• Jason Wulfsohn // MSc (Med) Exercise Science

Editor's Musings: Tough Times Don't Last

…but tough people do!

Is it safe to declare it common knowledge that it’s not always the most talented athletes who make it? The psychological or mental factor can be a large distinguishing force between the elites and those who don’t make it[1,2]. I would argue that we in South Africa are yet to fully appreciate sport psychology and mental skills. While it is somewhat out of my domain, I try to realise the importance of mental traits and states in the athletes I work with. I might not use all the appropriate jargon, but I can recognise athletes with positive traits, or when they’re not in the best mental state. I try my best with a subtle word here and there in an attempt to elicit a required response. I don’t always get it right, and I think it’s actually better for the sport scientist to stick to the basic mental skills. Positive reinforcement, confidence boosting (or lowering in some cases), and other cues are some things we can do to help our athletes. But what I want to do going forward is try to help the athletes help themselves.

I recently participated in a school adventure outing incorporating paddling, hiking, and cycling over 13 days. I was amazed at how some of the boys managed to push through and finish the journey. Especially one or two, who I had pegged to buckle before the end. The joke was on me though, as it was I who buckled due to my dodgy knee seizing up with 15km to go on the cycle leg. Despite my shameful defeat at the handles of the demonic bicycle, I didn’t leave without something to think about. I started to ponder my role in creating an environment which would encourage resilience in the sportsmen and women I work with. I want them to be tough! Both physically and mentally.

In the most basic sense of the word, resilience refers to a substance’s ability to revert back to its original shape or form after experiencing bending, stretching, compression or some other stress[3]. In the human context, resilience might refer to a better-than-expected adjustment to difficult or adverse circumstances[3]. For example, getting up and going to work despite awakening to the realisation that you’ve run out of coffee at home. Not everyone can do it. So how do we encourage people to become resilient? Essentially, for resilience to manifest we need two things: 1) some adversity, and 2) a positive adaptive response[3]. Obvious…

If everything goes along too smoothly, too perfectly, then we never get the opportunity to learn to adapt. Later on, we’re likely to encounter problems when things go wrong and we’ve only got plan A. Things can and will go wrong, and we and our athletes need to be able to deal with the problems. We don’t want a situation where the athlete can’t compete to his or her best because their drinking water was a degree too warm or the wind changed direction. Think about the talent gold-mines that exist around the world, and consider just how many of those facilities are not state of the art. Think about Spartak tennis club (Russia), MVP track & field club (Jamaica), and the modest training grounds of the Kalenjin tribe (Kenya). I’d hazard a guess that none of these places have air-conditioning. Undoubtedly, there are other factors to consider here, but it is not the intention to explore the other factors that help to make these talent-hotbeds churn out world-class athletes. Rather, just appreciate what people can do with basic resources and the right mind-set.

Is it not “the dream” to work in a state-of-the-art facility? Would athletes not want to train in an environment that is tailored to create the perfect athlete-machines? I’m currently chewing on these thoughts, like a slow moving ruminant. Yes, optimisation of training and training facilities can be very positive, but to do so at the risk of reducing an athlete’s resilience is making me think twice.

I doubt I’ll be packing away the nice bumper-plate set anytime soon, but I’m now looking for ways to put the athletes through their mental paces during their training sessions. Obviously we can’t take this too far. For example, I think a 5km bare-foot run would be a bad idea for myriad reasons. A better example would be to use the old balls for a cricket practice and see how the bowlers respond. Also, there is the option to manipulate small-sided games with regard to numbers and/or rules to introduce a slight adversity stimulus. The trick will be to introduce a little bit of chaos or anarchy without threatening the athletes’ well-being. Maybe it’s easier said than done. After all, how do we measure whether we’re helping the athletes become more resilient? Naturally, I don’t have all the answers, but if you have some ideas, then please contact me about writing an article so that I, and others, can connect and learn.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, we can get to the “meat” of SPORT SCIENCE COLLECTIVE, and we’re ending off 2017 with a real treat. Simone do Carmo has shared an article about the nutritional consensus statement on exercise-induced immunodepression. Then, Dr Jason Tee does an excellent job of describing and defining the role of the sport scientist and S&C coach. David Leith looks at some endurance training trends, which actually links a bit with Chris Webster’s introductory piece on Hormesis. Greg Purcell clarifies some reasons as to why drugs are divided in different categories of prohibition. Last, but not least, Hanno van Vuuren and Piet Cilliers discuss training concepts to help athletes move better.

1. Potgieter, J. C., Grobbelaar, H. W. & Andrew, M. Sport psychological skill levels and related psychosocial factors that distinguish between rugby union players of different participation levels. J. Soc. Psychol. Sci. 1, 43–64 (2008).

2. Elferink-Gemser, M. T., Visscher, C., Lemmink, K. a P. M. & Mulder, T. W. Relation between multidimensional performance characteristics and level of performance in talented youth field hockey players. J. Sports Sci. 22, 1053–1063 (2009).

3. Galli, N. & Gonzalez, S. P. Psychological resilience in sport: A review of the literature and implications for research and practice. Int. J. Sport Exerc. Psychol. 13, 243–257 (2015).

#Mentaltoughness #Athletes


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