AASP Blog

Category: Mental Skills Training

Inside the Helmet of Extreme Sports: The Psychology of Auto Racing

Published May 17, 2017

Tami Eggleston photo

By Tami Eggleston
McKendree University

Tami J. Eggleston has a Ph.D. in psychology from Iowa State University and is a professor and associate dean at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois. She is an AASP Certified Consultant. Dr. Eggleston will work with any athlete or performer regardless of sport, however, her unique specialty area is auto racing and drag racing. She and her husband campaign a rear-engine dragster. She and her husband have over twenty-five years of racing experience to combine with her sport psychology training. She has contributed to a variety of auto racing publications on the psychology of auto racing.

Website

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 & Gould, 2011). Working with auto racers (and other athletes) who can win and lose by such small margins is something that simply must be acknowledged and accepted by consultants, and they should work with athletes to focus on the process as much as the outcome.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 equestrians have to their horse or the respect tennis players have 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!).
  5. 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.

References:

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 in: Athletes, Performance Psychology, Mental Skills Training, Consulting


Finding Resilience on a Mountaintop

Published April 19, 2017

Sarah Hudak photo

By Sarah Hudak
University of Denver

Sarah is a second-year master’s student in the University of Denver’s Sport and Performance Psychology program. Throughout her training, she has discovered the importance of holistic development of athletes, and the power of sport in social change. She hopes to pursue a career in student-athlete leadership development, where she can continue to blog on the side.

Website

“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. 

Reference

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 in: Coaches, Athletes, Mental Skills Training


The Power of Optimism

Published January 17, 2017

By Matt Long, M.A., M.Ed.

Matt is a mental performance coach who works with athletes on assessing their mental skills (i.e. confidence, motivation, focus, self-management, etc.) and developing their abilities in this often-neglected component of performance. His focus is on helping people better understand, and more importantly improve, the aspects of performance which so often fail to get the attention they deserve – building and maintaining confidence, the ability to perform well under pressure, developing mental resilience, staying in the moment, etc. Matt’s coaching is informed by a background as an athlete, coach, teacher and mentor, enabling him to work effectively with people from all backgrounds. He is passionate about the field of applied sport psychology and its value, both in the athletic arena and in everyday life. Matt is one of fewer than 400 Certified Consultants in the nation through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

Website

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:

  1. 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...
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

www.mattlongmpc.com/blog

Published in: Health & Fitness, Mental Skills Training, Mental Health


Managing Emotions in Sport

Published September 6, 2016

Dr. Andrew Friesen photo

By Dr. Andrew Friesen
University of Wolverhampton

Website

There is no construct of human psychology and functioning more prevalent in sport than emotion. Mood, emotions, and general affect can influence every movement in every sport. Consider a typical 45 second shift in ice hockey. Within those brief 45 seconds, the player might begin the shift with high confidence (“I’m going to have a strong shift!”), receive the puck and skate in on the opposing goal with high excitement (“I’m going to shoot high glove side and score!”), get poke-checked by an opposing player inducing feelings of frustration (“That was a missed opportunity”) and guilt (“I could have really helped out my team”), back-check and makes a good defensive play which raises the player’s pride (“I helped my team by showing hustle and foiling the opposition”), and finally, end in a  scrum in front of the net where there is much shoving with opposing players where the player takes a spear to the midsection that the referee misses inducing anger (“I can’t stand that creep!”). Six different emotions within 45 seconds and each emotion will have the potential to help or hinder the player’s performance.

Effectively managing emotions then becomes an important skillset for every athlete. Emotion regulation means the use of strategies to initiate, maintain, modify, or display emotions (Gross & Thompson, 2007). This means that any attempt to change how long an emotion lasts, how intensely you feel the emotion, or what you are actually feeling is an attempt at emotion regulation. Further, emotion regulation isn’t just about changing how you feel, but can also involve changing the emotion’s action response (i.e., avoidance or confrontation) and physiological responses (e.g., facial expression or breathing patterns).

Emotion regulation: A family affair

There are literally hundreds of different emotion regulation strategies. James Gross (1998) has identified five families of emotion regulation. Each can be used in sport:

  • Situation Selection: An athlete can modify their emotions by selecting which situation to engage in. For example, a skier who is nervous about re-aggravating an injury might choose to skip a race in order to calm themselves. Goal-setting can act as a type of “situation selection” in that it can help ensure the athlete remains in desired and intended situations. 
  • Situation Modification: Once dedicated to the situation, the athlete can change some aspect of it to manage their emotions. For example, a figure skater who is nervous about a specific element might perform a modified version of the element at a lower difficulty in order to feel more confident about the whole performance. Consistently doing performance debriefs can help an athlete reflect on what potential tactics are available based on anticipated situations.
  • Attentional Deployment: An athlete can also choose what aspect of the situation to focus on (and/or ignore). For example, a volleyball player worried about the impending outcome of the game might choose to focus on specific aspects of the next serve-receive to shut out distracting thoughts about the outcome. Focus strategies that have primed the athlete about what is in, and out of, the athlete’s control can be an effective tool here.
  • Cognitive Change: An athlete can choose what meaning or perspective to have about any situation. For example, a basketball player who is happy with her performance in the first half of a game might remind herself that “there’s still another half to play” in order to maintain a high and focused intensity. Given the strong link between appraisals and emotions, self-talk (that is, the things we say to ourselves either out loud or in our head) is an essential tool for effective cognitive change.
  • Response Modulation (Suppression): After an athlete has experienced an emotion, he or she can try to alter the emotional response (behavioral, physical, or physiological). For example, a baseball player who strikes out can hide feelings of frustration by resisting the urge to curse or toss the bat. Having visualized potential “if-then” plans to employ based on anticipated emotional responses can be an effective tool in this circumstance.  

Each emotion has the potential to either help or hinder performance. Identifying which emotions do what in any given circumstance is the first step to learning how to manage emotions. Once this has been accomplished, athletes can begin to identify and practice emotion regulation strategies that are both effective and are likely to be employed based on the athlete’s ability and personality as well as the confines of the sport.

References
Gross, J. J. (1998). The emerging field of emotion regulation: an integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 271-299. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.2.3.271
Gross, J. J., & Thompson, R. A. (2007). Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed.), Handbook of emotion regulation (pp.3–24). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Published in: Coaches, Athletes, Performance Psychology, Mental Skills Training


Why Mindset and Failure Matter in Performance

Published February 5, 2015

By Nicole Detling

Nicole Detling discusses the importance of your mindset for performance and the importance of learning from failure.

Published in: Mental Skills Training



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