Category Archives: sport psychology

Guinness and Gareth Thomas rugby tackle homophobia

By Helen Owton

With the Men’s Rugby World Cup about to start, the sport of rugby appears to be making strides to tackle homophobia in sport. The most recent TV advert from Guinness stars Gareth Thomas telling his story about coming out in rugby.

The Out on the Field (2015) survey found that 60% of gay men and 50% of lesbians have been subjected to homophobia in sport which means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people in sport must regulate conversations, behaviour and identities on a daily basis because of the implications of ‘coming out’. The assumption in rugby that as well as being aggressive and competitive, all ‘real men’ must be heterosexual means that ‘gay’ becomes a derogatory identity label and an abnormal lifestyle. The Guinness advert challenges this stance and perhaps shows that attitudes are starting to shift.

Researchers who have studied issues of gays in sports largely agree that organised sports are highly homophobic (Anderson, 2002) although there is some more recent debate about whether men’s heterosexual ‘gay’ behaviours (e.g. kissing each other on the mouth) indicates more openness and acceptance (Anderson, 2005). This TV advert is a step towards even more openness and acceptance.

Gareth talks about how he hid his sexual identity and his feelings, however when an individual feels unaccepted and alienated from society problems can occur. Whilst in this advert he refers to his sexuality as being ‘so minor’, in his autobiography, Gareth discloses how he felt during an all-time low:

“The more I thought, the more self-loathing I generated, the more attractive suicide seemed […] The sea was grey and merged with the horizon. Standing there, on the edge of the cliff, it all seemed so easy. A single step and I’d walk off, into the sky. No more pain. No more loneliness. No more lies. No more causing chaos for people that I loved” (Thomas, 2014, p.155-156)

Evidently, it’s not easy for sportspeople to ‘come out’ because of the homophobia they feel they might experience from fans and from their team mates that they share changing rooms with. Homophobia is deeply embedded in the hidden codes of narrow forms of heterosexual masculinity which rests on the belief that to be a ‘real man’ you’re not gay.

Like Gareth Thomas, gay men come out because many report feelings of ‘living a lie’ and feel isolated and alienated from society when they are hiding a part of themselves. He was fortunate enough to receive a positive and assuring response from his friends, family, rugby coaches and teammates which will hopefully mean that more sportspeople will feel more comfortable about coming out to their teammates.

For Gareth Thomas to ‘come out’ not only challenges heteronormative assumptions about sexuality in sport and promotes diverse sexualities, it enables athletes to feel open and proud of themselves for who they are. It helped to affirm his sense of self that his sexuality was respected and accepted by others as well.

However, you don’t have to be gay to challenge these assumptions; James Haskell and Ben Foden have both posed for Attitude (gay magazine) and Ben Cohen works to eliminate homophobia through his StandUp Foundation.

The sub culture of rugby seems to be raising awareness of gay issues and seems to be making a big effort to challenge homophobia which also could enable a much less narrow definition of masculinity to be accepted in rugby. Furthermore, Guinness appear to be using their brand to tell stories of adversity and ‘double lives’ in rugby, for example, Ashwin Willemse’s story of becoming a Springbok:

This topic will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness module coming soon.

Whatever you do, DO NOT think of a pink elephant…

I walked across a University campus last week following a sport psychology consultation with an elite athlete. As I walked, I reflected on how the session had gone and started thinking about some of the psychological skills we had been working on. This particular athlete was more inclined than others to be negative in his thinking. We had spent some time during that session focusing on the use of positive self-talk and the reframing and the countering some of his common examples of negative self-talk. The athlete had talked about the preparation for his race and explained that he worried about what might go wrong, that he may tire too early in the race, that he may false start, that he may fall behind his competitors, and that he was scared of disappointing his coach. We discussed the link between his thoughts and subsequent behaviours and started to counter some of his more irrational thoughts. For example, we talked about the number of times he had false started, which he admitted was none, and resolved that the concern had little value other than to create a negative state of mind and, more importantly perhaps, by focusing on false starts he was increasing the likelihood of them occurring.

As I reached my office, I saw a sign scribbled hastily on the side of a cardboard box propped up against a railing . . . “Wet paint – do not touch” it said. The child inside me took over from the sport psychologist; it took all my willpower not to touch the railing, just to check. Was the paint really wet? Until that point I had not been aware of any desire to walk over to a random railing and touch it. Where did that urge come from?

It made me think back to some other instances where I had noticed the ubiquitous use of the word NOT or DON’T when giving instructions. As part of a recent observation of a gymnast who was struggling with a ‘mental block’ on some of her moves, I noted that her coach told her: “don’t stand for too long”, and “don’t worry, you are not going to fall”. The effect on the gymnast was immediate and powerful. She paused before her move, looked at her feet, shuffled and paused again, and she looked frightened and concerned. In both of these examples the coach was effectively creating negative self-talk in the gymnast’s mind – she was thinking about standing for too long and was worrying about falling. It is possible that without the instructions the gymnast would have executed her move quickly without fear of falling. In swimming one of the habits that coaches detest is seeing their swimmers breathe on the first arm pull after a turn. I have heard many coaches bark at their swimmers: “don’t breathe out of your turn” and observed the swimmer nod dutifully and accordingly breathe on the very first stroke. The use these negatively framed statements is two-fold. On the one hand it primes the athlete to think negatively, to worry about making a mistake, and it does little to assist the athlete in identifying the correct desirable behaviour.

So, as good practice coaches should try to frame their coaching instructions in a positive manner; tell your athlete what you want them to rather than what you don’t want them to do. In the examples that I have come across, the gymnastics coach could have encouraged her athlete to “start your move as soon as your feet are in place”, and “you are going to be steady and stick it”, and the swimming coach could have encouraged “three strokes before you breathe after each turn!” Using these positively framed instructions as opposed to the negatively framed statements will start to encourage positive thinking and to reinforce the desired behaviours in athletes. And whatever you do, don’t think about the pink elephant.

The psychology behind women footballers’ remarkable resilience

By Helen Owton

On Saturday night, England played a phenomenal game to beat Germany for the bronze medal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015. Members of the team played with confidence, but the odds were psychologically against them after suffering such a cruel defeat to Japan earlier in the week, never mind the fact that they had never beaten Germany before.

In psychological terms, resilience is a process that involves coping with challenges and experiences of significant adversity in different contexts. This evolves into particularly individual ways of viewing of the world.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:

The process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress – such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences.

In a group context, adapting to unpleasant experiences (for example, losing a game from an own goal in the dying minutes) is central to performing well in a team.

With this in mind, let’s look at the resilience of the England players.

Fara Williams grew up on an estate in Battersea, had a difficult upbringing and was homeless for seven years from the age of 17, while playing for England.
Karen Carney came back from injury, depression and self-harm. Fran Kirby has spoken honestly about her struggle to come to terms with her mother’s death, her battle against depression and her fierce return to Reading, scoring 33 goals in her first season back.

Katie Chapman is a mother of two, Casey Stoney came out in 2014 and suffered homophobic abuse on social media. At 26, Claire Rafferty suffered three anterior cruciate ligament ruptures and also works as an analyst for Deutsche Bank. Each of these journeys is personal, but a combination of factors contribute to team resilience.

Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family that offer encouragement and reassurance. There is no doubt that it is possible for this to be found in a sporting team environment.

Together the team showed perseverance and trust in the ability of individuals, but also in their team’s ability and in the ability of the group of coaches, physiotherapists and psychologists.

Overcoming a cruel defeat

It is part of sport for athletes to make mistakes, as Laura Bassett did in scoring the own goal at the end of the semi-final against Japan. But many argue that resilience is key to overcoming mistakes in sport. A player who is not resilient will tend to mull over the mistake and it will affect their performance. A resilient player will use of the mistake as an opportunity to learn.

Everyone appeared to be heartbroken after the cruel ending of the semi-final game against Japan, but the team rallied round Bassett to bolster her resilience.

After the game, coach Mark Sampson said: “It’s ok to cry”. Being permitted to experience strong emotions (as well as recognising when you may need to avoid experiencing them) is important in recovering from an upsetting experience.

It was evident from the start that captain Steph Houghton was going to play her part in picking up the team to play formidably against Germany. Laura Bassett reflected on how hard it will be to move on from her own-goal heartache, but she captured the nation again by opening up, facing this head on and getting back on the pitch.

Teaching athletes to acknowledge, review and strategise after a defeat allows them to manage the emotional response which comes with making mistakes. Often, the most successful are those who have failed the most and after 21 attempts to beat Germany, it was England’s moment to finally claim victory.

The Conversation

Helen Owton is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University.

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

Preparing for Penalty Shootout Pressure at the Women’s World Cup

By Caroline Heaney

With the Women’s Football World Cup now 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 in fact the last Women’s World Cup was won by Japan on penalties.

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, and the England women’s team have been reported to be doing just that. 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:

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 by Jordet 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 (89% versus 57%), 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.

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.


The Dark Side of Sport: child sexual abuse

* The following blog includes material of a sensitive nature and may not be suitable for all readers

By Helen Owton & Lisa Lazard

2012 was a real breakthrough for victims who experienced child sexual abuse. Since the Jimmy Scandal in 2012, there has been a 71% increase in the number of reports of child sexual abuse. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to recognise the scale of the VIP sexual abuse inquiry which has highlighted a huge number of well-known, powerful people under investigation that includes 76 politicians, 135 TV film or radio figures, 43 from the music industry and 7 sports stars (and 9 sports venues). Whilst it seems shocking that many seemed to have been abused in settings where these vulnerable people should have been safe (e.g. schools, sports, religious institutions) perhaps it’s worth considering how these environments (e.g. sport) are conducive to such forms of abuse and exploitation as well.

The World of Sport

We only have to go as far as the recent FIFA arrests to recognise that sport is not the clean, fair, functional, happy, hyped up field it presents itself as so it’s becoming increasingly important to place these institutional structures under scrutiny. Indeed, a large body of research1-5 suggests that competitive sporting environments provide a unique socio-cultural context that offers possibilities for sexual abuse and exploitation to take place. In sport, the specific danger is the amount of power invested in the coach. Coaches (as perpetrators) can impose their version of reality on athletes (as victims) and isolate them from potential sources of support within that reality by controlling the psychological environment through direct emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and the creation of a highly volatile, psychologically abusive training environment.6,7 Indeed, Brackenridge and Fasting (2005)8 comment on previous studies on what’s known as the ‘grooming process’ in sport:

The previous studies suggest that, for the abuser, grooming is a conscious strategy. The athlete, on the other hand, is usually an unwitting party to the gradual erosion of the interpersonal boundary between her and the coach. The power afforded to the coach in his position of authority offers an effective alibi or camouflage for grooming and abuse. Incremental shifts in the boundary between coach and athlete go unnoticed, unrecognized or unreported by the athlete until the point where she has become completely entrapped and is unable to resist his advances. (p. 37)

A recent paper9 presents a story about “Bella” and the dynamic relationships between three main types of coaches.4 These types were:

  1. The Flirting-Charming Coach characterised by always flirting, joking, trying to touch and so on
  2. The Seductive Coach went further and was characterised by trying to ‘hit on everyone’
  3. The Authoritarian Coach who was also powerful and used his power as well as being characterised as having psychological/psychic problems and often had a degrading and negative view of women in general.

Sometimes, stories in the news offer us some comfort that perpetrators of child sex abuse are ‘abnormal’ – ‘mad’, ‘bad’ and even monsters. However, this makes them harder to identify. This doesn’t sit very comfortably with the large scale pattern of child abuse. Whilst the moral panics sell newspapers, it does point to some difficulties of how we can make sense of child abuse. How can abuse be so widespread if perpetrated by an ‘abnormal’ minority? The idea of a cover up of widespread abuse by public figures and people we trust is certainly insidious but it is all too easy to talk of these events as committed by people who are ‘deviant’. The panic and fear this creates often results in a restriction of where young people can go and what they can do, particularly for girls and women.

To make sense of child abuse, perhaps we need to think through what allows young people to be treated as ‘vulnerable’. The answer is undoubtedly complicated but the unequal position they find themselves in relation to all adults is something that deserves some focus.10,11 This existing power between victim and perpetrator (e.g. athlete and coach) occurs in the context of structural power relations within institutions (e.g. sport) which often operates using top down hierarchical forms of authority. In this sense, children are subjected to overlapping forms of power that makes them vulnerable.

Britain has turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse for too long in previous years but so have structures that serve to protect institutions; these structures, rules, procedures and norms of violence towards women within institutions (e.g. sport) need to be subjected to scrutiny as well for things to really change.12

Video: Sexual abuse in sport pic


  1. Brackenridge C. (2001). Spoilsports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport. Routledge: London.
  2. Bringer, J., Brackenridge, C. H., & Johnston, L. H. (2002). Defining appropriateness in coach-athlete sexual relationships: The voice of coaches. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8, 83-98. DOI:10.1080/13552600208413341
  3. Burke, M. (2001). Obeying until it hurts: Coach-athlete relationships. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXVIII, 227-240. DOI:10.1080/00948705.2001.9714616
  4. Fasting, K., & Brackenridge, C. (2009). Coaches, sexual harassment and education. Sport, Education and Society, 14, 21-35. DOI:10.1080/13573320802614950
  5. Parent, S. (2011). Disclosure of sexual abuse in sport organizations: A case study. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 20, 322-337. DOI:10.1080/10538712.2011.573459
  6. Leahy, T. (2010). Working with adult athlete survivors of sexual abuse. In S. Hanrahan and M. Andersen [Eds.]. Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology: A comprehensive guide for students and practitioners. London: Routledge, pp.303-312.
  7. Leahy, T. (2011). Safeguarding child athletes from abuse in elite sport systems: The role of the sport psychologist. In D. Gilbourne and M. Andersen [Eds.], Critical essays in applied sport psychology (pp.251–266). Champaign. IL: Human Kinetics.
  8. Brackenridge, C., & Fasting, K. (2005) The grooming process in sport. Auto/Biography: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, 13, 33-52. DOI: 10.1191/0967550705ab016oa
  9. Owton, H. & Sparkes, A. Sexual Abuse and the Grooming Process in Sport: Learning from Bella’s Story. Society, Education & Sport (in press).
  10. Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. London: Routledge.
  11. Warner, S. (2005). Understanding the effects of child sex abuse. London: Routledge.
  12. McCray, K. (2014). Intercollegiate Athletes and Sexual Violence: A Review of literature and recommendations for future study. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 1-6.

Morality in sport: Suarez strikes again!

By Jessica Pinchbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peak Performance in Sochi 2014: Can it continue?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filling the Void – Retirement from High Risk Sport

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

Injured at the Olympics

By Caroline Heaney

Imagine you have spent the last four years of your life preparing for one special moment, only to have it snatched away from your grasp at the last moment. That scenario can be a reality for the Olympic athlete who sustains an injury before or during the Olympic Games.

Yesterday it was announced that bobsleigh athlete Craig Pickering was returning home from the Winter Olympics without even having stepped on the Sochi bobsleigh track. His exit was the result of a back injury. Pickering stated that he was devestated not to be able to compete in his first Winter Olympics.

Pickering is not alone. Research examining the psychological impact of sports injury shows that the occurence of a sports injury can lead to several negative reactions such as anger, frustration, anxiety and depression.

Some models of psychological reaction to injury even suggest that a sports injury can constitute a form of loss, and for the athlete whose Olympic dream has been crushed by injury this is certainly evident.

A tale of two injuries…

Sport psychology plays an important role in helping the athlete to cope with sports injury. Psychological strategies such as imagery, self talk, goal setting, relaxation and social support have all been shown to aid sports injury rehabilitation. A mentally strong athlete will cope better with injury and grow from the experience.

Pickering’s team mate, bobsleigh driver John Jackson, has certainly shown an ability to grow from the experience of sports injury. Back in July he suffered a serious Achilles’ tendon rupture – an injury that could almost certainly have put an end to his Sochi Olympic dream. Yet thanks to a positive attitude and some pioneering surgery he will be competing in Sochi, and following a some recent good performances at the European championships and World Cup he is a genuine medal prospect. It is claimed that Jackson has returned sronger than ever before. Jackson recently tweeted “To all injured athletes. Never give up faith, never give up on your dream and fight to come back better than you were. Believe in yourself” – inspirational words for any injured athlete.