Using Sport Psychology Self-Help Interventions

Athletes crave interventions that improve performance. Finding an intervention that works could involve working with a professional sports scientist or following a self-help package. Recent years has seen a rapid growth in the popularity in self-help interventions. Andy Lane offers guidance on how to use self-help interventions to improve performance. (Photo above: Andy Lane finishing Virgin Money London Marathon).

The nature of sport is that individuals strive to find methods to improve performance. Commercial activity to meet this demand has led to increased availability of products such as sports drinks, supplements, equipment modification and numerous self-help books.

In this article, Andy Lane focuses upon the use of self-help materials designed to give an athlete a psychological edge. However, it’s worth noting that physiological, biomechanical, technical and nutritional factors tend to work in tandem with psychological ones. Thus, anyone considering using a self-help intervention should remember that changing one aspect of performance could influence another. For example, in my experience with endurance athletes, interventions that bring about improvements in physiological indices that athletes see as important (lactic threshold, Vo2) are coupled with improvements in psychological ones. (below a runner taking a VO2 max test).

What is a self-help intervention?

An intervention occurs in a number of different ways. In other contexts, e.g., if you are feeling ill you could book an appointment at your GP.  Alternatively, if you have had the illness before, and believe you have correctly identified it, you could take an over-the-counter medication. The following stages lead to improved performance in sport:

1. Identify the problem

2. Implement the intervention and establish the criteria for judging effectiveness

3. Assessment its effectiveness

In sport psychology, the problem can be difficult to identify; an athlete might want to perform better but knowing which parts to work on is complex also assessing the effectiveness can be difficult, especially as psychological data tend to be subjective, an issue exacerbated by the fact that following a self-help intervention, you are both the client and consultant.

Self-help interventions and sport psychology: do they work?

There is an extensive literature that describes how to use self-help sport psychology interventions (1). I have contributed to this literature including authoring 17 Peak Performance articles (see www.pponline.com), each one offering self-help advice.

How do I know if this is good advice? How do I know if the interventions I propose work?

The intervention should be supported by theory and tested scientifically.

The evidence supporting the use of self-help psychological interventions is strong and not restricted to sport (2).

In clinical psychology, patients that followed an online self-help intervention for the treatment of anxiety and depression recovered as effectively (3). 

In health psychology, self-help interventions have helped people manage cravings when following diets (4).

In sport psychology, self-help interventions successfully led to runners not only experiencing more pleasant emotions but also performing better (5).

So how do I develop an effective self-help package?

The question an individual following a self-help intervention should ask her or himself is; “how do I identify where gains can be made”? With self-help interventions, the individual is also a consultant, and therefore, it is important to establish monitoring systems to enable identification of factors that appear to influence performance.  

Your training diary as a way of assessing whether an intervention is needed?

A training diary can be a very effective way of identifying which variables to target for intervention work. However, at least three factors influence the relative success of using a training diary to help guide interventions. First, the diary needs to capture important variables that influence performance and be open to the possibility that you are not assessing the right information. An individual following a self-help intervention needs to be open to new ideas and continue reading widely. The individual is both the client and the consultant, and we expect consultants to be professionals who keep up with the latest research.

With the data sitting in front of you, the key question is “how do I make sense of it so that I know how my performance can be improved”? When deciding what data to record, you should also consider what you will do with it. If you record time spent training then presumably you will use this information to gauge whether it was useful in helping you achieve your goal? If you believe that running long periods of time, or completing certain distances, will help you achieve your marathon goal, then seeing that you are running for longer is likely to improve your confidence. However, if confidence is also influenced by the relative intensity of each run, and you realise that you are running for longer but at a lower intensity your confidence to be able to run at the high intensity on race day may not necessarily be increased. In the example above, the athlete should reflect on whether distance covered is truly a marker of progress with a suggestion that speed needs to be considered and recorded. The key point here is to have a strategy on how you will analyse data and how this will relate to the relative achievement of your goals.

 A third factor to consider is that the act of keeping a training diary could be an intervention itself, particularly for helping manage unwanted emotions. Keeping a diary where you detail intense emotional experiences has been found to be an effective self-help strategy. Expressive writing is proposed to help process information better, and help restructure information from these experiences in a way that if such a situation arises next time, then they are better coped to deal with it (7).

Putting into practice

Training diaries for endurance athletes are aided by the use of modern technology. You can get satellite navigation technology on your mobile phone with numerous free apps available to help record and collate training. In this regard technology has provided a huge advantage in that it takes away potential biases deriving from inaccurate measurement. Further, all you need to do is put on the device, and press start and stop to record training. You do not need to write down what was done which brings in issues to do with the accuracy of recall especially if you do not record what was done shortly after the session.

In addition to this type of data, It’s suggested to record daily mood. Mood is a useful way of recording how well you are coping with training demands. Mood can be used to help balance your training so that you are recovered sufficiently so to maintain quality.

As indicated previously, expressive writing has been found to be an effective intervention strategy. By exploring the likely cause of unwanted emotions, you also begin to develop a blueprint that helps you recognisesituations which bring these and therefore provide opportunities through which to choose a different path to act in the future. For example, if speaking to competitors on the start line gets you particularly nervous, or their banter evokes anger which in turn affects your race strategy, then recognising this to be the case might help change your decision on where to warm-up. You could warm-up alone or rather than warming up near your competitors, and if situational factors prevent this, then listening to music via headphone can serve to block out their conversations. 

References

1. Inside sport psychology, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2010

2. Clinical Psychological Review 2006; 13, 169-186

3. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2011; 79: 123-128

4. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2008; 34: 381-393

5. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 2011; 10: 400-407. www.jssm.org/vol10/n2/22/v10n2-22pdf.pdf

6. Psychological Science 1997; 8: 162-166

Sport Psychology Consultant: Dr Andy Lane

Website @winninglane.com

Consultancy either by Skype £50 per 30 minutes or in person at CHHP (Harley Street, London, call for costs).

The use of a Psychologist in managing eating behaviours and weight loss: A case study

Coming up to Christmas and New Year with so much food around I though this might be helpful if you want to manage your own eating behaviour. Some people have a good relationship with food, some people only eat when they are hungry and eat a healthy diet, butI I would guess they are in the minority.
So often when people try to lose weight they put most of it back on because they don’t tackle the psychological aspect of eating. Emotional eating is a particular problem. There are so many reasons why we eat and it’s not just that we are hungry, usually they go back to childhood e..g., nice food like sweets and cakes are given to us to make us feel better or loved by our family and friends and so when we a sad, or angry maybe we binge on cakes and chocolate. There are also reasons why people turn to restricting their diet when very depressed.
  • A psychologist can use a short questionnaire (e.g.The Exercisers Eating Scale, TEES) to examine ‘eating behaviour’ (i.e., what we eat), ‘weight management techniques’, ‘dietary responses to emotions’, ‘emotional responses to diet’, & ‘body image’ has been developed (see Lane, 2007). The Psychologist then monitors progress with reassessment being done at regular intervals. Intervention are designed to change diet habits and improve self-regulatory behaviour around food. This client was a 39-year old male who previously competed at national level in his sport, but more recently exercised for health and fitness related reasons. (We screened the athlete for possible indicators of eating disorders first).
  • It is normal for many people, including exercisers to engage in dieting behaviours, but only a few are preoccupied by food or show bulimic tendencies. Our client reported similar scores to the average other than he engaged more in dieting behaviours. and experienced unpleasant emotions after eating, and tended to eat when experiencing unpleasant emotions such as depression and anxiety. He also had a poor body image believing himself to be overweight. Our intervention focused on the diet-emotion link.
  • First we asked him to keep a diary of when he was eating, what he was eating, and what emotions were being experienced. It is important for the individual to be aware of the factors associated with binge eating, particularly if they wish to curtail these behaviours. The process of recording a diary is important as it not only provides the consultant with valuable information, but also helps raise self-awareness of factors that lead to binge eating for the client. E.g., he recalled coming home from work after a bad day, went to gym then binged on a huge amount of food. The reason he binged was because he was unhappy over the incident at work. Now he had named the feelings and expressed where they came from strategies could be identified to help him.
  • We then asked the client to challenge, or question the belief that exercise allows an individual to eat as much as they like. Secondly, we sought to explore the strategies the client was using to regulate pleasant and unpleasant emotions. In this case, his exercise was a strategy to enhance emotions, as was eating unhealthy food. By using a food diary, it was possible to see the type of self-talk that the client was engaging in when deciding what to eat and how much to eat. Information in the diary helped develop self-talk scripts to help the client facing similar situations in the future. It is important for clients to realise that they are active in the decision-making process on whether to binge eat, and self-talk should be targeted at enhancing self-confidence and enabling the use of a different strategy.
  • We asked our client to think back to situations in which he made a decision to eat chocolate, and to explore what he said to himself. He then replayed the scenario and sought to remove the link between eating chocolate and improved mood choosing aa different strategy. e are a number of different strategies that could be used. For example, one method would be to tell someone (partner, friend, mother etc) what your day was like, and develop social support networks. It also helps if you can collate a list of things that work for you and which will help you deal with these emotions and prevent you from binge eating. For example, plan something to keep yourself busy; read a book, go on the computer, go for a walk, go to the movies, phone a friend and organise to meet etc. If you know you have a problem with your diet in the evening then plan to use these strategies at this time. However, it is important to recognise that the strategies people used to control their emotions are highly individualised – there’s no single strategy that can be universally applied. The second key aspect of the use of a diary is to recognise the process through which an individual can be confident enough to take control of decisions around food changes during the intervention.
  • It is important that success is positively reinforced and individuals should seek to reward themselves when they have made a good decision around food. However, this reward should not be linked with food. It is important for the consultant to closely monitor the food diary in the initial stages of the intervention, and encourage the individual to congratulate themselves on their achievements.
  • Over time confidence increases in their ability to make correct decisions around food, they also think less about weight management issues and engaging in dieting behaviours. Furthermore, once food is no longer seen as a primary strategy for emotional regulation, individuals tend to eat a far healthier diet. This trend is evidenced in our case study as depicted.
If you want further help from a Psychologist to help you.
You can contact helenlane@winninglane.com or andylane@winninglane.com
See our website; winninglane.com
Consultancy Sessions are £50 per hour on Skype.