We hope you have enjoyed our Winter Olympics and Paralympics blog. We will be back in the summer with to cover the Football World Cup (12th June – 13th July 2014) and the Commonwealth Games (23rd July – 3rd August 2014).
By Caroline Heaney
As I have been watching Open University student Jade Etherington and her fellow visually impaired alpine skiers in the Winter Paralympics I have been struck by the amazing relationship that exists between skier and guide.
There seem to be two key features present in a successful coach-guide relationship: trust and understanding. The athlete needs to place an extreme level of trust in the guide to lead her appropriately and the guide needs to have a high level of understanding of the athlete in order to guide her appropriately. Failure to have this trust and understanding could have a significant impact on performance.
Jade Etherington and her guide Caroline Powell, having won 3 medals in Sochi, clearly have a very strong athlete-guide relationship that appears to demonstrate these qualities of trust and understanding. The two demonstrate high levels of task and social cohesion, with both appearing to be very focused on working together to achieve Paralympic success (task cohesion), and appearing to get on well (social cohesion). This is quite remarkable considering that they have only been together for less than a year. Guide Powell describes their relationship below:
“It’s basically a friendship so you have to build a friendship and that can take years. In our case we had to build it within a short space of time, but we were really honest with each other from the beginning. She taught me so much about guiding, I just went with what she said and it’s worked. It’s come together now and we’re so happy.”
Kelly Gallagher, who made history in Sochi by becoming Great Britain’s first ever Winter Paralympics Gold medallist, also seems to have an exceptional relationship with her guide Charlotte Evans. She speaks about the strong connection and understanding they have:
“…she’s so in tune with me that she can tell how I’m skiing just by the noises I make”
I have been unable to identify any research that examines the relationship between the visually impaired athlete and guide, but the dyadic relationship may be similar in nature to the relationship between team-mates in a sports team (e.g. a rowing pair) or the coach-athlete relationship. Jowett has researched the coach-athlete relationship extensively and in her 3+1 Cs model she identifies four components of a successful coach-athlete relationship: closeness, commitment, complementarity and co-orientation. Intuitively these qualities seem applicable to the athlete-guide relationship.
The achievements of Great Britain’s visually impaired alpine skiers in the Winter Paralympics highlight the importance of the coach-guide relationship and perhaps there is a need for research to examine this unique and very important relationship.
By Caroline Heaney
Today sees the start of the Winter Paralympics which provides us with the opportunity to witness yet more extraordinary feats of athletic ability in Sochi. The London 2012 Summer Paralympics helped raise the profile of Paralympic sport like never before and hopefully the Sochi games will do the same, despite the danger of the event being overshadowed by recent events in Ukraine.
So what do the Winter Paralympics have in store for us, and who are Paralympics GBs medal prospects? The sports included in the Winter Paralympics programme are: Alpine skiing, Wheelchair Curling, Ice Sledge Hockey, Nordic Skiing and Biathlon. Great Britain have a squad of 15 athletes in Sochi and whilst Paralympics GB are a dominant force in the summer games, they have yet to win a gold medal at the Winter Paralympics. Paralympics GBs best performance to date came in the 1984 Winter Paralympics where they won 4 silver and 6 bronze medals. The medal target for Sochi is 2 to 6 medals.
Alpine skiing comprises the downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and super combined disciplines across three categories of disability that will see standing, sit-ski and visually impaired events. Snowboard cross will also be making its Paralympic debut.
British interest: Mike Brennan, Jade Etherington and guide Caroline Powell, Kelly Gallagher and guide Charlotte Evans, 15 year old Mille Knight (opening ceremony flag bearer) and guide Rachael Ferrier, Ben Sneesby, Anna Turney, and James Whitley. Kelly Gallagher represents one of Paralympic GBs strongest medal hopes.
Wheelchair curling is essentially the same game as we saw at the Winter Olympics with one key difference – there is no sweeping. Also, unlike the Olympic event, Paralympic curling is contested by mixed gender teams. Following a silver medal in 2006 and the medal winning achievements of their Olympic counterparts the Paralympic GB curling team are under pressure to gain a place on the podium and they are in a strong position to achieve this.
British interest: Skip Angie Malone, competing in her 3rd Paralympics, will be joined by Gregor Ewan, Jim Gault, Bob McPherson, and Aileen Neilson. Angie made history in 2010 by becoming the first female skip in international competition.
Ice Sledge Hockey
Ice sledge hockey, as its name suggests, is played on sledges. Otherwise it is similar to the Winter Olympics version of the game. Paralympics GB does not have a team in the event, but Canada and the USA are big medal contenders.
Nordic Skiing and Biathlon
Peter Young was the last British cross-country skiing medallist when he won a bronze in 1994. Sadly there are no British competitors in the cross-country skiing or biathlon events in Sochi, which will see sitting, standing and visually impaired races. This sport looks set to be a favourite of the home crowd with Russian athletes expected to dominate.
The Winter Paralympics will no doubt provide another amazing spectacle of sport and with many in the British team making their Paralympics debut and potential British medal prospects we could see some new sporting role models emerging from these games.
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.
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: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/winter-olympics/25586746
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975) ‘Beyond boredom and anxiety’. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.
GB Ski Club (2009) ‘The Questionnaire: James Woods’ [online] Available from: http://www.skiclub.co.uk/skiclub/news/story.aspx?storyID=6447#.UxWlWuVFDIU (Accessed 2 March 2014)
Gibson, O. (2014) ‘Lizzy Yarnold already making plans to defend skeleton title in 2018’ [online] Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2014/feb/15/lizzy-yarnold-skeleton-winter-olympics-defence (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.