We hope you have enjoyed our Winter Olympics blog. We will be back for the Winter Paralympics (7th-16th March 2014).
By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
“I have dreamed my whole life about being a British Olympian”
(Lizzy Yarnold, 2014)
With the Sochi Games almost at a close as with London 2012 we enter a period of reflection, both in terms of markers of success but also in relation to the legacy that will been left. Without doubt this has been one of the most highly viewed Winter Games to date and with an estimated £30billion being spent by the Russian hosts this is not surprising. I have commented in previous postings on how many of the new events introduced at this games have without doubt added another dimension to the demographic who are tuning in to watch Winter sports and my observations of this games have led to me pondering a variety of different areas, from whether the participants at these games are more athletes or performers, my own sporting retirement, the causes of anxiety at altitude and more recently Heaney’s (2014) comments on the area of sporting role models.
Two years ago when Olympics fever was on our back door step much was made of the legacy that would be left to the next generation, in fact one of the 5 key legacy promises that were made was ‘to inspire a generation of young people’ (UK parliament, 2012). The likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill and Chris Hoy were spearheading the enthusiasm of a nation and providing excellent role models to a raft of young people. Their success has directly seen an increase in investment into a range of different sports and predictions are that Rio 2016 will see the British team solidify their dominance on the medals table even more. So what will be the legacy left by the Sochi Winter Games?
Rea’s opening blog post considered the fact that as a nation we are not a typical big player when it comes to Winter Sports as he said ‘history is not on our side’. As a nation we are without a strong winter sports heritage and role models are not so obvious to spot (2014). In a recent interview with the women’s sport trust Shelley Rudman discussed who her sporting role models were and cites Jane Tomlinson and Clare Lomas, thus illustrating that as a sporting female sometimes you have to step outside of your sport to find those who inspire you. Women have always have been playing catch up in the sports world, from the opportunities available, the media coverage and financial rewards, so it is interesting that three of our four medals to date have been won by women.
The Role of the Family
The concept of a role model within sport having to come from someone in the public eye is put to bed by Pinchbeck (2014) in her article looking at Olympic Parents. Her discussion on the instrumental role that the family plays in the development of a young person’s engagement in sport considers that it is parents who may be the primary role models for their children. So often it’s the case that a young boys memories of sport as a youngster is being taken to his first football match by his dad, and it is dad’s passion for watching the game that sparks the sons desire to play. This influence of family is echoed by Chemmy Alcott’s path into Skiing, she was introduced to the sport by her family from a very young age.
The Future’s Bright
The next generation should have a different experience, with the British women in particular leading the medals charge in Sochi. Jenny Jones secured Britain’s first Olympic medal at the games and for the men James Woods put in an impressive 5th place finish in the same event. Alcott at her 4th Olympics and 6 months after a possible career ending leg break did herself proud with a 19th place finish in the downhill. These athletes are demonstrating that even as a nation without a strong heritage and limited facilities anything is possible. Even more notable was Lizzy Yarnold’s performance – her dream of becoming an Olympian has come true in the most Hollywood fashion, from her integration in the Skeleton set up 5 years ago to her Gold Medal at this year’s Olympic Games. Just as Amy Williams was her role model she is now providing another very positive female role model for young people in winter sports. The Telegraph’s Judith Woods wrote in 2010 about Amy Williams, the 2010 Skeleton Gold Medal winner and how she was everything a female role model should be ‘personable, pretty, a PhD student and an Olympic Gold Medallist’. Williams, like Rudman and Yarnold, is still a very positive role model for young woman today, and in an age when female identity is becoming even more multifaceted they show you can have it all.
The legacy being left by these games isn’t just instilling a desire to become an Olympic athlete, I think they are illustrating, as I have previously mentioned, the positive gains that are to be made when you take up sport of any sort. Seeing the ‘cool’ persona of Slopestyler Woods, the supportive family of Jones, the enthusiastic supporters of Yarnold and the camaraderie of the Curlers is projecting the right image of sport to the next generation. A sentiment perfectly summed up by Rudman ‘I think it is really important that women understand from a young age that taking part in sport is really beneficial from both a health and general well-being perspective’ (2014). Without doubt the Sochi Winter Olympics have raised the profile of a number of minority sports and hopefully will lead to more young people strapping on skis, skating or even learning how to slide stones.
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.
By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
We are now well into the Sochi games and alongside the usual commentary focusing on execution, speed and results there has been the expected comments on how this will, for many, be their final shot at an Olympic medal, as they plan to announce their retirement after the games. This led me to think about my retirement from my passion which was ski racing.
The title of Roland Huntford’s 2008 book Two Planks and a Passion sums up skiing for me, it’s a pure sport not given over to too many gimmicks, but also a sport that allows a certain harmony with nature, a sport driven by the environment, in fact the very development of skiing began as a means of survival. Skiing is my passion and has been for as long as I can remember, I love the juxtaposition of control and vulnerability, something shared with other high risk winter sports – I love the emotion I feel when I ski, and I miss it almost every day, I miss being a ski racer.
Retirement from any area of our lives can leave a massive void, whether it is work or sport. A large reason for this is the identity that we lose when we can no longer categorise ourselves as a teacher, doctor, skier or footballer. We suddenly have to slot ‘retired’ or ‘former’ before our title. We have often spent so much time developing this positive identity that we are very proud of that it is something we strive to cling onto. Identity is an area that dominates so many of our personal esteem issues, our confidence and our sense of self. Loss of identity is frequently cited as a key psychological issue for athletes who both choose to retire or are forced to, and its why I firmly believe we should always view our sporting self as a smaller part of the complete person, it is not who we are it is part of the bigger picture.
Deciding to retire from competitive ski racing at the age of 17 wasn’t a difficult decision at the time – at the time it was the right one for me, and looking back now I believe I made the right choices. Despite that, I have been left with a void in my life, a gap that only skiing can fill. This void is somewhat heightened at this “winter” sports time of year. Sochi for me will be a chance for some vicarious living for a few weeks – my heart still speeds up slightly when I watch the ski racing and I catch myself swaying as the skiers turn around the gates and I must admit to feeling a touch of envy for what I am missing.
Filling the Void
I have tried to fill the void left by skiing, interestingly more so in recent years when I began to crave something to challenge me physically that would tick some of the same boxes as skiing. As skiing is often termed a High Risk sport and as Pinchbeck (2014) has already mentioned one chosen by a certain personality type, I sought out something I felt could fill the gap. I imagine this is similar for many Winter Sports athletes as many of the sports competed in at Sochi are high risk in nature – I chose Triathlon, it seemed to tick the boxes! What I didn’t account for was something quite simple really, I wasn’t ever going to be as good at it as I was at skiing. Skiing to me is like walking, second nature – swimming, biking and running are certainly not! The other thing I very stupidly missed was that I am in essence a thrill seeking sprint athlete not a safer endurance one, even a shorter distance triathlon is significantly longer than a ski race. As such this means the feeling I get when I train and compete doesn’t come close to skiing and only very recently did I admit to myself that I don’t really enjoy triathlon very much at all. It doesn’t excite me and if anything makes me miss skiing even more. Don’t get me wrong I love the sense of accomplishment after a good training session and that I am maintaining some form of athletic identity, but does it elicit the same emotional response – simply No.
The Gift of Sport
Reflecting on my sporting life, in particular my retirement from skiing, clarifies to me that perspective is very important. I think with age comes an acceptance that my time as a ski racer was a gift, a time to treasure, but it’s not all of who I am, the gap left will always be there and no other sport will give me that thrill. In many ways I am very lucky – I still get to ski, albeit at a recreational level, although I can’t deny I still get a buzz from checking my top speed at the end of the day or visualising some gates as I race down a black run. So even though the thrill seeking racer identity is no more, I still have glimpses of this when it’s just me two planks and my passion.
Huntford, R. (2008) Two Planks and a Passion. London, Continuum
By Jessica Pinchbeck
Within sport there are many examples of successful sporting siblings such as the Williams sisters in tennis, the Brownlee brothers in Triathlon, and the Schumacher brothers in Formula One. Inevitably the role of the family plays a part in this success such as the emotional, financial and logistical support offered, as discussed in the article ‘Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete’. This article takes a slightly different approach and focuses on the siblings in the family unit, specifically the birth order of siblings and what effect this may have on an athlete’s sporting success.
A Family Affair
On day one of competition in Sochi a story of sibling success emerged. Three Canadian sisters competed in the ladies Moguls with two gaining podium places. Justine, Chloe and Maxine Dufour-Lapointe all competed, however the eldest sister Maxine failed to reach the final phase. Interestingly it was the youngest sibling Justine who gained the gold medal with middle sibling Chloe taking silver. However this sibling success is not a first and was the fourth time that two sisters have taken gold and silver in an Olympics. In the 1964 Games French sisters Christine and Marielle Goitschel won gold and silver in the slalom and giant slalom and in 1992 Austrian sisters Doris and Angelika Neuner took the first two podium places in the luge.
Day three in Sochi saw Dutch twins Michael and Ronald Mulder taking gold and bronze in the 500m speed skating, making them the second set of twins to take medals in the same event in the history of the Winter Olympics. American skiers Phil and Steve Mahre were the first twins to achieve this in 1984 winning gold and silver in the men’s slalom. In Turin 2006 brothers Philipp and Simon Schoch of Switzerland owned the top podium spots in snowboarding with younger brother Phillip having gained gold four years earlier in 2002. Both brothers are set to compete in Sochi. Over both the Summer and Winter Games there have been eight gold-silver brother finishes; so will Sochi see any more family photos on the podium?
New Zealand brothers Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells are all competing in Sochi. Jossi will compete in the ski halfpipe and slopestyle along with his youngest brother Beau James. Middle brother Byron will compete in ski halfpipe. The family picture is completed by their father Bruce who is also their coach. At present Jossi, the eldest sibling, is the most successful although with Byron only 21 and James even younger at 18 this has time to change. The Switzerland team also have their own sibling story with sisters Aita, Elisa and Selina Gasparin all aiming for success in biathlon events. Within Team GB brother and sister, Posy and Andrew Musgrave, are both competing in cross country ski events in Sochi. GB cross country skier Andrew Young also makes up a sibling duo with older sister Sarah, although Sarah failed to qualify for these games. Andrew Young describes how being a younger sibling helped both his and Andrew Musgrave’s development:
“My sister is three years older than me, and [Musgrave’s] sister is a few years older than him, so it was always a competition to beat the girls …They were older and they were just as good as we were, when we were 11 and 12.”
Does birth order matter?
Jenny Jones, GB bronze medal winner in Sochi is the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, and interestingly it was the youngest Dufour-Lapointe sister who took the gold medal. Musgrave and Young are also developing more impressive international careers than their elder sisters. These examples support research evidence that elite athletes are more likely to be later born children with an association between birth order and skill level (Pathways to the Podium, 2012). So why is this the case?
One explanation is that younger siblings often report having to compete for their parents’ attention. Evidence suggests that later born children are more competitive (or ego-orientated) than their elder siblings, as demonstrated by Andrew Young trying to beat his older sister. This is thought to stem from parental tendencies to compare younger siblings to their older counterparts resulting in first born children being motivated to learn with younger siblings motivated to win.
Role modelling provides another explanation with younger siblings taking part in sport to be like their older brother or sister. Research also showed siblings were more likely to participate and compete in sport if their siblings, particularly elder siblings, did so too. For example, Molly Summerhayes, sister of Team GB’s Katie Summerhayes, is certainly an emerging GB ski slopestyle talent and her introduction to the sport came when she joined a Sheffield ski club with her older sister.
Personality characteristics may also play a part with first born athletes reporting significantly higher cognitive and somatic anxiety compared to later born athletes (Flowers and Brown, 2002). Athletes with higher anxiety levels are often reported as being less able to cope with the demanding pressures of elite sports performance. It will certainly be interesting to watch Molly’s development and whether this supersedes that of her elder sibling.
The question of birth order certainly raises some interesting discussion although evidence is far from conclusive. However the stories of sibling success in sport suggests that siblings do have a part to play in athletic development and it will be interesting to see what further sibling stories emerge from Sochi.
BBC (2014) ‘Sochi 2014: Michael Mulder wins 500m speed skating gold’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics/26056740
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, vol. 45, pp. 500–503.
Krombholz, H. (2006) Physical Performance In Relation To Age, Sex, Birth Order, Social Class, And Sports Activities Of Preschool Children. Perceptual and Motor Skills: Volume 102, Issue , pp. 477-484.
Little, C. (2013) ‘For Andrew Young and British Team, Preparing for a Once-In-Four-Years Opportunity to Reach Their Public’ [online] Available from: http://fasterskier.com/article/for-andrew-young-and-british-team-preparing-for-a-once-in-four-years-opportunity-to-reach-their-public/
Pathways to the Podium (2012) ‘Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development’ [online] Available from: http://expertadvantage.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/siblings/
Ronbeck, N., F., and Vikander, N., O., (2011) ‘The role of Peers: siblings and friends in the recruitment and development of athletes’, Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis, Vol.17,
Toronto Sun (2014) ‘Dufour-Lapointe duo not first 1-2 Olympics sister act’ [online] Available from: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/02/09/dufour-lapointe-duo-not-first-1-2-olympics-sister-act
By Caroline Heaney
A few months ago I wrote an article for The Sport and Exercise Scientist titled ‘Keeping Sport and Exercise Scientists ‘appy’ – Online and mobile technologies in Sport and Exercise Science‘. In this article I explored the potential uses of online technologies and mobile apps for sport and exercise scientists, drawing on my experience of working as a sport psychologist to a national winter sports squad in the build up to and during the 2010 Winter Olympics. During this time I made extensive use of online technologies, such as Skype and Facebook, to keep in touch with the athletes, but at that time very little use of mobile apps. A lot has changed in 4 years – since the last Winter Olympics I have increasingly used apps, not only in my capacity as a sport psychologist, but also in my everyday life and as an athlete. This has led me to reflect on how athletes in Sochi might be using apps and online technologies into their lives.
London 2012 was reported to be the most social media reported Olympics in history with some tagging it the ‘social media games’ or the ‘socialympics’. Use of social media tools such as Faceboook and Twitter has certainly rocketed since previous Olympic Games and Sochi looks set to follow London’s lead in the social media stakes, despite the reported heavy restrictions placed on athletes using Twitter during the games.
Social media apps will more than likely be used by athletes and support staff in Sochi, but what other apps are likely to be used? There are certainly lots of sport and fitness related apps out there at the Olympic athlete’s disposal – relaxation based apps, apps to measure exercise intensity, breath control apps, video analysis apps, apps to track your run, dietary analysis apps – the list is endless.
So what are your recommendations? Are there any apps you would recommended for athletes or support staff? Share your favourite apps using the ‘Leave a Reply’ function at the bottom of the page.
By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
In my previous posting I questioned the changing face of the Winter Games, and asked whether the competitors at Sochi were becoming closer to performance artists with the inclusion of the new more acrobatic sports such as slopestyle making up some of the Olympic programme. This weekend saw the first Snowboard Slopestyle gold medal go to the United States boarder Sage Kotsenbury, and I was glued to the screen. Firstly, without doubt the slopestyle had all the magic ingredients that would have pulled in the viewers – I actually held my breath towards the later stages of each run as the tricks got more and more extreme. However, there were more things about this sport that stood out to me following the weekends racing.
Athletes or Performance Artists
This is the first time I have actually seen the competitive version of this sport on television, and as such my appraisal that the competitors were more performance artists was based on seeing lesser versions and reading about it. Having now witnessed it first hand, my overriding thoughts on the athletes is that they have guts! and bucket loads of them. There is no doubt that this is a true adrenaline sport, with the risk taken getting greater and greater as the run progresses. They are without doubt athletes, but another thing stood out, they are “cool” they are conforming to a stereotype that sees them “fit” into the X-Games culture where they have traditionally sat. Their dress is less “uniform” more what you would see recreational boarders wearing, they also don’t look like your stereotypical athlete – in an age where sports people are trying to cut seconds off times by shaving legs and wearing the most aerodynamic kit, we see flowing locks and trendy clothing.
The development of a sporting subculture is very closely linked to identity formation and construction – this development is illustrated very clearly by the community that makes up the snowboarding slopestylers of this Winter Olympics. Classically the most significant means of conforming and becoming part of a subculture is modeling, individuals begin to deliberately adopt mannerisms, attitudes, and styles of dress, speech, and behaviour that are perceive to be characteristic of the subculture. When snowboarding first started skiers did not accept this new sport on the slopes, the two sports contrasted in several ways including how they spoke, acted, and their fashion.
When snowboarding was introduced to the Nagano Olympics in 1998 it was described as getting the trendy vote as “Its devotees do not fit into the typical image of alpine sports” (BBC Sport, 1998). Originally viewed as a one of the most anarchic sports, many boarders opt for baggy jeans; big sweatshirts; baseball caps turned backward; pierced ears, noses, tongues and even navels, they were representative of the hip-hop culture they fitted in with. Some contrast to the rather staid image of the Olympics and what other winter sports athletes were seen to wear.
A second observation I made was the way in which this sport has stayed true to its roots. While we live in a sporting world that is driven by technology, who has the fastest suit, equipment, the freestyle ski disciplines – and perhaps most prominently the snowboard Slopestyle sees athletes remain true to their very unique culture. While it pains me to admit it, boarders are seen as the “cool” kids on snow, from their clothing, to their attitude and this is something that is further magnified on the big screen. While the alpine ski racers wear a traditional ‘catsuit” not something you would expect the recreational skier to wear, the clothing donned by the racers on Saturday in the slopestyle was very much akin to what you see a recreational boarder wear, as Taggart said about boarding at the 1998 Olympics wearing official team uniform for the event is acceptable but she didn’t like the idea of having to fit into an image for the whole time she was in Nagano.
“It’s hard for snowboarders in general to accept the authority deal … I want to be unique and individual, and wear clothes that represent me,” she said. “I’ll fight it as long as I don’t get kicked out” (Taggart, 1998). What we are now seeing may be the top brand and ultra stylish but its baggy – hardly the most aerodynamic, and the long haired cool kid stereotype likened to that of the skateboarding subculture is still clearly illustrated.
What else has stood out watching the games, and this is not unique to slopestyle, but to a lot of the winter sports disciplines is the camaraderie that surrounds each mini subculture. At times it is easy to forget that the athletes are competing against each other, as the display of solidarity and support at the end of the runs and even reflected in the photos coming from the Olympic village are very different to that observed within other sports. This characteristic of many of the Winter Sports disciplines further supports this concept of there being very unique sporting subcultures at this years games.
Relating back to my original posting – what is unquestionable is that the inclusion of these more acrobatic and high risk sports will increase interest in winter sports, and have already shown that they are pulling in the viewers. These competitors are also providing very positive role models for children everywhere and are showing that there are a range of “different” sporting opportunities out there for young people to try. Jenny Jones’s medal on Sunday like Williams’ medal in Vancouver 4 years ago, will further raise the profile of Winter Sports within the UK and I hope provide the next generation with a passion for more varied sports that reflect some of the best things about being involved in a sporting subculture – the friendship, support and solidarity you can find.
By Candice Lingam-Willgoss
The nature of competitive sport involves athletes putting themselves in high-pressure situations in which they are being constantly appraised, and Sochi is no different.
So it is unsurprising that the areas of stress and anxiety are two of the most popular when looking at sport from an academic perspective. While all athletes experience anxiety to some level when they perform, either at a cognitive (mental worry) or somatic (physiological symptoms) level, it is the interpretation of these emotions that can dictate the influence they will have on their performance.
The physiological symptoms associated with anxiety can range from elevated heart rate or sweaty palms, to the classic butterflies in the stomach. The key for an elite athelete is to get those butterflies to fly in formation. The cause of this anxiety is that athletes are having to perform in “appraisal”-driven environments. Will they be good enough? Will they let the team down? Will they remember the set moves? The list of criteria is extensive.
And when we look at winter sports another variable is thrown into the mix – risk.
The Luge has been described as the fastest sport on ice, skiing sees racers get up to speeds close to 100kph, and the ski jump and snowcross carry their own unique elements of risk. Which raises the question: are the performers in these sports less concerned with the appraisal issue and more concerned about staying alive?
Without doubt the psychology related to overcoming fear is an interesting area to consider, and perhaps no one is a better example of this than Chemmy Alcott. Alcott has suffered 42 broken bones thorughout her career – including her neck – and without doubt knows the risk involved in her chosen sport. The surgeon responsible for her being able to compete in the Sochi games quite bluntly told her prior to the surgery that saved her career: “There are two operations which may be necessary. Either you’ll never ski again or there’s a fraction of a chance you’ll make the Olympics.” The miracle is that Alcott made the Sochi Olympics, and finished in the top 20 in the women’s downhill skiing.
It’s true Alcott does experience anxiety or in her case something she terms fear. “I respect fear, fear is me caring about my result,” she has said. The terminology Alcott has chosen to describe her feelings regarding skiing imply she is fully aware of the risks involved but she choses to channel this to her advantage.
This concept of interpretation is further supported by half-pipe snowboarder Elena Hight who said dealing with fear is more mental than physical. “Fear is a very interesting thing,” she said. “It can be a very good motivator but can also be an inhibitor. It just depends on how you go about dealing with it, and I think in our sport you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.” Like Alcott, Hight has managed to channel her emotions in a positive way.
Many will ask how Alcott found the courage to step back out onto the competitive scene after such horrendous injuries that have left her with a body so scarred that her nephews use it as a track for their toy trains. For these high-risk athletes, it has become something of an occupational hazard. As Cohen, senior sport psychologist for the US Olympic Committee has said: “That return to play after an injury requires confidence when an athlete questions whether they have what it takes to get back there.” This leads us to consider another psychological perspective, something that is a necessity for all athletes to possess – mental toughness.
Sports psychologists Peter Clough, Keith Earle and David Sewell identified four components of “mental toughness”: control, commitment, challenge and confidence. They conclude that mentally tough athletes have “a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity”. This is how athletes can come to have such positive interpretations of fear.
While this is Chemmy Alcott’s last Olympics and she hasn’t necessarily had the race results of others, she provides an incredibly positive example to athletes everywhere of what can be achieved with a strong mind in the face of high risks and immense pressure.
By Jessica Pinchbeck
When skeleton athlete Shelly Rudman makes her Sochi Olympics debut there will be one very important spectator in the crowd – her 6 year old daughter Ella; but how easy is it to combine life as a professional athlete with motherhood?
Following the recent announcement of athletics’ golden girl Jessica Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy the question of how motherhood can impact athletic success has been a prominent discussion point in the media. There are those sceptics that allude to this being the end of Ennis-Hill’s athletics career however many Olympic athletes have shown that motherhood does not symbolise the end of a career, but simply marks a transition into the next phase of their development, with a different set of challenges to overcome.
Competition and Motherhood
Combining motherhood and Olympic success is not a new trend as shown by 1988 Olympic Silver medallist Liz McColgan. McColgan continued form winning gold in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo one year after the birth of her daughter, and continued to have a successful career winning the London and New York marathons. Similarly Irish long distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan returned to training only 10 days after the birth of her daughter in 1999, and in 2000 won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in the 5000m. More recently in 2007 Paula Radcliffe triumphed in the New York marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her baby daughter Isla. Paula claimed being a mum actually improved her performance:
‘The happier I am, the better I run… Certainly I’m a lot happier with Isla in our lives …I think your body is just a little bit stronger after pregnancy’.
Radcliffe continued to train throughout her pregnancy but chose not to run competitively, although some athletes do continue to compete. During the history of the winter Olympics there have been three known cases of pregnant women competing. In 1920 a Swedish figure skater, Magda Julin, was three months pregnant when she won gold. In 2006 German athlete Diana Sartor competed in the women’s skeleton at nine weeks pregnant and in Vancouver 2010 Canadian curling athlete Kristie Moore won silver at five and a half months pregnant.
Other examples include GB equestrian Mary King who famously competed in the European Championships in 1995 at five and a half months pregnant, and came away with a team gold and individual bronze medal. King has continued to successfully combine competition and motherhood and added to her medal tally in London 2012 with a silver:
‘Everyone warned me that motherhood would change me and my attitude to riding and competition…I didn’t think it would – and it really didn’t’.
Zara Phillips, Olympic silver medallist, also caused a media furore when she competed in the Brighting Park International Horse Trials days after announcing her pregnancy. She has also publicly stated her intent to return to competitive eventing as soon as possible with hopes to compete in Rio 2016.
Providing inspiration for female athletes 11 time gold medallist paralympic cyclist Dame Sarah Storey made an impressive return to competition winning the 3km pursuit in the Paracycling International Cup in December 2013 after becoming a mum. Storey got back on her bike only 6 weeks after giving birth, and gradually increased her training revolving her schedule around the demands of a newborn baby:
“Since coming back it has been about fitting training around Louisa’s feeding regime. I haven’t missed a day of training – I’ve just had to adapt how I have done it. It has been a big learning curve but one I have enjoyed.”
Sliding to Success in Sochi
Shelley Rudman, Skeleton Olympic Silver medallist in 2006, portrays another inspiring female role model. Following the birth of her daughter Ella in 2007 Rudman returned to the sport within three months. In an interview with the BBC Rudman discussed the issues she faced upon her return:
‘My funding got reduced and I had targets to meet. Three months after Ella was born I had to hit targets and when I did my funding incrementally increased… Fortunately I was doing really well and won a few races, but it was a real worry.’
Rudman and her husband will both be competing in Sochi 2014 and rely heavily upon the support of their family to help them look after daughter Ella. Rudman is a prime example of how to strike the balance between motherhood and being an Olympic athlete. When the family are away from the UK Rudman’s day typically consists of training and home tutoring Ella. In 2013 Rudman proved this regime to be a success by becoming the Women’s Skeleton World Champion, and cites Ella as her main inspiration for competing in Sochi:
“At the back of my mind, I thought ‘how cool would it be for Ella to say she’s been at an Olympics to watch her mum compete. That’s probably the biggest motivator’
Timing it right
For women the decision of when to start a family is a crucial one and even more so for top level athletes due to the physical as well as the logistical challenges that motherhood brings. Some like Ennis-Hill and Phillips opt to take a break from their sport following career highs with the aim of returning to competition in time for the next Olympics. A feat that Olympians such as Liz McColgan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mary King, and Paula Radcliffe have all managed to achieve. Other Olympic athletes choose to wait until their retirement to begin a family such as Gail Emms, badminton silver medallist in Athens 2004, and Katherine Merry, 400m bronze medallist in Sydney 2000. For others the timing can be far from perfect.
Tasha Danvers’ story is a particular heartfelt one. 400m hurdler Danvers fell pregnant at the peak of her career just months before the 2004 Athens Olympics. With a tough decision to make, and even getting as far as the door of the abortion clinic, Danvers put aside her Olympic dream and chose motherhood. This was an emotional time with her career plans shattered. However, Danvers showed tremendous determination and strength of character gaining silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and later winning an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, proving Olympic dreams and motherhood can co-exist. Still ambitious Danvers aimed for London 2012 although training and being a single mother with little support took its toll. Her son moved back to LA to be with family leaving Danvers alone in the UK following her Olympic Dream. Her depression escalated until the situation became unbearable and Danvers attempted to take her own life. Fortunately Danvers recovered and in June 2012 retired from athletics returning to LA to be with her son:
“It’s hard to be a mother. Full stop. If you’re a working mum, it’s that much harder, and if you’re a professional athlete and a mum you have the added pressure of being away for weeks and months. It’s very difficult, not just for you but for your child, who also has to sacrifice time with you.’
For most new parents life becomes a juggling act with a whole new set of demands placed upon them. As these Olympic athletes show with the right support networks in place, and the ability to find a suitable balance between athletic success and motherhood, Olympic dreams can be achieved. Being a mother is certainly not an easy task and these women lead the way in providing inspiration.
BBC (2013) Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-sports/21715720
BBC Radio 5 (2013) ‘Pregnancy in Sport’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/5lspecials/all
Flanagan, J. (2012) ‘London 2012 Olympics: Mary King, the farmer’s wife, chasing gold’ [online] Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/equestrianism/9417227/London-2012-Olympics-Mary-King-the-farmers-wife-chasing-gold.html
Hudson, E. (2013) ‘Dame Sarah Storey set for racing comeback in Newport’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/disability-sport/25137044
Lewis, A. (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter’ [online] Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/get-inspired/25093179
Mail Online (2014) ‘Paula Radcliffe wins New York Marathon – less than 10 months after giving birth to baby Isla’ [online] Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-491669/Paula-Radcliffe-wins-New-York-marathon–10-months-giving-birth-baby-Isla.html
By Jessica Pinchbeck
It is an exciting time with the Winter Olympics in Sochi upon us – an event which is sure to offer spectacular and exciting displays of athletic ability and courage. The nation is keen to regain the feeling of London 2012 and with possibly our best chance of medals to date the excitement is building. For many the Winter Olympics offers added excitement and inspiration due to the high risk involved in its events. For those of us who take part in sport regularly it is inevitable that at some stage of our sporting life we will encounter injuries of some sort. The odd sprain and pulled muscle are common place for most sports people, but consider the injury risk of laying on a sled and reaching speeds of up to 85 miles an hour down an ice chute in events such as the Luge and the Skeleton, not to mention the feat of four bodies in a bobsled exceeding 90 miles an hour on a course full of tight twists and turns! The phenomenal heights obtained by aerial skiers, the thrill of downhill skiing and the most dangerous ski event of all the Super G all contribute to the excitement of these Games, but what draws the competitors to compete in these dangerous events?
The danger element of Winter sports is ever present and the risk of serious injury is a genuine possibility. These activities are classified as ‘high-risk’; with competitors having to ‘accept the possibility of severe injury or death as an inherent factor’ (Breivik, 1995, cited in Kajitna, 2004, p.25). The previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010 was overshadowed before it had even begun by the tragic death of luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili who crashed during his final training run. In 2011 British Bobsled pair Fiona Harrison and Serita Shone also crashed on a training run, with Serita seriously injured after fracturing her lower back. Shone underwent extensive surgery but amazingly her determination and passion for the sport never faltered and following an incredible recovery she resumed competition and achieved a bronze medal in the British Bobsleigh Championships in 2013. Shone stated ‘Before the first run, I was quite tearful, not tears of worry or fear, but tears of joy that I was actually about to race in my first competition, the British Championships. It had brought me full circle after the accident.’ A truly inspiring story of commitment and bravery. So what is it about Serita and others like her that pushes them to continue to participate in such high-risk activities? Is there something in their personalities that drives them to seek out dangerous sports?
Does personality play a part?
Several studies have investigated the so-called big five personality characteristics (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness) in participants of high-risk sports (e.g. Kajitna et al., 2004; Watson and Pulford, 2004; Tok, 2011). Results show that individuals who participate in high risk sports score higher in extroversion, openness and agreeableness than other athletes and non-athletes, and lower in neuroticism and conscientiousness. Being emotionally stable (less neurotic) enables athletes to stay calm in dangerous situations and cope with the demands of stressful conditions. Being extroverted these individuals are more likely to seek excitement, be active and energetic, and often enjoy being the centre of attention. This may explain motives for participating in such high-risk activities.
The majority of studies report low conscientiousness to be linked to risk-taking however there is some contrasting evidence that shows elite high risk sports people to be extremely conscientiousness, demonstrated in them being hard working, trustworthy, responsible, and determined. This adds another layer to risk taking with researchers distinguishing between participants who employ ‘deliberate risk taking’ and those who adopt more ‘precautionary behaviours’ in high risk sports. Consider the bobsleigh driver who costs time by being too safe versus the driver who endangers teammates by taking excessive risk. Arguably a certain level of risk taking is necessary to achieve success in dangerous sports. These emerging levels of risk taking seek to explain participants of dangerous sports that are high in conscientiousness and take action within the sport to minimise the risk rather than seeking further risks.
It would appear that although research in this area is by no means conclusive certain patterns do emerge to suggest that those athletes competing in Sochi may share certain personality characteristics that have drawn them to the high risk activities of the Games. With health and safety a key feature in the 2014 Winter Olympics risk has certainly been taken into account and measures put in place to protect each and every participant. However what the organisers cannot account for is the level of risk each individual is prepared to take. Will the deliberate risk takers stand out from those who adopt more precautionary behaviour? Whoever succeeds, watching the games unfold and witnessing the contest will be an exciting and enthralling spectacle.
Breivik, G. (1995) Personality and Sensation seeking and arousal in high risk sports. Oslo: The Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education.
Daily Mail (2013) ‘Serita Shone wins Bobsleigh Bronze’ Available from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/othersports/article-2290852/Serita-Shone-wins-Bobsleigh-bronze.html#ixzz2piwu6lDs (Accessed 6 January 2014)
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Kajtna, K., Tusak, M., Baric, R. and Burnik, S. (2004) ‘Personality in high risk sports athletes’. Kinesiology. Vol. 36. No. 1. P.24.
Oatman, M. (2013) ‘Hooked on speed: How Jazmine Fenlator feeds her ‘bobseld habit’ [online] Available at: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2013/12/jazmine-fenlator-winter-olympics-bobsled-pilot-lolo-jones?page=2 (Accessed 13 January 2014).
Tok, S. (2011) ‘The big five personality traits and risky sport participation’. Social behaviour and personality. Vol.39. No.8. (pp.1105-1112). Available at:
Watson, A., E., and Pulford, B, D. (2004) ‘Personality differences in high risk sports amateurs and instructors’. Perceptual and Motor Skills. Vol.99, No.1. pp.83-94