Earlier this month, myself and Dr. Rob Udewitz worked with talented equestrian athletes at the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). We got to visit the USET Foundation in Gladstone, New Jersey, meet the coaches involved in training, and tour the beautiful facility. During the workshop, we introduced several talented athletes, their families, and coaches to a few different sport psychology topics relevant to their sport.
We talked about how sport psychology skills such as visual imagery, mindfulness, self-regulation, and pre-competition routines can influence performance. The athletes talked a lot about how the intense stress and pressure of competition can make them forget about details of their execution they have rehearsed in the barn. We talked about how imagery can help to make the transition from practice to competition smoother. Specifically, imagery can help emotionally (practicing feeling how you want to feel at that moment) and cognitively (eventually, you are no longer thinking about what you have to do next because it is automatic).
At the end of our workshop, we even hooked up some athletes to our biofeedback equipment. The athletes enjoyed seeing how breathing, attention, and stress all interact to produce physiological changes in their body. Some coaches even opted to test their arousal-regulation skills! Contact BTNY to learn more about the relationship between sports psychology and performance.
Dr. Itzik Zur has established himself as a performance expert and has worked extensively with soccer teams, fencers, and martial arts athletes for the past nine years. Most recently, Itzik has been researching how a fencer’s mental state can influence his or her performance. More specifically, he is exploring how a fencer’s mental state affects his or her response time, accuracy, power, and muscle engagement while attacking a target. The athlete produces an actual fencing attack on a target and Itzik measures the athlete’s muscle tension, stress level, accuracy, and response time to understand changes in performance in different states. Itzik is a pioneer in the sports performance field as he uses a combination of real-life simulation and individualized biofeedback results to understand how an athlete performs in different mental states.
Thus far, Itzik has found that for elite fencers, anger is correlated with poor performance and that, in general, anger is associated with lower accuracy. However, anger also seems to be connected to great force during the attack.
Itzik has already begun to use his technique with athletes to boost their performance. As his results have shown, different mental states can improve or impair an athlete’s performance. Itzik helps athletes increase their awareness of when they are at their best by measuring performance outcomes in different mental states. After the data is collected and analyzed, Itzik can determine a personalized ideal mindset for the athlete. From there, Itzik designs a particular intervention for athletes to regulate their emotions and learn how to put themselves in that state during competition. More specifically, athletes can learn how to control their muscles better, improve response time under stressful conditions, and have a plan to counter pre-competition anxiety.
“Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening – and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.” – Arnold Palmer
Sport and Performance Psychology of New York now offers a Golf particular Biofeedback program for golfers looking to improve both their mental and physical approaches to the game. The program works for golfers just starting out and wanting to develop a strong foundation on which to build their games; it works just as efficiently for the experienced golfer looking to fine-tune and enhance specific, nuanced elements of the sport.
Description of the ProGolf Suite from the Biofeedback Foundation of Europe
“In this suite, training protocols progress from simple to complex skills development and are executed in parallel with Jane Arave’s Mental Game of Golf program. The mind learns calm focus while the body memorizes its optimal relaxed state, and athletic performance is enhanced as a result. The ProGolf suite includes a stress assessment and an upper trapezius evaluation along with excel reports, notes for quick data interpretation, and useful training tips. It uses a variety of data input levels: respiration, two EEG sensors, two EMG sensors, skin conductance, temperature, and a BVP or EKG sensor It is beneficial to pros as well as amateur golfers, and can also be used as a standalone stress assessment program.”
Don’t Make Me Angry! A Psychophysiological Examination of the Anger–Performance Relationship in Intermediate and Elite Fencers.
We aimed to identify the effect of state-anger on precision, speed, and power components of performance during fencing attacks. We conducted a laboratory-based, single-case research experiment to test the fine motor task performance of two experienced and two elite-level fencers under two emotional states: anger and emotion-neutral. We assessed anger via psychophysiological and self-report measures, and we induced anger via a brief imagery intervention. Through the use of an innovative design, which included multiple measures of change, we showed that anger had a consistent negative effect on precision but an inconsistent relationship with response time and muscle activity. The current research design and protocol offer a novel and in-depth method for examining the specific relationships between affective states, emotions, and the complexities that underpin performance. The specific effects of anger on performance were multifarious, complex, and inconsistent. Nonetheless, the results tend to indicate that anger facilitates reaction time and debilitates performance, and these effects were clearer for the most elite performers. The effects of anger on performance are clearly complex, so it would be rather premature to make any suggestions for future practice at this point. Nonetheless, the clearer findings with the elite fencers indicate that researchers will likely yield the most fruitful insights by examining the effects of emotion on performance in elite performers.
I would like to thank the Sports Performance Center at NYU Langone Health for inviting me to give a speech at the Greater New York American College of Sports Medicine fall meeting on The Science Behind the Mind-Body Relationship in Sports. In this presentation I, Itzik Zur, Ph.D., discussed the nature of emotions, how they could affect athletic skills execution, and presented our latest research on the effects of emotions on fencers’ performance.
“Deciding to work with Dr. Itzik Zur was one of the best decisions in my fencing career. As an elite athlete, mental training is equally as important as physical training. I always liked my sessions with Itzik because they were structured and I could walk away with an action plan- unlike some other people I’ve worked with. They were not only fencing related but touched on all aspects of life. Itzik really understands that the whole picture contributed to my performance. Itzik was always very real and straight-forward in the most comforting way, which I really appreciated. The strategies that Itzik provided were helpful in organizing my thoughts and behaviors, which catapulted my performance. Thank you Itzik for helping me medal at World Championships and qualify for 2 Olympic teams!”
Nzingha Prescod, female foil fencer, Two-time Olympian, bronze medallist at the 2015 World Fencing Championships.
“As a professional ballet dancer and athlete, my 18-year-old daughter found herself at a mental roadblock. She desperately needed tools to push through the challenges she faced which threatened to end her budding dance career. Dr. Udewitz provided the keys to unlock my daughter’s confidence and embrace her talent in a whole new way. Dr. Udewitz’s approach is inspired, he listens intently, responds with intelligence and care, and is skilled at getting to the core of the problems using proven “state of the art” methods. My daughter’s confidence and positive outlook on life have returned and she is now ready for the next chapter in her life.”
Kathryn, a grateful mother”
The connection between a person’s spirit and their success is a clear one. It is the spirit that has motivated the human race, from the dawn of its history, to prevail and overcome challenges and face down difficulties.
Fighting Spirit is a concept that describes the mental state in which a person is prepared to cope with a challenging situation and does not shy away from the difficulties they face, even when the odds are against them. A warrior will demonstrate fighting spirit when training or in battle. A patient with a severe illness will display fighting spirit when coping with the disease. An athlete will show fighting spirit when faced with a difficult and challenging opponent. Fighting Spirit is a supreme and revered expression of the human soul’s ability to overcome, transcend, and attain the unattainable.
The fighting spirit is a clear example of a case where several mental states coexist simultaneously. These mental states may include feelings of anger and frustration along with feelings of optimism and hope. All these feelings coexist with the perception that one can overcome and successfully cope with the challenges ahead.
The question then arises as to what additional factors might determine whether or not this condition will support optimal performance. For example, stress, because of its stimulating effects, may have a positive effect under certain circumstances, while under other conditions it may have an adverse effect.
Research in the field of sports psychology shows that the mediator variable that regulates the relationship between the mental state and the quality of performance is the degree of perceived self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual’s perception of their ability to adopt behavior that will lead to a particular outcome. In other words, it is one’s belief in their capacity to perform a task. A person with high self-efficacy is someone who recognizes and values their ability to cope with a particular task.
Another division in the study of performance and their connection to the mental state is the nature of the task. Different jobs require different motor skills on the part of the performer; these motor skills are defined as gross and fine. Under the category of gross motor skill are crude activities that include running, walking, crawling and other physical activities involving the large muscle groups. As a whole, gross motor skills do not require much accuracy or coordination on the part of the performer. Under the second category are actions belonging to fine motor skills that require high coordination and precise muscle control.
Studies show that a high physiological arousal – expressed in increased heart rate and muscle tension, cold sweat, rapid breathing, and tunnel vision – can have a different effect on the quality of performance of various motor skills. Fine motor skills can be harmed by an increase in physiological arousal, whereas gross motor skills are less sensitive. For example, in a study by Robazza and Bortoli (2007), successful rugby players experienced anger as a useful emotion because the players felt confident in their ability to constructively control, and possibly channel, its energizing effects towards their performance. These rugby players, who, in addition to the feeling of anger, also had a perception of high self-efficacy, utilized the effects of elevated arousal toward better performance.
The fighting spirit consists of several mental states that interact and exist simultaneously. A performer may be stressed and angry in addition to being determined and enthusiastic. Performers who perceive themselves as highly capable of carrying out the task and possess control over their abilities will better channel the energies that this variety of emotions evoke within them and will benefit from this ability.
Therefore, a coach, leader, manager, and teacher who can cultivate among their students and peers a sense of authentic high self-efficacy will further instill within them strong foundations of self-control. This foundation can then help them to cope with a broad range of tasks successfully.
By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.
This article is for any parent with children in competitive sports; for any parent who is closely involved with their child’s world of sports; for any parent who has the best interest and future of their child in mind. The article focuses on the adolescent age range of 11-19.
Being frequently approached by parents who seek advice about their child, I tried to deliver here the gist of the most important things about child psychology in the context of competitive sports.
I will begin with the commonality between most parents who are closely involved in their child’s world of sports. In the beginning, when the child becomes involved with sports at a young age, the parents’ involvement mostly ends with driving the child to practice or paying the sports club. Later, their involvement gradually deepens. As the child grows older and perseveres in their sports field, the parent finds themselves involved in additional subjects, such as: the position of their child in the team, the attitude of the coach and the management towards the child, victories and defeats, wins and losses, the influence of sports on schooling, social life, and so on.
Since the parent’s involvement is a gradually deepening process over the years, the parent unwittingly takes on the additional roles of coach, manager, psychologist, doctor, and more. The parent in fact becomes an “expert” in a wide range of subjects.
This taking of responsibility by the parents in such a large number of roles is not always in the child’s best interest. Indeed, there are famous athletes whose family’s limitless involvement helped them reach the highest levels (e.g. the Williams sisters). Still, there is a greater number of athletes who managed to make those achievements with less intense family support, and there is an even higher number of athletes who suffered at this exaggerated involvement and struggled to fulfill their true potential as a result.
Successful athletes are mostly characterized by their will to succeed in their field – regardless of their environment. Parents can be a promoting and assistive factor, but cannot replace the “fire” that has to burn inside the child. As soon as the child loses their authentic internal will to succeed and advance in sports, if the will to succeed in their field is no longer burning in their bones, then no support, no pushing and no sincere and informed explanations may help.
Then what can parents do in order to preserve the child’s love for the sport they practice?
It is very important to create, as much as possible, a separation between the child’s life in sports and their life at home. In sports – the child is exposed to perpetual criticism, pressures, and a competitive atmosphere. Therefore, the home must be a place of refuge for them from tension and criticism. The child has to feel that the home and their parents are a safe and supportive place, and not someone else at the club who criticizes and analyzes their abilities after practice or a game. A child who knows that following a weak performance they have somewhere to derive power and mental peace, will develop better mental immunity and stamina, and will become emotionally available to get better at sports. Love that only depends on the level of their performance will encourage a sense of tension and disquiet in the child that will accompany them always.
Losing concentration, restlessness, violence and anger are examples of common behaviors from young players during a game. In most cases those behaviors are expressions of tensions and mental stress that stems from the fear of the imminent criticism after the game (especially if it is a bad game). A young player who knows that among family members they will not have to deal with questions and defend, regardless of the game’s score, will be able to display better calm and concentration in a game, and perform better.
Following are several principles that may be incorporated in daily life:
1. Feedback and game analysis – after a match, adrenaline is high, passion is at a peak and therefore things are not always spoken with consideration. It is recommended to wait for at least half a day before discussing the game. No matter what the outcome was, after a game you need to rest, eat and indulge.
2. Respecting the system – a parent who communicates to their child that they respect the system (coach, management, professional team) will enforce the child’s self-confidence since the child is supported by this same system. This behavior also covertly teaches the child that even though the system may not be perfect, problems can be solved in an appropriate and acceptable way that will not harm their personal progress.
3. Nurturing a sense of responsibility – be supportive, but let your child deal with the consequences of their actions. Responsibility is ultimately with the child. A player who from a young age learns to take responsibility for their actions (without those around them hurrying to solve their problems for them) will develop an independent and mature personality, which is necessary both in and outside of sports.
4. Developing a varied personality – it is recommended to treat the child as a complex and varied person, and not just a player. Sometimes people forget that the child is much more beyond just a player, with wants, difficulties and other interests that do not necessarily relate to sports.
5. Finally, it is their life – if the child made any decision that is unacceptable to you such as switching teams, a conversation is a good and important tool you can use to express your opinion and to try and convince them, yet there is no room to feel hurt or guilty even if you had already invested many hours in their current path. This is their life and their wishes, and whatever they learn in sports they will be able to apply in the future in a variety of other fields. Success has many varied faces.
By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.
By 2018, the eSports industry is expected to generate $1.9 billion in revenue. With fans all over the world, the future of eSports is promising and likely to become a truly global sport. A professional eGamer often plays and practices up to 16 hours a day, every day, and competes in a breakneck pace environment. To win, they must perform many quick actions and demonstrate rapid decision-making and communication skills, a demand that is unlike any other sport. Therefore, these gamers must utilize any available mental resource to excel in such highly demanding conditions.
Consequently, a professional eGamer performs under great physical and mental strain for many hours. In general, researchers in the field of performance psychology have found that the process of regulating and controlling unpleasant emotional reactions, such as anger, consumes a lot of mental resources. As a result, eGamers may be prone to frequent emotional fluctuations, more so than athletes in other sports.
The good news is that the nature of eSports, being a computer-based online activity, enables coaches and performance psychology professionals to follow, monitor and provide immediate, as well as moment-to-moment, post-performance feedback. We can learn which situations cause an eGamer to experience anxiety or anger and then provide the tools necessary to either utilize that emotional response towards better performance or prepare strategies to regulate their response. For example, in my Ph.D. research, I demonstrated that anger could increase a performer’s response-time when channeled correctly.
Furthermore, we can collect psychophysiological activity by measuring an eGamer’s heart-rate, respiration, skin-conductance, skin-surface temperature, and muscle tension. We can then determine from this data whether the performer is experiencing good stress (alertness) or distress (anxiety). With this understanding, we can then improve the player’s awareness of what triggers specific emotional reactions within them and provide the mental skills and strategies necessary to help them communicate efficiently and calmly with their team mates, perform better, and improve their overall well-being.
Thanks to the eSports setting, professionals in the field of performance psychology now have the ability to pinpoint that exact moment that triggered a particular emotional reaction within a performer. This setting also allows us to gain an in-depth view of the mental and physiological state in real-time and to conduct a post-performance investigation. This flexibility provides an avenue to new and exciting possibilities that have never existed before, and perhaps improve an eGamer’s level of performance, personal, and professional well-being dramatically.
By Itzik Zur, Ph.D.