The Myths (and Facts) of Sports Psychology

Words by Dr Jeremy Adams | Images by Flow

Sports psychologist Dr Jeremy Adams is Flow’s go-to guru when it comes to all riding matters above the chin-strap. He’s been a long-time contributor to Flow, and this time he turns his observations to the myths, misconceptions and facts about sports psychology. In the first of the three-part series he explored why we have such a bias towards following sports psychology advice that normally has no scientific underpinnings.


Other articles by Dr Jeremy Adams

Why You Don’t Really Need to Upgrade

It’s OK to Take the Winter Off

Using Pain to Become a Better Mountain Biker

The Strava Conundrum

Are You Addicted to Buying MTB Gear? 


 

Part 1: Science versus anecdote

It seems that everyone and his (or her) dog has an opinion about sport psychology and its use to increase performance. Sadly, it’s also an area that has evoked large amounts of pseudoscience, scam, misinformation, and (sometimes well-meaning) commentary, which have muddied the public understanding of the mental aspects of sporting (and other types of) performance.

So I thought I’d spend a bit of time trying to sort out the facts from the myths, as well as explaining how you can hone your own bullshit detector for the future.

Flow Mountain Bike - Falls Creek 2015-42

In fact, in most cases, ‘self-help’ and ‘obvious solution’ makes us victim to the traps of trusting anecdotes, single-case observations, or personal experience, over methodological processes.

For most people, their ideas about what works and what doesn’t are based on their own observations. To most of us, this makes complete sense. After all, we learn from our own life-experiences, and that makes us, in turn, more likely to listen to other people when they draw on their own experiences and observations. We also like a good story, and are much more likely to listen to someone who we feel can communicate with us, than we are to read a dry, academic article.

Unfortunately, this bias toward self-observation, and the stories of those we trust or find interesting, often gets in the way of the facts. In fact, in most cases, ‘self-help’ and ‘obvious solution’ makes us victim to the traps of trusting anecdotes, single-case observations, or personal experience, over methodological processes.

So what’s wrong with trusting your gut feeling, or relying on anecdotes and personal experience? Well, first off, we’re pretty unreliable observers; just because you think things are a certain way doesn’t mean that’s the way they actually are! Second, other people are equally poor at observing correctly, and we have a nasty tendency (whether we know it or not) to make things up to fit our expectation of the way they should be. This means that, no matter how much you might like or trust another person (or yourself), his or her (or your) observations are also likely to be suspect. Last, humans have a habit of taking small numbers of observations and stringing them together into non-existent patterns. We’re excellent pattern matchers, but we’re also good at seeing things that just don’t exist (there are good evolutionary reasons for this talent – for example, being able to recognise danger – but we’re also prone to making a lot of mistakes).

Flow Nation Derby 2015-156

Once we were able to recognise that our inherent observational abilities were both flawed and subjective, humans were able to develop methods to compensate by developing scientific methodologies. Science is, most simply, a technique for observing facts as neutrally as possible, positing potential explanations (based on those observations), and then testing those possibilities through a process of elimination (this is called falsification), refinement, and retesting (called replication). This empirical process is how we’ve been able develop technology, and your mountain bike is a perfect example of the scientific process: from the materials, to the geometry, to the mechanical action of the suspension, a mountain bike is the current end-point of an empirically tested process. And because science is iterative, as scientists and engineers find flaws in earlier processes, they abandon outmoded models, and integrate newer processes. As such, mountain bikes continue to improve.

Because it’s so intuitive (not to mention tempting) to make assumptions about the why and how of human performance, it’s not surprising that many of us do it.

The idea of empirical testing, refinement, and the expulsion of earlier, less effective models in preference to new methods, underpins all science. It also underpins sport psychology. As such, as boring and non-intuitive as it might sound, effective sport-psychology practice comes from well-designed research, not from personal experience or anecdotes.

Because it’s so intuitive (not to mention tempting) to make assumptions about the why and how of human performance, it’s not surprising that many of us do it. And because very few of us actually learn about the scientific process, or cognitive biases (these are the automatic, inbuilt errors that all humans make in certain situations, like assuming that the risk of a particular action is higher because someone we know had an accident doing that thing), it makes intuitive sense for us to listen to people who are obviously experienced in our sport (or simply entertaining), without ever questioning whether or not they might be correct. This tendency also explains the large number of self-help books, and people who (honestly) believe that they have the magic solution. The problem is that the ‘magic solution’ isn’t anything of the sort, but many people will devote a large amount of time and effort following the ‘magic’ advice. And sadly, although (in most cases) this information is well intentioned, it frequently falls under the category of ‘well-meaning harm’.

Now at this point, you’re potentially (i) bored, and (ii) thinking “this guy is just trying to make himself sound good because he has a PhD”. In fact, I’m trying to do the opposite by encouraging doubt and suspicion. Rather than just believing what you read or hear, it’s worth going to original sources, educating yourself on how to evaluate that source, and making your mind up based on evidence rather than opinion. If you’re interested in some information on how to think more empirically, have a read of this: http://www.eclectic-consult.com/mooseblog/2013/05/20/evidence-versus-hearsay-learning-to-think-like-a-scientist/

In part 2, we’ll look at the myths of sport psychology, and what you should remain sceptical about. In part 3, we’ll look at what actually works, and how to evaluate for yourself whether a technique or idea is worthwhile.


 

About the author:

Dr. Jeremy Adams is a registered psychologist and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.

In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about how to be human (www.eclectic-moose.com).

Jeremy is based in Melbourne and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com) or on (03) 9016 0306.

 

 

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