Category Archives: Karen Howells

Sport and Fitness Student Induction: Student Hub Live

On Tuesday 26th September 2017, as part of our induction for sport and fitness students studying at the Open University, we held a live induction event through our Student Hub Live platform. If you missed the session you can watch the full video here on the link below or you can watch the individual videos of each session below.

Session 1: Sport and Fitness Qualification Overview (Caroline Heaney and Ben Oakley)

Session 2: Sport and Fitness Blog and Social Media (Helen Owton and Karen Howells)

Session 3: The Role of the Tutor (Helen Owton and Ola Fadoju)

Session 4: E117 App Demonstration (Ben Langdown and Caroline Heaney)

Session 5: The Student Journey (Jess Pinchbeck and Caroline Heaney)

Student Hub Live: Careers Showcase

On 16th May 2017 Open University Sport and Fitness lecturers Jessica Pinchbeck and Karen Howells, along with careers advisor Ros Johnston, took part in a Careers Showcase for Student Hub Live. This event contained lots of useful information about careers in sport and fitness and our sport and fitness qualifications. If you missed it you can watch it again below.

For more information on Student Hub Live visit:

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

Karen Howells, The Open University

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

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

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

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

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

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

The curse of celebrity

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

Oh what a feeling – but can it last?

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

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

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

The athletic identity

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

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

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

Looking forwards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Student Hub Live Olympics Special

On Friday 19th Aust 2016 members of the OU sport and fitness team (Simon Rea, Karen Howells and Caroline Heaney) took part in the Student Hub Live Olympics Special. This was our first experience of a live streamed event, but we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We were joined by Kath Woodward and Elizabeth Silva and the session was expertly hosted by Karen Foley.

imageOn our arrival we were delighted to see that the green room was well stocked with tasty treats, possibly as an incentive to take a green room selfie!

We then participated in a short Facebook live video talking about what we would cover in the session. This helped us to overcome some of our nerves about the main event and we were impressed how many students watched the video. This filled us with excitement about what was to come and the amount of student interaction that was possible.

imageThe session kicked off at noon and Simon Rea was up first discussing the history of the Olympics. He also shared his experience of racing 1980 Olympic 100m champion Alan Wells!




Simon was followed by Elizabeth Silva, Professor of Sociology, who examined some of the economical and political aspects of the Olympics, and gave some interesting insight.






Karen Howells was up next discussing the coach-athlete relationship and the role of sport psychology. This session highlighted the importance of the team behind the athlete.





Karen was followed by Caroline Heaney who discussed the links between mental health and sport and exercise. As well as looking at exercise as a treatment for mental health conditions, the session looked at the incidence of depression in elite athletes.


imageThe session concluded with an interesting discussion about gender and the Olympics with Kath Woodward who challenged the audience to consider whether traditional views of gender are too narrow.

The Student Hub Live Olympics Special provided us with a great opportunity to interact with students and share our knowledge on sports related topics. We hope that those who engaged with the session found it interesting.

If you missed the session it will be available through the catch-up link on this page, or you can watch the video below.

If you are interested in studying sport and fitness at the OU please click here to find out more.

Becoming a superhero: what are the limits of human Performance?

By Candice Lingam-Willgoss and Karen Howells


Comic book heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but each possesses that one unique ability which makes them ‘super’. As children we are excited by these super beings and dream of one day being like them. As adults, these super abilities stimulate our childhood fantasies and allow us to suspend reality for brief periods of time. Whilst many of us have our favourite superhero, and have an opinion on the best film, it has been widely recognised that every superhero falls into one of Marvel’s five categories: altered humans (e.g.,Spiderman) high tech wonders (e.g. Ironman), mutants (e.g.Wolverine), robots (e.g.Ultron) and aliens (e.g. Superman).

Utilising the latest technology in cinematography combined with breath-taking special effects, the recent superhero movie Deadpool brought to life one of these categories, altered humans. In Deadpool, Wade Wilson is a former Special Forces operative who now works as a mercenary having being transformed into Deadpool by evil scientist Ajax. Demonstrating further that the superhero phenomena is still very prevalent in our interest, the much anticipated Batman vs Superman which is due in cinemas at the end of March 2016 portrays the battle between the high tech wonder (Batman) and alien (Superman). One possesses superior intelligence, high quality training and the best technology that money can buy while the other relies on his innate unattainable superpowers. With the ever developing areas of technology and science could future advancements mean we are not so far away from creating our own superheroes, or do they already exist?  In answering this question, we can look towards the popular and pervasive social institution that is sport. Does this provide us with an environment that has inadvertently created real life super heroes?

Physical Attributes and Physiology

The goal of elite athletes is to bike, swim or row faster, to run further, or to fight for longer, with more precision and more agility. Whilst every generation must wonder about how much more as human beings we can achieve, research by Joyner (1991) found that from a physiological basis there is still more scope for further physical improvements, which can translate into significant improvements in, for example, running times.  In the same way that Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile in 1954, it is possible that the athletes of today may be on the verge of attaining the elusive sub 2 hour marathon.  Whilst our imagination may wonder at the potential for the future, it has to be acknowledged that a range of physiological regulators including, VO2max, running economy, threshold running pace and thermoregulation will limit the ultimate potential of human performance. Frequently we hear of athletes challenging these limits through altering what the body would normally be capable of achieving. In the comic book world Peter Parker was a regular human being until he was bitten by a genetically engineered super-spider. Spiderman is the result, part human DNA, part spider.  Frighteningly, we are on the edge of genetic engineering in sport being a practical if completely undesirable possibility. In 2008 Professor Wells warned in the BMJ that “some commentators have raised concerns that genetic modification or “gene doping” will be the next step in the search for enhanced performance”. Although this still exists within the domain of science fiction, the recent doping scandals that have rocked World Athletics and Cycling demonstrate the lengths to which some athletes will go to achieve the physiological changes that will facilitate enhanced and superior performance.


Talking in 2013 Michael Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman acknowledged that there is very little in terms of physiology that distinguishes between the good and the very good.  He suggested that what distinguishes the superelite from the rest, is their psychology and how they think, feel and manage the pressures of elite competition.  Maybe this is where elite athletes’ characteristics mirror those of the superheroes of our childhood dreams.  Whilst the unique ability to handle extreme competitive pressure may or may not be innate, the competitive and challenging sporting environment may allow the development of strategic understanding, mental toughness and resilience, all concepts that are vital to these athletes whose physical successes may identify them as being superhuman individuals.  For Batman, genius level intelligence was one of his unique characteristics allowing him to be a master detective. Interestingly, the literature suggests that personal intelligence is a key factor in promoting resilience.

Science and Technology

While many of our comic book superheroes possessed innate qualities and elite champions possess physical attributes well suited to their specific sport, science and technology has the potential to contribute both positively and negatively to the development of the superhero athlete. Within comic books this type of superhero is prevalent, Ironman was created and powered by scientific advancements and Batman was able to buy the most cutting edge technology available, and while these two superheroes remain comic book creations, there are already versions of this form of technology finding its way into the real world.  Take for example the advances in robotics that are being used in military sectors such as the US military utilising swarm robotics as a cornerstone of future drone development or the innovation within exoskeleton technology that has come on to such a degree that the effort can be taken out of walking.  Forms of this technology are regularly seen in a sporting arena, consider the controversy that was created in 2007 over Oscar Pistorius’ use of prosthetic ‘blades’.  This led to the IAAF amending their rules to ban the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device”. Initially, Pistorius was ruled ineligible for competitions although following a lengthy appeal it was determined that blades did not provide a competitive advantage over able-bodied runners.


The fact remains that while the average human may be able to increase their speed, reaction time, power and mental strength we are still far away from the development of real life superheroes. And perhaps we should be grateful for this.  In the comic book culture, the superhero only exists in contrast to a dark force, each superhero has his or her evil nemesis Superman had Lex Luther, Batman the joker and it begs the question if we create heroes will we also create villains?


The IPC Athletic World Championships: World Class Athletes to watch

By Helen Owton & Karen Howells

Doha, Qatar’s largest growing city and economic centre of Qatar modern will host the IPC Athletics World Championships between 21st and 31st October. Against a backdrop of pollution and in a city that was built on the pearl trade, British athletes will compete amongst 1,300 athletes from 90 countries in a variety of track and field events across a number of different classifications. The IPC has revealed a list of 33 athletes, including a number of British athletes to look out for. Here we look at a selection of those to watch as this is the last major event before Rio Paralympics 2016.

2015 IPC Athletics World Championships, Doha, Qatar

Aled Davies – F42 Discus and Shot Put

Like many successful athletes Aled Davies came from a sports-loving family; as a child he was a good rugby player, a strong swimmer and was selected to swim for Wales. However, at the age of 14, he was invited to try-out for athletics with a group of elite Paralympians which introduced Davies to the throwing events. Born with hemimelia of the right leg, Davies announced to his parents whilst watching the 2004 Athens Paralympic games that he wanted to win a Paralympic gold medal. In 2012, his dream became a reality when he won Gold in the F42 discus and a bronze medal in the shot put. Not only has he won Paralympic medals, but he is the current World and European Champion in the discus and the shot put and World record holder in F42 shot put. Last year, however, appeared to be a difficult year for him. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in the F42/44 discus he felt he was thwarted in the final to lose to England’s Dan Greaves and returned to Wales with a silver medal. The year also saw him make the decision to leave his coach of nine years to work with Cardiff’s Ryan Spencer-Jones. Under the guidance of his new coach, these World championships see him lighter, stronger, more technical and more motivated towards medal success; this will be the opportunity to put the disappointment of the last year behind him and to further lay the foundations for success in Rio next year.

Sophie Hahn – T38 100m and 200m

Eighteen year old Sophie Hahn is like any other fun-loving teenager from Leicestershire, she enjoys music, loves animals and enjoys watching rugby. Her friends from her last school affectionately called her Chicken; a derivative of the German meaning of her surname. Like many other girls her age she was enthused by London 2012 and was inspired to join her local Athletics club. But unlike other girls her age Sophie is a World Champion and a World Record Holder in her sport. Only a year after she started running in 2012, Hahn, who has cerebral palsy, competed as a novice at the 2013 IPC Word Championships at the age of 16. At this competition, she faced another novice to international sport in the T38 200m starting a rivalry that is likely to be continued against the backdrop of Doha. Hahn, won her qualifying heat of the 200m with a time of 27.56, a championship record, however, the accolade was short-lived as Veronica Hipolito from Brazil beat her in the final taking both the gold medal and the championship record. Two days later, Hahn turned the tables in the 100m, shattering Hipolito’s world record which had been set in the semi-finals to win gold. Even going beyond this rivalry the T38 class promises to be highly competitive with Russia’s 100m Paralympic and European champion Margarita Gonchorova and China’s 200m Paralympic gold medallist Junfei Chen both vying for medal success.

Hannah Cockcroft, MBE

As a role model to Sophie Hahn, the unbeaten four-time world champion ‘Team Hannah’ is aiming to win three world titles in 2015. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, she won 100m and 200m T34 titles and she is set on retaining her world titles at the next World Championships. Having proved her dominance in the sprint events, ‘Hurricane Hannah’ has now set herself a new goal of winning gold in the 800m which appears to be the event she is most determined to win. Last year she won gold at the IPC European Championships in T34 100m and T34 800m. Also, at the IPC Grand Prix she three gold medal; T34 100m, 200m, and 800m, beating Australian rival Rosemary Little. She hold the world record in 4 events: T34 100m (17.31), 200m (30.51), 400m (59.42), 800m (2:04.49) While she keeps a very impressive catalogue of world records and medals, Cockcroft appears to be sufficiently motivated to balance her training with her academic studies by completing a Journalism and Media degree at Coventry University. As she says, “You have to keep working to keep winning”.

Stef ‘the blade stunner’ Reid

Stef Reid is also from Leicestershire; she started competing for Great Britain in 2010. In 2011, she won bronze medals in the 200m and long jump at the IPC Athletics World Championships. In the last Paralympics in London 2012, she won Silver in the T42-44 long jump. In 2013, she had a difficult year, but in 2014 she was back to her best (if not better) by setting a new long jump T44 world record in Glasgow. Also, she appears to be stretching the boundaries for disabled people. She is not only a Paralympian (2014 T44 European long jump Champion; London 2012 T42-44 long jump silver), but also a role model who became the first Paralympian amputee to be part of London Fashion week as a catwalk model which also helps raise the profile of women, Paralympians and disability. The forthcoming the IPC Athletics World Championships will be an opportunity to show off her form in preparation for her aims of winning gold in the Rio Paralympic Games next year.

Stef Reid: A life-changing ambition to win Gold

There are too many world class GB athletes to single out in this article, but we also recommend watching out for Richard Whitehead (T44 200m gold medallist in 2012), Jonnie Peacock (T44 100m gold medallist in 2012), David Weir (800m, 1500m, 5,000m and marathon gold medallist in 2012), Paul Blake (silver in T36 400m and bronze in T36 800m in 2012), the SportAid one to watch – Hollie Arnold (ranked No 1 in the world), and newcomer Sophie Kamlish (T44 100m and 200m). David Weir argues that the momentum has been lost since 2012 and 2013 but this is an exciting event not to be missed as this is probably the last big event before the Rio Paralympic Games 2016.

1 Year To Go until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

Rugby – A Blow to the Head, a blow to the sport?

Tonight on BBC Panorama “Rugby and The Brain – Tackling the Truth” the Chief Medical Officer of the World Rugby, Martin Raftery, will announce plans to alter the laws of the game to limit the risk of players suffering concussion. He will confirm that there will be a specific focus on tackling. Only a few days ago, The Telegraph reported that “Jonathan Thomas quits with epilepsy caused by multiple concussion”. Following mild seizures and memory loss that he believes was the result of sustaining multiple concussions, the Worcester forward and former player for Wales, announced that he was retiring from rugby on medical advice. He is not alone, in the media this year, it has been reported that a number of high profile rugby players such as Rory Watt-Jones (Cardiff Blues) and Declan Fitzpatrick (Ulster and Ireland) have had to retire from the sport due to concussion related injuries.

Rugby World Cup (Land Rover MENA) Creative commons license Downloaded from

Now in light of those stories, with the Rugby World Cup underway and all the excitement that has already been ignited, the pragmatic and perhaps more curmudgeon-like souls amongst us may turn our attention to the dangers associated with a sport that kindles our national passions. Of all the injuries that can occur in rugby, concussion is now the number one cause of missing matches through injury at elite levels.

Concussion can occur in any situation where a blow to the head occurs, such as in road traffic accidents (RTA) or as a result of a work-related accident, however, its incidence is becoming increasingly common in athletes who are prone to knocks to the head as part of their sport. Certain sports are more susceptible than others such as: rugby, NFL football, boxing, ice-hockey, rugby, football (soccer), equestrian sports, cycling, and diving. It is so topical an issue that in December a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Will Smith will be released simply entitled “Concussion”. In the United States there has been a prolonged debate about the health dangers of NFL football following the mounting evidence that repeated concussions can lead to degenerative brain disease (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy [CTE]). CTE is a neurodegenerative disorder that is characterised by a diminished ability to think critically, slower motor skills, and can lead to volatile mood swings. Unfortunately, at the current time CTE can only be definitively diagnosed post-mortem. These risks alongside the large financial settlements that have been awarded to former NFL players who have suffered multiple concussions should make us ponder whether rugby may be the next sport in the concussion spot light and whether the risks associated with rugby comprises a price worth paying.

But it is not all doom and gloom, although researchers have found that concussions in rugby are common, it has been found that concussion accounts for 29% of all injuries associated with illegal play, but only 9% of injuries sustained in legal play (Gardner, Iverson, Levi, Schofield, Kay-Lambkin et al., 2015). Accordingly, Roberts, Trewartha, England, and Stokes (2015) investigated collapsed scrums and collision tackles, and found that injury prevention in the tackle should focus on technique with strict enforcement of existing laws for illegal collision tackles. Furthermore, World Rugby is taking a proactive stance on concussion identification and management heading towards “a cross-sport and society approach to concussion to ensure consistency of research, education, prevention and management strategies to further protect athletes and members of the public”.

Sports such as rugby carry risks, but through legal play and active pitch side management of suspected head injuries, we can but hope that this World Cup is remembered for exciting play and home nation success rather than media reports of players with serious head-related injuries.

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


The performance story that is pushing Chris Froome towards Tour number two

By Karen Howells

Originally published in The Conversation on 24th July 2015

Assuming no last minute collapses in form or bone-breaking crashes, Chris Froome will ride along Champs-Élysées on Sunday as the winner of the 2015 Tour de France and the only British man in history to win the race twice. This was achieved in a Tour characterised by high speed crashes, the throwing of urine and abuse at Froome, reports of a data hack into his Sky team’s files to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his success, and a spectre of doping that refuses to leave the mountains.

Then of course, there is the small matter of 3,400km of bike racing against highly motivated rivals. Victory in this most brutal test of human endurance is within reach, but what explains why Froome chose to push his body so hard in pursuit of success?

Is he just that rare breed of cyclist who can excel on the flat, in the mountains, and in team and individual time trials? Or, is there something else more elusive that shapes a champion? The narratives that elite athletes construct and detail in their autobiographies are becoming an established source of data for scholars who seek access to the underlying identities of elite athletes to understand a champion mindset. Froome’s autobiography The Climb gives us useful look at how he has constructed his narrative.

Goal oriented. Paris.
Luke Ma, CC BY


Froome depicts his passage from being a skinny kijana (youngster) racing his mentor in the Ngong Hills in Kenya to triumph in the 2013 Tour de France. His story comprises a number of intertwined narratives of which the most dominant is a performance narrative. The term, coined by Kitrina Douglas and David Carless, involves a single-minded dedication to sport, and the prioritization of winning above all else that might impact on the athlete’s mental well-being, identity, and self-worth. In addition to being dominant in Froome’s memoir it can be seen as the prevailing narrative in other autobiographies, such as that of Olympic champion Michael Phelps.

Froome’s performance narrative is framed by accounts of suffering. In fact, his repetitive use of the word reminds the reader that suffering, particularly on his bike, is what characterises his life. His Kenyan birthplace is known for its world class runners but has had little success in cycling. What it also has is mountains, and it is in these mountains that Froome developed his highly focused resilience. As onlookers we have seen his single-minded motivation, against the odds, towards becoming a multiple Tour winner. His resilience is evident in the face of pretty much relentless doping insinuations in the French press and particularly through social media, as well as in his response to urine being thrown at him, and in the searing conditions of the Tour.

It is in the mountains though where we get to see Froome’s solace in suffering. And perhaps it has been no better demonstrated this year than in the mountain finish at La Pierre-Saint-Martin when Froome attacked to gain more than a minute on all of his main rivals.

Official coverage highlights from Stage 10 of the 2015 Tour

Quest questions

We all experience adversity, and champions are no different, but perhaps it is their response to the distress and disappointment that provides the transformational processes that motivate them beyond mere coping. This is apparent in many sporting autobiographies such as in the memoirs of Olympic swimming champions, Amanda Beard and Ian Thorpe, where adversity and the positive outcomes, framed as “adversarial growth”, are central.

These accounts tend towards a more quest-focused narrative which involve the confrontation of adversity, seeking of meaning, an explicit drive to gain something positive from the adversity, and a rejection of the performance narrative. Froome’s story involves adversity and despite the lows he achieved ultimate success. Froome recounts harsh school conditions, illness (bilharzia), his mother’s death in 2008 while he was riding in Spain, and the frustrations of 2012 when he was assigned the role of domestique for Bradley Wiggins, nurturing his team leader through the stages to Paris (with only the odd false step).

Adversity was also evident in the build up to this second victory; a broken wrist in the 2014 Tour meant a stage five withdrawal and no replay of his 2013 glory. Unlike Beard and Thorpe though, Froome has never rejected the performance narrative, even if in modern cycling it contains its own dangers.

It may be the primary device explaining Froome’s drive, motivation, and sacrifice for cycling, but there is a limit to the pervasive script of this narrative. Froome has consistently attempted to draw a definitive red line as to the limit of his performance. His team this week was forced to reveal power data which claimed to show estimates put forward by an expert were massive overestimates. In a sport damaged by the admissions of Lance Armstrong, it is a curious by-product that Froome and Team Sky are as eager to shout about both the normality and exceptionality of his performance.

As Froome prepares to ride the remaining mountains on his road to Paris, we will be watching to see if that performance narrative will continue to produce the effort, sacrifice, and team ethic required for this and future tour victories.

The Conversation

Karen Howells is Lecturer in Sport and Fitness at The Open University.

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

What to expect from the IPC Swimming World Championships (13-19 July 2015)

As Wimbledon heads into it final weekend, another international competition begins on home soil.  Glasgow, a year on from hosting the Commonwealth Games, is the location for the IPC Swimming World Championships which takes place from 13 to 19 July 2015. The Championships will see over 650 swimmers from more than 50 countries looking to perform at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre ahead of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.  If you are unfamiliar with the event here is what to expect:

 Team GB

Seventeen swimmers, competing in front of a home crowd, will make up Team GB and comprises a number of world class athletes including multiple gold medal Paralympian Ellie Simmonds, four-time European champion Andrew Mullen, and Sascha Kindred who is competing at his seventh IPC Swimming World Championships.  As the build up to the championships gathered momentum, there was a British upset with S14 Paralympic Champion, Bethany Firth being forced to withdraw after she fractured her wrist in training with just two weeks to go.

Andrew Mullen (used with permission of Scottish Swimming)

Andrew Mullen (image used with permission of Scottish Swimming)

The rise of Disability Sport

Following the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games an additional £8 million of National Lottery funding was provided to encourage more disabled people into sport.  This has been partially successful with 44 projects, mostly at grassroots level, receiving funding to increase participation in sport.  Last year Sport England identified that although the participation of disabled people in sport had risen, significant barriers still remain.  In their evaluation of their inclusive sport programme, Sport England recognised that swimming was one of the most commonly cited sports that disabled wanted to take part in, but had as yet been unable to do so.  The Paralympics in 2012 had a positive impact on the public perceptions of disability sport, but there is still more to be done.  The most commonly identified barrier cited was the ‘Attitude of Others’, which is in contrast to the practicalities that disabled people have typically identified as being the major barrier to participation in the past.  Although not every individual may aspire to perform at the level that we will see over the coming week, perhaps the excitement and live coverage of the event will not only inspire more disabled people to take part in swimming but also start to challenge some of the more negative attitudes that some people may hold about their participation in sport.

 The event

The event will take place in the 50m pool at Tollcross International Swimming Centre which was the venue for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  Races will consist of swims in all four strokes (Freestyle, Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly) and in the Individual Medley (IM: all four strokes in one race) across distances that range from 50 metres to 400 metres.  Swimmers are classified according to their disability and compete in events alongside other competitors who have been evaluated as having a comparable level of impairment.

 How are the swimmers classified?

All Paralympic sports involve a classification system to minimise the impact of impairments on the sport, in this case swimming.  Having an impairment is not sufficient for classification, it has to be shown that there is an impact on the sport.  Paralympic swimming caters for three impairment groups – physical, visual and intellectual and athletes compete in the same strokes as able-bodied swimmers namely Freestyle, Butterfly, Backstroke, Breaststroke and the Individual Medley (IM).  The sport class names in Swimming consist of a prefix “S” (Freestyle, Butterfly and Backstroke events), “SM” (Individual Medley), or “SB” (Breaststroke) and a number. The prefixes stand for the event and the number indicates the sport class the swimmers competes in.

The classification number indicates the impairment. Classification 1-10 involves some form of physical impairment, the lower the number the more severe limitation of the swimmer’s impairment.  Classification 11-13 involve visual impairment, and 14 indicates an intellectual impairment where the swimmer has an IQ below 75.

Classification is not a simple task and there have been a number of high profile controversial disputes over classification in recent years.  In the build up to the last World Championships in Montreal in 2013, gold medal Paralympian swimmer, Victoria Arlen (USA) was ruled ineligible to compete. Victoria had spent three years in a vegetative state because of an autoimmune disorder and woke with paralysis of the legs and a number of other symptoms consistent with the neurological condition transverse myelitis.  However, after winning a gold medal in London 2012 in the S6 100m freestyle the International Paralympic Committee ruled that she was ineligible to compete in disability swimming events as she could not provide evidence of having a permanent impairment with no hope for recovery. More information on classification can be found at

With a multitude of events, the scheduled appearance of many Paralympic stars, and several British medal hopes this competition looks set to be an exciting one!  Follow the excitement of the event and the fortunes of the Team GB stars at



Can Jamieson overcome adversity to compete at Rio?

BBC Sport has recently reported on Olympic gold medallist David Wilkie’s predictions about the relative chances of Scottish swimmers Ross Murdoch and Michael Jamieson being selected for the British team for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Michael Jamison competed in London 2012 and was one of our few medal winners in the pool winning silver medal in the Men’s 200m breaststroke.  However, he has seen a drop in form since then being beaten into silver in the Commonwealth Games by then relative newcomer Ross Murdoch and then failing to qualify for the World Championships this year.  However, there has been some indication that Jamieson is heading in the right direction as he decisively beat Murdoch in the 200 breaststroke at the Scottish Nationals in Tollcross, Glasgow several weeks ago.  He is currently ranked 28th in the world this year.  Murdoch’s success has been somewhat more consistent, having won Gold at the Commonwealth Games, he qualified for the World Championships behind the world record holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, Adam Peaty.

Wilkie is reported as saying that Jamieson will find it difficult to make the team and that “I think it mentally destroyed Michael for a while and he had to go away and take stock and work out where he wants to be. . . . He’s a class swimmer but he took a big mental hit”. Both swimmers have a hard task ahead of them – the 200m breaststroke is one of the most hotly contested events in British Swimming with a number of swimmers posting FINA A times in 2015 and being in with a real chance of GB team selection, their current world ranking as at 8 July 2015 is shown in the brackets: Adam Peaty (2), Andrew Willis (5), Craig Benson (10), Calum Tait (16) and James Wilby (25), all being in with a chance of qualifying for the two positions for Rio.

So David Wilkie is probably right that Jamieson will struggle to make the team.  However, this is possibly due to the high number of high quality world class breaststrokers that Great Britain has produced over the last few years, rather than the mental hit that Wilkie refers to.  Academic research that I carried out as part of my PhD, suggests that the mental destruction (which could characterised as adversity) that Wilkie refers to may be in Jamieson’s favour rather than being a debilitating factor.  In research that involved an analysis of Olympic Swimming Champion’s autobiographies (Howells and Fletcher, 2015), we identified that swimmers competing at the highest level experience (adversarial) growth following negotiation of adversity.  Adversity was characterised as comprising developmental stressors (e.g., dyslexia), external stressors (e.g., organisational stressor), embodied states (e.g., injury), psychological states (e.g., body image concerns) and externalized behaviours (e.g., self-harm) and involved a threat to the individual’s identity as a world class swimmer.  The growth that followed a transitional process, which included seeking meaning and the enlistment of social support, was characterised by enhanced relationships, increased spiritual awareness, prosocial behaviour, and importantly in the context of discussion about Michael Jamieson’s fortunes, superior performance. Furthermore, in a study of psychological resilience in Olympic champions, Fletcher and Sarkar (2012) found that “most of the participants argued that if they had not experienced certain types of stressors . . . including highly demanding adversities such as parental divorce, serious illness, and career-threatening injuries, they would not have won their gold medals” (p. 672).

Maybe Jamieson can use the disappointment of the last two years to grow psychologically and achieve the superior performance that he needs to qualify for Rio next year.  But even if he can he will be up against some of the world’s best breaststrokers just to qualify.


Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic Champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13(5), 669-678.

Howells, K., & Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or Swim: Adversity- and Growth-Related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 16, 37-48.