly strong bond between most racers and their cars; they may talk about their car in terms of their partner, and will say things such as “She (the car) was perfect tonight” or “The Old Nova really got it done today!” Auto racers rightfully understand that they have a mechanical partner who will help them to win or lead them to lose. This partnership may seem odd to those outside of the sport, but the feeling toward a car may seem similar to that of the love an equestrian has to their horse or the respect a tennis player has with their doubles partner. An athlete and consultant may want to be aware of what they can control or can’t control with this mechanical partner and ensure that proper attributions are being made. It is doubtful that a car “has a mind of her own” and intentionally wants to lose (although it sure feels like it sometimes!).
- Finally, some fascinating things about auto racing are the family dynamic, age and gender desegregation, and the lifelong participation aspect of the sport. Some of the best auto racers come from a long line of auto racing, while many of the pit crew are dads, brothers, wives, children, family, and friends. This is particularly true at the non-professional level. At race tracks, entire families attend the events together. Additionally, in auto racing, men and women compete directly with one another, meaning there is no separation in competition by gender. Finally, racers can start in different classes as young as 8 years old and very successful drivers can race to 70 years old. In auto racing, it is not unusual to find people who have been participating in the sport over 50 years! Once again, most classes do not separate by age. Therefore men, women, young, and old all race in the same classes together. Auto racing is truly a lifestyle and athletes need to develop ways to stay motivated over what may be a very long career in the sport. Topics such as balancing work, family, and racing are important considerations for these racers. Consultants may also need to help these racers think about very long term goals (where do you want your racing to be in 5 or more years?).
For me, auto racing is a lifestyle. I enjoy the competition, setting goals, the friends, the commitment, learning new things, and having the motivation to participate over years. As a sport psychology consultant, working with auto racers is a rewarding adventure and there is a lot to learn inside the helmet.
Eggleston, T. J. (2015) Auto Racing Mental Skills Video. http://www.appliedsportpsych.org/blog/2015/02/auto-racing-mental-skills/
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. 1st ed. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (5th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Published April 19, 2017
“Can you teach them resilience? I need them to be mentally tough.”
How many of us have had this request from coaches, administrators, and parents? It is difficult to teach resilience, especially when it still lacks a formal definition. Luthar, Cicchetti, and Becker offer one understanding of resilience, as “a dynamic process encompassing positive adaptation within the context of significant adversity” (2000).
I recently endured adversity while summiting my first 14er, otherwise known as a mountain over 14,000 feet. This experience helped me to find my own understanding of resilience, and has had a substantial impact on my work with athletes.
The trail to the top of Mt. Bierstadt was covered in snow. I stood at the trailhead, staring at the mountain in the distance. The summit and I were separated by miles of vast land, still green in some places despite the cold weather. Everything felt big. In that moment, my awe had reduced me to feeling very small, but also very mighty. I had never climbed a mountain of this magnitude before, but something inside of me felt ready to try. My sport is distance running, but moving from a state that was below sea level to a place where oxygen felt scarce had me interested in pursuing slower adventures. If I couldn’t run long, I could at least try to hike far.
In life, there are often many potential paths to success. In front of me now were multiple paths, created by dozens of footprints in the snow. During the summer, trails are much more defined, but because of the snow, others before me had attempted to make their own path. Normally, I would be excited at the prospect of forging my own path to success, but on a mountain in winter conditions, it is generally best to stick to the intended trail.
I fixed my eyes on the top of the mountain, and hoped that doing so would steer me in the right direction. Unfortunately, forgetting to watch my steps, I wound up off course a lot of the time. As I tried to maintain direction, I pressed on, my lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. My body began to ache due to the strain of ascension. Hours and miles later, I neared the summit. This final stretch of mountain looked very different from the landscape I had walked through to reach that point. There were no more trees, or bushes, or grass, and the path had been replaced with giant rocks. It looked like it was time to climb.
My adrenaline was wearing off and the voices of doubt started whispering to me that I was foolish for attempting this summit. I reminded myself how far I had already come and in doing so, continued to push forward.
The wind whipped against my face, the only part of my skin still exposed to the elements. The rocks were slick and it was extremely difficult to pull my stiff, half-frozen joints upwards. It would have been so much easier to just turn around, and trust me, I thought about it! Now that I was almost 14,000 feet up, the summit seemed much less obvious, but the thrill of being so close to my goal kept me going.
I reached the highest point, alone. There were no signs, no markers, and no other hikers. I stared out at the valleys and peaks below, waves of blue and white gently rolling into the horizon for miles. Standing above it all, I felt humbled to have made it this far.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in climbing a mountain is that the summit is only the halfway point. Feeling fatigue really set in, I scrambled back down to a flatter part of the trail to refuel. While I had made it through the toughest part of the hike, I still had miles to go before my journey was finished.
At that point of the day, the sun was shining, melting away the snow. The descending trail was more visible than before, though a bit more slick and muddy. I felt powerful, knowing that I had been to the mountaintop and that I had traversed this trail before. Compared to before my summit, this part of the hike was nothing! Despite my achy knees, I practically flew back to the start of the trail.
When you complete a race, crossing the finish line is an experience filled with grandeur: music, cheering, signs, and a medal. This finish line was an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere, and I was the only one to congratulate myself. The only sound was my heavy breathing, finally beginning to slow down. I turned back to look at the mountain one more time, feeling grateful for the experience.
This hike gave me the opportunity to prove that I could accomplish seemingly impossible goals, physically and mentally, even if they did not lead to obvious rewards in the end. While resilience may be a personality trait, from this experience, I believe that anyone can strive towards challenging goals. Since I have braved the mountaintop, I feel more able to encourage my athletes to do the same.
In teaching athletes to find resilience, encourage them to:
- Engage in appropriately challenging activities. You don’t necessarily have to have your clients hike a 14er, but having them identify and successfully overcome self-determined obstacles can help develop resilience.
- Dedicate time for reflection. I spent most of the hike and weeks after it thinking about what that day meant to me and how it would help me move forward in various aspects of my life. Start by having them think and/or write about: How did this experience challenge me? How was I able to push through, even when the odds were against me? What does this experience mean for future challenges I may face?
- Seek support. Having a community that supports me in my challenging moments also helps me summit metaphorical mountains in my daily life. Help your clients determine who is or could be in their support network.
Resilience may not be easily taught, but it can be found on a mountaintop. Be that support for your clients, encourage them to reach personal summits, and allow them the space to share their stories.
Smith, B. W., Dalen, J., Wiggins, K., Tooley, E., Christopher, P., & Bernard, J. (2008). The brief resilience scale: Assessing the ability to bounce back. International journal of behavioral medicine, 15(3), 194-200.
Adapted from: http://bit.ly/2kGUX7e
Published February 27, 2017
The Dual Role of Athlete and Activist
The arena of sport and performance is often regarded as a utopian space where, unlike other facets of society, equity and cultural acceptance are assumed to be the norm. However prevailing or idealistic this notion may be, in truth, this does not reflect the reality for some athletes. Throughout history and in recent times, athletes have faced social and cultural injustices within their sport while simultaneously navigating similar challenges within the larger society. Black athletes have frequently served in the dual roles of athlete and activist, balancing both the expectations to “just play” and attain performance excellence while also exercising their right to speak up about systems, policies, and unspoken practices that create an uneven playing field, or on a larger scale, a biased and unjust society. Therefore, in honor of Black History Month, we wanted to pause and reflect on the ways in which Black athletes have navigated the intersections between race, sport, and social justice, highlight some of the accomplishments they achieved while doing so, and provide steps we can take to follow in their footsteps
The Black Athlete-Activist
In order to better understand the nexus of Black athlete-activist, we should note a few athletes and historical incidents that helped to define it. After winning gold and bronze medals in the 200m race at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games, USA track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved-fist to symbolize the struggle for human rights in a year marked tragically by the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. Both were ostracized and berated for their actions upon their return home. In 2010, Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Russell received the Medal of Freedom for his work on civil rights. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington, conducted integrated basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi, and was an outspoken critic of segregation. The death of Muhammad Ali in 2016 re-ignited a critical imagination of a time when Black men were expected to fight for country while being denied civility and civil rights at home. Ali’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War became a defining historical moment for the Black athlete-advocate. Other athletes like Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Althea Gibson, Wilma Rudolph, and Jackie Robinson faced racism and discrimination in sport and were silenced. Despite this, their courage and resilience opened doors for Black athletes to speak out against social injustice today. The photograph of the Miami Heat in hoodies, NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts, and Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem represent some of the modern ways Black athletes have used their respective platforms in sport to draw attention to the cultural illusion of meritocracy in America.
Call to Action
As members of the sport and performance community, we have to do more than intellectualize the possibility of bringing about social justice. We have to work for sport to be(come) a space where equity and equality co-exist. The future of sport (and society) cannot afford for us to be paralyzed. Yet, we may wonder, “what can I do” or “where can I begin?” Collective advocacy always begins with us. It can have far reaching influence - even with small steps. Here are three simple strategies for moving towards social justice in sport:
Regardless of our own personal and social identities, we all benefit from better educating ourselves on historic and present-day racism in sport. Doing so provides us with the knowledge and language necessary for action. Consider reading the following:
- 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete (2006)
- Days of Grace: A memoir (1994)
- Sport and the Color Line: Black athletes and race relations in 20th century America (2004)
- Sport, Racism and Social Media (2014)
- The Importance of Athlete Activists (2015)
- There's No Race on the Playing Field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes (2003)
Examine your personal values, prejudices, and biases about sport. Making sport more equitable means rethinking our daily practices. We might start by reflecting on how we view athletes of various races, genders, abilities, and socioeconomic statuses in the context of competition and performance. How might our values, biases, and prejudices lead to discriminatory or exclusionary practices that limit opportunity or access to sport?
3) Speak up.
Have you ever heard a derogatory comment directed towards an athlete of color or any marginalized member of society and not acknowledged it? Decide to say something, engage in difficult dialogues (Souza, 2012), and challenge inequality. Speak with athletes, coaches, colleagues, and clients about racism. Acknowledge that it exists and influences our daily experiences.
In honor of the courageous Black athletes who fought for the right to compete, overcame taunts and threats of violence, as well as risked their careers and lives for social issues and equality, commit yourself (at minimum) to reading, reflecting, and speaking up. Think of Arthur Ashe’s statement of “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” as calls to action, because whatever you do, know that each act (and inaction) matters to the future of sport and society.
Abdul-Jabar, K. (2015). The Importance of Athlete Activists. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4114002/kareem-abdul-jabbar-athlete-activists/.
Ashe, A. and Rampersad, A. (1994). Days of Grace: A memoir. New York: Random House, Inc.
Brown, T.N., Jackson, J.S., Brown, K.T., Sellers, R.M., Keiper, S. and Manuel, W.J. (2003). There's no race on the playing field: Perceptions of racial discrimination among white and black athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27(2), 162-183.
Farrington, N., Hall, L., Kilvington, D., Price, J. and Saeed, A. (2014). Sport, racism and social media. New York: Routledge.
Miller, P., and Wiggins, D. (2004). Sport and the color line: Black athletes and race relations in twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge.
Rhoden, W. (2006). Forty million dollar slaves: The rise, fall and redemption of the black athlete. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Souza, T.J. (2012).Facilitating difficult dialogues in the classroom [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www2.humboldt.edu/diversity/sites/default/files/Difficult_Dialogues_Souza_Presentation_Slides.pdf.
For more information about AASP’s diversity initiatives and resources, please check out our website.
Published January 31, 2017
High-performing teams are high in cohesiveness, shared understanding, and a sense of team confidence or collective efficacy. In other words, even teams full of star players (e.g., national teams, all-star teams such as the NFL Pro Bowl) need to bond, establish coordination mechanisms and develop a collective belief of the unit’s potential to be successful. Results from research conducted with college soccer teams showed that high-performance in team settings starts with the establishment of task cohesion and positive social relations (social cohesion) among teammates (Filho, Gershgoren, Basevitch, & Tenenbaum, 2014; Filho, Tenenbaum, & Yang, 2015). After establishing a sound foundation, activities promoting team mental models and a belief in the team’s capability to accomplish outcomes are necessary to further the development of performance. In a nutshell, cohesion, team mental models, and team confidence are inter-related processes (see Figure 1), similar to what social psychologist Albert Bandura (1997) described as “reciprocal determinism”. That is, improving any of these team processes will likely influence the other team processes as well as team performance in sports.
Here are some general guidelines for those interested in learning how sport psychology concepts can be applied to the development of expertise in team sports.
Task Cohesion. Working groups only become teams when they share a sense of purpose and clearly defined collective goals. Accordingly, the first step towards developing team excellence pertains to the establishment of quality (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) team goals. In addition, coaches and practitioners must assign specific task responsibilities to each team member so that all players feel motivated to contribute to the team.
Social Cohesion. The establishment of social bonds is essential to develop a sense of trust and mutual support necessary for high-performing teams. Teammates should offer genuine support and complement the positive aspects of one’s persona and performance to foster the development of social cohesion. Coaches and team leaders should also promote social activities outside the sport environment (e.g., team building activities), thus offering teammates a chance to connect at a personal level and limiting the likelihood of social cliques.
Once cohesiveness is established, other team processes discussed below can be developed.
Improving Coordination Links. Coordination links represent synchronized actions or efforts among teammates and may be either explicit or implicit in nature. Explicit coordination refers to verbal communication aimed at facilitating performance within the team. Research with successful sport teams has suggested that communication exchanges between players should carry instructional content and be framed in a positive tone (Lausic, Tennebaum, Eccles, Jeong, & Johnson, 2009). Implicit coordination pertains to the ability of teammates to articulate team-level actions without the need for verbal communication. These implicit heuristics, crucial elements in team sports (e.g., hand signals in volleyball, set pieces in soccer), should be extensively rehearsed until conducted automatically by all team members.
Enhancing Resource Sharing. Resource sharing seems to be a characteristic of high-performing teams across domains of human activity. For instance, team building exercises help to create a positive working atmosphere that allows for learning conversations and productive knowledge exchange. Likewise, coaches should strive to establish a positive motivational climate wherein personal improvement, effort, and learning are encouraged, and thereby teammates feel safe to discuss their roles within the team, and the team’s strategy as a whole. Where available, coaches should also incorporate resources from other domains (e.g., biomechanics, physiotherapy) in their practice and performance analysis, as such additional knowledge might be the difference maker in high-stakes competition.
Skill Mastery. Both self-confidence and team confidence are primarily based on skill mastery and successful experiences. For instance, Barcelona, a premier European soccer team, exudes confidence in every match because of its highly skilled players, such as Iniesta and Messi, and past accomplishments, such as winning the UEFA Champions League. Consequently, coaches should recruit the most skilled players available (or ensure that each team member has the skills required for his/her position). However, it is rare to find a team that possesses all required skills needed to succeed at the early and middle stages of development. Accordingly, coaches and practitioners should be able to identify what skills need to be developed to meet the team’s goals for the season, while promoting a mastery involving climate by recognizing each teammate’s unique contributions, effort and personal improvement.
Team Preparation. For any athlete worried about an upcoming competition, proper training periodization is essential to diminish anxiety, instill confidence, and decrease the likelihood of overtraining. Likewise, successful teams need sufficient time to prepare to ensure superior performance. Coaches must encourage the players on their team to work together, discuss team strategies and tactics, and brainstorm new ideas in order to evolve a strong sense of collective competence. As Aristotle famously stated, “excellence is not an act but a habit”.
High-performing teams depend on many interdependent components. As is often said, a “chain is only as strong as its weakest links”. As such, to develop high-performing teams, coaches and practitioners should view team dynamics in a systemic fashion, by considering the interrelationship among different team processes, including cohesion, team mental models and team confidence.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
Filho, E., Gershgoren, L., Basevitch, I., & Tenenbaum, G. (2014). Profile of high-performing college soccer teams: An exploratory multi-level analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 15, 559-568.
Filho, E., Tenenbaum, G., & Yang, Y. (2015). Cohesion, team mental models, and collective efficacy: Towards an integrated model of team dynamics in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33, 641-653.
Lausic, D., Tennebaum, G., Eccles, D., Jeong, A., & Johnson, T. (2009). Intrateam communication and performance in doubles tennis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 80, 281-290.
Published January 17, 2017
You know you are in deep trouble; so you face the brutal facts of the challenge you’re facing. But at the same time you feel deeply that you will prevail.
This quote comes from James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for over seven years in Vietnam. Stockdale's perspective on acknowledging the reality of your adversity while still holding to the belief that things will work out became known as the Stockdale Paradox, a central takeaway from research done by Dr. Dennis Charney. Dr. Charney studied a variety of people who had survived adversity in its most extreme forms and yet somehow came out of it without the depression, PTSD, and harmful emotional scar tissue one would expect. He compiled a list of characteristics that set these people apart, and the #1 characteristic was a simple yet misunderstood quality - optimism.
To understand optimism, let's begin with what it's not. Optimism is not a naive assumption that everything is always going to be fine - the Pollyanna who views the world constantly through rose-colored glasses and never worries a day in their life.
Optimism is a mindset, characterized by maintaining positive expectations for important future outcomes. It is the stories you tell yourself, and the way you interpret the circumstances and events of your life. And optimism has some eye-opening benefits:
- Optimism is the most powerful predictor of resilience (our ability to recover quickly from adversity)
- Optimism, and the anticipation that comes with it, makes us happy! Think about this - when surveyed about their favorite day of the week, people choose Saturday. But second place goes to Friday (a work day), not Sunday. We love the anticipation of what's to come.
- Positive emotions can undo the effects of negative experiences.
- Optimistic people, while experiencing the same levels of anxiety and frustration when faced with adversity, are able to more quickly let go of negativity, worry less, and shift their attention to what is positive.
- Optimists tend to give more effort over a longer period of time.
If that list doesn't win you over, you may have a dangerously pessimistic style of thinking, which ultimately shapes your mindset - but not to worry, let's finish with some practical takeaways.
Here are 3 ways you can grow your optimism:
- Stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself.
Our mindset is determined by the stories we tell ourselves. And all too often, we settle into a bad habit of negative, pessimistic inner dialogue, using consistent and absolute language “things are always going to be this way, they will never change for the better”. We develop an expectation for negative things in our lives, maybe without noticing, which can lead to helplessness and hopelessness. Stop listening to yourself, and start talking to yourself with intention and purpose. Learn to take the lessons from difficult circumstances and push forward, expecting better things to come. The best is yet to come...
- Interpretation is more important than preparation.
This isn't to discount your planning and preparation in life - those things have plenty of value. My point here is, when the inevitable adversity comes (the kind you weren't prepared for), an optimistic person will have a healthier and more beneficial interpretation of what happened and how to move forward. This is what's known as your explanatory style. Adversity will come your way - grow your ability to lean into it, pull out the lessons that will help you grow, and push forward.
- BUT...bring an umbrella.
We all have an optimism bias of which we must be aware. There's a fine line between healthy optimism and naiveté (the person who ignores the weather report that calls for a rain storm and ventures out without an umbrella). To paraphrase Stockdale, acknowledge the challenge ahead but believe deeply that you will prevail.
How would you rate yourself when it comes to dealing with adversity? We all have a ton of growing still to do.
But the best is yet to come.