In London 2012, Team GB finished third in the medal table. This year, they are set to go one better. Our Paralympians have been labelled as ‘The Super-Humans’, but what psychological skills makes a Paralympic champion? Is this something that can be taught and learnt? And if so, will it help our students do better whilst they are at school?
Sports Psychologists studying Paralympians have whittled it down to five psychological traits and skills that help our Paralympic champions flourish. These five areas are 1) Able to Manage Nerves and Pressure, 2) Mental Toughness, 3) High Levels of Vigour, 4) Being Optimistic and 5) Act With Certainty and Clarity. So which of these can be taught and which have in impact on school success?
ABLE TO MANAGE NERVES
Are Paralympic champions less anxious by nature, or do they have a better ability to manage their nerves? The answer it turns out, is probably both. Feeling too stressed or anxious can hinder concentration, confidence and the physical execution of skills. It takes a lot of self-composure to deliver your best performance when it matters the most.
Popular strategies to manage emotions include improve their self-talk, positive imagery and seeing upcoming events as an opportunity as opposed to a threat. These techniques can be applied by both athletes and students – either before they compete for the former or before an exam for the latter.
These skills are often called ‘Self-Regulation’. The Sutton Trust report that these sort of interventions are one of the most effective for helping students improve, adding on average 8 months additional progress. Self-regulation helps students improve how they feel and how they perform in exams. In a time of economic uncertainty and budgets being stretched, it is heartening to know that as well as being one of the most effective, self-regulation is also one of the cheapest strategies to help students.
This is characterised with high levels of motivations, being able to cope effectively with setbacks and being focused on their goals. It is not surprising that these skills are shared by many Paralympians, as the ability to maintain motivation and confidence over a large period of time is vital for success in an event that occurs once every four years.
The nearest equivalent to this in education is Grit. Defined by psychologist Angela Duckworth as a combination of passion and perseverance for long term goals, this area is gaining popularity in schools. A recent review found that how gritty you are is unlikely to have too much impact on grades (grit only accounted for 0.5% difference in student’s GCSE results). Instead, Duckworth says that grit may be an effective intervention for helping at risk students not dropping out of school. This seems to have been confirmed with a recent analysis of 88 studies on grit reported that “a grit intervention that increases retention rate in college by even a single point would potentially benefit thousands of students”.
HIGH LEVELS OF VIGOUR
Vigour is defined as having high levels of energy, effort and drive. Out of the five psychological areas discussed in this blog, this is probably the hardest (if not impossible) to teach someone. To reach peak performance, the drive has got to come from the individual competing in the task. What coaches and teachers can do is create an environment and motivational climate where those with high vigour can flourish.
How can teachers tap in to student’s internal motivation and help nurture it? The answer may be helping to create what psychologists call ‘a sense of purpose’. In one study, students were divided into four groups and taught a new foreign language and were given different incentives and motivation. Group 1 weren’t given any reason why they were learning this language, group 2 were told they were going to be tested at the end of the course, group 3 were told it was what was expected of them and group 4 were told it would help them achieve their future career goals. The results were clear – the fourth group rated the foregin language lessons as more important and put in more effort into their studies than compared to the other three groups.
Creating a sense of purpose is a cute psychological intervention as it is quick, simple and cheap. Teachers can do this by informing students how doing well in the current task will help them develop important skills, benefit their other subjects and future career goals.
Paralympians have been founded to be more optimistic than non-Paralympians. This optimistic trait is also a hallmark of Olympic champions as well. In psychological theory, optimism is measured by how someone attributes their successes or failures. They can be temporary or permanent (‘today was a bad day’ v ‘things will always be bad’), and as specific or general (I am not good at this part of the skill’ v ‘I am not good at anything’).
Optimism has been studied extensively in schools. It has been associated with reducing the likelihood of dropping out, better motivation and coping more effectively with academic transitions. Likewise, a pessimistic explanatory style is seen as a strong predictor of high levels of hostility and fear in high school students. What impact does optimism-pessimism have on marks? Research has found that “students who explained bad academic achievements events with internal, stable and global causes received lower grades”
ACT WITH CERTAINTY AND CLARITY
The brain gets very emotional if there is a lot of uncertainty around a situation. Not knowing what will happen often leads to nerves or stress. This is why many athletes talk about being ‘process focused’. This means focusing on what they can control, which usually means their strategies, routines and performance.
A similar approach can be taken by students whilst at school. When InnerDrive work with students, we advise them to ‘control the controllables’. This means identifying whats within your own power and focusing on that. This can be done by developing a pre-exam routine that is effective for them or creating strategies that reduce confusion and doubt in exams. By focusing on what they need to do (i.e. their processes) and not overly focusing on the potential consequences, it helps them build confidence whilst reducing their fear of failure.
The Paralympic Games offer a chance to inspire the nation. As well as the phenomenal physical achievements, it is good to scratch a little deeper and see the psychological strategies being employed. Beyond just motivating our students through assemblies themed around ‘achieving your dreams’, they can really teach us something about the psychology of success, resulting in our students improving how they think, feel, behave and perform in exams.
We have previously blogged on the ‘Psychology of Olympic Champions’, ‘The Do’s and Don’ts of The Olympics’ and how ‘Olympic Champions Develop Resilience’. These blogs were based around research interviews with Olympians, though it would be a safe bet that many of the findings would be relevant and applicable to the Paralympics and Paralympic Champions.
We have had the privilege of working with members of Team GB at London 2012 and Rio 2016, helping them work on some of the above areas. It has been an honour to see such mental toughness first-hand. As these athlete continue to push the envelope, we hope and expect the exposure and coverage they receive to grow. They truly are super-humans.
This article was first published on The Guardian website on 07.09.16. You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch