Broadly, my research pertains to coaching and elite performance. We have work that looks at strength and conditioning, at the psychology and/or the coaching of international performers and Olympians. Performance is relative to the person. We take young performers through a system which produces elite performance, generates the equally important goal of life-long physical activity and makes a contribution to their overall development as well. The latter is something we are particular keen on, so that they learn transferable skills from sport which they can use in all aspects of their life. We also work on performance as it pertains to particular professions. We work with the military, and we have lines of work that support sport psychologists, strength and conditioning specialists, and other professionals. Finally,
we look at performance in terms of particular fields such as the outdoors, for example the adventure sports coach.
Anybody who works with people has to have good interpersonal skills; there has to be a psychological side to what they do. I was trained as a teacher, and a lot of my research pertains to physical education. With the preparation and training of coaches you are clearly looking at their ability to, not necessarily know about sports psychology, but to be able to apply and use the principles of sports psychology. Any good coach or teacher is generally a good psychologist. It is very important. One of the problems we have at the moment is that coaching, and to a lesser extent some of the other support professions, seem to have been overtaken by the idea of competences. Competences came into coaching, as far as I can perceive, from other professions, but just as a teacher is actually doing something a good deal more subtle than can be measured by competences, it is the same with a coach.
I think a better way of thinking of an expertise is not just about competence to do with that behaviour, but also to know when to use it and how to combine it with other expertise. It is not as simple as people would like to make it. Dealing with people is complicated, because people are pretty complicated things!
One of the things that you hate are people commenting about other people that they know nothing about. It is like people interviewing you, and saying “What’s David Beckham really like”, “I don’t know, you ask Mrs Beckham”. One of the areas we are working in is skill refinement, which is something for a golfer is quite important.
I understand that Tiger has recently been working on certain aspects of his game; he would not be unusual, most professionals in most sports are always working on their game, and that worked very well in a competition before the Masters but didn’t seem to work very well at the Masters itself. The interesting thing for us is not only to be able to help people make change but make change that is pressure proof. We go through a series of stages whereby we make the changes and then lock them in a little black box where the elite performer cannot get at it so they can execute it under pressure. Changing someone with that level of expertise is very easy, the trick comes in making it work for the big ‘high dollar’ shots under pressure. That is the extra bit where what we do comes in. It is a combination of using the excellent colleagues that we have got within the School, for example Jim Richards, who is a world-class bio-mechanist who can help us understand what is going on with the movements, and then add a level of knowledge about the psychology of the performer and a level of knowledge about the process of learning and skill refinement to come up with a nice blend that is an effective package.
I think it is crucial, even if you were talking about a physical problem, that it is individualised. So one of my colleagues in the Institute,
John Kiely, is a strength and conditioning specialist. He is working with Phillips Idowu, the triple jumper in the runup to the London Olympics. Everything he does with Phillips will be very much tuned and tweaked to meet Phillips’ immediate needs and his particular foibles; the things he is strong at, the things he is not so strong at, to avoid the chance of injury, to pressure proof his technique. It is a long term relationship. Wherever possible we want to deploy a range of measures. This is what I think lifts what we do to actually being scientist-practitioners: so, for example, looking at the effects of pressure on performance. We have looked at the effect of different sorts of mental stress. We have measured the performance of a guy under training and in the middle of an Olympic final. That is the level of detail you have got to get into. We have looked at how someone runs in the long or triple jump and whether it is better for them to think about the rhythm of the run up or something else. We found that, for most of the performers, thinking of the rhythm was better. So there is always a need to be doing hard quantitative work but at the same time checking that it will work on individuals.
But then on top of that you layer the particular individual, because you are dealing with people here and people behave in slightly different ways.
Another one of my colleagues, Andrew Cruickshank, is a former professional footballer. We are doing work on culture change in elite sport. The average life expectancy of a football manager is 14 months at the top level. If you are going to stay in the job you have got to get some quick wins, you have got to change the culture very quickly. We have been talking to premiership and championship managers in football, premiership rugby and superleague rugby league. So how do you do it? What sort of tricks have you got? We will also draw on a body of knowledge in organisational psychology about change management.
We will look at the particular challenges these people face and compare/contrast that to what the performance directors’ face in setting up Olympic sports for 2012 and beyond. At the end of this research we will be able to provide an individualised advice to people in these positions, looking at their weaknesses and strengths, and providing them with strategies.
Well it does, in that it is about performance. We have a professional doctorate in elite performance and we have got a number of coaches doing it, a premiership footballer, premiership rugby player, but we have also got people who are coming from much more of a managerial back ground. We have serving military officers and an assistant chief fire officer. We publish in the Journal of Change Management which is a business journal as much as we publish in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. We are generating knowledge that is capable of being applied in a range of fields but the mistake would be to think that something that works in that field, will work in this field.
When you and I were children, people were more physically active. Now children's movement experience are much more with their thumbs controlling a game station than climbing trees. There has been a big backlash - we have got to get our kids more generally active. At the same time what has happened is that sports have started to select children much younger. Football clubs look at children age 6 or 7, and golf looks for children at 8 or 9. If you are seen as being talented at that level, then you are absorbed into a programme, signed up to a football club or
a golf scheme. There are a whole variety of problems that emerge from that. One is that you start to ‘speak’ that sport very early but you do not learn to ‘speak’ all the other bits of movement, in other words, your movement vocabulary becomes very football-y or very golf-y, but it is does not include all the other aspects that you are going to need when your body changes.
For example, when the child experiences the growth spurt or when they are injured or when they want to learn a new technique or they want to change sports. Talented children need a broad movement vocabulary that enables them to change and develop through their lifetime. However, if you weren’t one of those children who were picked for sports, then your movement vocabulary is often very limited. So whether I am targeting elite sport or whether I am targeting people for life-long physical activity, giving them a block of movement literacy at a young age is important. Now the recent government changes from a goal of 2 hours quality physical education per week to 5 hours physical activity per week is for me a real concern. The idea that just because you are physical active at 8, 9 and 10 means you are going to be physical active at 48, 49 and 50 doesn’t hold. Whereas if you have learnt to be physically literate early on, then that gives you the capacity, if you want to be physically literate later in life as well. Just like I learnt to read and I am confident in my reading I have got a life-long habit of reading. Reasonable physical prowess is still quite important in our culture, in how you fit in with your peers, without it I am going to be less confident and more isolated. Some research in Belgium and some of our work suggests that, if you are not physical competent, you stand out from your peers and you tend to be excluded from your peer group. We are suggesting that there are things that you can do with young children through infant and junior school, that equip them to do as well as they can at sport. This equips them for a life-long physical activity habit and teaches them skills of determination, commitment, realism, and resilience, which are going to be important in their future life. So we come back to performance, but here we are not talking about winning Olympic medals but we are talking about people having a good life-long physical activity habit, and learning important educational lessons that they can transfer into other fields.
We tried very hard to put these things into policy. My colleague Áine MacNamara and I do a lot of work generating packages for primary school use. They have been very well received and similar sorts of packages are now in use with Chelsea Football Academy for example. However, they have not been as much use as we would have liked in driving policy, which is frustrating.
I want to ask you about the Olympics and any input you and your colleagues are making.
There are three of us who are inputting into individuals in different ways. Myself and a colleague as sports psychologists, and as I mentioned, John Kiely, on the strength and conditioning side. We are also making a contribution through coach development. Led by Bryan Jones, we have the Pentagon Programme, which was the first top level coach development programme validated in the country. We have got very high level professional coaches in rugby league, hockey, basketball, table-and tennis at the national level, and Olympic coaches who have been through the training programme and who will have an impact. Directly and indirectly, yes, we are making a contribution.
What we are doing is not just about sports, the outdoors, and physical activity, but it has a much broader human performance agenda.
I can see that. Your work has got wider ramifications, and applications.
To use an old phrase it is not education of the physical, it is education through the physical. So yes, we are running around in gym, passing balls and whatever, but I am actually interested in developing life skills in the children or young athletes with whom I am working.