Category Archives: sport psychology

Surviving the “Startle Effect” in Motorcycling

“The road south is awful. Choppy, narrow, bumpy concrete with a bad head wind, going into the sun and big semis going the other way. These roller-coaster hills speed them up on the downside and slow them up on the upside and prevent our seeing very far ahead, making passing nerve-wracking. The first one gave me a scare because I wasn’t ready for it. Now I hold tight and brace for them. No danger. Just a shock wave that hits you” (Pirsig, 1974)

Sport participants who engage in extreme activities (e.g., motorcycling, rock climbing, sky diving) often face intense fears where there can be high risks involved which could be experienced as stressful*. Whether an individual perceives an experience as negative stress is assessed by our bodies based on sensory input and stored memories (Vaughn et al., 2021). According to Herman et al. (2016), numerous factors can determine an individual’s response to acute or chronic stress, for example, genetics, early life experience, environmental conditions, sex, and age. Indeed, stress may not necessarily be negative, and the term eustress represents the positive side of stress (Quick et al., 2004). The feeling of eustress is akin to ‘runner’s high’ or being ‘in the zone’ whereby time feels suspended, and an individual is fully absorbed in the task (Quick et al., 2004).  Motorcyclists are often faced with moments of acute stress which requires the rider to “anticipate be cool under pressure be attuned to a constantly moving environment at speed, and position the body-motorcycle” (Owton, 2021, p.160). Motorcycling, like other extreme activities, enhances sensory processing, increases focus and visual attention which can increase epinephrine levels, increase heart rate, and decrease cortisol levels. This demonstrates that extreme activities can replicate the results associated with exercise and the reduction of stress levels (Vaughn et al., 2021). Nonetheless, there may be times when an individual is faced with something sudden, intense, and unexpected where the body-self has to respond to a threat to life.

Startle Effect

The concept of startle effect has been drawn upon in aviation to describe a stress response to a sudden, intense, and unexpected stimulus; an intense event violates an individual’s expectations where they are thrown towards a threat to survival. The startle reflex is an uncontrollable and automatic response to a sudden, intense stimulus (Field et al., 2015). In order to respond to the threat, there is an emotional component (Lang et al., 1990) and an involuntary physiological reflex (e.g., muscular tension, increased heart rate (Field et al., 2015; Koch, 1999).

“I lean in slightly as I swing round the next corner and am suddenly faced with a van speeding straight towards me on the same side of the road. “Oh s***!” I yell. For a split second, I stare at the van and stop breathing trying to judge the situation as quickly as possible. Instinct makes me release my grip on the throttle which starts slowing me down, then I grab the hand brake and step on the foot brake. I scan the road as swiftly as I can, judging whether the van will pass the car in time for me as I continue to slow down. The van swerves back across the road passing the car and passing me safely on the other side. As the van passes me, I breathe again “f***ing hell!” I mutter cursing under my breath and gently squeeze the throttle to speed up again. I feel my eyes have widened with the suddenness of hot fear that’s trickled through me and the immediacy of surprise and startle that I’ve just been faced with. By the time I’ve arrived home, I’ve recovered from the event, but the embodied memory remains in my sweaty body” (Owton, in press).

Feeling startled evokes an immediacy of attentional focus (cognitive) and actions (physiological) needed towards the task of surviving. Signals sent to the amygdala may induce a startle reflex, while these same signals will be sent to the sensory cortex for cognitive processing (Martin et al., 2016). During a threatening situation, part of the stimuli goes directly to the amygdala “emotional/irrational brain” while simultaneously the other parts are sent to the neocortex “thinking/rational brain” (Goleman, 1996). This can lead to a potential battle between the “rational” part of the brain and the “irrational” part of the brain which could freeze the body into inaction (LeDoux, 1994; 1995). The amygdala, however, can process the information milliseconds quicker than the neocortex which could be why someone might act irrationally and destructively before processing the threat appropriately (LeDoux, 1994; 1995).

“Amygdala Hijack”

The amygdala is central to the startle response; a structure in the limbic system that is related to survival and our emotions (Goleman, 1996). Also, it is responsible for processing emotions such as fear, pleasure, and anger. An amygdala hijack, exhibits three signs:

  1. Strong emotional reaction
  2. Sudden onset
  3. Post-episode realisation if the reaction was inappropriate (Goleman, 1996).

The thalamus can bypass the cortex which means that emotional reactions and responses can be formed without any conscious or cognitive participation with the amygdala acting completely independently of the neocortex (Goleman, 1996). Something like ‘corner rush’ that motorcyclists experience can elicit a startle response. In the following example, I know the corner is coming, but the speed at which I reach the corner startles me:

“On about lap 5, I’m speeding down the straight and lose focus for a second, I experience ‘corner rush’ and quickly brake as I feel the motorcycle wobble erratically before turning into the bend; I stare at the grass ahead but force myself to release the brake and throw it in, saving it – just a few breathless moments” (Owton, 2021, p.159).

The startle reflex can be accompanied with feelings of surprise, however, the startle reflex can be triggered without the notion of surprise (Ekman et al., 1985). A runner, for example, may know the bang of a gun is going to sound, but the runner will usually still have a ‘startle reflex’ resulting from the gun sound. Muscular activity can be inhibited by startle and a person may stop what they were doing, e.g., freeze (Koch, 1999). This disruption can last from 100ms to 3 second for basic tasks and up to 10 seconds for more complex motor tasks (Rivera et al., 2014). Cognitive processing, decision making and problem solving can be impaired between 30-60 seconds and increases as tasks become more complex (Rivera, et al, 2014). There are a multitude of additional cognitive responses, such as, confusion, loss of situational awareness, disorientation, impairment of working memory, impairment of problem solving & decision making (Field et al., 2015). Pilots are exposed to surprise and startle during training so they can cognitively develop ways to adapt and respond effectively and calmly under pressure. As LaConte (2017) suggests, this means that ‘facing’ a problem directly draws upon an assertive response, the most effective way of mitigating fear. These responses are commonly referred to as ‘fight or ‘flight’ coined by Canon in the early 1920s. Developments include consider ‘freeze’ responses to threatening situations and ‘facing’ the problem directly (Barlow, 2002; Schmidt, et al., 2007; Lang, 1994; LaConte, 2017).

Given the nature of extreme activities and sports and that understanding that motorcyclists are often “driven to conquer new challenges and soak up every experience life has to offer” (Carter, 2019), not all unexpected stimuli may lead to a negative stress response or produce an overtly physiological and emotional reaction. Whilst Owton (2021) demonstrated that intense feelings of pleasure and ‘flow’ (Csíkszentmihályi, 1997, 2002) means that one may not be able to attend to other things apart from the bodily ‘here and now’, this may also be true when experience intense feelings of fear; the mind-body-self is, in a sense, startled and thrown into the unknown (Heidegger, 1962; Mearleau-Ponty,1962). Exposure to intense moments during training might act as a buffer against future moments as well as against stresses of life (Psychology Today, 2021). It is essential for those involved in extreme activities and sports to be exposed to different scenarios during training (in a more controlled environment) in order to make choices that reduce risk and enhance personal control (Crust et al., 2019).

*Stress is a biological, psychological, and emotionally embodied response experienced when we perceive a threat under pressure (APA, 2018).

Details from this article were originally published: Owton, H. “Oh Shit!” moments: Motorcycling, ‘thrownness’ and the Startle Effect, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, in press. Available: (17) (PDF) “Oh Shit!” moments: Motorcycling, ‘thrownness’ and the Startle Effect (researchgate.net)

References

Barlow DH. (2002) Anxiety and its disorders. New York: Guilford Press.

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.

Ekman, P., Friesen, W. & Simons, R. (1985). Is the startle reaction an emotion? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(5), 1416-1426

Field, J.N., Boland, E.J., van Rooij, J.M., Mohrmann, J.F.W. & Smeltink, J.W. (2015) EASA Research Startle Effect Managements Final Report. EASA Europe.

Goleman, D. (1996). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. UK: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Herman, J.P., McKlveen, J.M., Ghosal, S., Kopp, B., Wulsin, A., Makinson, R., Scheimann, J. & Koch,M., 1999. The neurobiology of startle. Progress in neurobiology, 59(2), 107-128

Koch, M., (1999). The neurobiology of startle. Progress in neurobiology, 59(2), 107-128

LaConte, G. (2017). Definitions. LaConte Consulting. Available: Definitions – LaConte Consulting (Accessed 3/3/22)

Lang, P.J., Bradley, M.M. & Cuthbert, B.N. (1990). Emotion, attention, and the startle reflex. Psychological review, 97(3), 377-395

LeDoux, J.E. (1994) Emotion, memory and the brain. Scientific American, 270(6), 50-57.LeDoux, J.E. (1995). Emotion: Clues from the brain. Annual review of psychology, 46(1), 209-235

Martin, W.L., Murray, P.S., Bates, P.R. & Lee, P.S. (2016). A flight simulator study of the impairment effects of startle on pilots during unexpected critical events. Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors, 6(1), 24-32

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London and New York: Routledge

Owton, H. (2021). Quest for Freedom: Intense Embodied Experiences of Motorcycling. Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, 22(2), 154-162. Available: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/354786229_Quest_for_Freedom_Intense_Embodied_Experiences_of_Motorcycling 

Owton, H. “Oh Shit!” moments: Motorcycling, ‘thrownness’ and the Startle Effect, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, in press. Available: (17) (PDF) “Oh Shit!” moments: Motorcycling, ‘thrownness’ and the Startle Effect (researchgate.net)

Pirsig, R.M. (1974). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values: Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1), Terebess Asia Online (TAO)

Rivera, J., Talone, A.B., Boesser, C.T., Jentsch, F. & Yeh, M. (2014). September. Startle and surprise on the flight deck: Similarities, differences, and prevalence. In Proceedings of the human factors and ergonomics society annual meeting, 58(1), 1047-1051). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.

Schmidt, N.B., Richey, J.A., Zvolensky, M.J. & Maner, J.K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(3), 292-304

Quick, J.C., Macik-Frey, M. & Nelson, D.L. (2004). Job stress. Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, 467-474

Vaughn, D.A., Maggiora, M.B., Vaughn, K.J., Maggiora, C.J., Tavakoli, A.V., Liang, W., Zava, D., Cohen, M.S. & Lenartowicz, A. (2021) Modulation of attention and stress with arousal: The mental and physical effects of riding a motorcycle. Brain research, 1752, 147203

Why aren’t we educating those supporting injured players about mental health?

By Caroline Heaney

Photo by Fancy Crave on Unsplash

Recently, The Independent reported that professional football clubs are failing to provide injured players with the psychological support they need (Lovett, 2019). The psychological impact of sport injury is well documented – for example, the IOC consensus statement on mental health in elite athletes (Reardon et al., 2019) recognises that sport injury can have a significant impact on mental health, and several sportsmen and women (e.g. footballer Danny Rose) have cited injury as a trigger for mental health difficulties. So why is it that the psychological aspects of sport injury are being ignored in professional football?

The article in The Independent, which explored a study conducted by Dr Misia Gervis, pointed towards a lack of education and training amongst medical staff treating injured players – an area that I have researched extensively with my colleagues at The Open University. My early work in this area (Heaney, 2006) investigated the attitudes and perceptions of physiotherapists working in professional football and identified that whilst physiotherapists recognised that injury had a psychological impact they largely did not have the education or training to be able to respond effectively. This was supported by our 2012 investigation into physiotherapy education in the UK (Heaney et al., 2012) which revealed great diversity in the provision of psychology education in physiotherapy programmes and an inconsistency between the reported importance of psychology and the demonstrated importance of psychology through its visibility within the curriculum.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

These findings indicate that UK physiotherapy training does not adequately prepare sports medicine staff for dealing with the psychological aspects of sport injury and that training in this area would be beneficial, but is this the case? To answer this question we conducted two further studies. The first (Heaney et al., 2017a) examined the sport psychology related attitudes and behaviours of ninety-four qualified sports injury rehabilitation professionals (physiotherapists and sports therapists) working in sport. These professionals were split into two groups – those who had been exposed to education on the psychological aspects of sport injury as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate studies and those who had not. It was found that those who had studied the psychological aspects of sport injury integrated significantly more sport psychology into their practice and referred more athletes to sport psychologists for further support than those who had not.

Photo by Hussain Ibrahim on Unsplash

The findings of this study suggest that sport psychology education is beneficial to sport injury rehabilitation professionals and the athletes they treat, but what about the professionals who aren’t lucky enough to receive sport injury psychology education as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate training? How can they access the benefits of sport injury psychology education? We wanted to know whether post-qualification continuing professional development (CPD) training on the topic can derive the same benefits and so we conducted a further study (Heaney et al., 2017b) exploring the impact of an online sport injury psychology education module on the attitudes and behaviours of ninety-five physiotherapists working in sport who had not been exposed to sport psychology education as part of their undergraduate or postgraduate training. The physiotherapists were randomly assigned to either an intervention group who studied an online CPD module titled ‘sport psychology for physiotherapists’ or a control group who studied an equivalent online CPD module on strength and conditioning which had no psychology content. Physiotherapists working in sport tend to be busy professionals who work unsociable hours and travel a lot (e.g. traveling to competitions across the country or the world) and therefore it was important that the CPD module was flexible, accessible and of a duration that would promote adherence. Consequently, an online format was adopted with a study duration of approximately 12 hours. The ‘sport psychology for physiotherapists’ module covered three main areas – (1) understanding the psychological impact of sport injury, (2) psychological skills and techniques for injured athletes, and (3) referral and professional boundaries. Attitudes and behaviours towards sport psychology were measured before the module and at three points after the module had been completed (immediately, 3 months and 6 months after). It was found that those who had studied the sport psychology module demonstrated an improvement in their attitudes towards sport psychology immediately following its completion that was significantly higher than those who had studied the control module. Use of sport psychology also increased following the sport psychology module, with significant differences seen between the intervention and control group indicating that those who had studied the sport psychology module were integrating more sport psychology techniques into their practice than those who had studied the control module.

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

The findings of this study indicated that CPD courses can address the limitations that some physiotherapists and other members of the sports medicine team have in their understanding of the psychological aspects of sport injury, but it also uncovered another issue – a distinct lack of CPD offerings in this area in the UK. We have sought to address this by developing a free Badged Open Course Exploring the psychological aspects of sport injury, which we hope will contribute to bridging the gap, but more still needs to be done to ensure that sport psychology is properly integrated into undergraduate and postgraduate training so that injured players get both the physical and psychological support they need during sport injury.

Its not all doom and gloom when it comes to this topic and its important to note that some professional football clubs do utilise sport injury protocols that integrate psychological factors and use multidisciplinary sports medicine teams that include sport psychologists to support the injured athlete. Indeed, The Independent article gives the example of Queens Park Rangers where sport psychology is firmly embedded within the treatment room. Dr Misia Gervis suggests that for this to become more commonplace “a cultural shift of practice is needed by medics, physios and coaches.” It is my belief that educating sports medicine professionals is the first and key step to enabling this cultural shift.

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Please watch the video to find out more about the free Badged Open Course (BOC) Exploring the Psychological Aspects of Sport Injury

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Abstract Call for 4th Annual OU Sport & Fitness Conference – My Child: The Athlete

My Child: The Athlete

Tickets are on sale now – Click here to register!

The 4th annual OU Sport and Fitness Conference focuses on youth development in sport with particular attention paid to contemporary issues such as:

  • Youth physical development

    E.g. Strength and conditioning, injury prevention, physical literacy, skill acquisition

  • Psychological development

    E.g. Building resilience, coping with and learning from failure

  • Parental support for talented athletes

    E.g. Research to support parents of talented athletes, effects on siblings and family members, family dynamics and youth development

  • Coaching considerations when working with children

    E.g. planning training and practice, coaching behaviours, managing expectations, managing the needs of each athlete

With three world-leading keynotes confirmed, this promises to be an illuminating and thought provoking two days:

Toni Minichiello – Coach to GB’s 2012 gold medal-winning Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill. (Day 1 evening keynote presenter)

Dr Jean CôtéProfessor at Queen’s University, Canada and world-renowned researcher within the fields of youth sports and coach development. @JeanCote46

Dr Camilla Knight – Associate Professor at Swansea University and leading expert on the psychosocial experiences of children in sport, with a particular focus upon the influence of parents. @cjknight

Whether you’re an academic, a student, a coach, teacher or parent, we invite you to join us for two action packed days full of dissemination, discussion, and learning opportunities.

Call for Abstracts (Now Open for Submissions):

The OU Sport and Fitness Conference team invites the submission of abstracts for consideration as either an oral or poster presentation. Submissions may have either an academic or applied focus resonating with the themes of the conference (see above bullet points). We would also welcome submissions which report on research in progress or the initial stages of development.

Please download the abstract submission guidelines here:

Abstract Submission Guidelines

Delegates:

Click here to register!

Full conference packages:
Access to the whole two days – keynotes and breakout sessions
Three course conference dinner on day 1*
Lunch and refreshments on both days

*Please note – we have a limited number of tickets for the evening session – book early to avoid disappointment.

Evening only package*:
Access to the evening session on day 1
Keynote presentation from Toni Minichiello
Q&A Panel with Toni, Dr Jean Côté and Dr Camilla Knight
Three course conference dinner

*Please note – the evening session will take place at Kents Hill Park Training and Conference Centre, MK7 6BZ. There are a limited number of tickets available for this session so please book early to avoid disappointment. 

Twitter

Don’t forget to follow us for all the latest conference updates: @OU_SportConf and use the hashtag #OUSportConf to share that you’ve registered!

 

We look forward to welcoming you to My Child: The Athlete in March 2019!

For any conference queries please contact WELS-Research-Events@open.ac.uk

 

Women’s Sport 2017 is On Fire!

By Helen Owton

The summer of 2017 has been an outstanding season for women’s team sports.

Team success!

In the Netball Quad series earlier this year, the England Roses missed out on the title by just one point to the Australia Diamonds at Wembley. England beat India by just nine runs in a dramatic world cup final at Lords thanks to Anya Shrubsole’s remarkable bowling.

The England football team reached the semi-finals losing to the home nation, Netherlands at EURO 2017 but becoming national heroes. The Red Roses steamed into the Rugby World Cup final with an intense game against the very strong side of New Zealand, the Black Ferns. It wasn’t the happy ending they were looking for but the nation got behind the event to watch two of the best women’s rugby teams in the world.

Record High Viewings!

Not only has the Nation been so successfully in so many different sports, but the public have demonstrated a huge hunger for more! The women’s EURO 2017 viewing statistics hit record highs of 4 million, beating Celebrity Big Brother and the British Bake Off marking the highest audience figures for Channel 4 this year (Kennel, 2017).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L09K1qg1i9c

Earlier in the year, the England v Australia Netball game drew in half a million viewers on BBC2. Women’s cricket is also in high demand selling out Lords with 26,500 people and 1.1 million tuning in to watch the World Cup on Sky (Whaling, 2017). Recently, the Women’s Rugby World Cup, held in Ireland reported a record total attendance of 45,412, a peak of 2.65 million tuning in to ITV in the UK to watch the final between England and New Zealand and a vast increase in social media engagement.

Looking ahead, this trend is likely to build rather than fizzle with 80,000 tickets having already been sold for the Women’s Hockey World Cup 2018. Household names are cashing in on women’s sport with Vitality, Investec, and SSE sponsoring various sports and television companies are battling to secure broadcasting rights for women’s sport. Now, Kia have continued their investment with the Ladies’ PGA deal. It seems that the opportunity to watch women’s sport has never been better and it is an ideal time for other brands to invest.

Indeed, as Sally Munday highlights: “Even more encouragingly, terrestrial TV broadcasters have played a big part in this incredible summer of women’s sport. The UEFA Women’s EURO’s were shown live on Channel 4, the Women’s Rugby World Cup Final was broadcast live in a primetime slot on ITV, and Channel 5 has just announced that it will show women’s cricket domestic highlights in 2018.

Now, when I read about sport or listen to the news, I’m wondering why there isn’t more of a distinction so I know whether they are talking about men’s sport or not. We can’t just say ‘Football’ and assume that it is men’s football.

*Gender and Sport is a topic covered in the E314 module on Contemporary Issues in Sport

UEFA Women’s EURO 2017: The power of ‘Home Advantage’

By Helen Owton

On Sunday 6th August 2017, the Netherlands stormed the final after a stunning 4-2 win against Denmark having knocked out the Lionesses in a surprising win. At the start of the tournament, however, they were ranked 9th with favourites Germany being knocked out by Denmark in the quarter finals. When the hosts win it adds weight to the argument that ‘home advantage’ is a powerful weapon, but surely, home advantage can’t be that powerful?

Home advantage
Firstly, the idea of home for an individual performer may be very different, however, and the concept of ‘home’ is thus one that differs for each sport and its performers. Nonetheless, home advantage is a phenomena which has been a hotly debated contentious issue but appears to be very real. Research on home advantage found that home teams are more likely to win 53-69% of the time (Courneya and Carron, 1992). Indeed, research shows that nations hosting international sporting events can improve their medal count by around 25% (UK Sport, 2011). For example, in London 2012, ‘Team GB’ achieved a 27.8% increase in medal count (47 in 2008; 65 in 2012).

Various reasons have been sought to explain this home advantage phenomena. The presence of a supportive audience appears to be the most critical factor (Cox, 2012) and the size, density and proximity are important aspects to consider when evaluating the influence a crowd has which can activate the autonomic nervous system producing physiological and psychological arousal. This of course could have positive or negative effects on both teams. For example, a home team might feel ‘overwhelmed’ by the pressure of such a momentous occasion but an away team may experience the pressure in a different way.

Other factors include the issue of travelling to distant venues for visiting athletes; the unfamiliarity of stadiums and changing rooms for away teams, for example (Pollard, 2006). Nonetheless, the home advantage is dependent on a number of factors, including the familiarity of surroundings, the effect of travel on the opposition, an evolved response to defend home territory and the impact of the belief that we are more likely to be successful at home. Additionally, some of these factors are interrelated because the home crowd’s support might indirectly influence the thoughts and actions of the referee as well as the opposing team.

Indeed, Lucy Bronze mentions that the game against Netherlands was ‘a different game’ and needed to ‘silence the crowd’ and that referee decisions didn’t go their way.

Referee bias
In the Lionesses versus Netherlands game there were some hotly debated referee decisions. Indeed, referee bias is one of the many factors that contribute to home advantage. The idea that there is an unconscious impact that the home crowd have on refereeing decisions is a contentious one and is obviously hotly disputed by most sporting officials. Nonetheless, it could be that the power and strength of the home crowd subconsciously encourages a referee to go along with a crowd particularly if the decision is open to interpretation.

I think what makes home advantage so impressive is that unexpected teams win and it’s always surprising to watch a low ranked team work their way to victory! There were indeed some other unexpected stories in this year’s women’s EURO 2017.

Unexpected stories
Out of the teams making their debuts in the final this year Austria (ranked 13) quickly became the team to watch as they built on their successes and got strong and stronger after each game until they lost against Denmark (ranked 12th) on penalties (3-0). A great experience for Austria! France were strong contenders but were knocked out by England. Whilst Germany (ranked 1st) dominated the tournament since winning in 1989 making it an impressive total of champions 8 times, they got knocked out by Denmark in the quarter finals opening up the way for a new champion team! The hope was on the England to win the tournament, possibly adding pressure to their game as they played Netherlands. With the large supportive home crowd, it wasn’t to be for England.

Media success of Women’s Football
The fact that there has been a possibility of ‘home advantage’ during this WEURO2017 indicates the large crowd sizes which have been approx. 30,000. Additionally, Channel 4 have shown all the matches and peaked 4 million audience sizes, beating Celebrity Big Brother and Panorama (Sweeney, 2017). A huge leap for women’s football and the misogynistic comments on twitter are becoming an old fashioned dying breed.

I’m sure the nation will be excited about the Women’s World Cup in 2019 which is to take place in France! It will be interesting to watch whether the ‘home advantage’ will have the same results for France.

*Home advantage is a topic covered in E313 Exploring Psychological aspects of athletic development. If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please visit the ‘study with us’ tab at the top of the page.

References
Corneya, K.S. and Carron, A.V. (1992) ‘The home advantage in sport competitions: a literature review’, Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, vol. 14, pp. 28–39.

Cox, R. (2012) Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Pollard, R. (2006) ‘Home advantage in soccer: variations in its magnitude and a literature review of the interrelated factors associated with its existence’, Journal of Sport Behavior, vol. 29, pp. 169–189.

Sweeney, M. (2017). England’s Lionesses smash TV audience record in Euro 2017 semi-final, The Guardian, [online, 4 August]. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/aug/04/englands-lionesses-smash-tv-audience-record-euro-2017-semi-final-women-football

UK Sport (2011) ‘Home Advantage – The performance Benefits of Hosting Major Sporting Events’ [online]. Available at www.uksport.gov.uk/docLib/what-we-do/…/Home-Advantage.pdf

‘Super-human’ athletes are at risk from the post-Olympic blues – here’s why

Karen Howells, The Open University

As nations all over the world welcome their Olympic athletes home, many of us will take a moment to reflect on the whirlwind of psychological pressure, physical strain, elation and disappointment, which they have just experienced. But whether they’re revelling in the glory of hard-won medals, or recovering from heartbreaking defeats, Olympic athletes won’t have long before our attention shifts to the next spectacle.

So what happens to elite athletes when their moment in the spotlight is over? Sadly, it seems likely that many could suffer a case of the post-Olympic blues. Research following the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics found that the return home can be accompanied by confusion, depression, anger, resentment, abandonment and emptiness. We have only to browse the media or peer into the lives of Olympic athletes through their autobiographies to appreciate that dark times await many of these seemingly super-human beings – irrespective of their successes or failures.

Anecdotal reports suggest that the post-Olympic blues are common, with many athletes finding the return to normality difficult to handle. Some even appear to develop symptoms that are in keeping with a diagnosis of depression.

While there’s no consensus in the research that the incidence of depression is any different for elite athletes, research has identified that the public perception of athletes as being mentally tough means that athletes can find it harder to speak out about their struggles.

Even so, the stories of depression following previous Olympics serve as a warning to those leaving Rio; Amanda Beard, Ian Thorpe, Allison Schmidt and McKayla Maroney have all disclosed their experiences of depression. Cassie Patten, bronze medallist in the ten kilometre open water swim at the Beijing 2008 games said:

In the year after the games, I felt lost. I got really depressed … I would come swimming and just sit on poolside and just cry. It was horrible, because I loved swimming.

The curse of celebrity

Previously known only to the staunchest of swimming fans, Adam Peaty is now a household name after 57.13 seconds of record-breaking speed. In this age of social media, celebrity is easy to come by: within seconds of success or failure, the result has been interpreted and reported, and a celebrity is born.

Oh what a feeling – but can it last?
PATRICK B. KRAEMER/EPA

The notion that athletes are “great” is widespread throughout mainstream media, and for a golden moment in time that would positively impact on athletes’ sense of worth and self-esteem. But within weeks – if not days – of returning home, the harsh realities of life as a professional sportsperson will return.

No longer will the athletes be celebrities, who are loved and instantly recognised by their adoring fans. Instead, they will be at the start of another four-year cycle of gruelling training and fierce competition, working toward that distant goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

The impact of this return to the daily grind on elite athletes has not been explored in depth. But it is likely that there is some negative impact on self-worth that may well contribute to the development of mental health issues.

The athletic identity

Issues surrounding identity – that is, someone’s sense of who they are – can also contribute to the likelihood of depression occurring, especially for those who are transitioning out of sport. Olympians whose identity as athletes to the exclusion of other roles may be at the greatest risk. For athletes who are used to measuring their success and worth in terms of their speed, strength and stamina, it can be very difficult to find fulfilment in other domains.

In an interview with NBC, US swimmer Michael Phelps spoke of his debilitating experiences with depression. Following London 2012, he said: “I thought of myself as just a swimmer, and nobody else.”

Phelps’ experiences highlight how important it is for all elite athletes – even those for whom sport remains their number one priority – to prepare for futures after their sporting careers.

Looking forwards

Sport psychologists and coaches stress the importance of setting process, performance and outcome goals in the years before the Olympic Games. Research has shown that the setting of goals can provide focus and markers of progress, as well as serving to maintain self-esteem and promote resilience throughout the difficult training schedules.

But when the Olympics are over, those goals become irrelevant. Accordingly, many athletes lose focus, feel lost and lack direction. As London 2012 gold medallist Victoria Pendleton stated:

You have all this build-up for one day, and when it’s over, it’s: ‘Oh, is that it?’ You’re relieved but kind of sad and numb. It’s over … people think it’s hard when you lose, but it’s almost easier to come second because you have something to aim for when you finish. When you win, you suddenly feel lost.

So irrespective of success or failure, it is vital that athletes re-evaluate their post-Olympic lives, and set new goals – whether they are remaining in sport or not.

As the public divert their attention to other events, and national sporting organisations shift their focus to the next four years, it is important that coaches and teams spend some time focusing on returning athletes, to address the negative impacts of sudden celebrity and dominant athletic identity. At the earliest opportunity, athletes need to form new goals, to move forwards into post-Olympic life.

Karen Howells, Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Penalty Pressure Potential at Euro 2016

By Caroline Heaney

As Euro 2016 moves into the knockout stages football fans will be preparing themselves for the prospect of a penalty shoot-out or two. Penalty shoot-outs are rarely missing from a major tournament and are a source of great stress and excitement.

England fans have a love-hate relationship with the penalty shoot-out. The excitement of a penalty shoot-out is unquestionable, but England teams are not renowned for their success in penalty shoot-outs. The men’s team have had several exits from major tournaments at the hands of a penalty shoot-out (e.g. 2006 World Cup, Euro 2012) and the women’s team exited the 2011 World Cup after losing to France on penalties in the quarter final stages. So what is it about the penalty shoot-out that makes it so intense?

The penalty shoot-out in a major tournament is probably one the most highly pressured situations in football; the stakes are high and the margins for error are small. Additionally, the personal accountability of individual players is probably higher than in any other situation in football, where normally responsibility is collectively shared. No-one wants to be the player responsible for their team exiting a major tournament, and history shows that unsuccessful penalty takers are often ‘scapegoated’ and ostracised by their national media. Interestingly it appears to be the penalty takers rather than the goal-keepers who tend to fall victim to this negative media attention, perhaps due to the expectations of a penalty shoot-out: penalty takers are expected to score and goal-keepers are expected not to stop them. Obviously when a goal-keeper makes a winning save they become a hero in the eyes of the media, but rarely are they subjected to the same media condemnation as a player who misses a penalty when they fail to save a penalty.

As a result of this teams often focus a significant amount of effort on preparing for the possibility of a penalty shoot-out. The Welsh team, for example, have reportedly been practicing penalties in preparation for the knockout stages of Euro 2016 . Psychology is certainly a significant factor in the penalty shoot-out. As a sport psychologist I like to watch a player prepare to take a penalty and predict whether they will be successful – there are certain psychological cues that are indicative of the outcome. Researchers have investigated these and have identified various factors that can influence the success of the penalty shoot-out. Some of these are explored in our penalty shoot-out game below.

Penalty Shootout Game

Penalty Shootout Game

Click here to play our penalty shoot-out game

As with most tasks, confidence is key. A player who is confident and believes that they will score is more likely to do so. There is no room for doubt in a penalty shoot-out. Confidence can be seen through visual cues such as eye contact. A player who lacks confidence may avoid making eye contact with the goal keeper. Good goal keepers recognise these signals and will draw strength from an opponent who won’t make eye contact. Additionally, a successful penalty taker will normally take their time and not rush. Rushing can be seen as a sign of panic, whereas someone who waits is giving themselves time to compose themselves before executing the skill, perhaps utilising psychological techniques like imagery and positive self-talk before taking the penalty kick. A player may use imagery to rehearse taking a successful penalty in their head before taking it and may use positive self-talk to enhance their confidence and focus.

Experience is obviously an important factor for penalty takers. Players who have previously successfully taken penalties and won penalty shoot-outs are more likely to be confident in their ability to take a successful penalty. The reverse of that, however, is that those who have had bad experiences are less likely to be confident, which goes some way to explaining the serial penalty shoot-out defeats seen in teams such as the England and Holland men’s teams – the culture of expecting to lose a penalty shoot-out perpetuates. Research has revealed that success rates in penalty shoot-outs are considerably higher for teams who have won their last two penalty shoot-outs compared to those who have lost their last two shoot-outs, even if the team membership is changed. Interestingly ‘higher status’ players, whilst likely having more experience to draw on, are sometimes less successful in penalty shoot-out situations; perhaps because the pressure of expectation is far greater for them than for players of lower status. Try our penalty shoot-out game to see these factors in action.

This shows that the successful penalty taker is one who is highly confident and copes well with pressure. Next time you watch a penalty shoot-out, watch the players prepare and see if you can predict whether or not they will be successful.

For more coverage of Euro 2016 visit the OpenLearn Euro 2016 Hub

Under Pressure again: Can the England team bring football home?

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss

Tonight sees England’s first fixture of this year’s UEFA Euro 2016. Roll back 2 years and 2014 saw the country gearing up for the biggest event in the football calendar, the World Cup. The 2014 World Cup saw huge amounts of pressure and expectation placed on Hodgson’s 23 man England squad. This pressure and expectation came from representing their country, the public and their manager who openly stated before the tournament that he felt he had a winning squad. Roll forward to 2016 and exactly 50 years since England’s iconic 1966 World Cup win, could this finally be England’s chance to shine?

So what could make the difference? Perhaps remarkably England still have Hodgson at the helm, although often following a poor tournament result the first person to go is the coach/manager. Just look at Stuart Lancaster’s departure following England’s disastrous Rugby World Cup performance of 2015 and football is often managed in the same unforgiving way. However, despite a contract due to run till after the France based tournament it seems that this isn’t the only reason Hodgson is still in place. He not only has the backing of the FA with Greg Dyke openly saying they would back Hodgson but also he appears respected and supported by his players, ‘we are proud to play for Roy Hodgson. He’s a great Manager.’ Match this with the fact that the team have some phenomenally talented players.  Where the 2014 World Cup squad could have been deemed a young squad, short on tournament experience, four years down the line a stronger team is most definitely evident with some new superstars emerging. Vardy has recently been termed ‘the most electric attacker in England’ with Kane called the ‘unconventional superstar’ and these are two players who were instrumental in stirring a comeback from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Germany in March . Finally much has been made of new kid on the block Dele Alli, Hodgson himself has been quoted as saying he can do  ‘anything in midfield’. He is a player who in the England vs Germany game played in March was billed  ‘potentially the best young English midfielder for a generation left even the arch-technocrats of Germany envious of his talent’.

So while the team is stable and highly promising this doesn’t take away from the fact that any international football event carries with it huge amounts of pressure which generates an increase in anxiety and stress.  These are terms commonly discussed within all spheres of sport from school level to the global stage.  The competitive environment is designed to elevate the arousal levels of not just the players but the fans as well. Anxiety at its most basic level can lead to co-ordination difficulties, and problems with attention to detail, all of which can prove debilitating to performance. The need for the athletes to control their emotions will be greater than ever as the team will have something to prove following their early 2014 tournament exit.

However, with some solid performances behind the team in recent months and players who have faced some highly pressurized situations within the domestic game there is a hope that the team as a whole will be able to manage their anxiety and cope with the unique pressure that international events generate. Hodgson’s 2016 team is a stronger, more resilient and more experienced squad that the one that lost out in 2014 and one can surmise that such a significant defeat will have made them even more determined to lay to rest the ghosts of the last 50 years.