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Why Olympic endurance events will be won in the mind

Released: 09.08.16

Over the next two weeks, Olympic medals will be won in endurance events such as the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres, triathlon, marathon, and marathon swim. British athletes including Mo Farah, the Brownlee brothers, Helen Jenkins, and Non Stanford are among the British athletes tipped to medal in these events. When talking about endurance events, it is common for people to say things such as “it’s mind over matter” or “it’s all in the mind” that draw attention to the role that the mind plays in determining whether people finish endurance events and how well they perform in them. For example, after beating the one-hour cycling record last summer, Sir Bradley Wiggins stated, “It's a mental game more than a physical one”. There is much truth behind these popular sayings, with much research indicating that the minds of Rio’s endurance athletes will play a crucial role in their success on the Olympic stage.


Pushing Through Pain and Exertion


On Saturday and Sunday’s cycling road races, Mara Abbott (Women’s final), Rafal Majka (Men’s final), and their rivals entered the final kilometres with the ultimate carrot—an Olympic gold medal—dangled in front of them. With muscles burning as if on fire and with lungs gasping for air, it is difficult to imagine a scenario that would motivate them to dig as deep and to experience as much pain and exertion as during those final kilometres. During the upcoming triathlon, running, rowing, and swimming endurance events, the same carrot will be dangled in front of all of the endurance athletes, and the challenge will be to push through as much pain and exertion as possible. The athletes’ mental skills will play a key role here. Mental skills such as self-talk strategies (what the athletes say to themselves) and what they focus their attention on can help endurance athletes to tolerate more pain, discomfort, and exertion and therefore dig that little bit deeper. Encouragement from the crowd can help endurance athletes dig deeper too, which is something that might particularly work in the favour of Brazilian marathon swimmer Ana Marcela Cunha who’s likely to have the crowd on her side.


Mastering Tactics


Pacing and tactical decision making also play key roles during endurance competitions. This could be seen on Sunday when Anna van der Breggen, Emma Johansson, and Elisa Longo Borghini worked together to cruelly overtake Mara Abbott in the final hundred metres of the 137 km race. During head-to-head competitions, the performance environment is constantly changing around endurance athletes as their rivals push on or drop back, and the athletes need to make decisions about what they are going to do based on what is going on around them. However, they need to make these decisions quickly and under pressure, despite mental fatigue from the long mental battle, and without knowing what their rivals have got “left in the tank”. The ability to make the best pacing and tactical decisions is therefore likely to play a key role in who takes home medals. Likewise, endurance athletes will need to maintain their concentration for long periods to ensure that they are paying attention to the most important factors that should influence their decisions.


Coping with Stressful Situations


Saturday and Sunday’s cycling road races highlighted a range of stressful events, situations, and conditions that performers had to cope with to perform to their potential. Many cyclists experienced equipment malfunction, they collided with each other, they descended hazardous road conditions, and some passed by seriously-injured teammates. While some of these may be event-specific, endurance athletes in all sports encounter similar stressful situations. In running, swimming, triathlon, and rowing, they could include a substandard race start, a rival performing better than expected, problems with goggles, niggling injuries, choppy waters, and pacing mistakes. In addition, endurance athletes in these events could be experiencing performance pressure associated with representing their countries or not wanting to let down their coach, teammates, or family. All of these stressful situations can be potential banana skins that can lead to frustration, anxiety, distraction, self-doubt, and discouragement. The top athletes, however, will be able to cope with these stressful situations, responding quickly and constructively to any problems. Some athletes may even be able to use them to dig even deeper as they pursue their goals of winning a medal. For example, after cycling past a seriously-injured Annemiek van Vleuten, Emma Johansson is said to have encouraged Anna van der Breggen by saying, “Come on, we will do it for Anne”.


How Can Sport Psychology Contribute?


So what kinds of things will endurance athletes, their coaches, and their sport psychologists do at the Olympics to ensure that they win the mental battle? Athletes and their coaches are likely to pre-prepare for a wide range of potentially-stressful situations such as equipment malfunction and adverse weather, planning the best way to handle the things that could happen. The athlete could then dedicate time to visualising coping effectively with these stressful situations and actually practise doing them in simulated high-pressure competitive situations. Doing so could help endurance athletes to respond as quickly and constructively as possible to problems that might otherwise cause discouragement, distraction, and loss of valuable seconds. In addition, it is important that endurance athletes avoid mentally-draining activities such as media interviews earlier in the day before competition, because feeling mentally fatigued makes endurance exercise feel even more strenuous. Sport psychologists will also need to make sure that endurance athletes are handling their pre-competition emotions in the right way, because concealing emotions like Elsa from Frozen also makes endurance exercise feel more strenuous. Finally, research shows that maintaining constructive and motivational self-talk can help endurance athletes to tolerate more pain, discomfort, and exertion and therefore dig that little bit deeper. If (as a recreational exerciser) you can imagine running up a steep hill at a quick, fixed speed, then saying motivational things to yourself could get you approximately 20% further up that hill before you stop. Performance gains would be much more modest in size for Olympic athletes, but they could be much more meaningful in their consequences. For example, at the Olympic triathlon in 2012, the difference between Alastair Brownlee winning gold instead of silver was 11 seconds (0.17% of his time) and a photo finish was needed to separate gold and silver medallists Nicola Spirig and Lisa Norden—even small psychological gains can bring bronze, silver, and gold rewards!


By Dr Alister McCormick, a chartered sport and exercise psychologist and a lecturer in the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth. McCormick’s PhD examined how psychology can be used to improve the performances of endurance athletes. McCormick has experience working with athletes from a range of sports, including endurance sports. A key piece of research on this topic can be found here.

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