Congratulations to Lizzy Yarnold! Again!
Not only has Lizzy won a gold medal in the winter Olympics, a rare enough feat in its own right, she has done so in 2 consecutive Winter Olympic championships. A feat never before achieved by a British Athlete.
What has Lizzy’s success got to do with mental health? One of the factors highlighted in 2014 in the Guardian was how, in her preparation for the event, she would picture herself doing every twist and turn of the track, over and over. Visualisation is not just a process where you see yourself doing something, it also involves a bodily rehearsal of the actions you would make if you were actually doing it. Electrical changes take place in the muscles we would use in the event in the same sequence as the action would require. Visualisation is intricately associated with movement and all movements are visualised and rehearsed before we make them. I was interested in how Lizzy used it, as visualisation is an important feature of our Positive Mental Training (PosMT) programme, which in itself came about as a co-incidental offshoot of a Swedish Olympic sports psychology programme. I spoke to Lizzy about this in 2014, wondering if she had been taught to do this by a coach to improve her performance. It turned out that she had adopted the technique spontaneously without instruction; starting as a pole vaulter when training, she developed a technique of visualisation in order to describe each jump to her coach, visualising how, when and where she had placed the pole and how she moved her body as she rose up.
Chris Hoy, who also has a huge tally of Olympic Gold medals over many years, has also described how he does not sleep the night before a race. Instead he spends the night visualising the upcoming race, every twist and every turn of the course. Then he gets up and sits on the saddle and the rest is automatic, his body runs through the movements with minimal interference, just the occasional correction. There are 2 learning points here, one is about role of visualisation in preparing for an event and the other is about sleep. Sometimes when you can’t sleep it is because you are doing important mental preparation and any anxiety (which may seem intense in the night) will fall away when you are faced with the task. The key is that your mind is looking after you. We need a good sleep, we get considerably less now compared to the 80’s and the mental training programme is very effective for sleep. Many Doctors and NHS staff (often on night shifts) use PosMT for their own benefit to restore a healthy sleeping pattern, myself included. The physiological exercises are very good for removing the barrier to sleep, try listening in the middle of the night when you wake up.
In both these cases, the athletes have been constantly practicing the event mentally and seeing their ideal performance state. Naturally of course they also need a high level of fitness, mental rehearsal would not help an athlete inexperienced in moving their bodies in their sport. However, to succeed, you need both the physical ability and the mental visualisation. Some coaches have been aware of this for a while; the coaches for the Canadian swimming team, if their swimmers had a bad heat would make them watch the race. They would relive their ‘bad’ performance, and then remember their last good performance absorbing themselves in a visualisation of the successful race instead.
One coach who understood this was a Swedish academic and a sportsman, Lars Eric Unestahl. He recognised the importance of positive visualisation and asked Olympic gold medal winners to describe what they thought about during training and race preparation. Many of them described recalling memories from the past, one famous hurdler who also won gold over 2 consecutive Olympics described how he would recall positive childhood memories, one of winning the egg and spoon race in preschool and one of playing games in the woods outside Stockholm as a child. Lars Eric decided to make a programme that would incorporate this memory recall in an athletes practice. Along with bodily techniques he turned this into a method of coaching using audio recordings to allow the athlete to develop a deep state of introspection, now described as introception, which is the ability to sense the state of the body and deepen the beneficial parasympathetic state of relaxation.
Lars Eric also noticed that the athletes using the programme would describe a greater sense of life satisfaction and happiness. At work colleagues would say ‘What is up with you? Are you taking drugs? You are coming to work all cheerful and optimistic and being really friendly.’ I thus thought, working as a young GP in Scotland, to use it with the many depressed patients I had. It was well recognised that Scotland had one of the highest suicide rates in the world for young men, so Lars Eric’s observation struck a chord. I spent some time with him talking and watching, then I took the programme and tried it out with my depressed patients. The effects were powerful and sometimes transformational as people became outgoing and positive about their lives. Since then I have come to recognise the link between what the athletes were doing and what my depressed patients were doing. The athletes were able to visualise and develop their ideal performance state, while the depressed patients are able to visualise and practice their ideal state also, that of their recovered selves free from depression. They learn to visualise, and hence rehearse, how they will behave in social company, and then like Chris and Lizzy, it became automatic when in context. Depression is a state of withdrawal from society, depressed patients do not engage socially with others be this, friends, family or colleagues. To counteract this, you can use an altered state of attention, such as that engaged with during PosMT, to change their model of the past. Simply telling them to stop being so negative invokes powerful factors that make them reject this idea.
Visualisation and these covert movements also combine to create a skill we use whenever we watch someone else perform, be that social or athletic. We are rehearsing their movements with our own bodies unconsciously, trying out the significance and intent of their movements. We are creating a mirror of their minds in our own minds, the same brain cells that make the movements in our bodies respond to their movements and we remember this and can access their patterns of movement. We can then access this state.
There is one more essential factor in Olympian success. Olympic athletes need to have access to a very powerful sense of competence, a feeling that they can perform in the situation at hand. Lizzy’s emphatic smile attests to the notion that she has a very positive and supportive emotional state behind her. What good are positive emotions? They make our brains work more effectively, particularly under stress. With a foundation of positive emotions we can think clearly, we are more mentally nimble and able to deal with situations. We become more creative if we can picture ourselves coping and all of this means we will bounce back more quickly after a stressful situation. This is a quality called resilience and Olympic athletes have it in spades, they have to or else they wouldn’t be in the Olympics, at the first failure they might drop out. They need to understand that sport is not about innate ability, it is about learning from ‘failure’ they need to adopt a growth model. Where do these emotions come from? They come from our memories, we have shown this in our recent research with McGill University (Philippe et al 2017[i]). What aspect of our memories make us positive? McGill found it was the levels of autonomy, competence and relatedness contained with each memory. A stressful situation recalls a network of associated memories linked by common themes that lurk unconscious and hidden under the surface of our minds. Along with McGill we teased these memories out and categorised them, the first 3 that come to mind are key and will inform our ability to cope, developing our competence in any stressful situation (Philippe & Dobbin et al 2017). If 2/3 of the memories are needs fulfilling, demonstrating a similar experience where we exhibited autonomy, competence and relatedness we will cope with the situation and experience growth, protected from depression and anxiety by a positive sense of control. If 2/3 of the memories are thwarting of our needs, that is, generally feeling a loss of control and incompetence, then we will struggle to cope. These feelings will inform our visualisation and we will falter and stumble. The good news is that we can change the memories that underpin our coping and increase the count of coping memories by 1. I do not have the space to go into how, but we have shown that it is a skill that can be developed with simple practice, by using the skills that Olympic athletes use, despite being unaware of them. This means we can learn autonomy and competence becoming stronger under stress and deal with it more effectively.
Which brings me back to Lizzy. This time in 2018 Lizzy had a fellow athlete in her own sport. She naturally would watch this younger girl, her mind and body constantly assessing the ability of the younger girl, seeing her strengths and weaknesses. She found herself visualising the end of the race and ‘saw’ them both on the winner’s podium. I believe that Olympic champions like Lizzy will have a 3/3 positive network of memories. And what are these memories? I think there is a clue in what Lizzy sees for her future. She started talking about learning to knit as a child with her Grandmother, who died between the 2 Olympics, clearly a most supportive relationship. I don’t know, but I would hazard a guess, and I hope Lizzy doesn’t take this as too presumptuous, that perhaps her Grandmother was a person who made her believe in her autonomy and competence, supported by a loving relatedness. Perhaps the desire to learn knitting will be expressed in a new sport, she has after all already swapped between sailing, high jump and this new sport of skeleton. She also talks of a desire to nurture self-belief in children inspired by her work in schools, to inspire, perhaps a model from her Granny.
Autonomy, competence and relatedness underpin the development of self-determination, which inform our sense of purpose and meaning, and have been shown to represent the basic psychological needs which allow us to access well-being across all cultures and nationalities ‘Societal need fulfilment predicted SWB, particularly for life evaluation, beyond individuals’ fulfilment of their own needs, indicating the desirability of living in a flourishing society’. (Tay & Diener 2011[ii]) We are very pleased that together with our Canadian colleagues we have shown that these needs are derived from the self-determination held in our memory networks which can be changed by adopting a growth model. My thoughts are that excellence in sport is a form of communication between athlete and observer, literally a form of body language that we all understand, a language of flourishing and recognising the beauty of the human form but above all the beauty and potential of the striving human spirit an expression of our need to communicate and relate, a true and inspiring mind body connection.
[i] Philippe F, Dobbin AE, Ross S, Houle I. (2017) Resilience facilitates positive emotionality and integration of negative memories in need satisfying memory networks: an experimental study. J Pos Psychol 2017; DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2017.1365158.
[ii] Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2011). Needs and subjective well-being around the world. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 354–365. doi:10.1037/a0023779