Sports Science Quarterly – Q4 2022

Every quarter we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. In this edition we take a special look at what is happening above the shoulders of athletes and coaches with new research on key competencies in sports psychology, transformational leadership, pressure training, and psychological safety. In addition we also take a look at a few other topics like nutrition and altitude training.

As always, the full Sports Science Quarterly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Quarterly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

The gold medal profile for sport psychology

Quick Summary – Sports psychology is a big, broad topic, that almost everyone involved in sport would rate is important; however, a big issue is going from theory to practice—i.e., what does good sports psychology look like? This paper presents a framework for sports psychology delivery in elite athletes, making it crucial reading for all involved in sport.

It’ll come to no surprise of readers of this column that psychological characteristics are important discriminators of elite performance, and that developing these characteristics is, therefore, an important part of athlete development. Where we might struggle, however, is in defining what these characteristics actually are; doing so is obviously important if we want to create strategies to develop these characteristics in the athletes we work with. Fortunately for us, Own The Podium, an arm of the Canadian High Performance System, have done just this in a paper recently published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. Although the authors highlight that their recommendations are specific to the Canadian context, there are doubtless some key lessons we can all take from the paper. To develop their framework, Own The Podium assembled a group of high level sport psychology practitioners and researchers who collaborated together over months to develop the Gold Medal Profile – Sport Psychology.

The sports psychologists settled on 11 key mental performance competencies, which formed three key groups; fundamental competencies; self-regulation competencies; and interpersonal competencies. Let’s take a closer at these:

Fundamental competencies:

These competencies were selected based on their forming of the necessary foundation for optimal mental performance and health.

  • Motivation – defined as an individual’s reasons to behave in a particular way to achieve a certain outcome, motivation was seen as indispensable for high level sport achievement. A key motivational theory is Self Determination Theory,which posits that humans wish to experience increased self-regulation, competence, and integration. To support the development of motivation, athletes require competence (i.e., they are exposed to adequate challenge), relatedness (e.g., a sense of belonging), and autonomy. When these needs are met, athletes are more likely to take ownership of their actions.
  • Confidence – this refers to the belief that athletes possess about their ability to be successful in sport. An important model here is the Sport Confidence Model,which has several inter-related variables, include personality and organizational culture. Confidence can come from a variety of factors, including coach leadership, past experiences, and optimal preparation. On the latter point, there are three key aspects that develop sport confidence; physical skills and training (e.g., confidence in capability to perform physically); cognitive efficiency (e.g., confident to perform with pressure, maintain focus, and make critical decisions), and resilience (confidence to bounce back from errors and/or setbacks).
  • Resilience – viewed as essential in elite sport due to the setbacks, stressors, and failures athletes face, resilience is defined as a process encompassing the capacity to maintain regular health functioning through diverse challenges, and to rebound effectively following adversity. The highlighted model here is the Psychological Resilience Model, which highlights the key constructs of resilience development within sport.

Self-regulation competencies:

These competencies relate to the athlete’s ability to regulate their own performance and learning through the efforts they undertake in pursuit of their goals. This includes planning, setting standards, and adapting as required. There are four key self-regulation competencies within the Gold Medal profile:

  • Self-awareness – defined as the product of engaging in introspection and reflection to understand one’s internal states. Increased levels of self-awareness allow the athlete to first recognise, and then self-regulate, the physical and mental states required for elite performance. This ability can be enhanced via the keeping of training diaries, practicing mindful behaviours, and by undertaking regular debriefs with others.
  • Stress management – sport at the high level can be very challenging; these challenges may be viewed as facilitative or debilitative for performance. When the challenges can’t be met by the athlete’s competencies or resources, they can lead to increased stress—acutely harming performance and potentially negatively affecting mental health. This is why being able to manage stress is a crucial competency for elite athletes. The cognitive-affective stress-based burnout model highlights how the situation, along with the athlete’s cognitive appraisal, physiological responses, and coping & task behaviours interact to create the stress response.
  • Emotional and arousal regulation – being able to regulate emotions is a key performance pillar for athletes. Emotions are typically brief, but can have large physiological effects; in a sporting construct, this can influence levels of arousal. The key identified model here is the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning, which highlights the link between optimal arousal level and performance (along with being over- or under-aroused, and the link here to poor performance).
  • Attentional control – commonly known as being focused, attentional control highlights the athlete’s ability to direct their attention to a key stimulus. If an athlete is anxious, they may become focused on their execution of a key skill; something that has been linked to choking.

Interpersonal competencies:

Whilst sport can often be individual in nature—especially in track and field—athletes don’t train in a vacuum; they are constantly required to work closely with others, be that training partners, team mates (e.g., in relays), coach(es), and support staff. Having strong interpersonal skills is, therefore, important to ensure effectiveness, optimize mental health and wellbeing, and create environments that support development. There are four interpersonal competencies that make up the Gold Medal Profile in Sport Psychology:

  • Athlete-coach relationship – being able to establish and maintain an effective relationship here is crucial. Often, this requires connection between athlete and coach in terms of feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. Previous research has demonstrated the four key principles:
    • Closeness – developed via trust, liking, caring, and respect
    • Commitment – reflected via motivation to maintain a close relationship over time
    • Complementarity – comprised of responsive, relaxed, and friendly interactions
    • Co-orientation – characterized by mutual beliefs, values, goals, and interests, which is supported by strong and effective communication.
  • Leadership – the refers to the ability to influence or guide others to achieve a common goal. Both athletes and coaches can be leaders, and leadership skills are required to develop contextual awareness, role clarity, and support relationship building within sport. Leadership positions can be either formal or informal, with a recent focus on shared athlete leadership models, which have been demonstrated to improve team chemistry, climate, communication, and athletic experience. The Full Range Model of Leadership highlights three key leadership styles:
    • Laissez-Faire – passive and typically ineffectual, this is seen as the absence of leadership;
    • Transactional – more effective than the laissez-faire approach, this involves interactions and exchanges between leader and follower(s) – most commonly some form of reward for good work, effort, or behaviour;
    • Transformational – this is seen as the most effective leadership style, with a focus on building relationships with followers based on exchanges that involve emotional, personal, and inspirational interactions focused on developing the follower holistically.
  • Teamwork – this is defined as a dynamic process involving collaboration between team members to effectively carry out a task. The Optimal Team Functioning Model highlights eight key components involved in developing and optimising teamwork:
    • Individual attributes (e.g., personal skills)
    • Team attributes (e.g., relational skills)
    • Structural team processes (e.g., goal setting)
    • Communication
    • Individual regulation processes (e.g., self-awareness)
    • Team regulation processes (e.g., leadership)
    • The context
    • Desired outcomes
  • Communication – a crucial aspect that underpins effective teamwork, communication refers to the exchange of information, thoughts, or messages using verbal and non-verbal means. A variety of factors, including personality type, age, gender, culture, and language affect how we communicate, which is turn can modify how conflicts are resolved, and how stress is managed, in teams. To develop an effective team requires the effective coordination of shared knowledge, which in turn requires effective two-way communication in an open and supportive environment.

What does all this mean? For the first time, as high performance athletes, coaches, and support staff, we now have a framework of psychological skills and abilities that we can attempt to develop in our athletes. Importantly, each of these factors can be assessed, so we have the ability to understand where our athletes may be stronger or weaker, and use this to better target any interventions. Given the importance of developing psychological skills, in terms of both performance and overall health, being able to fully understand—and test for—specific key competencies is, clearly, crucial. As a result, this paper is an important one for all involved in high performance sport.

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