Category Archives: Jessica Pinchbeck

Where have all the teenage tennis prodigies gone?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Over the years tennis has seen many teenage stars grace the courts and defeat their more senior competitors. One of the youngest teenage tennis prodigies was Jennifer Capriati who turned professional and had attained top 10 status by the age of 14 in 1990. However following her successful teenage years of tennis Capriati experienced many issues away from the court and ended up taking a year out of the game in 1995. Following this she resumed her career and won three grand slam titles before retiring in 2005. Martina Hingis also reached great heights at a young age becoming the youngest ever player to win a match in a grand slam at 14 and at 15 the youngest player to ever win at Wimbledon in 1997. Injury forced her to retire at the age of 22. For both of these cases one must surely question the physiological and psychological implications of achieving excellence at such as young age. Monica Seles and of course Serena and Venus Williams also spring to mind when thinking of teenage tennis prodigies, all of whom specialised in tennis from a very young age. However it would appear that teenage prodigies are few and far between in the modern game and in Wimbledon this year 18 year old Belinda Bencic and 17 year old Ana Konjuh are the youngest top ranked players to watch.

This decrease in the number of teenage prodigies hitting the top world rankings is also replicated, possibly even more so, in the men’s game. In the past we have seen Boris Becker win Wimbledon at the age of 17 in 1985 and Michael Chang taking the title at Roland Garros aged 17 in 1989, with other teenage stars such as Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal winning Grand Slams under the age of 20. However top ranked male tennis players under the age of 20 are becoming rarer in the modern era and this year Borna Coric aged 18, is currently ranked at 40 but failed to take his Wimbledon journey any further after losing to Andreas Seppi in the second round.

So why is this the case?

The age at which children should ‘specialise’ in one sport is always a discussion point and early specialisation has frequently been fuelled by Eriscsson’s 10,000 hour rule with early specialisation in one sport being reported as the only way to accrue this amount of practice and achieve expertise. With the majority of research on 10,000 hours conducted outside of the sports domain Ericsson’s theory has received some criticism within sports research with the majority of studies concluding that early specialisation is not an essential part of elite athlete development. Instead sports can be classified as either early specialisation or late specialisation sports which is dictated by the age at which peak performance is typically attained. Those sports classified as early specialisation sports include diving, figure skating, and gymnastics where early sport-specific training around the age of 5 to 7 is traditionally seen as the route to achieving excellence. Late specialisation sports consist of all other sports including racket sports, where there is no advantage at specialising in just one sport at an early age.

Back in 1988 Carlson investigated the development of 10 elite tennis players in Sweden and remarkably found that non-experts engaged in more tennis during early adolescence than the expert group. The results showed that the non-experts specialized in tennis by age 11, while the experts did not specialize until age 14, concluding that ‘early life specialisation did not benefit the development of elite tennis players’. So is the current lack of teenage prodigies due to the combination of evidence and common sense prevailing and young tennis stars being encouraged to sample a range of sports and specialise in tennis at a later age?

Interestingly this shift at the top does not appear to be preventing early specialisation from occurring. A study of 519 US Tennis Association junior tennis players found that 70% began specializing at an average age of 10.4 years old. There are also reports in the media of young child prodigies such as Jonah Ziff who appeared in national papers aged 2, 8 year old Diego Quispe-Kim and 9 year old Gabby Price. Of the young Wimbledon stars this year Bencic remembers playing tennis at the age of two with her her father (and coach) and at just 4 years old began training at the Melanie Molitor tennis school. Ana Konjuh started playing tennis at 5 years old and left home at the age of 10 to develop her tennis career. Borna Coric also started playing tennis at age 5. So in Wimbledon this year we have a few examples of early specialisers that have managed to break through and it will be interesting to see the path that their careers take as a result of such early specialisation. However the question remains as to what is happening to the rest of our young tennis stars?

Assessing the evidence there would appear to be two possible answers to this question. The first explanation attributes the lack of youngsters at the top of the sport to the increased speed and strength of the modern game whereby players, particularly in the men’s game, need to be physically mature to be able to cope with the demands of the game. In addition careers are now lengthier with improved training methods and advancing sports science knowledge keeping players injury free and physically and mentally match-fit for longer. The second conceivable answer is that intense specialisation at an early age is having a detrimental effect on the performance of young tennis players and may even be causing young tennis stars to burnout and dropout before they reach their peak performance age. Studies show that youth sport is becoming increasingly competitive which in turn has led to children taking part in extensive training, specialising in one sport at a young age, and playing large numbers of competitions at young ages. The result of this is an increasing occurrence of overuse injuries and burnout. John O’Sullivan author of ‘Changing the Game’ reveals in the US that a shocking 70% of children drop out of sport by the age of 13!

So whether it is due to the increasing demands of the current game creating a longer road to the top or the fact that tennis continues to encourage early specialisation at the risk of future champions losing motivation and burning out or withdrawing from the sport, either way it is highly unlikely that the pattern of teenage champions as young as Hingis, Becker and Capriati will repeat itself any time soon.

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

By Jessica Pinchbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perfect partnership or a conjugal catastrophe?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

In the Commonwealth Games all eyes will be on husband and wife team Chris and Gabby Adcock who will be competing in badminton mixed-doubles. The couple pose a serious gold medal threat in Glasgow following their victory at the Hong Kong Open beating China’s Cheng Liu and Bao Yixin in the final. While there are many examples of married couples successfully competing in elite sport, including skeleton stars Shelley Rudman and Kristian Bromley, Paralympic athletes Rik Waddon (cycling) and Natalie Jones (swimming), Barney and Dame Sarah Storey, none of these work as closely together in a team like the Adcock’s. So how does their relationship work on and off the court?

Being an elite sportsperson involves enormous dedication often involving long periods of time away from home separated from family. For many athletes the support of their partner or spouse forms a critical component of their sporting career. If a partner is not supportive or resents aspects of the athlete’s sport then problems can arise and this can often impact performance. Gabby explains how their relationship alleviates some of the stresses involved in professional sport:

‘I think we’re quite lucky that we get to travel the world together because there are a lot of people in the squad that miss their partners while they are away.’

Athletes benefit from an effective social support network often including their partner or spouse. Social support can act as a ‘stress buffer’ for athletes provided the type of support offered is appropriate to the stressor itself. So for social support to be effective partners need to be able to provide the appropriate support at the right time. This is no easy task and for those individuals to which the elite sport environment is unfamiliar it may be a struggle to understand the type of stress placed upon the athlete resulting in poor or inappropriate support. Unhelpful support, such as trying to reduce the importance of an event or even avoiding talking about an event, can be detrimental to the athlete’s performance. An athlete needs to feel secure that support is available at times of need and this is crucial to an athlete’s psychological well-being and ability to cope with stress. The Adcock’s feel that their off court relationship enables them to understand each other better in pressure situations on court making it easier to help one another cope with stressors.

GB Hockey Olympic bronze medallists Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, who married in 2013, agree that being married to a fellow sportsperson, and in this case teammate, has had a positive effect on their sporting career. Kate explains the benefits of this dual relationship:
‘It helps when your partner understands hockey and what it takes to play at that level – to know that when you’re going off training again, getting up at a stupid time, or only talking about hockey, it’s because you love it.’

Although there are undoubtedly benefits to this scenario combining the two relationships may not always be trouble-free. Potential difficulties include a lack of distinction between the two roles where personal and professional issues become intertwined. Personal conflicts may infiltrate into the sporting environment or performance issues may impact on the athletes’ personal relationship at home. Either way maintaining a good work life balance is key in this situation. It is imperative that both partners are able to segregate the two aspects of sport and home for such a relationship to be successful in both domains.

For some professional athletes forming and maintaining relationships can often be a challenge due to the constraints placed on their lives by strict training regimes and competition schedules. The culture of certain sports may also impact on an athlete’s relationship with one study showing male athletes tended to use power and control in their relationships as a result of their sporting profession. Conversely relationships can effect an individual’s sport performance with Farrelly and Nettle (2007) reporting that professional male tennis players performed significantly worse following the year after their marriage compared to the year before, with no such effect for unmarried players of the same age.

All relationships have their complexities yet within the world of professional sport these difficulties appear even more intricate and diverse. Personal relationships and their associated complications will undoubtedly have a bearing on an athlete’s mind-set. Andy Murray’s poor performance in his match at Wimbledon against Dimitrov was followed by rumours linking this to a dispute with girlfriend Kim Sears immediately before the match and Tiger Woods certainly experienced a dip in form since his very public divorce. Intriguingly, since their split in May this year, both Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy have seen their careers soar with Wozniacki winning the WTA Istanbul Cup and McIlroy becoming the Open champion.

Social support from a spouse or partner and an understanding of when and how to offer this support seems to be the key to a successful sports marriage and so it will be interesting to see how the couple fair in Glasgow and whether Chris and Gabby Adcock may just have found the perfect partnership!

Challenging the stereotype of English Netball

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Netball is typecast by many people in England as an activity played by school girls often accompanied by the perception that it simply involves a bit of throwing and catching. It is traditionally thought of as a very slow and static game with the misconception that you have to stand still with the ball; which is possibly a reflection on how netball is commonly taught in schools. As someone who is passionate about netball I strive to challenge such views and educate people about the game.

After inviting some of my friends, male and female, to play in a mixed netball league they soon altered their opinion of netball as a nice gentle ‘girlie sport’ and came to appreciate the fast, technical and physical nature of the game. Netball requires tremendous athleticism in terms of strength, speed, agility and endurance, not to mention the control and balance required to execute ball skills at speed. It may be a non-contact sport on paper but this is far from the reality and it is not uncommon for players to collide in competition for the ball. Although the rules dictate that contact results in a penalty against the offending player it does not prevent contact from occurring. Most netball players have taken a few knocks and tumbles throughout their career (I know I certainly have!) and so a tough and resilient nature is a necessity. Acknowledgement should also be given to the less tangible components a netballer must possess such as spacial awareness, timing of movements and tactical knowledge. Not to mention the intricacies of operating alongside teammates, particularly in small units within the shooting or defending circle, which commands immense teamwork and communication skills. Introducing my more sceptical friends to the game certainly helped dispel some of the common myths as they soon discovered that there is indeed contact, it is undoubtedly performed at high-speed and that players can definitely move with the ball.

England Netball are working hard to change the image of the sport with their rebranding and as a result netball is fast becoming more popular, with national participation figures increasing by 30% over the last three years due to schemes such as Back to Netball. Sport England increased England Netball funding for 2013-2017 from £18.7m up to £25.3m stating that their rise in participation numbers ‘showed an understanding of what women want from sport’. England Netball have 90,000 affiliated members and report that at least one million women and girls play netball every week. The latest Sport England Active People Survey shows netball as the 12th most popular weekly participation sport in England and the fourth most popular team sport. Due to the partnership between England Netball and Sky Sports netball is the only women’s team sport gaining weekly television coverage showing matches from the Netball Superleague, of which viewing figures are consistently over 100,000. To try and improve the dynamic nature of the game as well as the spectator experience England Netball and the league committee implemented some rule changes at the start of the 2013 season specifically for the Superleague, such as the removal of the umpire’s whistle following a goal or when the ball goes out of court. The Commonwealth Games coverage of the sport is an opportunity to build on the success of the Superleague and widen netball’s viewing audience even further. So how are England predicted to perform at Glasgow?

The England netball team are currently third in the world rankings, after New Zealand and Australia. In Australia and New Zealand many of the top players are professional athletes with the Australia and New Zealand combined league (ANZ) paying players or offering scholarships with schooling. Currently many of the England squad play in the Netball Superleague although English players are now starting to leave the country to play professionally as players are able to earn a living and play their sport. England player Eboni Beckford-Chambers explains that the option of professional or semi-professional sport is something netball in England needs to address:

‘It’s one of the things in England we can build upon in terms of how the Australian community get behind their athletes and accommodate them. That’s why we go away – because we can find that flexibility in terms of training all those hours but also working on a part-time basis so hopefully we can replicate that here.’

Bronze has been the highest achievement so far for the England Netball team with the last three Commonwealth Games ending in semi-final defeats to Australia. However having won their first ever test series 3-0 against the Australians in January 2013 the England team are determined to make the final this year, and if all goes well the gold medal. As England player Geva Mentor explains:
‘I’m fed up with having a bronze: now I want a different colour…We have been talking the talk for many years but now I’d like to think this is the year we can walk the walk and show the world what England are all about.’

With netball yet to be included in an Olympics due to it not being played in enough jurisdictions Glasgow 2014 is a top opportunity for Team England to showcase the sport to the nation. England open their Commonwealth campaign on Friday 25th July against Wales followed by pool matches against Australia, South Africa, Wales, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados. Hopefully this will be the competition that escalates both the perception and participation of England Netball not to mention gaining that elusive gold!

Morality in sport: Suarez biting trilogy!

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 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, 2014a). During the World Cup in 2014 the world saw this side of Suarez again when he bit Italy’s Chiellini on the shoulder. This  resulted in him being sent home from the tournament and receiving a four month ban (BBC, 2014b). 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 during his career Suarez has found himself 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 or series of incidents, such as those displayed by Suarez.

The implications of Suarez’s poor moral reasoning did not only impact on him as an individual but also the teams that he was part of. Although his biting days appear to be over his reputation as one of the most controversial players in modern football remains.

BBC (2014a) Luis Suarez ‘bite’: Uruguay striker in World Cup controversy. Available at: (Accessed: 07 January 2022)

BBC (2014b) Luis Suarez bite: Uruguay striker banned for four months. Available at: (Accessed: 07/01/2022).

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: 07/01/2022)

Rio 2014: the participation legacy in England

By Jessica Pinchbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peak Performance in Sochi 2014: Can it continue?

By Jessica Pinchbeck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sibling Success In Sochi

By Jessica Pinchbeck

Within sport there are many examples of successful sporting siblings such as the Williams sisters in tennis, the Brownlee brothers in Triathlon, and the Schumacher brothers in Formula One. Inevitably the role of the family plays a part in this success such as the emotional, financial and logistical support offered, as discussed in the article ‘Being an Olympic Parent: the family behind the athlete’. This article takes a slightly different approach and focuses on the siblings in the family unit, specifically the birth order of siblings and what effect this may have on an athlete’s sporting success.

A Family Affair

On day one of competition in Sochi a story of sibling success emerged. Three Canadian sisters competed in the ladies Moguls with two gaining podium places. Justine, Chloe and Maxine Dufour-Lapointe all competed, however the eldest sister Maxine failed to reach the final phase. Interestingly it was the youngest sibling Justine who gained the gold medal with middle sibling Chloe taking silver. However this sibling success is not a first and was the fourth time that two sisters have taken gold and silver in an Olympics. In the 1964 Games French sisters Christine and Marielle Goitschel won gold and silver in the slalom and giant slalom and in 1992 Austrian sisters Doris and Angelika Neuner took the first two podium places in the luge.

Day three in Sochi saw Dutch twins Michael and Ronald Mulder taking gold and bronze in the 500m speed skating, making them the second set of twins to take medals in the same event in the history of the Winter Olympics.  American skiers Phil and Steve Mahre were the first twins to achieve this in 1984 winning gold and silver in the men’s slalom. In Turin 2006 brothers Philipp and Simon Schoch of Switzerland owned the top podium spots in snowboarding with younger brother Phillip having gained gold four years earlier in 2002. Both brothers are set to compete in Sochi. Over both the Summer and Winter Games there have been eight gold-silver brother finishes; so will Sochi see any more family photos on the podium?

New Zealand brothers Jossi, Byron and Beau James Wells are all competing in Sochi. Jossi will compete in the ski halfpipe and slopestyle along with his youngest brother Beau James. Middle brother Byron will compete in ski halfpipe. The family picture is completed by their father Bruce who is also their coach. At present Jossi, the eldest sibling, is the most successful although with Byron only 21 and James even younger at 18 this has time to change.  The Switzerland team also have their own sibling story with sisters Aita, Elisa and Selina Gasparin all aiming for success in biathlon events. Within Team GB brother and sister, Posy and Andrew Musgrave, are both competing in cross country ski events in Sochi. GB cross country skier Andrew Young also makes up a sibling duo with older sister Sarah, although Sarah failed to qualify for these games. Andrew Young describes how being a younger sibling helped both his and Andrew Musgrave’s development:

“My sister is three years older than me, and [Musgrave’s] sister is a few years older than him, so it was always a competition to beat the girls …They were older and they were just as good as we were, when we were 11 and 12.”

 Does birth order matter?

Jenny Jones, GB bronze medal winner in Sochi is the youngest of three children, with two older brothers, and interestingly it was the youngest Dufour-Lapointe sister who took the gold medal. Musgrave and Young are also developing more impressive international careers than their elder sisters. These examples support research evidence that elite athletes are more likely to be later born children with an association between birth order and skill level (Pathways to the Podium, 2012). So why is this the case?

One explanation is that younger siblings often report having to compete for their parents’ attention. Evidence suggests that later born children are more competitive (or ego-orientated) than their elder siblings, as demonstrated by Andrew Young trying to beat his older sister. This is thought to stem from parental tendencies to compare younger siblings to their older counterparts resulting in first born children being motivated to learn with younger siblings motivated to win.

Role modelling provides another explanation with younger siblings taking part in sport to be like their older brother or sister. Research also showed siblings were more likely to participate and compete in sport if their siblings, particularly elder siblings, did so too. For example, Molly Summerhayes, sister of Team GB’s Katie Summerhayes, is certainly an emerging GB ski slopestyle talent and her introduction to the sport came when she joined a Sheffield ski club with her older sister.

Personality characteristics may also play a part with first born athletes reporting significantly higher cognitive and somatic anxiety compared to later born athletes (Flowers and Brown, 2002). Athletes with higher anxiety levels are often reported as being less able to cope with the demanding pressures of elite sports performance. It will certainly be interesting to watch Molly’s development and whether this supersedes that of her elder sibling.


The question of birth order certainly raises some interesting discussion although evidence is far from conclusive. However the stories of sibling success in sport suggests that siblings do have a part to play in athletic development and it will be interesting to see what further sibling stories emerge from Sochi.




BBC (2014) ‘Sochi 2014: Michael Mulder wins 500m speed skating gold’ [online] Available from:

Carette, B. Anseel, F. and Van Yperen, N.W. (2011) ‘Born to learn or born to win? Birth order effects on achievement goals’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 45, pp. 500–503.

Krombholz, H. (2006) Physical Performance In Relation To Age, Sex, Birth Order, Social Class, And Sports Activities Of Preschool Children. Perceptual and Motor Skills: Volume 102, Issue , pp. 477-484.  

Little, C. (2013) ‘For Andrew Young and British Team, Preparing for a Once-In-Four-Years Opportunity to Reach Their Public’ [online] Available from:

Pathways to the Podium (2012) ‘Faster, higher, stronger… and younger? Birth order, sibling sport participation, and sport expertise development’ [online] Available from:

Ronbeck, N., F., and Vikander, N., O., (2011) ‘The role of Peers: siblings and friends in the recruitment and development of athletes’, Acta Kinesiologiae Universitatis Tartuensis, Vol.17,

Toronto Sun (2014) ‘Dufour-Lapointe duo not first 1-2 Olympics sister act’ [online] Available from:

Motherhood and Olympic Success: an inspiring combination

By Jessica Pinchbeck

When skeleton athlete Shelly Rudman makes her Sochi Olympics debut there will be one very important spectator in the crowd – her 6 year old daughter Ella; but how easy is it to combine life as a professional athlete with motherhood?

Following the recent announcement of athletics’ golden girl Jessica Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy the question of how motherhood can impact athletic success has been a prominent discussion point in the media. There are those sceptics that allude to this being the end of Ennis-Hill’s athletics career however many Olympic athletes have shown that motherhood does not symbolise the end of a career, but simply marks a transition into the next phase of their development, with a different set of challenges to overcome.

Competition and Motherhood

Combining motherhood and Olympic success is not a new trend as shown by 1988 Olympic Silver medallist Liz McColgan. McColgan continued form winning gold in the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo one year after the birth of her daughter, and continued to have a successful career winning the London and New York marathons. Similarly Irish long distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan returned to training only 10 days after the birth of her daughter in 1999, and in 2000 won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympics in the 5000m. More recently in 2007 Paula Radcliffe triumphed in the New York marathon just 10 months after giving birth to her baby daughter Isla. Paula claimed being a mum actually improved her performance:

‘The happier I am, the better I run… Certainly I’m a lot happier with Isla in our lives …I think your body is just a little bit stronger after pregnancy’.

Radcliffe continued to train throughout her pregnancy but chose not to run competitively, although some athletes do continue to compete. During the history of the winter Olympics there have been three known cases of pregnant women competing. In 1920 a Swedish figure skater, Magda Julin, was three months pregnant when she won gold. In 2006 German athlete Diana Sartor competed in the women’s skeleton at nine weeks pregnant and in Vancouver 2010 Canadian curling athlete Kristie Moore won silver at five and a half months pregnant.

Other examples include GB equestrian Mary King who famously competed in the European Championships in 1995 at five and a half months pregnant, and came away with a team gold and individual bronze medal. King has continued to successfully combine competition and motherhood and added to her medal tally in London 2012 with a silver:

‘Everyone warned me that motherhood would change me and my attitude to riding and competition…I didn’t think it would – and it really didn’t’.

Zara Phillips, Olympic silver medallist, also caused a media furore when she competed in the Brighting Park International Horse Trials days after announcing her pregnancy. She has also publicly stated her intent to return to competitive eventing as soon as possible with hopes to compete in Rio 2016.

Providing inspiration for female athletes 11 time gold medallist paralympic cyclist Dame Sarah Storey made an impressive return to competition winning the 3km pursuit in the Paracycling International Cup in December 2013 after becoming a mum. Storey got back on her bike only 6 weeks after giving birth, and gradually increased her training revolving her schedule around the demands of a newborn baby:

“Since coming back it has been about fitting training around Louisa’s feeding regime. I haven’t missed a day of training – I’ve just had to adapt how I have done it. It has been a big learning curve but one I have enjoyed.”

Sliding to Success in Sochi

Shelley Rudman, Skeleton Olympic Silver medallist in 2006, portrays another inspiring female role model. Following the birth of her daughter Ella in 2007 Rudman returned to the sport within three months. In an interview with the BBC Rudman discussed the issues she faced upon her return:

‘My funding got reduced and I had targets to meet. Three months after Ella was born I had to hit targets and when I did my funding incrementally increased… Fortunately I was doing really well and won a few races, but it was a real worry.’

Rudman and her husband will both be competing in Sochi 2014 and rely heavily upon the support of their family to help them look after daughter Ella. Rudman is a prime example of how to strike the balance between motherhood and being an Olympic athlete. When the family are away from the UK Rudman’s day typically consists of training and home tutoring Ella. In 2013 Rudman proved this regime to be a success by becoming the Women’s Skeleton World Champion, and cites Ella as her main inspiration for competing in Sochi:

“At the back of my mind, I thought ‘how cool would it be for Ella to say she’s been at an Olympics to watch her mum compete. That’s probably the biggest motivator’

Timing it right

For women the decision of when to start a family is a crucial one and even more so for top level athletes due to the physical as well as the logistical challenges that motherhood brings. Some like Ennis-Hill and Phillips opt to take a break from their sport following career highs with the aim of returning to competition in time for the next Olympics. A feat that Olympians such as Liz McColgan, Sonia O’Sullivan, Mary King, and Paula Radcliffe have all managed to achieve. Other Olympic athletes choose to wait until their retirement to begin a family such as Gail Emms, badminton silver medallist in Athens 2004, and Katherine Merry, 400m bronze medallist in Sydney 2000. For others the timing can be far from perfect.

Tasha Danvers’ story is a particular heartfelt one. 400m hurdler Danvers fell pregnant at the peak of her career just months before the 2004 Athens Olympics. With a tough decision to make, and even getting as far as the door of the abortion clinic, Danvers put aside her Olympic dream and chose motherhood. This was an emotional time with her career plans shattered. However, Danvers showed tremendous determination and strength of character gaining silver at the 2006 Commonwealth Games and later winning an Olympic bronze medal in Beijing in 2008, proving Olympic dreams and motherhood can co-exist. Still ambitious Danvers aimed for London 2012 although training and being a single mother with little support took its toll. Her son moved back to LA to be with family leaving Danvers alone in the UK following her Olympic Dream. Her depression escalated until the situation became unbearable and Danvers attempted to take her own life. Fortunately Danvers recovered and in June 2012 retired from athletics returning to LA to be with her son:

“It’s hard to be a mother. Full stop. If you’re a working mum, it’s that much harder, and if you’re a professional athlete and a mum you have the added pressure of being away for weeks and months. It’s very difficult, not just for you but for your child, who also has to sacrifice time with you.’


For most new parents life becomes a juggling act with a whole new set of demands placed upon them. As these Olympic athletes show with the right support networks in place, and the ability to find a suitable balance between athletic success and motherhood, Olympic dreams can be achieved. Being a mother is certainly not an easy task and these women lead the way in providing inspiration.


BBC (2013) Shelley Rudman ‘had skeleton funding cut after pregnancy’ [online] Available from:

BBC Radio 5 (2013) ‘Pregnancy in Sport’ [online] Available from:

Flanagan, J. (2012) ‘London 2012 Olympics: Mary King, the farmer’s wife, chasing gold’ [online] Available from:

Hudson, E. (2013) ‘Dame Sarah Storey set for racing comeback in Newport’ [online] Available from:

Lewis, A. (2013) ‘Shelley Rudman on her Sochi hopes and teaching her daughter’ [online] Available from:

Mail Online (2014) ‘Paula Radcliffe wins New York Marathon – less than 10 months after giving birth to baby Isla’ [online] Available from:–10-months-giving-birth-baby-Isla.html

Sensation Seeking in Sochi 2014

By Jessica Pinchbeck

It is an exciting time with the Winter Olympics in Sochi upon us – an event which is sure to offer spectacular and exciting displays of athletic ability and courage. The nation is keen to regain the feeling of London 2012 and with possibly our best chance of medals to date the excitement is building. For many the Winter Olympics offers added excitement and inspiration due to the high risk involved in its events. For those of us who take part in sport regularly it is inevitable that at some stage of our sporting life we will encounter injuries of some sort. The odd sprain and pulled muscle are common place for most sports people, but consider the injury risk of laying on a sled and reaching speeds of up to 85 miles an hour down an ice chute in events such as the Luge and the Skeleton, not to mention the feat of four bodies in a bobsled exceeding 90 miles an hour on a course full of tight twists and turns! The phenomenal heights obtained by aerial skiers, the thrill of downhill skiing and the most dangerous ski event of all the Super G all contribute to the excitement of these Games, but what draws the competitors to compete in these dangerous events?

Tragedy Strikes

The danger element of Winter sports is ever present and the risk of serious injury is a genuine possibility. These activities are classified as ‘high-risk’; with competitors having to ‘accept the possibility of severe injury or death as an inherent factor’ (Breivik, 1995, cited in Kajitna, 2004, p.25). The previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010 was overshadowed before it had even begun by the tragic death of luge competitor Nodar Kumaritashvili who crashed during his final training run. In 2011 British Bobsled pair Fiona Harrison and Serita Shone also crashed on a training run, with Serita seriously injured after fracturing her lower back. Shone underwent extensive surgery but amazingly her determination and passion for the sport never faltered and following an incredible recovery she resumed competition and achieved a bronze medal in the British Bobsleigh Championships in 2013.  Shone stated ‘Before the first run, I was quite tearful, not tears of worry or fear, but tears of joy that I was actually about to race in my first competition, the British Championships. It had brought me full circle after the accident.’ A truly inspiring story of commitment and bravery. So what is it about Serita and others like her that pushes them to continue to participate in such high-risk activities? Is there something in their personalities that drives them to seek out dangerous sports?

Does personality play a part?

Several studies have investigated the so-called big five personality characteristics (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness) in participants of high-risk sports (e.g. Kajitna et al., 2004; Watson and Pulford, 2004; Tok, 2011). Results show that individuals who participate in high risk sports score higher in extroversion, openness and agreeableness than other athletes and non-athletes, and lower in neuroticism and conscientiousness. Being emotionally stable (less neurotic) enables athletes to stay calm in dangerous situations and cope with the demands of stressful conditions.  Being extroverted these individuals are more likely to seek excitement, be active and energetic, and often enjoy being the centre of attention. This may explain motives for participating in such high-risk activities.

The majority of studies report low conscientiousness to be linked to risk-taking however there is some contrasting evidence that shows elite high risk sports people to be extremely conscientiousness, demonstrated in them being hard working, trustworthy, responsible, and determined. This adds another layer to risk taking with researchers distinguishing between participants who employ ‘deliberate risk taking’ and those who adopt more ‘precautionary behaviours’ in high risk sports. Consider the bobsleigh driver who costs time by being too safe versus the driver who endangers teammates by taking excessive risk. Arguably a certain level of risk taking is necessary to achieve success in dangerous sports.  These emerging levels of risk taking seek to explain participants of dangerous sports that are high in conscientiousness and take action within the sport to minimise the risk rather than seeking further risks.


It would appear that although research in this area is by no means conclusive certain patterns do emerge to suggest that those athletes competing in Sochi may share certain personality characteristics that have drawn them to the high risk activities of the Games.  With health and safety a key feature in the 2014 Winter Olympics risk has certainly been taken into account and measures put in place to protect each and every participant. However what the organisers cannot account for is the level of risk each individual is prepared to take. Will the deliberate risk takers stand out from those who adopt more precautionary behaviour? Whoever succeeds, watching the games unfold and witnessing the contest will be an exciting and enthralling spectacle.


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