The Thrill of Motorcycling: Quest for Flow

By Helen Owton

As the British Superbike season comes to an end this month, it’s an opportunity to understand why individuals engage in such ‘risky’ activities. Traditionally, extreme sports are associated with thrill seekers with a ‘death wish’ or adrenaline junkies searching for their next thrill (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013). Brymer and Schweitzer (2013), however, argue that these individuals can be highly trained individuals with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity, and the environment, who seek an experience that is life-enhancing and life-changing.  Extreme sport participants face intense fears, accept that control of the future is not always possible and move through these fears to participate fully in the action and make choices to reduce risk and enhance personal control (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013; Crust et al., 2019). Csikzentmihalyi (1997) noted that “People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”

The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind… The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some housefly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: 78. Boanerges[1] is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop, flying across the dip, and up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus (Laurence of Arabia, The Mint, Part III, Chpt 16, 1955).

Lawrence of Arabia wrote stories about the thrill of riding motorcycles which captures the sense of freedom, excitement and adventure that many experience. There may be risks attached to pursue those experiences, but new adventures and unique experiences can cultivate joy, fulfilment, enhance confidence and resilience, and provide an opportunity to grow and expand one’s sense of self. Indeed, motorcyclists are often “driven to conquer new challenges and soak up every experience life has to offer” (Carter, 2019; Psychology Today, 2021, para 2). Pirsig (1991) articulates this in the following paragraph:

In a car, you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realise that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

The thrill, ‘adrenaline rush’ and intense sensory experience motorcyclists may experience from riding (Sato, 1988) can be understood through the concept of ‘flow’. Csíkszentmihályi (1997) has studied the phenomenon of flow extensively and describes it as an optimal psychological state, which enables athletes to optimise their potential and to perform at their personal best. “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Jackson and Csíkszentmihályi (1999) designated nine antecedents of flow, which are termed: challenge-skills balance, action-awareness merging, clear goals, unambiguous feedback, concentration on the task at hand, sense of control, loss of self-consciousness, time transformation and autotelic experience. An ‘autotelic’ person is described as doing things for their own sake, low sense of self-centredness, strong sense of persistence, low need for power, and needing few material possessions.  Such a person tends to experience flow more frequently and there is a positive association between flow and conscientiousness (Ullén et al., 2012). These experiences can be derived in the course of participating in an activity, such as high-risk sports, like motorcycling.

Csikszentmihalyi suggests that for someone to fully enjoy high-risk pursuits, the level of danger must be proportionate to the participants’ level of ability. In order to induce flow, it is about balancing the level of skill with the challenge we are faced with (Nakamura et al., 2009). The capacity to experience flow, however, can differ from person to person and some argue there is a difference between flow state and ‘clutch’ state. Clutch state is similar to being “in the zone” but described as being able to make it happen when you need to switch on during important moments in a performance. Clutch performances occur under particular pressure conditions and where there’s an important outcome. Clutch performances are comprised of focus, heightened awareness, and intense effort whereas flow states are viewed as effortless attention and automatic experiences (Swann and Goddard, 2020). Flow states are more aligned with “letting it happen” whereby confidence develops naturally whereas clutch states are associated with “making it happen” where there is a sudden increase in concentration and effort (Swann et al., 2015). In order to activate flow states or clutch states, there has been an association with certain goal types. For example, open goals such as “do your best” goals are more associated with inducing flow states, whereas specific goals with a fixed outcome such as “winning a race” and setting a task specific goal to “ride at 100mph round the next corner to overtake the next rider” in order to achieve that outcome is associated with ‘clutch’ performances. It is likely that, in reality, there is a shifting or slippage in and out of the states and a blurring between and within the states.

Nonetheless, there are similarities within the two states and Cole (2017) suggests an 80% rule of attention and engagement and cautions against 100% capacity which could result in disaster. As demonstrated on a track day in Owton (in press), attentional shifts when riding a motorcycle means that working at 100% can make one feel overwhelmed, whereas once distractions are reduced, skills improve, and enjoyment is enhanced from moments of being ‘in the zone’. In this way, flow isn’t just an enjoyable state of being, it is about learning to direct your attention, gain independence from exterior rewards, and ultimately, living a happy and fulfilled life. Notably, however, a mistake in motorcycling at speed and pushing one’s abilities too far has fatal consequences (Murphy, 2016). Motorcycling, like other high-risk sports, requires a sharpening of senses, meticulous preparation, high work rates, swift recovery following setbacks and thriving in challenging situations (Crust et al., 2019).  As Cole (2017) notes, therefore, it is important to set ourselves appropriate challenges and be attuned to one’s senses by anticipating, listening to engine sounds, being cool under pressure, being attuned to a constantly moving environment at speed, and positioning the body-motorcycle effectively round the corner such as riding a ‘racing line’ (Owton, in press).

As I feel myself flow through the air, my hand on the throttle squeezing it towards me, picking up speed, feeling the air press against me harder as I gain speed. My lid protects me from the air pressing too hard on my face and the wind making eyes water. I listen to the sound of the engine growling, working hard, getting louder as the right time comes to change gear, then I quickly close the throttle swiftly enough not to feel the motorcycle slow down as I flick my toe up and click into the next gear. Listening acutely to the sound and feel indicates I can squeeze the throttle and gain speed again. This is known as quick shifting manually (not using the clutch). The connection between my hands, my feet, and the motorcycle, works best when I’m not thinking, when I’m just feeling the way and am at one with my motorcycle. Once I’ve reached top gear, there’s a smoothness with the ride; I feel like I’m flying. I’m completely alert but I’m in a trance of speed with endorphins raging through my body (Owton, in press).

While there can be high risks involved in motorcycling, participation in such activities can facilitate more positive psychological experiences and allow people to experience freedom and re-connect with nature (Brymer and Schweitzer, 2013).

References

Carter, K. (2019). Buzz!: Inside the Minds of Thrill-seekers, Daredevils, and Adrenaline Junkies. Cambridge University Press.

Crust, L. Swann, C. & Allen-Collinson, J. (2019) Mentally tough behaviour in extreme environments: perceptions of elite high-altitude mountaineers, Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 11(3), 334-347.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1997). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. New York: HarperCollins.

Jackson, S. & Csíkszentmihályi M. (1999). Flow in sports. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow theory and research. Handbook of positive psychology, 195-206.

Pirsig, R. M. (1999). Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: An inquiry into values. Random House.

Sato, I. (1988). Bosozoku: Flow in Japanese motorcycle gangs. In M. Csikszentmihalyi & I. Csikszentmihalyi (Eds.), Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in Consciousness (pp. 92-117). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ullén, F., de Manzano, Ö., Almeida, R., Magnusson, P. K., Pedersen, N. L., Nakamura, J., … & Madison, G. (2012). Proneness for psychological flow in everyday life: Associations with personality and intelligence. Personality and Individual Differences52(2), 167-172.

[1] Lawrence nicknamed his motorcycle a Brough Superior SS100 Boanerges (Boa) meaning “son of thunder” in Aramaic.

Student Story: Dominic Ball

“Mum and dad trained as teachers, so I was always pushed in school. Even when football opportunities came, I was always pushed academically because the average length of a footballer’s career is seven years.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in it for seven years now. Hopefully, I’ll be able to play until I’m 35, but most players have to work so I always thought I need to plan for my future.”

After completing a BTEC in sport, Dominic’s older brother encouraged him to undertake a degree with the university.

“My brother had actually started his degree with the OU a couple of years before me. He said that the course was easy to understand and worked well around football.

We travel a lot, sometimes twice a week for away games, but even in a hotel room you can do your work. I like the fact that I had the flexibility to get on and do my work on flights or at different clubs but keep up with my workload.

My brother’s degree was partly funded by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). They provide financial support to young players which is brilliant – it pushes players to do something in education. When it came time for me to do my degree, university fees had gone up but the PFA provided a bursary, which made it a lot more affordable as a young player.”

At first Dominic found the course challenging but found his feet in his final year and really excelled.

“Initially, I didn’t engage with my tutors or get involved in the student community, so I struggled for the first half of a six-year course. In one assignment I received 14 out 100 which made me think, I need to understand where I’m going wrong.

I started to engage with my tutors and other students, it made the experience more enjoyable. In my last year, I finally understood how to structure my essays and assignments – the penny dropped. I was averaging 70 per cent in my results.”

Dominic didn’t experience the traditional graduation ceremony as he completed his degree during lockdown, but it was still a special moment for him and his loved ones.

“I organised a small celebration at home. I hired a photographer to take photos of me in my robes. It was a special moment – my girlfriend, my dog, and my mum and dad were there to help me celebrate.

All my hard work has paid off, which was a big moment for not only me but also for my parents. I would have loved to go to graduation, but we’ve all missed out on something this year, and I was just pleased to get my degree.”

Now with a degree under his belt Dominic is hopeful for the future and plans to go into business after football.

“Football is my passion – I still have dreams of playing in the Premiership. But with my degree, I hope that in time I can set up a business, maybe something to do with football, so that I have a career long after my days on the pitch.”

Student Story: Sandy Johnston

When I left school in Scotland back in the early ‘80s I went to university to study science but after a year I decided it wasn’t for me. I was a real disappointment to my folks – the first of my generation to go to university and the first one to drop out!

After doing menial jobs for a couple of years I decided to go back to college and completed an HND in business studies, with a view to improving my prospects. However, unemployment was high back then, jobs were few and far between and it looked like I was going to have to relocate if I wanted to work, but that wasn’t acceptable to me.

Since I was a kid in the scouts, I’d always been into hillwalking, canoeing and kayaking, all these things you can do outdoors. It’s always been my thing. I decided to do some voluntary work at outdoor centres to become qualified as an outdoor instructor, but political changes at that time closed a lot of outdoor education jobs. I didn’t see a future in that area, so a complete change of career plan followed, and I joined the police.

After a couple of years as a cop I decided to improve my higher education and transferred the credit from my HND to the OU, to do a Social Policy Diploma. I wanted to see what the academics made of the social problems I was confronted with on a daily basis, and I felt a degree would help with promotion. I got support from the police with funding, which helped quite a bit, and studied around my shifts.

After achieving the Diploma in Higher Education, I decided to study further courses in sociology and criminology, and went on to achieve a BSc (Hons) Open degree with the OU. Studying those areas helped me in my police career. I gained a wider knowledge and perspective on the things I was dealing with, because social problems and issues around social welfare are the main thing you’re dealing with as a uniformed cop. The studies gave me more confidence, especially when I moved from dealing with people at street level to being a detective sergeant in the economic crime unit. There, I was often investigating lawyers and bankers committing fraud, you might say a more educated form of criminal.

All the time I was in the police force I kept up my interest in the outdoors and I decided that when I retired from the force I was going to work as a freelance outdoor instructor. You retire from the police at a relatively young age with a decent pension, so the freelancing world is good to work in if you don’t need to depend on finding a regular full-time income. During my last few years in the force I spent a lot of my spare time gaining outdoor sports coaching qualifications and when I did retire I picked up work as a freelancer, mainly at outdoor centres. That kept me busy in summer, but I was conscious that during the winter I wasn’t going to get as much work, so I thought I’d go back to study again. That’s what led me to the course I’m studying now, which is the BSc (Hons) Sport, Fitness & Coaching. I wanted to study the theoretical background of sport, fitness and coaching to support me in my day-to-day work, I suppose similar to what I did when I was in the police. I’m funding my studies from what I make as an outdoor instructor.

I really enjoy the Sports degree because it fits in perfectly with what I do in my current occupation as a freelance outdoor instructor. The studies make me think more about my actual, practical coaching. There’s lots of little nuggets of information I’ve learned. Coaching has always fascinated me, so I’ve studied coaching theory before, but this course is filling in some of the blank areas. You get that satisfying kind of, ‘Oh that’s why!’ realisation when you study and discover the reasons why certain approaches or methods work better than others.

One major thing I’ve learned is that there’s a big difference between a coach and an instructor. For example, it’s very important from a coaching point of view that, especially when you’re going to be working with someone over a period of time, you’re not just providing answers to the questions that they are seeking but leading them to find out the answers for themselves. As a coach, you should be helping them to think, rather than saying, ‘This is what you do. Here’s the answer.’ That, according to coaching theory, is what helps your pupil retain what they’ve learned, rather than them just doing what you tell them to do and then forgetting about it.

The biggest challenge of studying comes whenever I have an assignment deadline! That’s when you say to yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?!’ I just try and avoid the procrastination and get on with it but it’s very easy to find other things to distract you.

This is my second Open University degree, so I know I can do it, it’s just a matter of working away at it. But I think the inspiration for my first OU course was my Mum. When I was about 14, my Mum, who left school with no qualifications, decided to go back to college, earning higher education qualifications and ended up working as a college lecturer.

The main difference between the OU back in the ‘90s and the OU today is not having to set your video recorder for 2am to record a programme you need to see to study your module! Everything’s available online now, which is a great improvement, as it’s easier to access, although the quality of the course materials was just as good then as it is now.

I now have my own little business: Sandy Johnston Coaching. I coach people in kayaking, canoeing and watersports, mostly. It’s a nice way to work, working for myself and freelancing with other organisations, such as the scouts or different outdoor centres. It’s really enjoyable and I’m getting paid for something I love doing.

 

My plans for the future are to expand my own coaching business and to work with long-term students to help them to develop. I’m going to continue my studies in coaching. I’m a performance coach in Whitewater kayaking and I would quite like to do the next step up – British Canoeing Coaching Level 4, which is a postgrad diploma – because I want to improve my standing as a coach. I’ve got another ten to fifteen years of my working life left so it would be nice to work at the very top end of coaching.

My advice to anyone thinking of doing an OU course? Just do it!

JOIN OUR TEAM: VACANCIES FOR PART-TIME TUTORS

We are currently looking for a number of new part-time associate lecturers to join our network of tutors teaching on our BSc (Hons) Sport, Fitness and Coaching programme. We have vacancies on the following modules:

  • E235 Sport and Exercise Psychology in Action
  • E236 Applying Sport and Exercise Sciences to Coaching
  • E312 Athletic Development: A Psychological Perspective
  • E314 Exploring Contemporary Issues in Sport and Exercise

 

To apply for one (or more) of these vacancies please visit the website below and look for the module code (E235, E236, E312 or E314).

CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT MORE AND APPLY

For more information about the BSc (Hons) Sport, Fitness and Coaching programme click here.

 

The closing date for applications is Thursday 26th August 2021.

 

Adam Peaty: the family behind the athlete

By Jessica Pinchbeck

The Games of the Tokyo Olympics have been played in empty stadiums and venues, without fans and family members. Jessica Pinchbeck looks at the importance of Adam Peaty’s family to his success.

In an incredible feat of Olympic history Adam Peaty has claimed gold in Tokyo to become the first GB swimmer to retain an Olympic title, but this year’s Olympics has a very different feel for the competitors with no spectators to provide that extra buzz and to join in the celebrations when success strikes. Perhaps the most noticeable absence of all is that of the athletes’ families and their emotional displays of pride and affection. For many athletes their families form an integral part of their athletic journey and Tokyo gold medallist Adam Peaty has been extremely vocal in his thanks to his parents over the years:

“Parents are the unsung heroes of our sport.”
Adam Peaty, GB Swimmer

Parental influence is fundamental in shaping a child’s sporting journey (Knight, 2019) and this influence is formed by the culmination of many different factors. There exists a considerable body of research to demonstrate that physical activity participation is influenced by factors related to the athletes’ family such as social class, the home environment and economic status (Dagkas and Stathi, 2007).

“You do feel on the back foot if you don’t come from a rich family or a family who are already involved in sport… You’re starting off at a massive disadvantage against those kinds of people.”

“As an amateur you’re up against people with money who can afford physio or therapists, and these kids turn up with all the kit. Not everyone is equal. But if anything, it made me more determined to make the most of what I did have and give 110% in training.”
Adam Peaty, GB Swimmer

Adam Peaty Rio 2016

Peaty’s success demonstrates that although environmental factors such as financial support can be influential other contributing factors are sometimes more important, such as attitudes and beliefs about the value of sport. The majority of young children’s time is spent with family members, especially parents, and this is why the family is a vital social facilitator in sport, influencing the way a child thinks and behaves, and the opportunities they are presented with.

Admittedly, social factors such as cost, local provision and proximity to amenities are relevant but these decisions are informed by the parents’ own attitudes and beliefs. Expectancy Value Model (Eccles et al., 1983; Eccles, 1993) states that if parents perceive sport to be important, they will provide more frequent opportunities for their child to participate in sporting activities based on a range of values.

“We forced him to swim and we have a strong belief that all children should swim because it’s a life-saving skill.”
Caroline Peaty, Mother of Adam Peaty

Peaty’s family clearly valued the importance of swimming and made every effort to ensure he had the opportunities and support to start swimming. Once Adam’s talent and success were evident, at aged 14 he joined City of Derby Swimming Club which involved increased travelling and greater commitment. It was a grueling regime and with his dad unable to drive, it was Peaty’s mum who bore the brunt of the training commitments:

“I’d get up at four in the morning, drive him 40 minutes to Derby, sit and wait two hours while he was training, or go to Tesco, then drive him back again and do a full day’s work as a nursery manager. Then we’d do it again in the evening.”
Caroline Peaty, Mother of Adam Peaty

Without such dedication and support from his parents Peaty’s Olympic journey would likely not have been possible. Throughout the athletic journey, as well as logistical support such as transport and organisation, the emotional support from an athlete’s family is vital in keeping them grounded and ensuring they maintain an identity beyond that of their sport.

Siblings have also been shown to influence a child’s sports participation, though, research shows sibling influence to be multifaceted and varied. Peaty, the youngest of four children, was heavily influenced by his older brothers in a unique way:

“I was scared of the water as a child. I even hated having baths; I’d scream every time […] My older brothers had told me sharks could swim through the plughole.”
Adam Peaty, GB Swimmer

Siblings are sources of both positive and negative sport experiences (Blazo and Smith, 2018) and despite this initial negative influence from his brothers, Peaty’s siblings may also have played a positive role in his development. For example, older siblings have been shown to be positive role models for a work ethic (Côté, 1999) with birth order also associated with athletic differences, including suggestions that later-born children are more likely to perform at a higher level (Hopwood et al., 2015).

One explanation was that that first born children may focus more on their own development, whereas younger children compare themselves to older siblings, which results in firstborn children being more motivated to learn, whereas later born children possess a greater motivation to win (Carette et al., 2011). Competition and rivalry between siblings have been shown to have positive effects, whereby younger siblings sought to perform as well as, if not better than, an older sibling, though this was not necessarily always linked to sport, rather the creation of a general competitiveness (Lundy et al. 2019). This appears to be evident within the Peaty family:

”Growing up with three older siblings, I’ve always had a competitive edge. The continuous and unforgiving strive to be exceptional in whatever I do derives from my childhood to always try, take part and do even better next time.”
Adam Peaty, GB Swimmer

Therefore, although the physical absence of Peaty’s parents and siblings was most certainly felt in Tokyo this year, their continued support throughout his athletic journey was certainly not absent from the success of his gold medal winning performance.  Since becoming a father himself, Peaty has voiced the importance of being a role model to his own son, passing on his own work ethic to the next generation.

References

Blazo, J. A., & Smith, A. L. (2018). A systematic review of siblings and physical activity experiences. International review of sport and exercise psychology, 11 (1), 122-159.

Carette, B. Anseel, F. and Van Yperen, N.W. (2011) ‘Born to learn or born to win? Birth order effects on achievement goals’, Journal of Research in Personality, 45, pp. 500–503.

Côté, J. (1999) ‘The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport’, The sport psychologist13 (4), pp.395-417.

Dagkas, S. and Stathi, A. (2007) ‘Exploring social and environmental factors affecting adolescents’ participation in physical activity’, European Physical Education Review13 (3), pp.369-384.

Eccles, J. A., Futterman, T., Goff, R., Kaczala, S., Meece, C., & Midgley, J. (1983). Expectations, values, and academic behaviors. Achievement and achievement motivation, 283-331.

Eccles, J. S. (1993). School and family effects on the ontogeny of children’s interests, self-perceptions, and activity choices Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1992: Developmental perspectives on motivation

Hopwood, M., Farrow, D., MacMahon, C., & Baker, J. (2015). Sibling dynamics and sport expertise. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 25 (5), 724-733.

Knight, C. J. (2019) ‘Revealing findings in youth sport parenting research’, Kinesiology Review(3), pp.252-259.

Lundy, G. I., Allan, V., Cowburn, I., & Cote, J. (2019). Parental Support, Sibling Influences and Family Dynamics across the Development of Canadian Interuniversity Student-Athletes. Journal of Athlete Development and Experience, 1 (2), 4.

This article was originally published on OpenLearn.

Resilience: The magic ingredient for Olympians?

By Nichola Kentzer

Arguably, it has been a longer, and more challenging, road to Tokyo 2020 than any other Olympic Games in recent times. So how were the athletes and their support teams, able to pick up themselves up following the disappointment of the cancelled games last year and prepare for the rescheduled event? In this article, Dr Nichola Kentzer considers resilience as a key factor in supporting this disrupted athletic journey.

What is resilience?

Something of a buzz word in recent years – there have been many definitions of resilience presented but in simple terms resilience is:

“The ability to use personal qualities to withstand pressure.”

(Fletcher & Sarkar, 2016, p. 136).

When discussing resilience in the sporting context the terms ‘stressor’ – referring to the demands placed on the athletes, such as in training and competition, and ‘adversity’ referring to a personal (such as bereavement) or professional (e.g., deselection) difficulty for an athlete, are often used. The ‘personal qualities’ associated with resilience highlighted in the above definition are thought to protect an athlete from the potential negative effects of stressors/adversities that they may face.

Furthermore, when considering the question posed in the first paragraph, research tells us that some athletes can develop positively and learn from adversity experienced. For example, Fletcher and Sarkar (2012), in a study of Olympic champions, reported that most of the athletes interviewed argued that had they not experienced certain stressors, and adversities, they would not have won their gold medals.

Perhaps one Olympic example that illustrates this effectively was Andy Murray’s ability to take the incredible disappointment of losing the Wimbledon final in 2012 and going on, just a few weeks later, to win Olympic gold in London 2012 against the same opponent, Roger Federer.

At the time, Andy reflected:

“I have had a lot of tough losses in my career and this is the best way to come back from the Wimbledon final.”

Andy had been able to pick himself back up, or rebound, from the disappointment of loss to cope with significant stressors during the Olympic competition and withstand the immense pressure of an Olympic final at Wimbledon in front of a home crowd.

The word resilient spelt out in lettersA more recent example, from Day 4 of the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games, offers an illustration of the challenges faced by athletes on their journey to the delayed event. During his preparation for the Games, Team GB swimmer Tom Dean had significant disruptions caused by two bouts of COVID-19 with 6 weeks off from training and, upon return, he had to structure his training to prevent any long-term damage to his heart and lungs. Tom was able to overcome this unprecedented situation, and significant changes to his training programme, to win Olympic Gold in the 200m swimming freestyle.

But what is it about these athletes that allows them to bounce back, be resilient, and take positives from such adversity into future performances?

Personal qualities that support athletes to be resilient

The research on Olympic champions by Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) identified five psychological characteristics that athletes high in resilience possessed and that were integral to the athletes withstanding pressure.  The five characteristics were:

  • Positive personality
  • Motivation
  • Confidence
  • Focus
  • Perceived social support.

Athletes with these characteristics were able to positively evaluate a stressor (and their own thoughts about it) and perceive that they were able to cope with the demands placed on them, enabling optimum performance.

It could be argued, therefore, that Andy Murray was able to take confidence from his performance in the 2012 Wimbledon final, despite his loss, and saw this as an additional boost to his motivation to focus on the Olympics a few weeks later. It is likely that he perceived he had the support of those around him and that he had the ability to cope with the demands of the Olympic competition. Thus, allowing him to appraise the event positively as a challenge, and not a threat, and was able to withstand the pressure he faced.

Developing resilient athletes

When preparing an athlete such as Andy Murray for an Olympic competition, developing their ability to withstand pressure might seem a logical step. However, it is important to ensure that this is done in an environment that facilitates the development of resilience. When discussing the best environment for the development of resilience, leading resilience researcher Dr Mustafa Sarkar (2019) uses the analogy of a flower. If a flower is not blooming, we do not only look to the flower for a reason but to their environment and examine the volume of water, the quality of the soil, and the amount of sunlight available. This approach was advocated by UK Sport for their athletes and sought to create an environment:

“Providing equal levels of support and challenge while also being extra vigilant in caring about the well-being of athletes.”

(Nicholl, 2017).

In sport, the nature and level of challenges faced will change over time, with events such as the Olympics providing challenge at the highest level. Following UK Sport’s pledge, therefore, Olympic athletes would require a high level of support to ensure both their well-being and performance was facilitated, further developing their resilience.

Olympic Rings in Odaiba, Tokyo, Japan

So, as you watch the Olympic events – remember that this is just one event on the athlete’s journey, as the Wimbledon final in 2012 was to Andy Murray.  You might see an athlete topping a podium as a result of previously experienced adversities, or you might witness a disappointment, an adverse event that could enable an athlete to go on to seek future challenges in a more positive and resilient manner. But as highlighted, it is crucial that the appropriate support is made available to all athletes regardless of their result to enable them to evaluate and reflect positively and take learning forward into their next challenge.

References

Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise13, 669-678.

Fletcher, D. & Sarkar, M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action7, 135-157.

Nicholl, L. (2017) Better culture creates a stronger system [online]. UK Coaching. Available at: https://www.uksport.gov.uk/news/2017/10/24/uk-sport-statement-on-culture [Accessed 25th November 2020].

Sarkar, M. (2019) How to create psychological resilience [podcast]. The Athlete Development Project. Available at: https://athletedevelopmentproject.com/2020/01/ep-72-mustafa-sarkar-how-to-create-psychological-resilience/ [Accessed 11th August 2020].

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

How to help your child become a future Olympian

By Jane Dorrian

The Olympic and Paralympic games show us that there is a sport for everyone. Dr Jane Dorrian looks at the ways you can inspire your child to be a future star.

From archery to wheelchair basketball, there’s guaranteed to be something that got you watching. For lots of children, the games give them their first taste of less well known sports, or shine a light on the superstars of more popular events and they want to have a go themselves. So if your child hasn’t stopped sprinting around the garden since the 100 metres final, or is skateboarding down the staircase after watching Sky Brown’s tricks, here are some ideas about how you can help them

1. Mix it up

Research shows that doing lots of different sports and activities during childhood is more likely to produce an elite athlete than just doing one. This is because over-practicing one set of skills or actions is more likely to result in injury, and it gets boring! All sports have a whole range of transferable skills that are important in any competitive situation, things like teamwork, resilience, persistence and co-ordination and learning these in different situations keeps children motivated and interested.

2. Do it yourself

Children of active parents are much more likely to be active themselves, so dust off your trainers and get out there too. This doesn’t mean that you need to be working to the Olympics yourself, or even have to try and win the parents’ race on Sports Day, just find something that you like.

Lady and child doing yoga togetherIf you’ve been walking laps of the local park in lockdown take that a step further and join a walking sports team – there’s walking rugby, football, netball and lots more. Have a look at what’s happening in your local leisure centre or sports hall, there is plenty going on. It doesn’t matter what sport you do, it shows your child that you value being active and see it as something worth doing which is a positive message they’ll pick up.

“Becoming an Olympian is the pinnacle of a sporting career and not many athletes will get there, so it is important to ensure that there is fun and enjoyment on the sporting journey up to whatever point your child gets to.”

3. It’s never too early to start

The more opportunities children have to be active and move around right from birth the better their outcomes are. Giving new babies tummy time, limiting the amount of time toddlers are in their pushchairs and getting children outside building rockets out of cardboard boxes might not seem to have much in common with elite sport, but the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are critical to their future development and getting into the habit of being active will help the physical and emotional well-being needed to be a successful sportsperson.

4. Remember – this is fun

Becoming an Olympian is the pinnacle of a sporting career and not many athletes will get there, so it is important to ensure that there is fun and enjoyment on the sporting journey up to whatever point your child gets to. Being a sporting parent can be challenging, supporting your child when they’ve lost, spending hours waiting around during training sessions and having a washing machine constantly on the go are just a few of the downsides but the benefits outweigh these. Sport gives you the chance to celebrate successes, share experiences and spend time together so make sure you make the most of these opportunities.

Active children are happier, healthier and more resilient so take every opportunity to get them involved and who knows, maybe we’ll see them at Paris in 2024!

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

Student Story: Aaron Venegas De Frutos

When I was 17, I got a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London. That was a great opportunity, but it meant I couldn’t complete my academic studies in Spain and wouldn’t have the qualifications to go to university. When I was 19, I joined Scottish Ballet but I knew I wanted to keep my academic studies going. The career of a ballet dancer is short, so I thought it was important to have something else in my life to give me a ‘Plan B’. I decided that studying a degree at university would be a good way to keep my doors open for the future.

 

I did some research online about distance learning in the UK and The Open University was always the first one that came up. I wouldn’t have been able to do a distance learning degree with a Spanish university because I didn’t have the necessary qualifications, but the OU were happy to accept me. I think the open entry policy is great because as long as you have the desire to study at university, and are willing to work as much as you need to, then why don’t you deserve to try?

When COVID hit I wasn’t able to dance as much. We currently train the same number of days but fewer hours; we’re divided into two groups and take turns to use the rehearsal space. The two groups alternate between mornings and afternoons, so I dance in the day and then study in the evening and at weekends – I would say I study four or five nights a week for a couple of hours.

I obviously have a lot more free time at the moment, so I wanted to find new ways of developing my skills outside the ballet studio. Even before COVID I thought that, instead of registering for a full degree straight away, I would start my OU studies with one module and see how I could manage to work and study at the same time.

I chose a Sport and Exercise Psychology module because I thought it sounded really interesting and that it could benefit my career as a dancer. I’m learning a lot of things that I am able to apply to my own work as a dancer. For example, I’m currently studying psychological techniques such as goal-setting and breathing techniques. Some of them I’d heard about before, but I’m now understanding them a lot better, and able to use them on a daily basis.

I really like the way the modular system of study works, and that I have the option to only study one module at a time. And, if I do enough credits, I can still get a qualification for the modules I’ve studied, even if I decide not to complete a full degree, which I think is really, really good. In Spain, if you study a degree for two years or three years and then stop before you’ve completed it, you don’t get anything. I’ve since decided to study the degree but back then it was good to know that I could get an interim qualification.

I’m not sure whether to aim for a psychology degree or a sports science degree, and this module is part of both, giving me a way to see which degree I’m more attracted to. Once I’ve finished this module, I’ll decide which path to take. That’s another one of the reasons I chose The Open University, because it’s not very common to have that flexibility.

My advice to anyone who is thinking of doing an OU course is to try to be organised, try to plan your week, and find times when you know you’re going to be able to study. Use the time as efficiently as you can – you’ll be given an online weekly study planner, so you know what you should be doing each week to make sure you can get your assignments in on time.

Don’t hesitate to contact your tutor and use the support that the OU provides, because it is always very helpful. The feedback from my tutor is always great and I’m always welcome to contact them. We also have a tutor group forum on the university website, so you have support and help if you need it.

The best part of studying with the OU for me is being able to manage my own time and choose when to study, in order to combine it with my work. It’s very rewarding and fulfilling, knowing that I’m doing something that will benefit my future.

To find out more about study Sport, Fitness and Coaching at The Open University click here.

How does educational background shape Olympic success?

By Jim Lusted

You don’t have to have attended private school to be a member of the British Olympic team for Tokyo 2020 – but it may have helped, particularly for some Olympic events. Dr Jim Lusted, Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, explores the role that educational background can have in athletes reaching the highest levels of Olympic sports like rowing, hockey and archery.

Rowing crew

The level playing field of sport

The Olympic games provides an opportunity for us to witness some sporting achievements that push ever further the boundaries of human performance limits – with only the very best claiming Olympic gold.

Sport is a meritocracy, right? That is, the most successful sportspeople achieve their awards because they deserve them – they are the fastest, strongest, most talented and/or hardworking of their generation, and the sporting competition determines the best from the rest. Who can argue, for example, that the person who reaches the finishing line first in the 100m sprint doesn’t deserve their victory? It’s an alluring idea that draws many of us to watch and enjoy elite sport events – perhaps never more so than a summer Olympics like the delayed Tokyo 2020 games.

The strong connection between sport and meritocracy is in part because it is so obvious – and yet you may already have thought of some examples where the winner might not have always been the ‘best’ athlete. Take the infamous sporting doping cases like Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, US cyclist Lance Armstrong and more recently the whole Russian Olympic programme. These – and many more – would certainly challenge the ideas that Olympic ‘winners’ achieve their success on hard work and talent alone. It is also not uncommon to hear the world’s best athletes talk about how they were never the best in their sport at school – but somehow they had ‘made it’ to success as an adult while others had fallen away as they grew up.

The influence of school background

Sutton trust chart - education of medallists
There are, of course, a range of complex factors that can influence people’s opportunity to fulfil their athletic potential and then go on to compete at the very highest levels. One of these might be an athlete’s own educational background. What school you attend might not be immediately significant, yet it seems to have an impact on who ends up competing for Britain at the Olympic games. Across the UK, independent (private fee-charging) schools educate 6.5% of the total school-age population (ISC 2021). However, research completed by The Sutton Trust just after the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics found that 36% of British athletes who won medals had attended independent (private, fee paying) schools compared with 60% who attended comprehensive (state funded) schools (with the remaining 8% coming from Grammar schools – usually free to attend but with a selective entrance policy of some kind).

For some Olympic sports, including rowing and women’s hockey, the majority of medal winners in 2016 had been privately educated. In others, former state or Grammar school pupils dominated the medals, such as cycling where only 8% of medallists had studied at an independent school in 2016.

This research also looked at the figures for the London 2012 Olympics and saw a slight increase in the proportion of state school medallists in 2016 – it will be interesting to see how the figures compare again with Tokyo 2020. We should be a little cautious of reading too much into the statistical trends given the relatively low numbers involved being open to fluctuation. But educational background seems influential, particularly in some sports.

Why is educational background important?

The substantial over-representation of privately educated athletes as British Olympians is probably of no particular surprise; certainly, many independent schools use sport to market the desirability of their education, by investing heavily in expensive specialist facilities and infrastructure and emphasising the priority placed on pupil participation in PE and sport. This investment often includes paying for particular coaching expertise along with ring-fencing additional time in and out of the school day for sport training and competition. Sport in the state sector has always compared poorly in such sporting provision and the gap is arguably getting wider, particularly since the promising School Sports Partnership scheme which was set up in the early 2000s to grow PE and school sport in the state sector was closed down by government in 2010 (Lusted, 2014).

 

Young women playing hockey

‘Buying’ access through social capital

But it is not just economic investment that can shape the sporting journeys of the most promising athletes attending private and state schools. As social theorist Pierre Bourdieu has observed, there are other forms of ‘capital’ (not only economic) that are available to some people to ‘buy’ access to (and power in) sport (Bourdieu 1988). We can draw on one of these forms – ‘social’ capital – to explore more deeply why some sports appear to be more accessible to some than others, and the role that education plays in this process.

Social capital refers to the networks of contacts, friendships and relationships that can help gain access to spaces and opportunities that we may not otherwise have. In this respect, the interconnections of private school teachers, coaches, parents and other relatives and local (often professional) sports club contacts can often help smooth an athlete’s journey to further progression. For sports such as cricket, hockey, archery and rowing, talent pathways are heavily informed by the inter-personal and organisational connections that congregate around independent school environments (and often, later, the associated elite Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge). Access is therefore often secured not only by an individual’s outstanding sporting talent, but by being in a position to ‘cash in’ regularly throughout one’s career development on the networks of social capital that such pupils have to hand. This allows us to entertain the idea that the different educational background of two otherwise equally talented young athletes might lead them on different athletic journeys.

Breaking the cycle of the traditional pathways to success

For Bourdieu, networks like these can be extremely difficult to break into without the ‘right’ social capital. It is not just a case of ‘talking to the right person’ or ‘getting in with the right crowd’ – such social capital is slowly accrued over time, is often informal, rarely acknowledged but heavily guarded by those who possess it. This can help explain why such networks are reproduced over time and can create long-term trends in sport participation.

Sport organisations are starting to recognise the often ‘exclusive’ nature of traditional pathways for some sports and have more recently looked to widen their talent identification programmes beyond their usual sites in the search for the next gold medallist. UK Sport’s ‘Fromhome2theGames’ offers an opportunity for all young people to be considered for development in one of many Olympic sports, initially just by completing 3 online physical tests. Whether this open-access approach can significantly challenge the existing development networks of some sports remains to be seen. Perhaps more of the next generation of British Olympians will be able to buck participation trends and find their educational background was lower down on the list of reasons for their eventual sporting success.

 

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.

Olympics 2021: The story of how a small Shropshire town influenced the modern Olympic movement

By Steph Doehler

Whilst this year’s Olympic Games will almost certainly suffer from COVID-19 constraints, the event remains the largest sporting spectacle in the world. Over time the Games have evolved from their modest beginnings into something incomparably grand. In this article, Steph Doehler discusses how a rural English town has closer links than most to the modern Olympics.

Despite the perception that it was Baron Pierre de Coubertin who revived the modern Olympic Games there were in fact many Olympic events taking place throughout Europe before Coubertin was even born. One of these, set in the small Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, has been widely considered by sports historians as one of the key influences on the modern Olympics, and even delegates for the Tokyo 2020’s organising committee noted its importance and legacy.

Much Wenlock

Going to Much Wenlock is like taking a step back in time, with quaint bakeries, country walks and old-fashioned pubs. The town has a modest population; at the time of the 2011 Census it had just 2,877 residents. Each summer they host a special sporting competition, the Wenlock Olympian Games, attracting amateur athletes who compete in events including archery, clay pigeon shooting and a seven mile road race. The tale of the Wenlock Games in the present day fails to do justice to their inception in the 1800s and how their legacy developed. One of the London 2012 mascots was named Wenlock in recognition for its influence.

The annual sporting event

William Penny Brookes Much Wenlock’s most famous figure is Dr William Penny Brookes (pictured right), born in 1809. In 1850 Brookes formed the Wenlock Olympian Games, an event that emphasised his admiration for the ancient Greek Olympics. Excluding a few short breaks, the Wenlock Games have continued annually since their inception. Whilst the Olympics of today boast a modern programme of events, the first annual Wenlock Games invoked a more rustic feel with competitions such as quoits and a blindfolded wheelbarrow race. Soon, the Games became an important event in the athletics calendar, attracting competitors from afar.

Mirroring Olympic philosophies

Brookes sought to reflect ideologies of ancient Olympic Games highlighting one’s intense desire to win and be recognised as the best. Similarly, whilst nowhere near the level of grandeur experienced at the modern Olympics, pageantry was an important element of early Games. A band would lead the parade of flag bearers, competitors and officials from the town, in similar vein to a contemporary opening ceremony. The Games took influence from similar competitions in Greece, as Brookes discarded many rural events and the Games became more consciously ‘Olympic.’

By 1859 international relations had emerged as Brookes became more involved in the Greek Olympic movement, which was being initiated by poet, Panagiotis Soutsos. Later, Greece’s Zappas Games, offered more inspiration for Much Wenlock; Greek mottos and banners were displayed and medals featuring Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, were introduced. The Wenlock Games experienced a turning point in 1860, assuming an independent identity known as the Wenlock Olympian Society (WOS).

International relations

By the early 1870s Brookes regularly communicated with ambassadors in Greece and London to encourage the restoration of the Olympics Games. One notable individual was John Gennadius, the Greek Chargés d’affaires, who later wrote to Brookes: “I cannot but feel indebted to you that you continue with this idea, the project of a revival of the Olympic Games.”  In 1880 Brookes took his boldest step towards his Olympic pursuit by conceiving the idea of a recurring international event, and by the end of the decade he found someone with similar views of Olympic values, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The Frenchman was invited to attend an autumn edition of the Wenlock Games in 1890. Brookes wanted to enlighten Coubertin on the WOS’s efforts, with a view to develop something similar in France. It was here where Coubertin drew inspiration for the inclusion of medal ceremonies, an innovative (for its time) celebration that had been commonplace in the Wenlock Games for years. As Brookes’ lifelong dedication to Olympic values began to wind down, he passed the torch to 27-year-old Coubertin. In June 1894 Coubertin held a conference in Paris to discuss a revival of the Olympic Games – 79 delegates unanimously voted to restore them, leading to the birth of the International Olympic Committee.

A lifelong dream achieved

The first modern Olympics was originally nominated to take place in London. However, Coubertin opposed, suggesting Athens instead, echoing Brookes’ own wish. It was Brookes’ life dream that the first international Games would happen in Athens and that he would be able to attend. Half of his dream came true in 1896 as the inaugural modern Olympics were held in Athens. Unfortunately, Brookes was not able to witness it as he passed away just five months earlier.

The Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, Greece

The Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, Athens, GreeceBrookes was the missing link between Soutsos and Coubertin, or simply put, the missing link between the Zappas and the 1896 Athens Games. This is not to discredit the work of Coubertin; he was the first to formulate many Olympic principles – all sports, all nations, all people. In many ways Coubertin preserved Brookes’ life’s work; had the Olympics not been revived much of what Brookes had dedicated his time to would have been in vain.

So, when you sit down to watch the Tokyo Games take a brief moment to consider that had Coubertin not visited Much Wenlock in 1890, the modern Olympic movement as we know it today could look very different.

This article was originally posted on OpenLearn.