Smarter Thinking With Paralympic Archers

Part 1…

Humans are irrational

…and of course, rational. We know that Irrational Beliefs (IBs) are dysfunctional, illogical, inconsistent with reality and unhelpful in the pursuit of goals. Instead Rational Beliefs (RBs) are functional, logical, consistent with reality and helpful towards the pursuit of goals. Whilst our IBs lay dormant the destructive effects become most pronounced when we encounter adversity (or situations in which goal achievement is hindered or blocked). Therefore, Smarter Thinking, based heavily on Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), endeavours to dispute IBs and replace them with RBs, thus promoting healthy emotions and adaptive behaviours that help goal attainment.

‘I must be successful’

Elite sport is a highly demanding and somewhat pressurised domain in which athletes are expected to not only cope but also thrive when encountering a broad range of stressors, in the pursuit of excellence. The ability to manage and overcome challenging obstacles is vital for success, especially in elite sports, where physical, technical and tactical components are becoming considerably homogenous between competitors. Indeed, the separation between good and great in most instances is a matter of incredibly fine margins. Whilst the beneficial effects of ‘Smarter Thinking’ are evident there exists a paradox that for a select few IBs may encourage sporting success. Research investigating the use of REBT and the precise effects of IBs on athletic performance is sparse, but nonetheless emerging (e.g., the work Dr. Martin Turner and colleagues). Acknowledging this as part of my PhD research at Staffordshire University we were able to investigate the effects of Smarter Thinking (specifically ‘REBT’) and IBs on the performance of Paralympic Archers.

Applying ‘Smarter Thinking’

The research involved delivering five one-to-one Smarter Thinking sessions with nine Paralympic Archers. The intervention was centred upon an ABCDE framework, whereby it is not the activating event or adversity (A) alone that triggers emotional and behavioural response (C), it is the beliefs (B) that lead to emotions and behaviours. For example, an athlete may have a very important selection shoot coming up (A), which is compounded by a irrational belief that “I have to be successful, otherwise it would be terrible and this would make me a complete failure” (RB), in turn this would leads to feelings of extreme anxiety and avoidance (e.g., not wanting to compete) behaviours (C). Following this, athletes are taught to dispute (D) their own IBs and encouraged to form new effective rational beliefs (E); which promotes helpful emotions (e.g., nervousness) and adaptive behaviours (e.g., confronting and managing the situation).

Beliefs are deeply rooted

‘Smarter Thinking’ advocates that merely understanding why we feel and act the way we do is not enough for meaningful change. Therefore, the intervention was separated into an education, disputation and reaffirming phase. Each session was supplemented with an intersession task consisting of cognitive (e.g., self-statements), emotional (e.g., Rational Emotive Imagery) and behavioural (e.g., approaching adversity) methods to dispute and reaffirm a rational philosophy.

‘Smarter Thinking’ is for everyone

Indeed a bold claim, Smarter Thinking to a varying degree is applicable and useful for everyone. Each archer reported varying levels of IBs and even though REBT is most applicable for individuals with high IBs, all humans have a natural and societally developed propensity to be irrational. Therefore, Smarter Thinking can be utilised as an educational and pro-active framework for those who report low IBs too.

Paralympic Athletes

When working within Paralympic Archery it was important to acknowledge that their disability did not define who they were, instead specific attention was given to the history of each athlete and their disability (i.e., congenital vs. acquired), which at points informed the content and conception of the archer’s core beliefs. Whilst ‘Smarter Thinking’ considers the clients history its focus remains on the present and emphasising the control athletes have over their emotions and behaviours irrespective of their past. The aim is to look forwards, not backwards.

What we explored?

Using a single case research design each archers’ IBs were monitored on a weekly basis, enabling the research team to ascertain changes in the participants’ beliefs during and after the intervention. To investigate how changes in the archers’ core beliefs influenced performance, further measures were taken at a pre, post- intervention and at a 9-month follow-up time point. This included collecting measures of the archers’ general levels of anxiety, anger and depression, as well as their archery performance scores. Specifically, competitive archery simulations were created mimicking (as much as possible) competition pressure, recording how the archers appraised, felt and performed during the scenario.

We were able to measure the athletes’ cardiovascular response prior to the simulation, which can predict whether athletes are “challenged” or “threatened” – the former being more predictive of successful skilled performance (see the work of Prof. Marc Jones). Finally, the archers’, coaches’ and lead sport psychologist’s perception of the intervention was gathered using semi-structured interviews in an attempt to socially validate the study findings.

To find out what we found, read Part 2 of this Blog, to be published shortly.

Andrew Wood





   Andrew Wood

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