What does the Olympics mean to you?

We asked the question; psychologists answered

Inclusion for learning disability
I’ve always loved sports, being a keen player and spectator. Yet I would not have predicted several years ago, how the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘Paralympics’ would come to impact upon my life. I’ve always held a firm belief about the connectivity between physical activity and psychological health, but the connection between my working life, sport, disability and psychology was advanced further than I could have imagined when I suddenly found myself involved in the Paralympics. It all began with a speculative e-mail sent some time ago to a tenuously linked contact in Canada.

Three years later I find myself involved in a multidisciplinary, international research group that has completed the first stages of an extremely ambitious research schedule. The resulting data from this group contributed to the International Paralympic Committee making a decision to re-include athletes with learning disabilities back into the Paralympics for London 2012. Some may recall that there was a scandal after the Sydney 2000 games, when it was discovered that cheating had occurred, such that athletes without learning disabilities entered, competed and won whilst posing as having learning disabilities. The result was exclusion for athletes with learning disabilities (ironic as it was not they who had cheated) and a fierce campaign for re-inclusion began.

To be re-included the sports federation that manages this group of athletes (INAS – the International Federation for sport for para-athletes
with an intellectual disability; see www.inas.org), in partnership with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) had to demonstrate that (a) this disability had an impact on sports performance i.e. there was a clear reason why people with learning disabilities could not compete in the Olympics, and (b) there were mechanisms in place to properly assess eligibility (i.e. that they did have a learning disability and we could test how it impacted on each specific sport). These were not easy questions to answer, and there is surprisingly little research in this area, but the eventual decision of re-inclusion by the IPC was based on a huge amount of work by a wide range of committed individuals from around the globe. This involved setting up a rigorous set of procedures to produce documentary evidence of an athlete’s intellectual disability, which is then scrutinised by members of an international, independent panel of experienced psychologists. Only if this evidence meets stringent criteria is an athlete deemed eligible to compete in this group. They then need to go through sports classification which is specific to each sport. To develop this the research group produced a conceptual map of the types of intelligence involved in elite sports performance and then compiled a battery of established non-verbal cognitive tests to measure performance in these areas. This data is then supplemented by data collected from specific sports performance, such as pacing for running, stroke rate for swimming and ability to anticipate and play certain strokes in table tennis. Comparative data was collected from non-disabled athletes and a bandwidth approach was taken to assess if an athlete is performing in the range across the tasks below that of a non-disabled athlete but within the range expected for elite athletes with intellectual disabilities. To find out more about the technical aspects of this visit www.paralympic.org/Classification/Sports.

Intellectually, and at times politically, this has been one of the most challenging research projects in which I have been involved, requiring a massive expansion of understanding on my part, ranging from assessing sports intelligence to the workings of international politics. However, it has also brought me travel, many new friends, many beers and an increased ability to work in airport waiting areas.

My involvement in the research behind re-inclusion continues, but over this time my role has also expanded. As the London 2012 Paralympics approaches, I find myself the ‘Head of Eligibility’ in INAS. My specific responsibility is to manage the global system that examines the evidence, largely from psychologists, as to whether an athlete actually meets the initial criterion of having a learning disability and is therefore eligible to compete in this class at Paralympic events. Given this is where it all went wrong last time I write this with some trepidation. It has not been an easy route, and there remain many obstacles and fears ahead. If all goes well in London, events will be added to the next Paralympics in Rio, and also involvement in the winter games. Each different sport will need to be researched to show exactly how intellectual disabilities impact, and change the possible level of competence that can be achieved in that sport to meet the Paralympic as opposed to the Olympic criteria.

If you are planning to watch the Paralympics, look out for the events for athletes with learning disabilities in swimming (100m), table tennis and athletics (1500m, shot put and long jump). When you see athletes and do not immediately recognise them as having an obvious disability (physical or visual) they are likely to be the athletes with a learning disability. Take a moment to consider their journey to this event. Aside from years of training and some fortunate talent spotting along the way they will have had to overcome considerable impediments to learn, practise, compete and excel at their sport. Sport for people with learning disabilities is not a well-sponsored sector (see www.uksportsassociation.org for more information), and so they, their families, and supporters will have undergone considerable strain to raise the money to compete at this level. I hope that a little more understanding of this journey will attract greater attention, interest and ultimately the applause these athletes well deserve. As for me, having been lucky enough to have this involvement, after that speculatively sent e-mail, the words ‘Olympics’ and ‘Paralympics’ have now become much richer terms.

Jan Burns, Professor of Clinical Psychology, Canterbury Christ Church University

A role model for youth 

The true Olympic contender is the one whose physical perfection combines with high spiritual culture. The true Olympic contender must also be honest, generous, loyal to his homeland and patriotic (Pierre de Coubertin, cited in Klementjevs, 2008, p.49).

A ‘role model’ is a person who acts as an inspiration for others and is worthy to imitate. Even though role models are ordinary people, they possess distinguishable characteristics such as courage, determination, fortitude and the pursuit of excellence. What influences individuals to follow others, and what impact could Olympian role models have?

Observation is fundamental, as social learning is achieved by imitating others’ behaviours. The attractiveness, competence, behaviour and attributes of the model, and the socio-demographic characteristics of the learner, will all have an impact on learning (Bandura, 1977). Moreover, learners are more likely to identify with certain role models when they feel able to imitate and carry out the model’s behaviour, and thus experience self-efficacy.

Research suggests that role models coming from elsewhere than the family have a great impact on child behaviour (Fitzclarence & Hickey, 1998). A survey among primary and secondary education students in Europe revealed the reasons Olympic Champions are admired (Telama et al., 2002). The most prominent reasons were athletes’ achievements, their national pride and showing moral behaviour in sports and in general. Interestingly, gender differences play a part: Biskup and Pfister (1999) reported that male pupils in Germany choose athletes as role models because of their strength, aggression and physical skills, whereas girls were more attracted by movie and pop-stars.

De Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, believed that the moral characteristics of young people could be developed through their sporting experiences and then extended into adult life (Dacosta, 2006). Athletes combine a highly dynamic and physically attractive personality. Moreover, they are often seen as ambassadors of ideals such as fair play and respect for the opponent regardless of racial, cultural and religious differences (Sollerhed, 2008). Consequently, Olympic champions embody ideals learnt on the sporting field that can then transfer into daily life and have a positive impact upon individuals and the community in general. Sport can also generate feelings through an exchange: the athletes give to the fans the gift of superior performance, and get in return their perceived loyalty through the support of certain sports teams, the spectatorship of sporting events or the purchase of sport-related products (Crosset, 2000).

On the other hand, a role model doesn’t always have a positive influence on young people. The media keep some athletes in the spotlight, which often damages their reputation. Examples of deviant behaviour in sport include cheating and bribery, the use of performance-enhancing substances, and anger. Undoubtedly, parents would not want their children to imitate this type of behaviour. How can youngsters be provided with positive examples coming from the sporting field? The answer is: Olympic education.

Olympic education is a learning process for the teaching of Olympism, where participants are encouraged to learn, comprehend, experience and propagate the Olympic principles (Sermaki et al., 2003). It rests on a deep knowledge of the educational and cultural principles of Olympism and supports the notion that man constitutes an undivided unity (Arvaniti, 2000). For that reason, it harmoniously embraces the spiritual and psychosomatic activities of the individual. Moreover, it cultivates the spirit of sportsmanship and uses the Olympic athlete as a life model for young people to follow. In my view, both children and elite athletes need to be educated in the Olympic values in order for the latter in particular to understand their social responsibility towards the dissemination of positive attitudes.

Interestingly, Olympic medallists do recognise their role as mentors for youth. In a study by Georgiadis and Lioumpi (2008), all 22 Olympic medallists surveyed stated that they perceive themselves as ambassadors of Olympic ideals. The majority of the athletes expressed their willingness to enhance their Olympism-related knowledge in order to effectively communicate sporting values to young people through Olympic education programmes. Several countries have capitalised on this in order to develop schemes for motivating and engaging students via the Olympic values. For instance, in the UK the changingLIVES and the Sporting Champions schemes bring world-class athletes into schools across the country in order to inspire young people through their personal stories of success and struggle (Youth Sport Trust, 2011).

In sum, Olympic champions and elite athletes in general are being idolised by young people. Being a role model – positive or not – is inevitable for elite athletes, as sport epitomises high ideals and emotions that cannot be found elsewhere. Olympic athletes appear aware of their social responsibility and willing to foster the true meaning of Olympism, through undergoing proper training on Olympic education. Now it’s up to the National Olympic Academies, schoolsand sports organisations to put this into practice.

Niki Koutrou, PhD student, Institute of Sport and Leisure Policy, Loughborough University

Olympic level learning

It’s not just the 10,000 hours that makes an Olympic medallist. As Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson has shown, just brute, mindless practice gets you nowhere fast. It is the quality of practice that matters. And that means elite performers have to be, above everything else, elite-level learners. They have to be able to suck every last drop of learning juice out of every two hours in the pool or on the track. And sports psychology has developed a valuable database for helping athletes and sportsmen and women to learn how to learn. They know when and how to amplify direct practice with mental rehearsal, and when to use a first-person perspective – being imaginatively inside your own body, feeling your own feelings and looking out through your own eyes – and when to stand back, in your mind’s eye, and watch your performance from the outside. They know how to cultivate the kind of mental toughness that enables you to maintain your peak performance under the most intense pressure, and to bounce back from a bad session and regain your poise. They know how to orchestrate their own training sessions, when to do what and when to allow yourself breaks, so that the most learning happens in the least time. They know how to control their own attention, like a master meditator, so they can watch in minute detail what happens in their right shoulder as they do their tumble turns, or how their mindset regularly collapses during the third lap out of four in training (see Mellalieu & Hanton, 2009, for a good overview).

Some of the same kind of ‘learning how to learn’ training is going on in schools: but not enough. All youngsters, in their history lessons as well as their sports coaching, should learn to see learning itself as a learnable craft – something everyone can get better at, regardless of their so-called ‘academic ability’. Why not use visualisation as a way of strengthening your revision? Taylor et al. (1998) have shown that doing so increases examination scores by 8 per cent. As Michael Caine never actually said, ‘Not a lot of people know that’ – but they should. And teachers should also know about all the useful advice they could pass on to their students from the world of sports. It’s not just Usain Bolt who needs to know how to recover fast from frustration and disappointment: every eight-year-old could benefit from practising the same strategies. During a crucial game, champion snooker player Mark Williams sings loudly inside his own head to block the inner self-critical voice that threatens to undermine his concentration. Any group of GCSE art students might like to see if a similar strategy could work for them when they are drawing.

There is a wealth of psychological research from sport psychology, clinical psychology and many other branches of our discipline, that can contribute to a rich, robust and imaginative psychology to underpin what we have called ‘expansive education’: education that aims to build the confidence, capacity and appetite for learning in all young people, so they are well equipped to pursue their own version of greatness (Claxton, 1999; Lucas & Claxton, 2010). Their field of specialism might be skateboarding, hairdressing or cartooning, rather than dressage or hockey, but the same learning skills, attitudes and mindsets may well apply. As I say, it is plausible that many of the techniques and attitudes developed by elite athletes to boost and intensify their own development could transfer, with some adaptation, to the world of school. But there is an empirical field of research waiting to be mined: to what extent can four-year-olds learn to self-regulate in the way that 25-year-olds can? How can these learning skills be coached in a way that encourages maximum transferability? How much of Phillips Odowu’s learned self-control in a triple-jump final rubs off when he is stuck in a traffic jam? The field of ’expansive psychology’ is wide open – and the 2012 Olympics could be a very good stimulus for its development.

At the moment, the ‘mental development’ side of education is rather thin – ‘thinking skills’ on the one hand and ‘social and emotional aspects of learning’ on the other. And much of what passes for advice and training in the area of learning-to-learn is hackneyed, recycled and over-hyped. The psychology of education could take a leaf out of the Olympic coaching manual, and start applying what it already knows – as well as generating more evidence-based advice – to give all young people the wherewithal to learn fast and well in their chosen fields.

Guy Claxton, Centre for Real-World Learning, University of Winchester

Olympic success, but not at the cost of participation or diversification

As both a sport psychology consultant and a fan, the Olympics hold a fascination for me, watching elite athletes at the zenith of their careers. I watch a gold medal-winning performance and ask: Was it innate abilities or deliberate practice that allowed them to reach the highest level? Was it early specialisation or early diversification? I think of some of the young athletes I know, many of whom specialise in one sport before 10 years of age, undergoing so much coaching they have no time for other sports or pastimes. Some pre-adolescent athletes are often committed to high-performance academies, leaving them no time even for formal schooling. I am simultaneously reminded that Tom Daley, an Olympian at 14 years old, fitted his training around a full schedule of GCSEs at a normal mainstream school. This creates a dilemma for the parents, coaches and organisers of youth sport programmes. What is the best way to develop young athletes?

In my recent experience I have seen a worrying trend in coaching toward the early-specialisation and deliberate-practice model first proposed by K.A. Ericsson and his colleagues (1993). The theory carries a substantial weight of credibility for me as a psychologist and has undoubtedly changed the face of research into athlete development. For coaches, parents and lay people it has been popularised by mainstream books such as The Talent Code (Coyle, 2007), Outliers (Gladwell, 2008) and Bounce (Syed, 2010). These books are entertaining and not without merit, butI fear their popularity has compounded a trend in coach education whereby the theory of deliberate practice and the corresponding ‘10,000 hours’ rule has been unquestioningly adopted by sports governing bodies keen to motivate coaches and produce a generation of Olympic champions and world-beaters. My concerns only echo the unrest over the specialisation culture that is already found among some experts and commentators. In the American media, the specialisation problem has been linked to the breakdown of community sport, as described by Alexander Wolff in Sports Illustrated (2002). Concerns in Britain have been publicly voiced by the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Glenn Hoddle, while the BBC television documentary Is Professionalism Killing Sport?, broadcast in 2010, addressed issues surrounding specialisation and over-coaching.

Gould and Carson (2004) succinctly outline some of the myths about talent development that have arisen among coaches and parents, leading to the belief that early specialisation is the best and perhaps only way to train an elite athlete. These fallacies include: that athletic talent can be predicted prior to puberty; that when it comes to training for talented children ‘the more the better’; that fun has to be sacrificed if a child is to reach the elite level; and that talented children need different early sport programmes than their less talented counterparts (Gould & Carson, 2004). The detrimental effects of specialisation for pre-adolescent athletes are well documented. Physical consequences of early specialisation include increased risk of: overuse and repetitive stress injuries such as tendinitis, apophysitis, stress fractures; Osgood-Schlatter disease; Sever disease; medial epicondylitis; injuries to developing joint surfaces or immature spinal injuries (American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 2000). It is also known that, as well as these negative physical outcomes, early specialisation is also linked to athlete drop-out (Butcher et al., 2002; Wiersma, 2000) and burn-out (Coakley, 1992; Gould et al., 1996). Early specialisation has also been linked to a general reduction in the length of athletic careers, while early diversification allows for positive skill transfer and augmentation of the cognitive and physical abilities needed to help meet
the demands of an athlete’s primary sport (Baker, 2003).

In summary, it is not acceptable to sacrifice the well-being of young athletes in the pursuit of elite-level performance and Olympic success in the face of evidence demonstrating the negative consequences of early specialisation. Indeed, as Wiersma (2000) notes, because such a vast majority of children (even those labelled as ‘talented’) will not make it to the professional ranks, none should be denied the pleasure of playing a diverse range of sports. Goals for youth sport programmes should be based around diversity, enjoyment, sustained participation and long careers for young athletes. Coaches and parents must be made aware of potentially debilitating physical, psychological and social consequences of professional-style, deliberate-practice schedules imposed on pre-adolescent children. All these objectives must be prioritised over the goal to produce elite-level athletes capable of competing for Olympic medals. I am as keen as any other fan of sport to see Britain at the top of the medal table, but it must not happen at the expense of wide-ranging, healthy, sustained participation for all children, including those showing early aptitude. Focus on healthy diversification for all, and elite athletes will emerge.

Luke Regan, Sport Psychology Consultant, London

The Olympic journey

Since I was young, the Olympic Games have always seemed to me an awe-inspiring spectacle of sporting endeavour. To athletes in most sports, the games are the big one, the event that they completely commit themselves to, and as such the competition is always dramatic. Nowadays it’s the stories and understanding the journey that leads athletes to the games that keep me enthralled.

Remembering Kathy Freeman’s 400m victory always reminds me that elite athletes are still human. The hopes of the home nation rested on her shoulders and when she won all she could do was crouch down and cry – such was the emotion she felt. Perhaps this is a poignant reminder of the pressure for those British athletes preparing to win gold in front of a home crowd at London 2012?

When I watched Steve Redgrave win his fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal, I didn’t really appreciate how outstanding an achievement that was and how his journey had been shaped over the preceding 20 years. I didn’t even understand the sport, which was ironic considering how involved I have subsequently become in rowing! All I understood was that he had been champion on a number of occasions but that this time lots of people didn’t think he could manage it. What I now understand is that his journey, his story, is a fascinating and unpredictable one.

So the stories are what the Olympics mean to me, and I am intrigued by the nature of the athletic journey as a pathway of development. Gould et al. (2002) found that at the highest levels of sport, psychological characteristics were greater predictors of successful performances than physiological characteristics. So the journey is in large part psychological. What, then, does the journey of a future Olympian look like?

Most sports governing bodies now have a player pathway based on the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model (Balyi, 1990). This model considers what the pathway of a future Olympian might look like and attempts to break this down into different stages of development. Planning to become a champion, rather than leaving it to chance, is so important that having an LTAD plan is now a pre-requisite for receiving lottery funding for many governing bodies (Abbott et al., 2002). However, this model has received criticism (Black & Holt, 2009; Martindale, 2008), and these are focused on the lack of empirical evidence for the stages and the assignment of athletes to stages based on chronological rather than developmental or maturational age.

The model is principally based on physiological development and was designed to give governing bodies and coaches a guideline for how to structure long-term development from a primarily physical perspective. The growth of other disciplines, including sport psychology, has led to the incorporation of these fields into the LTAD. However, the model was never designed for this purpose, and as psychologists we should be cautious of excessive criticism of the LTAD. Instead we can also look to other sources for guidance on how we might account for the developmental pathway of future Olympians.

For example, Coté’s (1999) model is perhaps more appropriate for describing psychological development. This was based on Bloom’s (1985) earlier work investigating more generalised talent development across multiple domains, which included sport. Coté proposed that there were three discrete stages of development: sampling, specialising and investment; each of which was characterised by different environmental and psychological qualities. In short, Coté proposed that athletes began by sampling many sports at a young age, before reducing this number as they specialised and didn’t commit to one sport until they invested at a much later stage. Unlike Balyi’s (1990) model which only considers the development of athletes through one sport, Coté attempts to consider the broader athletic experiences of children and thus is perhaps more able to account for the development of psychological skills and qualities.

Ultimately the journey of any Olympic athlete is unpredictable and complex, and any attempts to model this journey are going to be problematic. Arguably, it is impossible to completely account for the complexity of the world in which an athlete develops. However, in attempting to understand what makes Olympic athletes and how they come to be competing at this level, we perhaps begin to ask better questions about the nature of athletic development and how we might begin to help future Olympic champions.

Douglas MacDonald, University of Stirling


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