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Maybe its the fear of turning 40.  Maybe its the feeling of unfinished business.  Maybe its the fire in the belly that has not quite extinguished.  For retired elite athletes, the itch is always there to make a return after experiencing "life after sport".  For some, it becomes too strong to ignore.  This year has seen the return of at least three champions, Dara Torres, Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre.  As they explain their individual reasons for coming back, some similarities emerge that have more to do with psychological needs than practical needs.  In a recent Miami Herald article , Torres explained her comeback to competitive swimming at age 41, "For me, it's not like I sat around and watched swimming on TV and thought, `Oh, I wish I was still competing'.  It was more gradual. But all of a sudden, something goes off inside you and you start seriously thinking about a comeback.  You'd think the competitive fire would die down with maturity, but I've actually gotten worse.  I wasn't satisfied with silver medals. I hate to lose now more than I did in my 20s. I'm still trying to figure out why.''


Drawing inspiration from Torres, Lance Armstrong has decided to make a comeback at age 37 with a declared goal to win his eighth Tour de France.  In a recent Vanity Fair article , he described his rationale, “Look at the Olympics. You have a swimmer like Dara Torres. Even in the 50-meter event, the 41-year-old mother proved you can do it. The woman who won the marathon Tomescu-Dita, of Romania was 38. Older athletes are performing very well. Ask serious sports physiologists and they’ll tell you age is a wives’ tale. Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired. They’ve done their sport for 20, 25 years and they’re like, I’ve had enough. But there’s no evidence to support that when you’re 38 you’re any slower than when you were 32."


Is it the 40 factor?  Brett Favre, who turns 39 in October, made his well-publicized return to the NFL last month wanting to return so badly that he accepted a trade to the New York Jets so that he could play.  His public and emotional decision to retire in March, only to begin hinting at a comeback in early summer showed the internal struggle he had with stepping away from sports.  You could hear the indecision in his retirement press conference, "I've given everything I possibly can give to this organization, to the game of football, and I don't think I've got anything left to give, and that's it.", Favre said. "I know I can play, but I don't think I want to. And that's really what it comes down to. Fishing for different answers and what ifs and will he come back and things like that, what matters is it's been a great career for me, and it's over. As hard as that is for me to say, it's over. There's only one way for me to play the game, and that's 100 percent. Mike and I had that conversation the other night, and I will wonder if I made the wrong decision. I'm sure on Sundays, I will say I could be doing that, I should be doing that. I'm not going to sit here like other players maybe have said in the past that I won't miss it, because I will. But I just don't think I can give anything else, aside from the three hours on Sundays, and in football you can't do that. It's a total commitment, and up to this point I have been totally committed."  Some observers point to the end of the Packers' 2007-2008 season with a heart-wrenching Favre interception in overtime that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl instead of Green Bay.  Being that close to the pinnacle of his sport must have been confidence that his skills had not diminished and once the fatigue of the past season had passed (by about June), that he was not ready to just ride the tractor in Mississippi for the next 40 years.


So, what do the sport psychologists make of these second thoughts?  These three athletes are world famous, but what about the hundreds of professional athletes that have had to make the same decision without all of the front page stories and fanfare?  Why does Chris Chelios, all-star and future Hall of Famer in the NHL, continue to avoid the retirement decision at age 45?  Coaches aren't immune either.  Bobby Bowden of Florida State and Joe Paterno of Penn State have refused to retire to the point of becoming an awkward story for their schools and fans. ''After all the adulation and excitement wear off and elite athletes come face to face with retirement and a more mundane life, they suffer a sense of loss, almost like a death,'' said sport psychologist John F. Murray .  "If you're Lance Armstrong, you realize that what you are is a cyclist, that is your identity, and if you feel you have one or two more titles in you, why let it go? Why not tackle unresolved challenges? Competing at that level provides a high that is hard to match. How can you not be addicted to that?''


Beyond the professional ranks, thousands of college and Olympic athletes are left with the realization that they face similar decisions of when to "give up the dream" and move into the more practical world of finishing their education and finding a job.  Their emotional attachment to their sport has developed over years of building an identity linked to their success on the field.  Despite the statistics showing the "funnel effect" of the diminishing number of athletes getting to the "next level", younger athletes continue to believe they are the ones that will make it to the top.  There is also the more emotional issue of unwillingly leaving a sport because of injury or simply not making the team due to diminished skills.  Dr. Murray adds, "When your whole life has been geared toward athletic excellence, the prospects of retirement can be dreadful! This is commonplace at collegiate level where 99 per cent of the athletes do not go on to play their sport professionally. Counseling is a way to prepare athletes for the inevitable loss that occurs after the glory is over and only memories remain. As with any loss, people need effective ways to cope. Going at it all on your own might work for some, but I’ll submit that the vast majority of athletes benefit from early discussion and planning for retirement. There is definitely life after sport."


Some colleges and universities, as well as some professional teams, have started to offer formal "retirement planning" for athletes as their formal sport careers wind down.  Life After Sports , a counseling firm started by Adrian McBride, a former college and NFL player, provides services to retiring college athletes to help them emotionally and practically adjust to a post-sports life.  The University of North Carolina has set-up the Center for the Study of Retired Athletes to offer a home for academic research into these issues.


Additional academic research is also coming out on athlete retirement including two articles this year (see citations below) from the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology.  First, Katie Warriner and David Lavallee of the University of Wales interviewed former elite gymnasts regarding their retirement at a relatively young age from competitive sport.  They found the loss of identity to be the biggest adjustment.   Second, Patricia Lally and Gretchen Kerr looked at how parents cope with their children's "retirement" from sport, as they also go through withdrawl symptoms when the "end of the dream" finally comes and the lifelong ambition for their child's athletic success is over.


Who's next up for a retirement rebound?  Just as Lance got inspiration from Torres and maybe Favre, the trend may continue.  The Bulls could use Jordan or Pippen and Roger Clemens is never far away from a phone.  Stay tuned!


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<span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofAppliedSportPsychology&amp;;rft.atitle=TheRetirementExperiencesofEliteFemaleGymnasts%3ASelfIdentityandthePhysicalSelf&amp;;rft.volume=20&amp;rft.issue=3&amp;rft.spage=301&amp;rft.epage=317&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology">Katie Warriner, David Lavallee (2008). The Retirement Experiences of Elite Female Gymnasts: Self Identity and the Physical Self Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (3), 301-317 DOI: 10.1080/10413200801998564

<span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofAppliedSportPsychology&amp;;rft.atitle=TheEffectsofAthleteRetirementonParents&amp;;rft.volume=20&amp;rft.issue=1&amp;rft.spage=42&amp;rft.epage=56&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology">Patricia Lally, Gretchen Kerr (2008). The Effects of Athlete Retirement on Parents Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20 (1), 42-56 DOI: 10.1080/10413200701788172 </span>

689 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: olympics, football, cycling, swimming, tour-de-france, retirement, lance_armstrong, dara_torres, sport_psychology, brett_favre

!|src=|border=0!If there is a poster child sport for our favorite phrase, "[Sports Are 80 Percent Mental |]", it must be golf.  Maybe its the slow pace of play that gives us plenty of time to think between shots.  Maybe its the "on stage" performance feeling we get when we step up to that first tee in front of our friends (or strangers!)  Maybe its the "high" of an amazing approach shot that lands 3 feet from the cup followed by the "low" of missing the birdie putt.   From any angle, a golf course is the sport psychologist's laboratory to study the mix of emotions, confidence, skill execution and internal cognitive processes that are needed to avoid buying rounds at the 19th hole.  Last time, we looked at some of the recent research on putting mechanics, but, as promised, we now turn to the mental side of putting.  Sian Beilock and her team at the University of Chicago's Human Performance Lab recently released the latest of a string of research studies on sports performance, or more specifically, how not to choke under pressure.  Lucky for us, they chose putting as their sport skill of choice.  This ties in with Dr. Beilock's theory of embodied cognition that we featured in Watching Sports Is Good For Your Brain.


An underlying theme to this work is the concept of automaticity , or the ability to carry out sport skills without consciously thinking about them.  Performing below expectations (i.e. choking) starts when we allow our minds to step out of this automatic mode and start thinking about the steps to our putting stroke and all of those "swing thoughts" that come with it ("keep your elbows in", "head down", "straight back").  Our brain over analyzes and second-guesses the motor skills we have learned from hundreds of practice putts.  Previously, we looked at automaticity in other sports.   Of course, a key distinction to the definition of choking is that you are playing "well below expectations".  If you normally shoot par, but now start missing easy putts, then there may be distractions that are taking you out of your normal flow.  Choking implies a temporary and abnormal event.  Automaticity theory would claim that it is these distractions from some perceived pressure to perform that are affecting your game.


Most research into sport skill performance divides the world into two groups, novices and experts.  Most sports have their own measures of where the dividing line is between these groups.  Expertise would imply performance results not just experience.  So, a golfer who has been hacking away for 20 years but still can't break 100 would still be put in the "novice" category.  Sport scientists design experiments that compare performance between the groups given some variables, and then hypothesize on the reason for the observed differences.  Beilock, et al have looked at golf putting from several different angles over the years.  Their research builds on itself, so let's review in reverse chronological order.


Back in 2001, they began by comparing the two competing theories of choking, distraction theory vs. explicit monitoring theory, and designed a putting experiment to find the better explanation.  Distraction theory explains choking by assuming that the task of putting requires your direct attention and that high pressure situations will cause you to perform dual tasks - focus on your putting but also think about the pressure.  This theory assumes there is no automaticity in skill learning and that we have to focus our attention on the skill every time.  Explicit monitoring theory claims that over time, as we practice a skill to the point of becoming an "expert", we proceduralize the task so that it becomes "automatic".  Then, during a high pressure situation, our brain becomes so concerned about performance that it takes us out of automatic mode and tries to focus on each step of the task.  The research supported the explicit monitoring theory as it was shown that the golf putting task was affected by distractions and pressure for the experts but not the novice putters.


So, how do we block out the pressure, so that our automaticity can kick in?  Another 2001 study by Beilock looked at mental imagery during putting.  Using the same explicit monitoring theory, should we try to think positive thoughts, like "this ball is going in the hole" or "I have made this putt many times"?  Also, what happens if a stray negative thought, "don't miss this one!" enters our brain?  Should we try to suppress it and replace it with happy self-talk?  She set up four groups, one receiving positive comments, one receiving negative comments, one receiving negative comments followed by positive comments and one receiving none as a control group.  As expected, the happy people did improve their putting over the course of the trials, while the negative imagery hurt performance.  But, the negative replaced with positive thought group did not show any more improvement over the control group.  So, when faced with a high pressure, stressful situation ripe with the possibilities of choking, try to repeat positive thoughts, but don't worry too much if the occasional doubt creeps in.


Our strategy towards putting should also vary depending on our current skill level.  While learning the intricacies of putting, novices should use different methods than experts, according to a 2004 study by Beilock, et al .  Novice golfers need to pay attention to the step by step components of their swing, and they perform better when they do focus on the declarative knowledge required.  Expert golfers, however, have practiced their swing or putt so often that it has become "second nature" to the point that if they are told to focus on the individual components of their swing, they perform poorly.  The experiment asked both novices and expert golfers to first focus on their actual putting stroke by saying the word "straight" when hitting the ball and to notice the alignment of the putter face with the ball.  Next, they were asked to putt while also listening for a certain tone played in the background.  When they heard the tone they were to call it out while putting.  The first scenario, known as "skill-focused", caused the novices to putt more accurately but the experts to struggle.  The second scenario, called "dual-task", distracted the novices enough to affect their putts, while the experts were not bothered and their putting accuracy was better.  Beilock showed that novices need the task focus to succeed while they are learning to putt, while experts have internalized the putting stroke so that even when asked to do two things, the putting stroke can be put on "auto-pilot".


Finally, in 2008, Beilock's team added one more twist to this debate.  Does a stress factor even affect a golfer's performance in their mind before they putt?  This time, golfers, divided into the usual novice and expert groups, were asked to first imagine or "image execute" themselves making a putt followed by an actual putt.  The stress factor was to perform one trial under a normal, "take all the time you need" time scenario and then another under a speeded or time-limited scenario.  The novices performed better under the non-hurried scenario in imagining the putt first followed by the actual putt.  The experts, however, actually did better in the hurried scenario and worse in the relaxed setting.  Again, the automaticity factor explains the differences between the groups.


The bottom line throughout all of these studies is that if you're learning to play golf, which includes putting, you should focus on your swing/stroke but beware of the distractions which will take away your concentration.  That seems pretty logical, but for those that normally putt very well, if you feel stress to sink that birdie putt, don't try to focus in on the mechanics of your stroke.  Trust the years of experience that has taught your brain the combination of sensorimotor skills of putting.


!|style=cursor: pointer; float: left; height: 123px; margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; width: 164px;|alt=|src=|border=0!Just remember the Chevy Chase/Ty Webb philosophy ; "I'm going to give you a little advice. There's a force in the universe that makes things happen. And all you have to do is get in touch with it, stop thinking, let things happen, and be the ball....  Nah-na-na-na, Ma-na-na-na...."



!|style=border: 0pt none;||src=!</span><span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofExperimentalPsychology%3AGeneral&amp;;rft.atitle=Onthefragilityofskilledperformance%3AWhatgovernschokingunderpressure%3F&amp;;rft.volume=130&amp;rft.issue=4&amp;rft.spage=701&amp;rft.epage=725&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CCognitivePsychology%2CKinesiology">Sian L. Beilock, Thomas H. Carr (2001). On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130 (4), 701-725 DOI: 10.1037//0096-3445.130.4.701

<span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofSportandExercisePsychology&amp;;rft.atitle=%22Don%27tMiss%21%22TheDebilitatingEffectsofSuppressiveImageryonGolfPuttingPerformance&amp;;rft.volume=23&amp;rft.issue=3&amp;rft.spage=&amp;rft.epage=&amp;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CCognitivePsychology%2C+Kinesiology">Sian L. Beilock; James A. Afremow; Amy L. Rabe; Thomas H. Carr (2001). "Don't Miss!" The Debilitating Effects of Suppressive Imagery on Golf Putting Performance Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 23 (3)

<span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=PsychonomicBulletin%26Review&amp;;rft.atitle=Hastedoesnotalwaysmakewaste%3AExpertise%2Cdirectionofattention%2Candspeedversusaccuracyinperformingsensorimotorskills&amp;;rft.volume=11&amp;rft.issue=2&amp;rft.spage=373&amp;rft.epage=379&amp;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CCognitivePsychology%2CKinesiology">Beilock S.L.; Bertenthal B.I.; McCoy A.M.; Carr T.H. (2004). Haste does not always make waste: Expertise, direction of attention, and speed versus accuracy in performing sensorimotor skills  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 11 (2), 373-379

<span style="font-size: 130%;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=TheQuarterlyJournalofExperimentalPsychology&amp;;rft.atitle=Puttinginthemindversusputtingonthegreen%3AExpertise%2Cperformancetime%2Candthelinkingofimageryandaction&amp;;rft.volume=61&amp;rft.issue=6&amp;rft.spage=920&amp;rft.epage=932&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CCognitivePsychology%2C+Kinesiology">Sian Beilock, Sara Gonso (2008). Putting in the mind versus putting on the green: Expertise, performance time, and the linking of imagery and action The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61 (6), 920-932 DOI: 10.1080/17470210701625626 </span>

676 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: golf, sport_science, evidence_based_coaching, sports_cognition, sport_psychology, sian_beilock, putting, putt, golf_tips, golf_skills

!|height=200|width=139|src=|border=0!If Mark Twain thinks golf is "a good walk spoiled", then putting must be a brief pause to make you reconsider ever walking again.  With about 50% of our score being determined on the green, we are constantly in search of the "secret" to getting the little white ball to disappear into the cup.  Lucky for us, there is no shortage of really smart people also looking for the answer.  The first 8 months of 2008 have been no exception, with a golf cart full of research papers on just the topic of putting.  Is the secret in the mechanics of the putt stroke or maybe the cognitive set-up to the putt or even the golfer's psyche when stepping up to the ball?  This first post will focus on the mechanical side and then we'll follow-up next time with a look inside the golfer's mind.


Let's start with a tip that most golf instructors would give, "Keep your head still when you putt".  Jack Nicklaus said it in 1974, "the premier technical cause of missed putts is head movement" (from "Golf My Way") and Tiger Woods said it in 2001, "Every good putter keeps the head absolutely still from start to finish" (from "How I Play Golf").  Who would argue with the two greatest golfers of all time?  His name is Professor Timothy Lee , from McMaster University, and he wanted to test that observation.  So, he gathered two groups of golfers, amateurs with handicaps of 12-40, and professionals with scratch handicaps.  Using an infrared tracking system, his team tracked the motion of the putter head and the golfer's head during sixty putts.


As predicted, the amateurs' head moved back in unison with their putter head, something Lee calls an "allocentric" movement, which agrees with the advice that novice golfers move their head.  However, the expert golfers did not keep their head still, but rather moved their heads slightly in the opposite direction of the putter head.  On the backswing, the golfer's head moved slightly forward; on the forward stroke, the head moved slightly backward.  This "egocentric" movement may be the more natural response to maintain a centered, balanced stance throughout the stroke.  "The exact reasons for the opposite coordination patterns are not entirely clear," explains Lee. "However, we suspect that the duffers tend to just sway their body with the motions of the putter. In contrast, the good golfers probably are trying to maintain a stable, central body position by counteracting the destabilization caused by the putter backswing with a forward motion of the head. The direction of head motion is then reversed when the putter moves forward to strike the ball."  Does that mean that pro golfers like Tiger are not keeping their heads still?  No, just that you may not <b>have</b> to keep your head perfectly still to putt effectively.


So, what if you do have the bad habit of moving your head?  Just teach yourself to change your putting motion and you will be cutting strokes off of your score, right?  Well, not so fast.  Simon Jenkins of Leeds Metropolitan University tested  15 members of the PGA European Tour to see if they could break old physical habits during putting.  His team found that players who usually use shoulder movement in their putting action were not able to change their ways even when instructed to use a different motion.  Old habits die hard.


Let's say you do keep your head still (nice job!), but you still 3-putt most greens?  What's the next step on the road to birdie putts?  Of the three main components of a putt, (angle of the face of the putter head on contact, putting stroke path and the impact point on the putter), which has the greatest effect on success?  Back in February, Jon Karlsen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo, asked 71 elite golfers (mean handicap of 1.8) to make a total of 1301 putts (why not just 1300?) from about 12 feet to find out.  His results showed that face angle was the most important (80%), followed by putter path (17%) and impact point (3%).


OK, forget the moving head thing and work on your putter blade angle at contact and you will be taking honors at every tee.  Wait, Jon Karlsen came back in July with an update .  This time he compared green reading, putting technique and green surface inconsistencies to see which of those variables we should discuss with our golf pro.  Forty-three expert golfers putted 50 times from varying distances.  Results showed that green reading (60%) was the most dominant factor for success with technique (34%) and green inconsistency (6%) trailing significantly.


!|src=|border=0!So, after reading all of this, all you really need is something like the BreakMaster, which will help you read the breaks and the slope to the hole!  Then, keep the putter blade square to the ball and don't move your head, at least not in an allocentric way, that is if you can break your bad habit of doing it.  No problem, right?  Well, next time we'll talk about your brain's attitude towards putting and all the ways your putt could go wrong before you even hit it!


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<span class="Z3988" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofMotorBehavior&amp;;rft.atitle=Head%E2%80%93PutterCoordinationPatternsinExpertandLessSkilledGolfers&amp;;rft.volume=40&amp;rft.issue=4&amp;rft.spage=267&amp;rft.epage=272&amp;;;;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CNeuroscience%2CCognitivePsychology%2CCognitiveNeuroscience%2C+Kinesiology"  style="font-size:130%;">Timothy D. Lee, Tadao Ishikura, Stefan Kegel, Dave Gonzalez, Steven Passmore (2008). Head–Putter Coordination Patterns in Expert and Less Skilled Golfers Journal of Motor Behavior, 40 (4), 267-272 DOI: 10.3200/JMBR.40.4.267-272

<span class="Z3988" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=InternationalJournalofSportsScience&amp;Coaching&amp;;rft.atitle=CanEliteTournamentProfessionalGolfersPreventHabitualActionsinTheirPuttingActions%3F&amp;;rft.volume=3&amp;rft.issue=1&amp;rft.spage=117&amp;rft.epage=127&amp;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CKinesiology%2CCognitive+Psychology"  style="font-size:130%;">Jenkins, Simon (2008). Can Elite Tournament Professional Golfers Prevent Habitual Actions in Their Putting Actions?  International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 3 (1), 117-127

<span class="Z3988" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofSportsSciences&amp;;rft.atitle=Thestrokehasonlyaminorinfluenceondirectionconsistencyingolfputtingamongeliteplayers&amp;;rft.volume=26&amp;rft.issue=3&amp;rft.spage=243&amp;rft.epage=250&amp;;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CKinesiology%2CCognitive+Psychology"  style="font-size:130%;">Jon Karlsen, Gerald Smith, Johnny Nilsson (2007). The stroke has only a minor influence on direction consistency in golf putting among elite players Journal of Sports Sciences, 26 (3), 243-250 DOI: 10.1080/02640410701530902 </span>

533 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: golf, tiger_woods, sport_science, science_in_sports, putting, jack_nicklaus

!|style=cursor: pointer; float: left; height: 151px; margin: 0pt 10px 10px 0pt; width: 126px;|alt=|src=|border=0!For an athlete, it seems to good to be true.  A "sports supplement" that increases alertness, concentration, reaction time and focus while decreasing muscle fatigue or at least the perception of fatigue.  It can even shorten recovery time after a game.  HGH? EPO? Steroids?   Nope, just a grande cup of Juan Valdez's Best, Liquid Lightning, Morning Mud, Wakey Juice, Mojo, Java, aka coffee.  Actually, the key ingredient is caffeine which has been studied repeatedly for its ergogenic (performance-enhancing) benefits in sports, both mentally and physically.  Time after time, caffeine proves itself as a relatively safe, legal and inexpensive boost to an athlete.




Or does it?  If caffeine is such a clear cut performance enhancing supplement, why did the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), who also monitors this month's Beijing Olympics for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), first add caffeine to its banned substance list, only to remove it in 2004?   At the time that it was placed on the banned list, the threshold for a positive caffeine test was set to a post-exercise urinary caffeine concentration of 12 µg/ml (about 3-4 cups of strong coffee).   However, more recent research has shown that caffeine has ergogenic effects at levels as low as the equivalent of 1-2 cups of coffee.  So, it was hard for WADA to know where to draw the line between athletes just having a few morning cups of coffee/tea or maybe some chocolate bars and athletes that were intentionally consuming caffeine to increase their performance level.  However, caffeine is still on the WADA monitoring list as a substance to screen for and watch for patterns of use.


Meanwhile, athletes are still convinced that caffeine helps them.  In a recent survey from Liverpool John Moores University , 480 athletes were interviewed about their caffeine use.  One third of track and field athletes and 60% of cyclists reported using caffeine specifically to give them a boost in competition.  In addition, elite-level athletes interviewed were more likely to rely on caffeine than amateurs.  Dr. Neil Chester , co-leader of the study, commented about the confusion created by the WADA status change for caffeine, "There's been a lack of communication from WADA and there is a question about whether or not sporting authorities are condoning its use. Ultimately there is a need to clarify the use of caffeine within the present anti-doping legislation."


So, have athletes found a loophole to exploit that gives them an edge?  Dr. Carrie Ruxton recently completed a literature survey to summarize 41 double-blind, placebo-controlled trials published over the past 15 years to establish what range of caffeine consumption would maximize benefits and minimize risk for cognitive function, mood, physical performance and hydration.  The studies were divided into two categories, those that looked at the cognitive effects and those that looked at physical performance effects.  The results concluded that there was a significant improvement in cognitive functions like attention, reaction time and mental processing as well as physical benefits described as increased "time to exhaustion" and decreased "perception of fatigue" in cycling and running tests.  Longer, endurance type exercise showed greater results than short-term needs for energy.


Given these results, how exactly does caffeine perform these wonderful tricks?  Dr. Ruxton explains from the study, "Caffeine is believed to impact on mood and performance by inhibiting the binding of both adenosine and benzodiazepine receptor ligands to brain membranes.  As these neurotransmitters are known to slow down brain activity, a blockade of their receptors lessens this effect. "  Bottom line, the chemicals in your brain that would cause you to feel tired are blocked, giving you a feeling of ongoing alertness.  Your body still needs the sleep, caffeine just delays the feeling of being tired.


As to the physiological benefits, caffeine has also been shown to stimulate the release of fat into the bloodstream.  The early conclusion was that the increased free fatty acids in the blood would allow our muscles to use fat as fuel and spare glycogen (carbohydrates) allowing us to exercise longer.  Another theory is that caffeine stimulates the central nervous system reducing our perception of effort so that we feel that we can continue at an increased pace for longer periods.The discussion on glycogen has recently taken another interesting twist; caffeine's apparent ability to replenish glycogen (the body's primary fuel source) more rapidly after an intense workout.  A team at the Garvan Institute for Medical Research has found that athletes who consumed a combination of carbohydrates and caffeine following an exhaustive exercise had 66% more glycogen in their muscles four hours later, compared to when they consumed carbohydrates alone.  They asked cyclists to pedal to exhaustion in the lab, then gave them a drink that contained either carbohydrates with caffeine or just carbohydrates (the cyclists did not know which drink they were getting).  They repeated the process 7-10 days later and reversed the groups.  Muscle biopsies and blood samples were tested for levels of glycogen after each trial period.  The researchers did not have an explanation for the increased levels of glycogen resulting from the caffeine-spiked juice.  One theory is the higher circulating blood glucose and plasma insulin levels caused by the caffeine were key factors.  In addition, caffeine may increase the activity of several signaling enzymes, including the calcium-dependent protein kinase and protein kinase B (also called Akt), which have roles in muscle glucose uptake during and after exercise.


So, before you start drinking the Starbucks by the gallon, here are some guidelines.  You can consume 2-2.5 mg of caffeine per pound of body weight daily to achieve its ergogenic effects.  This equates to 250-312 mg for a 125-pound woman and 360-450 mg for a 180-pound man.  More is not better, as other research has shown a decline in benefit and an increase in caffeine's side effects beyond this level.  One "grande" cup (16 oz.) of Starbucks coffee contains about 320-500 mg of caffeine, while a 12 oz. can of soda will provide 35-70 mg of caffeine.  Maybe we'll see the ultimate sports drink soon, kind of like Monster meets Gatorade... wait, its already here: Lucozade Sport with Caffeine Boost!

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C. H. S. Ruxton (2008). The impact of caffeine on mood, cognitive function, performance and hydration: a review of benefits and risks Nutrition Bulletin, 33 (1), 15-25 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00665.x

<span title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=InternationalJournalofSportsMedicine&amp;;rft.atitle=CaffeineConsumptionAmongstBritishAthletesFollowingChangestothe2004WADAProhibitedList&amp;;rft.volume=29&amp;rft.issue=6&amp;rft.spage=524&amp;rft.epage=528&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CNeuroscience">N. Chester, N. Wojek (2008). Caffeine Consumption Amongst British Athletes Following Changes to the 2004 WADA Prohibited List International Journal of Sports Medicine, 29 (6), 524-528 DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-989231

<span title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=JournalofAppliedPhysiology&amp;;rft.atitle=Highratesofmuscleglycogenresynthesisafterexhaustiveexercisewhencarbohydrateiscoingestedwithcaffeine&amp;;rft.volume=105&amp;rft.issue=1&amp;rft.spage=7&amp;rft.epage=13&amp;;;;;;;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CHealth%2CKinesiology">D. J. Pedersen, S. J. Lessard, V. G. Coffey, E. G. Churchley, A. M. Wootton, T. Ng, M. J. Watt, J. A. Hawley (2008). High rates of muscle glycogen resynthesis after exhaustive exercise when carbohydrate is coingested with caffeine Journal of Applied Physiology, 105 (1), 7-13 DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01121.2007 </span>


787 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: caffeine, doping, sport_science, wada, science_in_sports, sports_supplement, anti_doping

!|height=147|width=200|src=|border=0!When was the last time you listened to a sporting event on the radio?  If given a choice between watching the game on a big screen plasma in HD or turning on the AM radio, most of us would probably choose the visual sensation of television.  But, for a moment, think about the active attention you need in order to listen to a radio broadcast and interpret the play-by-play announcer's descriptions.  As you hear the words, your "mind's eye" paints the picture of the action so you can imagine the scene and situations.  Your knowledge of the game, either from playing it or watching it for years helps you understand the narrative, the terms and the game's "lingo".

Now, imagine that you are listening to a broadcast about a sport you know nothing about.  Hearing Bob Uecker or Vin Scully say, "With two out in the ninth, the bases are loaded and the Brewers' RBI leader has two strikes.  The infield is in as the pitcher delivers.  Its a hard grounder to third that he takes on the short hop and fires a bullet to first for the final out."  If you have no baseball-specific knowledge, those sentences are meaningless.  However, for those of us that have grown up with baseball, that description makes perfect sense and our mind's eye helped us picture the scene.  That last sentence about the "hard grounder" and the thrown "bullet" may have even triggered some unconscious physical movements by you as your brain interpreted those action phrases.  That sensorimotor reaction is at the base of what is called "[embodied cognition |]".  Sian Beilock , associate professor of psychology and leader of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago , defined the term this way:  "In contrast to traditional views of the mind as an abstract information processor, recent work suggests that our representations of objects and events are grounded in action. That is, our knowledge is embodied, in the sense that it consists of sensorimotor information about potential interactions that objects or events may allow."  She cites a more complete definition of the concept in Six Views of Embodied Cognition by Margaret Wilson .  Another terrific overview of the concept is provided by science writer Drake Bennet of the Boston Globe in his article earlier this year, "[Don't Just Stand There, Think |]".

In a study released yesterday, "Sports Experience Changes the Neural Processing of Action Language", Dr. Beilock's team continued their research into the link between our learned motor skills and our language comprehension about those motor skills.  Since embodied cognition connects the body with our cognition, the sports domain provides a logical domain to study it.

Their initial look at this concept was in a 2006 study titled, "Expertise and its embodiment: Examining the impact of sensorimotor skill expertise on the representation of action-related text", where the team designed an experiment to compare the knowledge representation skill of experienced hockey players and novices.  Each group first read sentences describing both hockey-related action and common, "every-day" action, (i.e. "the referee saw the hockey helmet on the bench" vs. "the child saw the balloon in the air").  They were then shown pictures of the object mentioned in the sentences and were asked if the picture matched the action in the sentence they read.  Both groups, the athletes and the novices, responded equally in terms of accuracy and response time to the everyday sentences and pictures, but the athletes responded significantly faster to the hockey-specific sentences and pictures.  The conclusion is that those with the sensorimotor experience of sport give them an advantage of processing time over those that have not had that same experience.

Now, you may be saying, "Ya' think!?" to this somewhat obvious statement that people who have played hockey will respond faster to sentence/picture relationships about hockey than non-hockey players. Stay with us here for a minute, as the 2006 study set the groundwork for Beilock's team to take the next step with the question, "is there any evidence that the athletes are using different parts of their brain when processing these match or no match decisions?"  The link between our physical skill memory and our language comprehension would be at the base of the embodied cognition theory.  So, in the latest research, the HPL team kept the same basic experimental design, but now wanted to watch the participants' brain activity using fMRI scanning .  This time, there were three groups, hockey players, avid fans of hockey and novices who had no playing or viewing experience with hockey at all.  First, all groups passively listened to sentences about hockey actions and also sentences about everyday actions while being monitored by fMRI.   Second, outside of the fMRI scanner, they again listened to hockey-related and everyday-related action sentences and then were shown pictures of hockey or every day action and asked if there was a match or mis-match between the sentence and the picture.

This comprehension test showed similar results as in 2006, but now the team could try to match the relative skill in comprehension to the neural activity shown in the fMRI scans when listening.  Both the players and the fans showed increased activity in the left dorsal premotor cortex, a region thought to support the selection of well-learned action plans and procedures.  You might be surprised that the fans' brains showed activity in the same regions as the athletes.  We saw this effect in a previous post, "Does Practice Make Perfect", where those that practiced a new dance routine and those that only watched it showed similar brain area activity.  On the other side, the total novices showed activity in the bilateral primary sensory-motor cortex, an area typically known for carrying out step by step instructions for new or novel tasks.  So, the interesting finding here is that those with experience, either playing or watching, are actually calling on additional neural networks in their brains to help their normal language comprehension abilities.  In other words, the memories of learned actions are linked and assist other cognitive tasks.  That sounds pretty much like the definition of embodied cognition and Dr. Beilock's research has helped that theory take another step forward.  In her words, "Experience playing and watching sports has enduring effects on language understanding by changing the neural networks that support comprehension to incorporate areas active in performing sports skills."

So, take pride in your own brain the next time you hear, "Kobe dribbles the ball to the top of the key, crosses over, drives the lane, and finger rolls over Duncan for two." If you can picture that play in your mind, your left dorsal premotor cortex just kicked into gear!

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S. L. Beilock, I. M. Lyons, A. Mattarella-Micke, H. C. Nusbaum, S. L. Small (2008). Sports experience changes the neural processing of action language Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803424105

<span style="font-size: small;" title="ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&amp;rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&amp;rft.jtitle=PsychonomicBulletin%26Review&amp;;rft.atitle=Expertiseanditsembodiment%3AExaminingthe%0D%0Aimpactofsensorimotorskillexpertiseonthe%0D%0Arepresentationofaction-relatedtext&amp;;rft.volume=13&amp;rft.issue=4&amp;rft.spage=694&amp;rft.epage=701&amp;;;;bpr3.included=1&amp;bpr3.tags=Psychology%2CLearning%2CCognitive+Psychology">Lauren E. Holt, Sian L. Beilock (2006). Expertise and its embodiment: Examining the impact of sensorimotor skill expertise on the representation of action-related text Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 13 (4), 694-701 PMID: 17201372

537 Views 0 Comments Permalink Tags: sport_science, evidence_based_coaching, sports_cognition, sport_skills, youth_sports, sian_beilock, cognitive_science, science_in_sports
Dan Peterson

Dan Peterson

Member since: Oct 1, 2007

A Look Inside the Mind of the Athlete - You can find a mix of sport science, cognitive science, coaching and performance stories here as I focus on the "thinking" side of sports. My "home" is at Thanks for stopping by!

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