An interview with the Sports Psychologist for the USA Track and Field team.
Affairs of the mind, conscious or subconscious, are shrouded in internalized mystery. We are the only ones who know what goes on in there. A subconscious soundproof safe room with a one-way mirror. At times it is as if our brains have a mind of their own.
I put myself out there in Part One of this series. I have negative cycling-related thoughts from time to time before A events and breakthrough training sessions. It may be due to an unjustified lack of confidence in my ability or an unsubstantiated inability to overlook past poor performances. Who knows?
The other thing I didn’t know but had a keen idea was that I wasn’t the only one. I reached out to Dr. Christopher Stanley, an Associate in Research at Florida State University and Sports Psychology Consultant for USA Track and Field, for his confirmation.
Dr. Stanley was kind enough to take a moment away from his post-Tokyo Olympic travels to answer a few questions.
An interview with Dr. Christopher Stanley!
Do the professional and elite athletes you work with on the International level experience the effects of URTs?
The concept of URTs (Unpleasant Repetitive Thoughts) is relevant for athletes I have assisted. We’ve referred to these cognitions as irrelevant thoughts, and when they reoccur, they can take on the repetitive or ruminating quality.
One example of how these can manifest in sport is when athletes develop a cognitive ‘script’ leading up to and including performance. They may have had a less-than-ideal recent performance (or several), and a repetitive thought related to ‘here I/we go again’ emerges.
An added layer of difficulty with URTs is they can be hard to break. There is an ironic effect that suggests that if you try to stop thinking of something, those thoughts and ideas can become even stronger in the moment.
Over time, athletes can start to associate specific environmental cues with thoughts. In a way, if URTs are present over time, they can begin to become a conditioned response.
These URTs can negatively impact physiological and mental states, and subsequently, performance. Thoughts can carry a cascade of responses, including physiological arousal (which isn’t always needed or wanted in sport) along with emotions, including anxiety.
They can also take up cognitive space, which otherwise may be used more beneficially for cues that athletes employ during crucial moments before, during, and after a competition.
Together, URTs can be problematic in sport contexts, and identifying them early and taking some simple steps can be helpful long-term.
In a way, you want the athlete to ‘feed’ these thoughts less and less, so they have less strength and durability.
How do you advise your athletes to overcome URTs? What strategies do you use?
Forms of URTs – indeed the ‘here we go again’ example from above – are intertwined in retrospective thought and speculation about the future. URTs can interfere with performance where a focus on the present moment is more relevant.
Mindfulness can be a practical approach with athletes to adopt or employ a more mindful perspective in critical moments. Mindfulness is a sort of purposeful attention to the present moment and striving to be non-judgmental about thoughts and feelings.
There are a couple of basic mental or behavioral skills that can be subsumed within a mindfulness framework.
One of them is deep belly breathing. There is a large base of literature supporting breathing techniques for arousal regulation and even pain management. It can be helpful with thought management, too.
With breathing, it’s not just the breathing motions that are important. There are attentional (e.g., counts, rhythms) and physical (e.g., belly, chest expansion) cues on which athletes can focus.
So, in addition to the relaxation response it elicits, the athlete has cues they can lean into. These cues take up cognitive space which would otherwise be free for irrelevant, repetitive stuff. The URTs are (by definition) repetitive, so the athlete may need to refocus attention on these relevant cues frequently.
Another approach is re-directing attention to the present moment. One strategy athletes have reported useful is a 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
Athletes can find five things they see, four things to hear, three things they feel, two things to smell, and one thing they taste. The athlete can adjust this technique to meet their individual needs, including their sensory capabilities.
It may not always work well in the middle of a competition, so find a better place before or after competition or during breaks. It can also be adjusted to suit the environment – some environments or situations may not offer all the visual or auditory cues, or even the smell and taste.
Again, focus and cognitive space are directed to present moment stimuli and, consequently, away from retrospective and speculative thoughts.
Another reason I like mindfulness and associated strategies is because they can (and should) be practiced in contexts outside of sport. There are various mindfulness books and guides (e.g., Mindfulness on the Go) that offer practice ideas. Athletes can practice and build skills useful for sport contexts at home, work, and other environments.
There are ‘deeper dives’ with cognitive-behavioral techniques aimed at identifying, disputing, and redirecting irrational thoughts, although the above for me are some ‘low hanging fruit’ – pretty simple techniques that can be introduced and practiced in relevant scenarios.
What is your experience in the outcomes of the strategies you utilize with your athletes?
I often think I am in the business of “small effect sizes.” That is, mental performance work can take work over time, sometimes to instill seemingly minor upward shifts in cognitive skills and strategies usage and capabilities.
However, these small effect sizes (i.e., moving the needle in a slightly more desirable physiological or cognitive direction) can significantly impact sport situations, where fractional units and differences in terms of movement, time, and distance can make an enormous difference in the outcome.
Are there any other strategies that you use with your athletes who are affected by URTs?
I often tell athletes it can be helpful to “put thoughts somewhere.” Whether writing them down or talking it out, sometimes the thoughts can return in more organized, logical ways.
Akin to a cue to redirect thoughts to more relevant (or perhaps neutral) stimuli. Some of this may emerge in ‘self-talk’ as well and have implications for internal dialogue.
Sometimes I use the analogy with athletes that internal dialogue (with yourself) can be like external dialogue (with another person). In some cases, after lengthy bouts of discussion, you must tell someone else (or yourself) you don’t have time to revisit a conversation right now. Cue redirection can be helpful in these situations.
I do work with athletes on such thought redirection. Usually, background work goes into it. I wouldn’t expect it to work during a competition the first time.
The background work may involve some more detailed thought identification, dispute, and replacement work. It can be helpful to work through things when time is abundant to be ready for when time is constrained. It can also be beneficial to go through mock competitions to try these out.
Are there any strategies unique to virtual cycling that you may utilize with your athletes as well?
You are correct that some endurance events are unique. They don’t offer the space or breaks that other events do (e.g., field events) to engage in certain activities.
In these cases, athletes may benefit from imagery and visualization to tether to their thought redirection and cue utilization efforts. The actions of writing something down and discarding would seem to be symbolic of ‘moving on’ or in another direction.
Imagery and visualization scripts could incorporate images that carry the same message and could be more conveniently be drawn upon during competition. Again, though, imagery work outside of competition would help facilitate its usefulness.
Thank you, Dr. Stanley! Your practical insight and expert opinion are affirming and helpful.
Do you experience unpleasant repetitive thoughts about your riding or racing? What things do you do that are helpful? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Christopher Stanley obtained graduate degrees in Sport Psychology as well as Developmental Psychology. Professionally, he has been a collegiate coach as well as academic faculty and is currently research faculty at Florida State University. He is involved in numerous projects related to education and human performance. He has authored numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, white papers, and book chapters broadly related to the psychosocial aspects of sport participation and performance, as well as educational issues and outcomes. Much of his scholarship and writing is relevant for athlete and coaching audiences. He is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) and works with a variety of athletes and coaches, including with USA Track and Field. Most recently, he was part of the Team USA staff for the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site. In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.