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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The mental edge: Thoughts and opinions

The mental edge or physiology - what separates champions from contenders?

It's been far too long between posts for me - I do apologize, but as Jonathan said in yesterday's post, things have been rather frantic for both of us.  And seem likely to continue, but (fortunately, I guess), I'm recovering from jet-lag and a round-the-world trip which has me waking up at 4am, so I finally have time on my hands!

The Vancouver Winter Olympics have depressingly reached the last few days, and I've seen basically none of them.  Snow and ice are not big in South Africa, so at the best of times, I'd be reserved in my commentary on Winter sports.  In the past, though, we've usually had live coverage of the Games, but for some reason, 2010 has seen us limited to a daily 60-minute highlights package, which is so poor Sometimes the video and the words are not even related, or it's factually incorrect - "Austria takes the lead", when clearly they're lying in third place, for example), that I can't even make a passing comment on what has been happening!  , and I've seen perhaps 60 seconds of each event.

It's a pity, because I think there's so much unexplored science the Winter sports - our good friends Carl Foster and Jos de Koning have published heavily on speed skating, for example, and that would have been great fun to discuss!  I don't feel "current" enough to do justice to the topic, however, because I'm so detached from the snow and ice in Vancouver (Carl, Jos, if you feel like a 'guest post', the space is yours!)

The mental edge:  Fact or fiction?

In any event, yesterday's post inspired a rather energetic debate on the mental side to performance - well worth a read in the comments section to the post.  I thought it would be an interesting follow-up to give my own thoughts and opinions on an issue which really has no correct answer, only ideas and theories!

The issue, I guess, is this:  To what extent are the best athletes mentally stronger than rivals, or does it come down to physiology?  Upfront, I suppose the "safe" answer is that it's neither, but a combination of the two that determines success.  Without either, it's not possible to reach the pinnacle of the sport, and history is littered with athletes who have either;
a) Failed to achieve what their physical potential (whatever that means in the context of this debate) suggests they should; or
b) Exceeded expectations, defied their own limitations and achieved much more than they may have been expected to.

In the case of a), we usually say that these athletes lacked the mental edge, they didn't have that "killer instinct" or drive to put the time in, or even if they did, they couldn't produce when it counted.  In the case of b), we say that these athletes dug deeper, emptied their reserves and approached training and competition with an attitude and desire that gave them 1% more, enough to win.

The 10% physical, 90% mental philosophy

Both arguments are likely massive oversimplifications.  I remember doing a short course on sports psychology/coaching during my sports management degree, and we were lectured by a very successful and now extremely well known coach and trainer, who also had a background in psychology.  He put to us the question:  "What is the breakdown between physical and mental components to success?"

The class eventually reached the opinion that success in sport was "10% physical, 90% mental".  There were some who felt it was the other way around, that mental contributed only 10% to success.  Others said 50-50.  Some got philosophical and said it was "100% mental, 100% physical" (which is probably, cheesily enough, the best argument, in my opinion).  But there's rarely agreement - you can see this difference in opinion in our previous post, in fact, where Gene and Sean have debated the merits of the argument, though not necessarily in these terms.  Point is, we're split as to how valuable each component is.

Note that the answer is never correct, and it's never wrong (well, I think 90-10 splits are probably wrong, both ways).  It's also context specific.  Golf is different to athletics.  Long jump probably differs from high jump, both of which differ from the marathon.  Downhill skiing no doubt requires substantial parts of each, and also required different skills WITHIN each.

Mental and physiological:  Difficult to pin down

Compare for a second the approach of Usain Bolt to say, Roger Federer.  Bolt has changed the way athletes behave before the start of events.  Even the reserved Kenenisa Bekele now seems loose and relaxed, which is one aspect to this mental side of preparation.  You wouldn't call Bolt unfocused though, and his relaxation, his mental approach to sprinting may well have been a big part of his success.  Federer, on the other hand, is equally focused, but is just as relaxed.  So is Rafael Nadal, and I dare say Tiger Woods is as focused and relaxed (no jokes, please!  I'm tempted myself...), but you'll never see these three behave like Bolt seconds before competition or during.

Bode Miller was put forward as a case of an athlete who succeeds because of his mental toughness, his courage and fighting spirit.  Four years ago, it was very different - he was labeled a choker, and perhaps the change has been thanks to sports psychology.  This may well be true, but how do we characterize that?  Is it because he's brash and confident, a risk-taker, off the slopes?  Does his personality in any way influence our assessment of his mental attitudes in competition?  At that precise moment on the slopes when he is making a decision on which line to take, travelling at 100km/hour, is he different from Askel-Lund Svindal in terms of his mental approach?  I don't know - I would be very surprised if our generalities and easy explanations, always in hindsight, explained the 0.1 seconds that separate gold from silver. 

So what precisely do we mean when we say that "Athlete X has a psychological advantage or mental edge?"  I don't think we often know, but it would involve things like competitive spirit, big match temperament, attitude and discipline to both competition and training, ability to relax but stay focused under pressure, to match the expectation from fans and rivals, self-belief, confidence, desire, and so forth.

We employ sports psychologists to work with athletes on things like visualization, relaxation and focus, because we understand that the failure to achieve certain non-negotiable standards will undermine talent.  Whether this approach can compensate for a lack of talent, I must confess I'm not so sure. 

The fallacy of physiological superiority 

Similarly, and this is an area where I can conclude more definitively, we tend to find physiological explanations that don't exist.  If I had a dollar for every person who says that Lance Armstrong wins races because he has a 'super-human' VO2max, or that he produces less lactate than other riders, I'd be running this site as a full-time occupation, sipping cocktails on an island!  It's simply not true - if I gave you a chart of 50 top athletes' VO2max values, and asked you to identify who would win, you'd have more chance throwing a dart into the chart than of correctly working it out.

The reality is that physiological factors, at least for these sports, are too intangible to pin down, and success is never down to one thing.  Lance Armstrong has "average" values compared to other elite athletes, and if there is a physiological difference, it's 0.1% in size, too small for us to measure.

Having said that, to say that all the top athletes are equal is also not entirely correct.  As I've mentioned, the differences are incredibly small - Contador wins the Tour de France because he can sustain a power output 2% higher than the next person for a cumulative total of 60 minutes during a three week race.  That creates the margin, which in the end, is substantial.

1% differences and interwoven factors for success

I can give the most topical example (for me, anyway) and it comes from Sevens Rugby.  The Olympic Games' newest sport plays out in an 8-tournament series around the world, the most recent tournaments taking place in New Zealand and the USA.  I've been fortunate enough to travel with the SA team (hence the round-the-world trip), who are the defending world champions, and so have reached that summit.

There are eight top teams, each of which can win any given tournament. They all have athletes who, on paper, are inseparable and extra-ordinary.  One would, broadly speaking, call them equal.  The training and physiological ability are similar, as are skill levels - all the top teams do largely similar warm-ups, training drills, gym routines.  The 5% difference between them is significant, of course, and that's the 5% that we spend hours striving to find.  1% is often enough, and there are certainly 1% differences in various components, at any level (for example, Lionel Messi has more skill than other soccer players). 

Looking back on the last two tournaments, there are "ifs" and "buts" all over the place.  Had we converted only 10% more of our chances, we might have won both tournaments.  At crucial moments in matches, players have just failed to press home an advantage, and the result has been a "so near, yet so far" feeling.  We are close, but need to do a lot of work, a strange paradox, which I think is typical of sport.

The point I want to make, though, is that when we go BACK and analyze matches, it's very easy to identify the five or six moments that determined the outcome.  This is particularly easy when playing the weaker teams, because then you can identify how their defensive patterns were not quite as sound as they should have been, how they don't quite execute moves with precision and as a result are turned over, and so forth.  Against the top opposition, where any team can win, it's a lot more difficult, but still possible to pinpoint the reasons for victory and defeat.

These reasons are never exclusively physical (we missed tackles, for example, or were out-muscled in contact) and they are never exclusively mental (we made wrong decisions, took poor options, for example).  They are always a combination of the two, and the only solution is to spend many more hours working on both, simultaneously.  A player or athlete who fails may do so because they take an incorrect option (a wrong pass, or a wrong line on the ski slopes, for example), or because they fail to execute the right option (a skier who finds the right line but just can't hold the speed and has to adjust and slow down, for example).

The two are so intimately related that I think it's ultimately self-defeating to diagnose the reason for success or failure as one or the other.  It has to be both, and they work off each other in a cycle.  

The "filter" of elite sport

One thing that is certain, and I'll end on this, is that the absence of either is usually glaringly obvious - an athlete who lacks talent is exposed, as a junior in many cases, and never reaches the Olympic Games.  An athlete who has abundant talent, but lacks the mental edge, may fade into obscurity because they don't have the drive or discipline to train, or because they don't compete well. 

The athlete who lacks confidence or self-belief stands out among the crowd eventually - they reach the "highest level of insecurity", if you will, before being exposed, often spectacularly.  On the other hand, the athlete who lacks talent often disappears into the middle of the pack and obscurity.  Perhaps this is why we have identified mental aspects as so crucial, the source of the 90-10 principle?

I believe that both components are essential.  An athlete at the top of the world has both in the right measure, though possibly in different amounts.  To suggest that one athlete won because "they wanted it more" is actually disrespectful to the other athletes - at the Olympic level, ten athletes may possess, in varying combinations, the characteristics required to succeed - extra-ordinary physiological ability, mental toughness, self-belief, desire to overcome opponents and challenges (like Lindsey Vonn).  One will win, and trying to explain why they did often subjects us, as Gene has said, to the error of hindsight analysis, where we can pull out reasons that are ultimately biased by our starting position!

My bias is that genetic factors provide the starting point, environmental factors point the person in the course they will take, and that coaches, peers and family work out the genetic potential over many years of training and competition.  By the time that athlete wins an Olympic title, they cannot lack any ingredient, because the nature of elite sport is that it filters out those who possess only 99% of what it takes at each level.  The 99% may make up the field, but the winner has 100%.  Of what, I don't think we'll ever quite know.



Steven Sashen said...

Last night, after Bode Miller left the gate for the slalom, the commentators waxed on and on about how even though this wasn't his best event, he had the mental toughness, the confidence resulting from his recent gold medal, the focus and concentration... and then he crashed through a gate and went off the course.

All of these "psychological" concepts are just that... concepts. How are you supposed to measure "mental toughness"? And even if you could objectively measure it, would the absolute level be important, or the % of your maximum mental toughness be a determining factor?

And what if you were mentally tough the moment you started a race, but then not as tough one second later?

And, how much of this particular factor is actually dependent on, say, testosterone levels? Or how much of it is genetically determined? And how much of it is able to be changed through conscious and deliberate action?

All of these questions, and more that I'm sure I've missed, factor into the conversation of sports psychology... but, instead, we hear people say of some runner/skier/swimmer who just won a race by 0.01 seconds, "S/he just wanted it more!" Uh huh, that's it.

James Watson (of Watson & Crick fame, Nobel prize winner for discovering the structure of DNA) was recently asked what he thought the next big advance in biology would be. He answered, "Discovering that what we think of as psychological is actually biological."

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Steven

Thanks for the comment, well put! I love the quote from Watson!

I've often done talks to runners and cyclists here in SA, where I speak about my research on the brain and fatigue, and people love to reduce it down to "mind over matter". It frustrates me enormously to have to point out that what we think of as mental is actually another form of physiology. It just happens to be in the brain! So I really appreciated that.

As for the "he/she wants it more", well, that must be the most disrespectful thing anyone can say to the silver medalist! I agree fully!

On another note, while you're here, give regards to Simon - I've been trying to reach him, but no longer have his email.

On that aside, thanks for the posts!


Unknown said...

In time or distance challenges you can measure things pretty clearly. Wherever there is interaction between competitors such as boxing tennis or most team sports(not volleyball imo but i won't explain myself now) there is no way to measure the true impact of "mental toughness".

You can arguably measure Asafa Powell's mental as being 0.15s since that's just about how hard he choked under pressure. For speed endurance events as well as outright endurance pacing can have an enormous impact and I would say the mental flaw would be over enthusiasm but that too would be confined to no more than 2% at most, however 2% is the difference between the winner and the 4th if you will so mental weakness can have tremendous implications despite being minuscule percentage-wise. That is where the 90-10(mental-physical) split comes from since as you mentioned people were measuring "success" not "performance". If they measured performance they could find 1-99 and be happy about it. Hope this made sense...

So we want to calculate "chance to win" for some random people using their physical potential, mental offset when there is a lot of pressure, somehow take variance into account since nobody can run the same race two days in a row identically, run the numbers through the computer and get the initial odds to display on your sports betting site!


Thom said...

I think Yogi Berra put it best:

"Ninety percent of this game is half-mental."

Being rational creatures, our actions, thoughts, emotions, aspirations, physiology, etc., are inextricably intertwined. This is a question for philosophers; Science can only provide evidence.

Anonymous said...

Mental? Physical? How about luck? Consider the Rugby kick that sails two meters wide because of a sudden gust of wind. Or the snow that is 1 degree colder and provides a .04 second advantage for the winning skier. Or the cross country skier who uses Brand X ski wax and correctly predicts the snow conditions and the wins the 30k race by less than a 1% margin, say 5 seconds.
My take is that some Sports Psychologists take an incredibly complicated subject--human athletic performance--and boil a part (1%, 10%, 20%, 100% take your pick) down to "the Mental Edge" in order to sell you something.
On any given day I take luck over skill in a heartbeat. Mike

Ron Wolf said...

The announcers and arm chair quarterbacks love to talk about the mental aspect. That's just entertainment. When someone fails to deliver the gold, even when they are superbly prepared, its natural (and good for ratings) to denigrate them (loser). Hard to find fault tho when the athlete's body is clearly top notch. So much easier to doubt whether they have the right stuff mentally. Just cheap shots...

More important & interesting, I think, is the focus and faith that is required during training. And especially for those of us who are not at a relatively high level of performance - us middle of the pack, or even back of the pack, athletes working out for health but who also enjoy the challenge of a race or a game. Its not easy slogging thru lots of miles to be a more decent runner when there is no chance of a medal. But we keep going. Now that's mental toughness!

Todd said...

I love these discussions, but let's not forget that sports are subject to the same random variation as the rest of life. To assume that all of the factors that influence a match or competition are wholly within the control of the participants whether that control is mental or physical ignores an important factor - namely that there is always some random variation present. This was best pointed out to me by Leonard Mlodinow in his book "The Drunkard's Walk". In American baseball - the champion is determined by a best 4 out of 7 world series. Presumably, the entire season and playoffs are structured to produce a fairly even match. Mlodinow points out that even assuming one team is superior such that they would win 55 out of 100 games against their opponents, the weaker team could be expected to win 4 out of 10 game series just by random chance. Indeed, to determine with 95% confidence that we have crowned the true champion would take several hundred games if the difference between the competitors is small. At the elite level, very small differences can indeed spell the difference between success and failure in any given competition, but so can chance. Just go back to yesterday's Olympics - and witness the random variation that required Julia Mancusco to need to ski 1 and 1/2 runs because a teammate crashed ahead of her.

Gene said...

Ross, I think your summary is a good one. Comments in this little box by their nature will tend to respond to the issues under discussion, rather than cover all ground. I know well how having an (age-adjusted) "Olympic level" VO2max, a well-implemented training plan, and a fair amount of skill and lots of determination cannot compensate for being heavy footed.

About VO2 max: In cross-country skiing, there aren't power measures, as there is in cycling (and other sports). It effectively serves as a surrogate for them. On one level, as you indicate, a high VO2 max is a ticket into top-level competition, but otherwise just a number. On another, when it's a matter of "equal" competitors, the skier who can best maximize oxygen uptake has that little extra advantage. Over 30 or 50k, that can add up to quite a bit of time. In fact, studies in recent years have found a strong correlation between upper body VO2max via double poling and individual race results, at levels from college to World Cup (test done on a modified treadmill).

At the same time, the concept can be badly abused. I understand there was a Japanese researcher who claimed that a primary focus on short duration, high intensity training would be more effective for endurance athletes than the traditional focus on high volume, low intensity (obviously the two types make up part of a proper program). The idea being that high VO2 max - really, its manifestations - win races, so maximizing it should be one's central training goal. This view was picked up by a Norwegian researcher/coach (Jan Helgerud), who then convinced some of his country's women's x-c ski team to center their training on 10 to 14 (almost) consecutive day threshold interval blocks, followed by something like three weeks of low intensity training. This cycle was repeated continuously through the off season, well into fall. While a few eventually tried this regimen, the main guinea pig (a long-time sample of one) for was Marit Bjoergen, the very same who in the past 10 days has won three gold medals. With this training regimen, each year Bjoergen would start the season with victories, get sick for awhile, then her performances would tail off, sometimes finally kicking back in near season's end. This went on for three or four years, and everyone thought she had lost what made her a champion early on. This year the difference is, according to her and her coaches, that she returned to traditional volume-centered training.

In the meantime, to back his approach, Helgerud was running studies, such as one of sedentary types, middle age and older, which showed several weeks of frequent intensity sessions on a treadmill could raise VO2max by up to 15%. And this sort of sleight-of-hand research was picked up and propagated by probably the most respected independent coach in North America (Canadian gold mealist Becky Scott's coach). Through all of this, neither did the analysis you suggested: compare overall VO2 max of top athletes with race results.

I guess we can take that as one example of how big a role non-psychological factors can play among the "toughest."

Gene said...

In reading through the comments, it seems that several respondents resist the role of psychology in performance because it's not easy to quantify with traditional measures. Yet, I doubt that a basketball player with two free throws to win; a tennis player who needs to hold serve to win the tournament; or a golfer at the 18th tee box needing par to win his or her first major would find the psychological to be "just..concepts," as Steven Sashen writes. Actually, there are statistics in a wide variety of sports that effectively measure how athletes respond to particular more and less objectively stressful situations. But even if they are hard to put together, that doesn't mean the psychological isn't a factor, sometimes the overriding one.

Likewise, the announcers reader Ron Wolf refers to are often actually some of the better pros ever in their respective sports. That is, ones who have faced the pressure themselves many times - and been successful often enough to be honored for it (Halls of Fame, Super Bowl MVP, etc.). Names come to mind like Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller (golf), Cliff Drysdale, John McEnroe and Pam Schriver (tennis), Reggie Miller and Kenny Smith (basketball), and Phil Simms and Terry Bradshaw (football).

From this perspective, James Watson's statement strikes me as intellectual egocentrism. The fact that the psychological has biological markers doesn't eliminate the former as a causal variable (e.g., consider the role of external factors and how they are processed). Which is why I'm surprised, Ross, that you picked up on it without qualification.

That said, there is one thing about the psychology of athletes that both amuses and annoys me. If you listen to the very best golfers - e.g., Tiger Woods, Anika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa - they'll have days or weeks where they put the ball all over the lot, then come in and tell the announcers and press that they actually played well, just a putt here and there and they would have posted a good number. It's as if their maintaining a sense of confidence and belief in themselves doesn't allow for any cracks, i.e., admitting openly that they shot a lousy round, that they stunk up the place (but that they'll be back tomorrow). It strikes me as really strange, quite self deceptive. Yet, maybe that behavior is part of what makes them who they are and what they've achieved, and me someone else.

Farhad N Kapadia said...

“It’s All About Mental Toughness”. To those who repeatedly quote this, I have one question. Pete Sampras was the dominant player of his generation. Yet he lost every French Open, & a few weeks later, won Wimbledon. So what happened to his mental toughness in Paris.

My take is that everything has to fall in place, including mental toughness. Then, one needs some luck, & then one becomes a winner.

Joe Garland said...

Couple of things from todays New York Times.

First, on how close these athletes are, a musical rendition of the finish-line gaps.

Second, an article on the possible impact of HGH testing on Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Joe

On both counts, thanks so much, what fantastic links. I love that musical rendition, it's brilliant. I'm going to do a post on that tomorrow for sure!

And for the HGH, that's a story I've been following closely, and I must definitely post on it.

Thanks for the links!


Ron Wolf said...

Gene, re. your second post, on the importance of attitude at clutch moments, well said! I appreciated your very human and real insight, thanks for that. Former-player announcers can be fascinating.

Re. your comment about some top athletes maintaining a sense of confidence that doesn't allow for any cracks, I think this is observer bias. We readily recognize this tough focused no-doubt allowed personality among 'winners' in all fields - in business for instance, Larry Elison. But there are also kinder gentler more adaptable winners, plenty of them - for instance, Ted Turner or Haile Gebrselassie. Winners who learn from their mistakes. But their storys are more complex, nuanced, not sound bite material.

P.S. A soon to be upcoming discussion, why can't former cyclists become decent announcers??

Farid said...

I agree with Mircea in that if we're ever going to tackle the beast that is the "mental side of performance", we need to start compartmentalizing our analysis. One needs to distinguish sports that tax physiology to its limits vs sports that require a wider array of "skill sets". What I mean is this:
Compare the sports of golf and long distance running. In long distance running, the best racers over the course of hours often differentiate by not more than a few minutes by the end. World records are broken by seconds. Long endurance events are where athletes fight for every blood and sweat soaked second they can gain.
In contrast, golf is a game that requires an athlete to master entire different skill sets (reading course conditions, powerful swings, measured swings, chipping, putting, sandtrap play, etc).
In no way does this diminish the difficulty or ability of either athlete, it simply highlights the fact that different sports require different things for success.
To bring this back to the discussion at hand... if criteria for success are so different, then the degree and fashion to which the "mental aspect" is utilized by an athlete must vary as well. And this applies to any sport that falls between golf and running.
Hockey and basketball are perfect examples: not only does an athlete have to be able to tap his physiology maximally, but motor control needs to be mastered to be the most accurate, superior tactics need to be devised, and etc.
Simply put, one can't establish a proportion of mental vs physical for every sport because with every different sport comes a varying degree of input from these different systems. (Watson, (and now Tucker/Dugas!) say it right: the mental is just another facet of our physiological output).

It's like algebra, get a system with one variable, and all you need is one equation to solve for the ONLY solution.
Increase the number of variables in a system, and you need more equations to solve for them. what's more, there's now more than one solution!

i believe in a sport like running we have a better chance of breaking down the "mental" argument since the athletes are so much closer physically than in a sport like rugby or basketball. In team sports especially, the biggest problem is that

(80% physical + 20% will/mental) = success or failure = (60% physical + 40% will/mental)

at the risk of grating on everyone with such a long comment i'd like to mention something else... Motor control literature shows that even experts, or those learned in a specific task can randomly fail because the system executes its motor program incorrectly. Tiger woods can miss a 4 foot after shooting a 64, while Flately can nail a 50 meter penalty kick from the sideline to send the world cup to extra time. Randomness happens too.

Farid said...

ps. Gebrelesassie won't race. Does this mean he's not as mentally tough as say, Wanjiru. But he owns the top records without even being pushed by an opponent...

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Farid,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment here.

You have done well to bring in the motor control part performance, thanks for adding that perspective. Indeed, even the "experts" execute movements incorrectly during competition due to randomness, and your examples here are fantastic.

That randomness will never go away entirely. However I wonder if part of the role of the mental training/preparation is to reduce the random error in that execution? I am not 100% familiar with the motor control research, but I suspect that as one learns a task that the apparently random error might be reduced.

Perhaps the big question is that because we do not have a good handle on what the most effective techniques are that will reduce this random error, it becomes a crap shoot among coaches and psychologists as they go by feel due to the lack of data to drive the process?

Kind Regards,

Anonymous said...

Hello, and let me begin by saying I love the site, and appreciate the inclusion of the "mental" aspect of performance here. I am a doctoral candidate with an emphasis in sport psychology, and have consulted with athletes in a variety of sports, taught university courses in coaching/sport psychology, and have had article and chapter published. I continue to learn all the time, and read sites like this that are devoted to the "physical" aspects of performance because of my belief that physical, mental, and emotional components work together in sport performance,

Throughout the comments, I believe that most posters have neglected the role of emotion in performance. And what is important to keep in mind is that emotions are idiographic, and connected to cognitions, coping resources/skill, and stress. A key factor is confidence - however the athlete derives it: imagery, self-talk, coaching, the crowd, etc. When athletes are confident, negative emotions - and the debilitating physiological effects (uncontrollable HR, poor respiration, poor circulation, hyperfocused or unfocused vision, etc.) they produce are minimized greatly, if not entirely negated.

Another point that has been overlooked to some degree (Farid implicitly notes) is the differing demands of internally vs. externally paced sports or tasks. This simply means what or whom does the athlete respond to. E.g., basketball is externally paced, players respond to stimuli outside of their control (opponents - except when shooting free throws); a long-jumper controls when he jumps, it is solely an internal sport. The cognitive visuomotor demands are different for each, and tax the attentional system of the brain differently.

My point boils down to this: it is a waste of time to try and determine what % of performance is physical, mental, or emotional. All 3 are important at elite levels of sport, and athletes should train all at an equally purposeful level.

Paul Davis

Farid said...

Totally agreed....
I just think this eternal debate rages due to the desire to perhaps quantify and allocate the contribution of different systems in any given situation (or rather in one particular situation, for starters).
I'm ecstatic to see you come from the sports psychology field as I believe the connection between the "mental" and "physical" will be found in the gap between psychology and motor control (mediated of course by performance physiology). I've recently been fortunate enough to be taught by a professor working with bioneurofeedback and the task of controlling various brain waves by using computer games to train focus and concentration.
Given this, I address a question to Ross, John, yourself and anyone else out there willing to contribute:
Aside from research dealing with "busy" brain waves, "focus" brain waves and the like, does anyone know of any other tangible evidence (in either brain biochemistry and physiology or neuroscience) that links with specific psychological phenomena. (For example, a specific protein marker that correlates with a certain measurable mental state; or a mapped neurological signal that correlates with, say, determination).

Anonymous said...

If you are interested, email me and I will send you copies of the article and chapter I published, as both are concerned with neurofeedback training in sport. The article was a case study in which I worked with a college baseball player and helped him achieve some great results. There is much potential in this type of training.



Dr. G said...

Hey Ross and Jonathan!

This is the first time that I've responded to a post on your site but I first and foremost want to say how much I appreciate the work you guys put into this site and that I've enjoyed the book on the Runner's Body.

I, like Paul, am also a Sport Psyhology doctoral student and I understand the misconceptions other sport and exercise scientists have with the field of sport psych due to the abstractness of the field. It is very hard for sport psychology consultants to quantify work and to measure certain gains with athletes sans biofeedback as you all know. One of the frustrations I have as well as many other practicioners in the field, is the over simplification of sport psychology by commentators during events (mentioned on here) but also by other consultants in the field who consult without an approach truly based on applicable research. All these "motivational speakers" and "mind experts" sometimes have no experience in the literature but because sport psychology is a sexy job title it lures people beyond their actual training. Often people think..."I played sports, so I can be a sport psychologist." Sport psychology is then reduced to affective engagement and "gimmicks" which hurt the profession. The flip side of this is when people do make issues too complicated and athletes can be harmed rather than assisted by sport psychology. It is a very fine balance.

I agree with Paul on preparing oneself with a holistic approach and the role of emotion. Of of my biggest pet peeves is hearing "You've got to be mentally tough," as if it is just something you turn on. There are plenty of different skills one can do to build mental toughness over time AND toughness can come from simply looking at your training logs and seeing that you've done the work, so compete! Often times sport psychology consultants try to sell something that is already there rather than seek out the skills inherently in place and to refine them so as to help athletes achieve their full potential. I know when I work with upper level athletes, it is a huge mistake to try to make something that is already there and working, it is an insult to the athlete's abilities.

One thing that I would love to say in addition to everything already mentioned: as someone who is consulting athletes, I cannot tell you how much I personally appreciate the insights into races on this site. The breakdown of where the pace falls off is a prime que in helping athletes revisit their performances and identify what went wrong. Incorporating as much physical information as possible sometimes allows for greater insight into psychological factors.

Stephen Gonzalez, M.S.

Rob Iuliano said...

Repeatability. Can you execute your sport specific maneuvers with accuracy time after time. You have to have the strength to keep up with the field and the mental focus during practice to repeat the move until the neuro-muscular pathways are formed the execution of perfect motion.

Isolating one or the other (mental vs physical) is doing any sport a HUGE disservice. It's fun to think of and argue with over beer but in the end the mental athlete properly delivers the physical athlete to successful competition.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys another great article. As I work with a professional football team in Sydney Australia I understand that the mental side of the sport is the major weakness of many players. I dont mean the traditional sports psych stuff but for the player to realise their physiological potential and not let their cognitions rule their bodies. It gets back to the central governor as there are very few times I believe players in football have left everything they had on the pitch. Also your #7 article re sports science was outstanding. The biggest problems of the majority of sports scientists is that they do not know they are part of a team and their job is to support the coach and player far to often the ego is too great. Regards Craig Duncan

David Guedalia said...

I get the feeling that there reason this is such a difficult/unscientific discussion is that we lack a good metric.

I would like to propose a metric, rather than try to directly analysis the benefits of each, mental vs. physical, lets measure the recovery from a loss of each one.

So, lets say an athlete is at their peak mental and physical levels, what happens when they lose either? Is it easier to recover from a loss of mental strength or a loss of physical strength?

Farid said...

While it may be easy to measure how far an athlete is from their peak physical condition (V02, fastest time, MVC, farthest jump, etc), there is no convention to measure mental state.

While there are many grading rubrics used in psychology to assess depression, self worth, happiness, and so on, there is no way to combine all of them into a yardstick that can be measured against athletic performance. It therefore becomes impossible (at this point) to know when an athlete is not in peak mental condition.

A lack of any sort of convention comes in large part from the fact that everyone reacts differently to different "mental" pressures.

- superstars thrive under pressure, others crumble
- one athlete may use fear to push themselves harder, another will allow it to control them
- stress may distract a "lesser" athlete while another may use competition to escape it
- ... and this can go on far pages and pages.

What's worse for our argument is that mental states are so transient as well as fickle; they can change due to the most imperceptible of influences. What's more, some people can control their mental state while others let it control them.

Before any sort of measurement can be made of a mental state, we need to develop an understanding of WHAT mental states are and their physiological correlates; are there protein markers that can be associated with motivation? are brain waves an accurate measure of focus and can they predict performance? how stable is a mental state and how does it affect motorneuron firing?

In the end, we need to understand the "mental" and "physical" sides aren't separate but simply representations of a central controller. This needs to be understood if any real progress is to be made.