Monday, 2 February 2009

Olympic athletes reveal their mental strategies

It's reassuring to learn that even the most elite athletes can suffer from mental frailties. Maurizio Bertollo and colleagues interviewed 13 members of Italy's 2004 pentathlon squad and a common theme to emerge was the curse of so-called "ironic effects". As one athlete explained: "In some circumstances my intention is not to do the best but to avoid making a bad shot. That is when I make a bad shot. When I think about avoiding the error, I make the error."

The modern pentathlon involves pistol shooting, épée fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a 3km cross-country run, all conducted on the same day. Bertollo's research team transcribed the interviews they conducted with the pentathletes, generating 220 pages of text. They trawled this text, looking for common themes to emerge and then organised these according to different stages preceding, during and following a competitive event.

For example, several of the athletes said that during the days before an event they attempted to recreate the emotional stress of a real competition. They also said they prioritised relaxation time, set themselves goals and mentally rehearsed success.

During a competition, the athletes performed an opposite mental exercise to that conducted prior to the event, attempting to recreate the feelings, such as of muscle relaxation, that they achieved during training. They also revealed that they tried to avoid dwelling on mistakes; that they reassured themselves that dysfunctional emotions usually stop once a contest gets started; and that they strive to focus their attention in useful ways, such as on the sight and target during shooting.

As well as difficulties with "ironic effects", the athletes also spoke of the curse of bodily symptoms such as trembling and fatigue, and the feeling of a loss of control or choking. "There are times when I say, ‘I don’t see when this will end. Oh God, let me finish this contest! I want it to end!’ And I am in acute crisis," one athlete said.

The athletes also reported devoting considerable time to post-contest evaluation, especially so as to learn from their mistakes.
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ResearchBlogging.orgM BERTOLLO, B SALTARELLI, C ROBAZZA (2009). Mental preparation strategies of elite modern pentathletes Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10 (2), 244-254 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2008.09.003

Image is from Wikipedia and shows the conclusion of the Men's pentathlon event at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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