S&C coaches are required to have and often asked what their “Philosophy” is. I describe my philosophy as a set of skills that I have acquired over time via scientific study, fundamental analysis, sporting anecdotes, personal experience and belief that I execute in order to achieve agreed results of physically preparing an athlete for a positive outcome of a sport or body function. Ultimately for an S&C coach the philosophy is a mode of training which he/she has a firm understanding of and belief in. I often use the analogy that the S&C field is like the financial market. There are many players in the market who execute their trades on some mode that they practice, however relative to another player some days they win some days they lose.
They all speak the same language/jargon, but their modes of executing trades are entirely different be it mathematical or sentimental. The true skill however, lies in finding the perfections and imperfections of a particular mode and continuously trying to acquire new skills via research in order to execute at will to the dynamics of the financial market to improve the gain to loss ratio. The gains may well be as a result of randomness, till the theory is either broken or proven. We all remember how many experts criticised Michael Johnson for his awkward upright running style till he re-wrote the record books “A Black Swan” event. It has now become a main stream running action for many athletes.
In this article I shall discuss how I intend to incorporate a relatively new subject, to myself, “Sports Psychology” within my philosophy as an S&C coach, in order to add a new skill set that may help push the boundaries of athletic performance. You may want to refer to this as an element of my coaching style which takes into account the physiological and psychological effects caused by an athlete’s perceived state of mind.
What is Sports Psychology?
With the ever growing complexities of athlete training, sole physical performance is no longer sufficient to achieve desired goals. Optimal performance is dependent upon psychological strength, mental preparation, physical strength and technical skill of the sport. Sports psychology is concerned with the mental factors that affect how one performs and how to enhance these factors. Below are a few of these mental factors:
• Depression/Anxiety relating to any personal factor
• Performance difficulties
• Concentration difficulties
• Conflicts with coaches/teammates
• Pressure of any kind
• Loss of confidence
In order to show how the above factors can affect physical performance, I have taken the following paragraphs from a website, which is common knowledge hence not really requiring critical review:
“When the body is under stress, then high levels of stress regulating hormones and neurotransmitters like cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine and serotonin are released. This is a natural and healthy response to help the body cope with situation. Typically, the stressful event passes and the hormones and neurotransmitters retreat. The body returns to a state of non-stress. However, if you’re living with ongoing, incessant stress, then the body can never return to a state of non-stress. It continuously releases high levels of stress-regulating hormones and neurotransmitters. If the body is exposed to these high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters on a continuous basis then it eventually leads to malfunctioning in the endocrine system, nervous system and metabolic system.
Over time these hormones and neurotransmitters become depleted as they are exposed to overstimulation for too long and result in a variety of detrimental health effects. The three most serious and common effects from long-term stress are adrenal fatigue, neurotransmitter imbalances or deficiencies and hormone imbalance. Each of these conditions leads to another long list of debilitating symptoms like depression, anxiety, inability to lose weight, hyperactivity, declining cognitive abilities, insomnia, chronic pain, excessive fatigue, allergies, addiction and a variety of other conditions and each of these issues need to be addressed independently” In retrospect, a paper written by Carissa Rodriquez from Vanderbilt University, providing scientific reviews of topics related to health and well being, states:
“A change in an athlete’s mental state is consciously or unconsciously accompanied by a change in his physical state. If muscle tension occurs due to feelings of anxiety or worry, it interferes with the athlete’s performance because the nerves are focused on the cause of tension rather than the coordinated movement for muscles. Thus, the more tension in the body, the more difficult it is to perform the coordinated actions”
As a S&C coach I strongly believe that having an understanding of fundamental sports psychology can help me better understand an athlete in order to optimise his/her performance.
Common Sport Psychology Interventions
There are wealth of mental training skills and interventions, which can enhance mental factors. Below are a few examples:
• Goal setting
• Confidence building
• Stress management
• Team building
• Imagery training
Intervention Specific to My Philosophy
Goal setting is a fundamental tool that I use in order to keep my subjects on track to achieve short and long term goals. These goals are embedded within the micro-cycles and meso-cycles of my subject. However goal setting is not merely a list of tasks to be attained during training sessions. It requires careful judgement on my behalf taking into consideration levels of motivation, commitment and mental well being of the athlete. Though I am unable to quantify levels of motivation, commitment and mental well being, I try to develop a mental profile of the athlete’s intra-personality. This takes place outside the training grounds and requires time and effort to develop a more personal relationship with the athlete. A master of this art was Cricketing coach, late Bob Woolmer. Former captain of the Pakistan cricket team described Bob Woolmer as a “father” figure for the whole team who spent as much time outside of the training ground as much inside.
Though my player profile is required predominantly for goal setting, there is considerable overlap with the sport psychology interventions listed previously. My goal setting approach is based around the following principles:
1. The goals set are mutual and agreed between coach and athlete
2. The goals agreed are of moderate difficulty
3. Both Short and Long term goals are set
4. Requires constant feedback
Industry practice use the acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely). Since the use of SMART is common practice amongst S&C coaches, the subject must be reviewed critically and scientific evidence given credence to yield greater performance.
1) Why set goals that are mutually agreed?
It gives the athlete ownership of tasks, which shows commitment and personal drive. It also allows the athlete to express his/her own personal goals. Kyllo & Landers (1995) conducted a meta-analysis, which identified that cooperative and participatively set goals had greater effects than assigned goals, though only 36 cases studies were reviewed.
2) Why goals of moderate difficulty?
In my personal experience, setting the level of difficulty is subjective. However majority of the time a moderate level is agreed upon. There is always the danger of falling short of these goals, which can have a detrimental effect. Setting too high has the potential of low self esteem, if goals aren’t met. Setting too low, may cause the athlete to become over confident. The athlete should be sufficiently challenged to see effective gains, without compromising any risk of injury.
However one obstacle is to be able to quantify level of difficulty. Locke (1991) did suggest that, to ensure specific goals were difficult, they should be set at a level at which no more than 10% of subjects can reach. As a practitioner, I subjectively asses the mental well being, motivational levels, quantifiable fitness levels and injury risk of an athlete in order to set my perceived scale of moderate difficulty.
There is some evidence suggesting moderately difficult goals have a greater effect. A Meta analysis carried out by Kyllo and Landers (1995) investigating easy, difficult and improbable goals reported that only moderate goals produced a large effect (0.53) on performance.
3) Setting Short and Long term goals (Goal proximity)
Many may regard the long term goal as ultimately the task at hand. However I chose to set both in conjunction as I feel it yields better performance than long term goals alone. According to Weinberg (1994) long term goals were viewed as too vague to have a significant motivational impact in the present. My understanding is that short term goals act as stepping stones leading up to the long term goal, as opposed to just having a long term goal being one giant leap unless short term goals have more priority in the interim.
Tenenbaum et al. (1991) used a ten week muscular endurance sit up test to investigate this hypothesis of goal proximity as first laid down by Locke & Latham (1985). In the report groups assigned with long and short term goals improved in their performance, however the group given a combination of short and long term goals demonstrated greatest improvement.
4) Constant Feedback
I encourage feedback as it allows an opportunity to clarify expectations, to adjust any goal difficulty and gain recognition. It allows the athlete and coach to measure progress and is particularly important when pursuing long term goals. Hall & Kerr (2001) identified goal commitment and the availability of feedback as important moderators in the goal setting-performance relationship. Locke and Latham (1984) hypothesised that goal setting will only be effective when feedback regarding progress towards an individual’s goal is present. Locke & Latham (1990) explain that whilst goals help initiate an action to pursue them, they are not elevated to a conscious level i.e. they go in and out of conscious awareness. Thus feedback allows a chance to instil the goals set, periodically.
Managing long and short term goals
In the absence of a competition season or sporting event, all training modalities are geared towards the long term goals. In which case, short term goals act as building blocks to the last stone at the top of the pyramid. In the presence of a competition, short term goals mainly focus on areas of most importance as opposed to thinking of it as a building block. In the case of a boxer, in the short term the physical preparation is based around a pre defined fight plan. Due to the pressures involved with tight schedules and fear of failure, psychological interventions become more important to keep the athlete motivated and stress free.
With the ever increasing level of competition and pressures amongst athletes, I believe that focusing on physical training alone is not sufficient. As S&C coaches we have been conditioned to change FITT principle if we see a plateau effect or no positive gains in performance. Do we stop to consider any mental factors or our methodologies that can be impeding the athlete to reach his/her optimal performance? I believe the higher up you go the scale of physical performance, the more important it becomes to address the issues of sport psychology. Sports clubs now employ sports psychologists in order to optimise physical performance.Though this is a complex and entirely different professional field, I should be aware of the fundamentals which I am able to use in benefitting an athlete especially at amateur or semi professional level where there may be an absence of a sports psychologist. As a S&C coach my responsibility is to prepare the athlete physically. Physical performance is affected by psychological factors. I should have a comprehensive command over controlling these psychological factors in the same way I have a command over the physical training methods. Further studies into the effects of adrenaline, stress and anxiety on the human body may allow me to better execute my skills and allow me to excel at improving an athlete’s physical performance.
Nassim Nicholos Taleb. The Black Swan
Stephen D.Mallalieu & Sheldon Hanton. Advances in Applied Sport Psychology
Paul McCarthy (2010). Using Goal Setting to Enhance Positive Affect among Junior Multievent Athlete
Jean M.Williams. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance