Author Archives: Jessica Pinchbeck

‘This girl can…’ with the right balance of inspiration and support

By Jessica Pinchbeck

‘I used to love playing netball at school’ is the standard response I get when I happen to mention to a female friend or colleague that at the age of 34 I still play netball. This response is typically followed by a few minutes of reminiscing about their school experiences and what position they enjoyed playing. However when it is suggested that they join a local club or come to a training session, among the all too familiar barriers of time and family commitments, I have frequently observed a lack of confidence and even fear of taking the plunge to return to sport . For many women I talk to there appears to be something scary and intimidating about playing competitive sport and it is possible that this mind-set is contributing to the current figures and insight on female participation in sport. However, where does this ‘mind-set’ come from and what else might hinder a woman’s involvement?

It is quite well known that there are fewer women participating in sport in the UK. Indeed, the latest Sport England (2015) research shows that 40.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 30.3% of women, but 75% of women would like to participate more, so what might the barriers be and how can we increase the number of women playing sport?

Campaigning and role models
Sport England are investing £10 million in national campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and £2 million to extend local campaigns such as ‘I Will if You Will’ to attempt to close the gender gap that exists in sport participation. Close to my own heart is the ‘Back to Netball’ campaign where over 60,000 women have taken part since 2010. Netball has seen increases in participation in England each year in all age groups of the Sport England Active People Survey, showing a more positive outlook moving in the right direction. The weekly TV coverage of the Netball Superleague on Sky Sports has helped to raise the profile of our top netballers such as Pamela Cookey and sisters Kadeen and Sasha Corbin to provide positive role models for women, but its reach is limited to those who subscribe to Sky. With the growth of netball and England’s recent Europe Championship win more media attention needs to be given to women’s sport to promote these positive female role models more widely.

Not only do national campaigns and media coverage need more development and attention to raise the profile of women’s sport to inspire participation, there is also a need to address the logistical, financial and emotional support required for many women to play sport at any level. Family responsibilities can often take precedence because women are still typically regarded as the main caregivers.

The importance of family
Parents provide the early opportunities for children to be active and a child’s experiences of sport and their enjoyment of it are often shaped by the family influences which determine participation later in life. In a research project on 1507 pupils aged 8-16 years the influence of the family played a central role in the children’s attitudes towards sport and physical activity. There are also certain stages in life where participation is most vulnerable. For teenagers family support is essential to maintaining participation at what are termed ‘key transition phases’ with the transition from childhood to adulthood being a crucial risk time for dropout. In a study investigating girls and young women’s participation in physical activity the majority of participants who always played sport lived in households where parents and siblings also regularly participated in sport, with many examples of family members acting as role models. Therefore the importance of the family in encouraging and supporting girls to play sport is a key strategy to ensure the future generation of women continue to participate into adulthood.

Similarly at certain phases during adulthood participation is ‘at risk’ such as moving into full time work and having children. At times such as this encouragement and support from family to help balance work and life commitments is essential to being able to maintain participation. Playing competitive sport is less flexible than other fitness pursuits such as going to the gym and so an extra layer of organisation and commitment is often required. This is where a good support network is invaluable to maintaining participation.

So for me encouraging more women to play sport requires two key strategies in addition to the national campaigns and media hype. The first is to educate parents on the importance of providing opportunities and positive sports experiences for their daughters growing up to ensure continued participation later on in life. This will ensure that women’s sport plays a key part in future generations. The second is to inspire and empower women to seek much needed support to help overcome the barriers of work and life commitments that often prevent competitive sport participation. If we get both of these right then surely more women will feel inspired and supported to play competitive sport throughout all of life’s more difficult transitions.

Morality in sport: Suarez strikes again!

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Global sporting events such as the World Cup or Olympic Games see individuals placed under immense pressure to make split second decisions and for some the outcome can be questionable when viewed from a moral standpoint. Examples of this are common within football, for instance diving in the penalty box, handling the ball off the line or deliberately injuring another player. Luis Suarez from Uruguay is a prime example of someone who appears to struggle with his self-control and moral reasoning (deciding what is right or wrong) in the heat of the moment. In Uruguay, Suarez is a national treasure; the poverty stricken boy who went from working as a street sweeper to becoming an international football superstar. He is portrayed as a family man and loving father who married his childhood sweetheart (Thompson, 2014). Yet his football career is certainly not flawless. In the 2010 World Cup Suarez was penalised for handling the ball on the line to prevent Ghana beating Uruguay in the final minute of extra-time in the quarter-finals, Ghana missed the resulting penalty and Uruguay won the shootout to reach the semi-finals. Whilst playing for Dutch side Ajax in November 2010 Suarez received a seven- match ban for biting Otman Bakkal on the shoulder and in April 2013 received a ten game ban for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic (BBC, 2014). Last night the world saw this side of Suarez again when he bit Italy’s Chiellini on the shoulder. So what is it that makes players like Suarez react in such a way?

At crucial times under intense pressure a person’s moral reasoning plays a key role in their decision making. Within sport the most widely used approach to understanding morality is named the structural development approach (Kohlberg, 1984; Haan, 1983). This views a person as moving through three stages of moral development which occur as a result of interaction between the person and the environment. Moral growth and maturity influences a person’s moral reasoning and it would seem that Suarez is lacking in both.

In the first of the three stages of moral development an individual puts their own needs first and does not understand the impact of social norms and rules on their own moral responsibility. At the second stage a person relies on their group or society to define what is right. At the third and most developed level individuals do not rely on societal norms but instead apply universal values such as justice, equality and honesty upon which to base their moral decisions. Suarez’s three almost identical incidents would imply he is not functioning at this top level and it seems a very unfortunate pattern of behaviour. It would be fascinating to discuss with him to see the extent that he is unaware of social norms and rules and simply responding to immediate heightened emotions or if he is relying on the moral environment of those around him. Bredemeier and Shields (1984) suggest that aggression, in particular an attack with the intent to injure someone, is an issue of what they term contextual morality i.e. when morality is influenced by social-environment variables such as the moral atmosphere and goal structure of the team.

Studies investigating morals in sport support the view that team sports, in particular those involving medium to high contact, are linked to lower levels of moral reasoning, aggressive tendencies, beliefs that acts to intentionally injure are acceptable, and moral intention. The social context of the sport also plays its part, in particular the moral atmosphere of the team and the moral climate set by the coach. For example the ‘win at all costs’ mentality can be related to low moral reasoning and unsportsmanlike attitudes and behaviours. Similarly the morals of significant others such as parents and friends is associated with moral development. If those close to the athlete do not see improper actions as out of the ordinary then the individual is more likely to engage in such behaviours. These can all impact their moral reasoning, culminating in an incident such as those displayed by Suarez.

With FIFA opening disciplinary proceedings we will soon know the implications that Suarez’s poor moral reasoning will have on both him as an individual and the Uruguay team.

BBC (2014) Luis Suarez ‘bite’: Uruguay striker in World Cup controversy. Available at: (Accessed: 25 June 2014)

Bredemeier, B.J., and Shields, D.L. (1984) ‘The utility of moral stage analysis in the investigation of athletic aggression’, Sociology of Sport Journal, 1, pp.138-149.

Kohlberg, L. (1984) Essays on moral development: The psychology of moral development,  2nd edn, San Francisco. Harper & Row.

Haan, N. (1983) ‘An interactional Morality of everyday life’, in  Haan, N., Bellah,R., Rabinow, P.,  and Sallivan, W. (eds.) Social Science as a moral inquiry. New York: Columbia University Press.

Thompson, W. (2014) ‘Portrait of a serial winner: A journey in pursuit of Louis Suarez, who – when he’s not biting opponents – is the most beautiful player in the game’, ESPN, 27 May,  Available at: (Accessed: 25 June 2014)

Rio 2014: the participation legacy in England

By Jessica Pinchbeck

In my attempt to be a good sporting parent I encourage my children to both participate in and spectate as many different sports as possible. However in spite of my attempts at diversity when faced with a range of activities or equipment to choose from, nine out of ten times they’ll opt for kicking a football. There appears to be something about football that possesses an unexplainable attraction for my children and many like them. When you pass any school playground at lunchtime it is easy to see that football dominates; rarely do you witness a game of rugby or volleyball being played. So is this obsession with playing football in the playground reflected in the sports participation of the general public?

What do the facts and figures say?
The number of people over 16 in England who play sport at least once a week is on the rise, therefore one might assume that the number of people participating in football would also be increasing, however this is not the case. The 2013 Sport England Active People Survey actually shows a decrease of around 100,000 in the number of people aged 16 and over that participate in football once a week. Nevertheless let us not under estimate football’s popularity as it still remains the fourth most popular participation sport with only swimming, athletics and cycling preceding it, rendering it the most popular team sport. Figures show that team sports are generally on a decline, perhaps due to people wanting to participate in individual activities that they can schedule around their own timetable, yet football still has 1.8million participants every week compared to its closest team rival rugby union, which has only 159,900. If we delve into these statistics further we note that only 18.5% of participants are members of a football club, although 25% have played competitively, both a slight decrease on previous year’s figures. This suggests that the majority of adult football participation takes place in a more recreational context.

This decrease in participation, alongside other issues, have resulted in public funding cuts to the FA of 1.6million by Sport England, potentially impacting grassroots football and young people in particular. In the 14-25 year old age bracket football is by far the most popular sport with 1.3 million participants, illustrating that this age group make up the majority of footballs demographic. Similarly The Taking Part survey (DCMS, 2013) shows that for 11-15 year olds football was the most popular with 56.1% having played in the last four weeks, seeing significant increases since 2010/11. Schools also had the strongest club links with football clubs. This suggests that football is still the most vibrant sport being played in secondary school, and regular participation appears to continue up until the age of 25.

These trends are also replicated in a survey by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation in 2012 showing football as the most popular team sport for women, with around a quarter of a million participants. Figures from the FA show that 1.38million women and girls in England participate regularly, reinforcing the importance of the younger demographic in these participation figures. As with the Active People’s Survey individual activities are still the preferred choice for women with football only the 9th most popular sport overall and continuing to see decreases in participation rates each year.

The story behind the statistics
The statistics paint the picture of football being the most popular team sport with children aged 11-15 and also into adulthood represented by the 14-25 age group. Yet with a wider range of sports becoming more accessible to the general public through national governing body funding initiatives and the London 2012 legacy there has been, and continues to be, a gradual shift in the types of activities people are engaging in, with individual activities growing each year. So although overall participation numbers in sport are rising those participating in the more traditional team sports such as football appear to be declining at adult level.

In addition various media reports attribute government cutbacks to the steady decline of grassroots football stating the local authority playing fields used by the majority of amateur football clubs are just not up to the standard required (Winter,2013). Furthermore the fees to use these poor facilities continue to rise, making grassroots football more expensive but also less enjoyable and more of a challenge for those involved in its organisation. Lack of coaches qualified to a high level is also cited as a key failing of grassroots football (Winter 2013), with perhaps poorly qualified coaches producing inadequate sessions and discouraging continued participation amongst participants.

Following the success of Team GB in London 2012 and the subsequent increases in swimming, athletics and cycling participation it may be feasible to suggest that the success of the England men’s team in Rio 2014 may be a crucial factor to help give football participation levels a useful boost.

DCMS (2013). Taking Part October 2011 to September 2012 Supplementary Child Report. Statistical Release, April 2013.

Department for Education (2013) ‘Evidence on physical education and sport in schools: key findings’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 9 June 2014)

Sport England (2014) ‘The National Picture’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 9 June 2014)

Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (2012) ‘Football Factsheet’ [online] Available from:,d.ZGU (Accessed 9 June 2014)

Peak Performance in Sochi 2014: Can it continue?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

The snowy peaks of Sochi have provided a dramatic backdrop to the remarkable achievements of many athletes striving to achieve their finest performances at the games. With Team GB equalling their best performance at the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Games about to begin we take a look at peak performance and how it can be achieved.

What is peak performance?
Peak performance is defined as ‘the performance at the top of the individual’s range of possible performances’ (Kauss, 1980) and the Olympics and Paralympics is certainly the time when athletes want to be at the top of their game. Studies investigating peak performance show there are a range of common physical and mental factors that relate to peak performance. These include physical and mental relaxation, confidence, a present-centred focus, being highly energised, extraordinary awareness, and feeling in control. These factors are closely linked to a concept known as ‘flow’, often referred to in sport as ‘being in the zone’.

The concept of flow
Flow is a positive psychological state and arises from wider research on human happiness by a psychologist called Csikszentmihalyi. This optimal psychological state is conducive to attaining peak performances and is therefore a desirable experience for athletes. Common dimensions of the flow experience emerged from original studies and have since been further supported by research in sport.

Challenge-skill balance is possibly the most important factor enabling flow to occur. For example, if an athlete considers a task to be too challenging they may experience anxiety, or conversely if a task is seen as too easy the athlete may become bored, both of which can hinder performance. When challenge and skill are positioned at the correct levels for the athlete flow is more likely to occur. Interestingly it is the athlete’s perceptions of their capabilities relative to the challenge and not necessarily their true abilities that are important. Jenny Jones, GB Olympic bronze medallist, discusses how she relished the challenge of Sochi 2014:

‘When they announced that slopestyle was going to be in the Olympics I was amazed that it was going to be brought in and quite excited that I had a new challenge.’

To accomplish a challenge an athlete will set clear goals and receive feedback, which forms a crucial process within the flow experience. Athletes also report a merging of action and awareness which is often described as ‘feeling at one with the activity’, experiencing automaticity and unity with the environment and where performing the action feels effortless. GB Olympic gold medallist Lizzy Yarnold explains:

‘It’s more about having a real good connection with the sled and the mental game …There are so many other aspects apart from the physical side in skeleton.’

Total concentration is linked to optimal performance, with athletes often reporting a sense of control during flow. Athletes also describe feeling completely confident with no fear of failure. During flow an individual’s self-consciousness diminishes and they have little concern or anxiety regarding the perceptions of others (Jackson and Kimiecik, 2008). Transformation of time is the one factor which lacks consistency across studies as for some athletes time speeds up during flow and for others time slows down. In addition if an activity is autotelic and performed for its own sake, its own rewards and enjoyment then flow is more likely to occur. This intrinsic enjoyment of the activity is shown by GB slopestyle skier James Woods who when asked what would improve his enjoyment of skiing replied:

‘I don’t think anything could. I appreciate so much the incredible opportunities that I get, every second of riding is something special.’

In elite sport the impact of external rewards as well as the competitive nature and the lack of control athletes have over the sporting environment may lead to elite athletes experiencing more difficulty in achieving flow than non-elite athletes. However this is a relatively unexplored area of research to date.

Facilitating Flow
As you can see there are similarities between flow and peak performance although they are not identical. Peak performance is a high level of functioning whereas flow is a type of experience. An athlete can be in flow without producing peak performance, although many athletes (up to 75% in one study) do experience flow when in peak performance. Therefore flow is a valued experience for sports performers as it can, and often does, result in peak performance. But how can this be achieved?

Research suggests that the body and mind can be trained to reach the flow state using psychological skills training such as imagery, goal-setting, thought control strategies, and arousal management techniques, many of which we are sure to see put into practice in the Winter Paralympics. So with 15 athletes representing Paralympic GB in Sochi and some serious medal contenders, such as alpine skiers Jade Etherington and Kelly Gallagher, it will be fantastic to see the flow of peak performances continue, particularly from our home grown athletes.


BBC (2014) ‘Winter Olympics 2014: Jenny Jones excited by slopestyle debut’ [online] Available from:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) ‘Beyond boredom and anxiety’. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

GB Ski Club (2009) ‘The Questionnaire: James Woods’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 2 March 2014)

Gibson, O. (2014) ‘Lizzy Yarnold already making plans to defend skeleton title in 2018’ [online] Available from: (Accessed 2 March 2014)

Jackson, S. and Kimiecik, J. (2008) ‘The Flow Perspective of Optimal Experience in Sport and Physical Activity’ in T. Horn (ed) ‘Advances in Sport Psychology’ (3rd Edition). Leeds, Human Kinetics.

Jackson, S. (2000) Joy, Fun, and Flow State in Sport. In: Hanin, Y. (ed). Emotions in Sport. Leeds. Human Kinetics.

Jackson, S. and Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1999) ‘Flow in Sports: The keys to optimal experiences and performances.’ Leeds. Human Kinetics.

Team GB’s equal best medal haul – but it’s all about the Curling!

By Simon Rea

On Friday 21st February Team GB will win their fourth medal, either a silver or gold, in the men’s curling final. It will equal the team’s best performance from the first Winter Olympics in 1924 held in Chamonix. Four medals may look a modest haul in contrast to Norway’s 21 and counting but it represents a significant improvement on the single medal achieved in 2010 and means that the team’s medal target has been achieved with a couple more medal chances to come over the weekend.

Sliding onto the podium
There was a major breakthrough on the first Sunday of the Games as Jenny Jones won a bronze medal in Snowboarding. According to the record books this is the first British medal on snow (all the others have been won in ice events), although Alain Baxter’s performance in the skiing slalom in 2002 needs to be acknowledged. He won the bronze medal but was disqualified for failing a drugs test due to the presence of a stimulant in an American Vicks inhaler he was using. He was later cleared of any wrong doing but the IOC declined to give him back his medal. Team GB’s first gold came courtesy of a brilliant performance over four runs of the skeleton course by Lizzy Yarnold. She followed in the footsteps of Amy Williams and celebrated by changing her name to ‘YarGold’ for one day.

Curling – the nation’s new favourite sport!
Team GB’s success in 2014 has centred on the Ice Cube Curling Centre. Social media has been buzzing with posts and tweets about how people have become obsessed with the curling events. Interest in Curling has overcome the jibes about it being ‘competitive housework’ as viewers are treated to the excitement and the drama of the matches that can change with every stone released. The use of language, such as stones, hammer, sweeps and skips is becoming commonplace and curling works on many levels. Unlike many Winter Olympic events the competitors compete head to head rather than one after another so the drama is constantly unfolding and the battle between the teams is visible to see. It is a perfect television sport as the sheet that it is played on can be viewed from overhead, the stones, the house and the team’s kit are colourful and appealing. The camera can look straight into the eyes of the curlers and examine every change of emotion as they release the stones and watch their trajectory. Commentators refer to the wide, blue eyes of Anna Sloan or the steely glare of Eve Muirhead. The sport is highly skilled and the curlers have to control their emotions under extreme pressure and keep their concentration. Curling has earned the nickname ‘chess on ice’ because success is reliant on the strategy of each team. Each team has eight stones per end and the first stones are as influential as the last as the team seek to put up guards for their later stones or keep the route to the house clear. Maybe Curling is better compared to snooker as not only do you have to keep thinking ahead to the next shots but you also have to work out angles to hit your opponent’s stones to your advantage. The movement of the stones can be controlled by the sweepers whose work decreases the friction between the stone and ice and can influence the speed and direction of the stone.

Can it get even better?
Four Scottish women with an average age of 23 have won the bronze medal and Dave Murdoch’s men’s team will win either gold or silver. A gold medal would improve on the medal haul from 1924 and would be the first time Britain has won two golds at a Games. They are also putting together a strong case against Scottish devolution from the UK! There are other medal chances as well as the seriously unlucky Elise Christie (a former OU student) and the men’s 4-man bobsleigh provide the possibility of medals. Team GB has also had several athletes placed well in finals but outside the medal positions.

Up to this point the Sochi Games have proved to be a positive experience with spectacular venues and performances to match. The new events, such as slope style have been popular and well received. And maybe, just maybe, the best Winter Olympic performance for Team GB.