Looking back: What have the Romans ever done for us?

Tadhg MacIntyre on the contribution of sport and exercise psychology and the Olympics to mainstream psychology

Thinking about the Olympic games can evoke emotive images within us. Whether it’s the winning performances of Alan Wells in the 100m in Moscow 1980, the double gold of Kelly Holmes in her middle-distance events, marathon runner Paula Radcliffe struggling in Athens, or one of Sir Steve Redgrave’s triumphs across his five Olympiads, these images can spring from the recesses of our mind like a sprinter from the blocks. The Olympic and Paralympic Games in London will undoubtedly leave us with a library of images that are linked to our personal interests, affiliations and nationhood. However, sport, in the context of psychology, goes far beyond these vivid, individual recollections.

Within psychology, sport has provided researchers from an array of approaches with both metaphors and inspiring examples for fundamental scientific discoveries. Indeed, William James, Frederic Bartlett, B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura all used sporting examples to explain imagery, motor schema, operant behaviour and self-efficacy, respectively (Jourden et al., 1991; Kremer & Moran, 2008; Skinner, 1965). To illustrate, watching cricket helped Bartlett (1932) to develop his theory of schemata: ‘Suppose I am making a stroke in a quick game, such as tennis or cricket. How I make the stroke depends on the relating of certain new experiences, most of them visual, to other immediately preceding visual experiences and to my posture, or balance of postures, at the moment… When I make the stroke I do not, as a matter of fact, produce something absolutely new, and I never merely repeat something old. The stroke is literally manufactured out of the living visual and postural “schemata” of the moment and their interrelations’ (pp.201–202).

At a broader level, for those within the discipline of sport and exercise psychology, two main approaches persist. One group of exponents is primarily concerned with enhancing athletic performance (Brady & Maynard, 2010), while for the other group the sport and exercise context provides a dynamic natural laboratory for inquiry into more fundamental psychological questions (Moran, 2009). These divergent views reflect the competing influences of psychology, kinesiology, physical education and, more recently, sport science in the genesis of contemporary sport and exercise psychology. To explain, the common mission of sport scientists is ‘to optimise the mental and physical preparation, performance and overall experience of competitive sports participants’ (Thatcher et al., 2009, p.1). It is not surprising, therefore, that the nature of the relationship between sport and psychology has been described as one that has gone from dependence, to independence, and more recently towards interdependence (Walker et al., 2006). Over the course of this relationship, sport psychology, in the prodigal years, borrowed from mainstream psychology, and then arguably ignored mainstream as those engaged in sport psychology developed their own specialised models. More recently, a spirit of interdependence has emerged between sport psychology and mainstream psychology.

A fundamental question regarding this relationship between the subdiscipline and the parent discipline is, to paraphrase the character ‘Reg’ in The Life of Brian, what has sport psychology ever done for mainstream psychology? Three key contributions merit discussion. Positive psychology One of the inspirations for the positive psychology movement was research on optimism with Olympic athletes and studies on ‘flow’ largely based on sport performers (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In 1988 Martin Seligman and colleagues studied explanatory style among top-class swimmers. They asked swimmers (divided into optimists and pessimists on the basis of Explanatory Style Questionnaire scores) to swim their favoured event and then provided them with false feedback (slightly slower than the recorded times). A short period later they were required to repeat their swim distance and predictably, the optimists improved while the pessimists were slower than their initial effort (Seligman et al., 1990). He concluded after this classic study that you could predict the behaviour of optimists and pessimists, but he said the jury was out on whether you could change their explanatory style. Over two decades later, armed with research on learned optimism, flow and resilience, the now burgeoning field of positive psychology had evolved to such an extent that the US military had agreed to train their 1.1m personnel in this approach. The American Psychologist devoted a special issue to the topic, in which a comprehensive military fitness programme focusing on resilience training and positive psychology was outlined (Seligman & Fowler, 2011).

The story is just beginning: positive psychology represents a fundamental paradigm shift in the discipline of psychology, with vast potential in preventative medicine and beyond. Interestingly, sport psychologists are now considering how they can integrate the concepts and methods of positive psychology into both organisational sport psychology and in applied practice for individuals (Park-Perin, 2010; Wagstaff et al., 2012).

Physical activity
In 1988 the seminal journal in the field of sport psychology was renamed the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. This watershed moment within the field and the subsequent emergence of the interdisciplinary field of physical activity are attributable to a research paradigm that emerged from studies on the mood profiles of elite athletes.

Bill Morgan’s discovery of the ‘iceberg profile’ was the landmark finding in the early forays into exercise research. In 1977 Morgan and Pollock reported that athletes scored below the norms on the negative indices (e.g. depression, fatigue, and anger) of the Profile of Mood States and above the norms on vigour (hence ‘the iceberg profile’). Furthermore, a body of research accumulated that, using this mood measure, linked positive mental health and successful sporting performance. Conversely, psychopathology and athletic success were predicted to be inversely related. This was supported by findings that injured or over-trained athletes possessed inverted iceberg profiles. Not without criticism, reviewers highlighted problems with using a ‘state’ measure to make long-term predictions of athletic success.

Nevertheless, this paradigm provided a more objective measure than had been previously conceived. The idea that physical activity could change mood had previously been catalogued largely in phenomological terms (e.g. ‘runners-high’). A mental health model which had exercise at its core was established by Bill Morgan, stimulating research on the psychological effects of exercise. As
a result, it is now readily accepted that exercise can be prescribed as an adjunct to other therapies in the treatment of mild to moderate depression, and that physical activity and exercise can act as a buffer against depression (Teychenne et al., 2010). Some of the non-specifics of therapeutic interventions can now be more clearly understood, like the impact of therapeutic lifestyle changes, including exercise and activity in natural environments (see Walsh, 2011).

Mental practice
When William James wrote that we can learn to skate in summer and swim in winter, he was alluding to the power of our imagination or imagery processes on skill acquisition. For over a century this question intrigued researchers and it became a major research topic within sport psychology. As far back as 1943 Vandell et al. were investigating the function of mental practice in the acquisition of motor skills (Vandell et al., 1943). By the mid-1990s a number of meta-analytic reviews had synthesised the evidence from numerous independent studies. The findings were that a mental practice (MP) condition, although less effective than physical practice (PP) condition in motor-skill enhancement, was more effective than a control condition. Interestingly, the largest gains in performance were from the PP/MP combined group. As a result, the general conclusion was that mental practice had a significant positive effect on motor-skill performance (see Driskell et al., 1994).

Among the key researchers in imagery and action, who capitalised on the findings on mental practice, were Marc Jeannerod (1935–2011) and Jean Decety. They were concerned not with the effect of imagery per se, but on the exploring the nature of representation. Firstly, Jeannerod used imagery as a means of investigating the representation of action, postulating that imagery was essentially covert action, which led to the development of the field of motor cognition, a research domain that is concerned with understanding action (Jeannerod, 2006). Similarly, based on the neurocognitive evidence showing an overlap in the representation of action in self and others, social neuroscience evolved as a discipline in its own right (Decety & Sommerville, 2003). Mental practice itself has continued to generate interest among sport psychologists, neuroscientists and those involved in neurorehabiliation (see Moran et al., 2012).

Beyond the podium
The contributions outlined above demonstrate that while sport psychology didn’t give us sanitation, irrigation or roads (thanks Romans!), it has opened doors to new paradigms, spawned interdisciplinary domains, and offered us a window into the representation of action. The interdependency between the mother discipline and the field of research that encompasses the sport and exercise domain is now more fruitful than ever. When we see athletes take gold in the London Games, remember that sport and exercise psychology has a contribution far beyond the podium.

Tadhg MacIntyre is at the University of Ulster [email protected]


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