Category: Sport

What is the psychological state underlying “clutch performance” – excelling under pressure?

Images From The Book "In The Moment' - By Tom Jenkins
With 26 seconds left on the clock, Jonny Wilkinson scores the winning drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final

By guest blogger Bradley Busch

Pressure does interesting things to an athlete. For some, it leads to an increase in tension, nerves and anxiety. Others are able to channel this increased pressure into running faster, jumping higher and throwing further. What strategies do these “big game players” use to raise their game under heightened pressure – known as a “clutch performance”?

In the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers from Australia and England recently reported the results of their interviews with sixteen athletes from around the world just a few days after they had delivered an excellent sporting performance in a competition when under pressure. The findings represent a step forward in our understanding of expert and skilled performances, showing how clutch performance is similar to, but distinct from, the related concept of “flow”.

Continue reading “What is the psychological state underlying “clutch performance” – excelling under pressure?”

10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain

By Christian Jarrett

“One 60-minute run can add 7 hours to your life” claimed The Times last week. The story was based on a new review in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases that concluded that runners live, on average, three years longer than non-runners and that running will do more for your longevity than any other form of exercise. But there’s more to running than its health-enhancing effects. Research published in recent years has shown that donning your trainers and pounding the hills or pavements changes your brain and mind in some intriguing ways, from increasing connectivity between key functional hubs, to helping you regulate your emotions. The precise effects sometimes vary according to whether you engage in intense sprints or long-distance running. Here, to coincide with a new feature article in The Psychologist – Minds run free” – we provide a handy digest of the ways that running changes your mind and brain.

Continue reading “10 Ways That Running Changes Your Mind and Brain”

The power of rituals: they calm nerves and boost performance

Haka dancersBy Alex Fradera

A tough interview or critical match can generate such anxiety that it ends up sabotaging our hopes and fulfilling our fears. People adopt different ploys to drive it away, from meditating to enjoying a cigarette. But it’s another tactic at the centre of new research published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: the power of ritual. Many top-level performers use ritual to prepare for their game or show, whether this be chewing on exactly two cookies or chanting Latin – and the new research suggests many of the rest of us do too, with around half of a surveyed sample of participants admitting to trying it at least once. But is there a point to it?

The research, led by Harvard Business School’s Alison Woods Brooks, suggests there is. In a pair of studies, 250 participants had to cope with the pressure of having to sing part of a song to a stranger, the Journey “classic” Don’t Stop Believing. Just before they put their voice on show, participants in one condition were asked to conduct a short ritual: draw a picture of their feelings, sprinkle salt on it, recite a countdown aloud before throwing the paper in the trash.

Continue reading “The power of rituals: they calm nerves and boost performance”

If you’re fairly young and healthy, moderate exercise will probably be more enjoyable than you think

Silhouette in 2017 on the hill at sunsetBy Christian Jarrett

It’s that time of year when many of us are trying our best to begin a new exercise habit. One psychological factor affecting our chances is how we think we’ll feel during the exercise, and how that compares to the way we actually feel when we get going, and how we feel afterwards. A new study in Health Psychology has explored whether it’s possible to increase people’s adherence to a new exercise regime by making their expectations more positive. While the main intervention was a disappointment, there is an encouraging message in the results: moderate-to-vigorous exercise is likely to be more enjoyable than you think, and simply knowing this will probably help you enjoy your exercise even more.

Continue reading “If you’re fairly young and healthy, moderate exercise will probably be more enjoyable than you think”

A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself

Friends cheering their friend while throwing bowling ballBy Alex Fradera

Whether we’re testing our mettle on a video game, on the golf course, or at the bowling alley, it’s good to have a realistic sense of our ability, so we attempt things that are feasible – and don’t accept unwise bets. But how accurate are we at judging ourselves in this way? In a new study in Neuron, researchers from Oxford University have shown that our sense of our own ability is coloured by the other players around us. Specifically, their findings suggest that when we’re competing with a strong player, we tend to downgrade our own ability. Conversely, when that player is on our team, we see ourselves as better than we really are. Continue reading “A highly skilled opponent can lead you to underestimate yourself”

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

By Christian Jarrett

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” Continue reading “Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to”

Football team lose yesterday? Your work performance will probably suffer today

sad frustrated friends fanatic football fans watching tv match dejectedBy Alex Fradera

How much do experiences in one part of our lives have effects that spill into other, seemingly separate domains? One obvious candidate is the football team you follow – it’s a distinctive arena that matters greatly for many people and involves a range of experiences, both high and low. For a new paper in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, a team led by Panagiotis Gkorezis at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki have tested whether your football team’s success can affect how you feel and perform at work. Continue reading “Football team lose yesterday? Your work performance will probably suffer today”

Episode 7: Use Psychology To Compete Like An Olympian


This is Episode Seven of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology.

Can psychology give you a competitive edge in sport? Our presenter Christian Jarrett learns about the importance of having the right competitive mindset, and how to use self-talk and positive imagery to boost your sporting performance. Continue reading “Episode 7: Use Psychology To Compete Like An Olympian”

Does target shooting make teenagers aggressive?

When the dust settles on the tragedy of the latest mass shooting, gun clubs usually see a spike in their memberships as people look to arm and defend themselves. At the same time, many others argue for greater gun controls, and from their perspective, recreational target shooting is very much part of the problem, not the answer.

Anecdotally, this is borne out by the many killers who often turn out to have been target shooters. Indeed, in Germany after the teenage perpetrators of two spree atrocities, or their parents – in Erfurt in 2002 and in Winnenden in 2009 – were found to be shooting club members, the German Shooting Sport and Archery Federation decided to sponsor psychological research into the question of whether shooting club members are more aggressive than normal, and whether target shooting makes people more aggressive. Some of the initial findings have now been published in the journal Aggressive Behaviour and while the results are not conclusive, they do suggest there is reason to worry about the psychological effects of gun club membership.

The initial study involved 45 teenage target shooters (average age 13 years; they’d been a member of their clubs for about a year) completing measures of their aggression three times every six months over the course of the research. For example, they rated their agreement with statements like “I would rather hit somebody than be a coward”, and they took another test to reveal how readily they associated self-related words with words pertaining to violence and aggression – this supposedly providing an implicit or non-conscious measure of the aggressiveness of their self concept. They also answered questions about their emotional regulation abilities – for example, whether they deal with emotional problems by seeking help or through anger or aggression.

Although there was no control group – the research sponsors didn’t want to spread negative publicity among non-shooters – the aggression questionnaires used in the study have previously been throughly tested by psychologists on the general public, thus giving an idea of a “normal” level of aggression. The results showed that the teen shooting club members were significantly above average in their self-rated aggressive tendencies, and that this rose through the course of the study, so that by the end, they averaged a level of aggression higher than 84 per cent of the general population (in contrast, results on the implicit test suggested they associated their self concept more strongly with peace than aggression, but without a control group it’s difficult to interpret this finding. The teenage shooters also scored highly for maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, especially anger.

A second study involved teenage shooting club members and teenage basketball players spending around 40 minutes on target practice – four rounds of ten shots, either firing a gun at a target or throwing a ball at a basket, respectively. Before and after the training they all completed what’s known as a “Lexical Decision Task”. This involves looking at strings of letters and deciding if they’re real words or not. In this case, the researchers were particularly interested to how quick the participants were to recognise words pertaining to aggression and anxiety – greater speed at recognising words with these connotations after the training would be taken as a sign that aggression and anxiety had become more salient in the participants’ minds. The results were clear – for the shooting club members, but not the basketball players, training specifically increased the salience of aggressive and anxiety-related concepts.

The researchers cautioned that their results to not show there is a causal link between shooting club membership and acts of aggression – after all, they did not take any measures of actual aggressive behavior. Nonetheless, they said that the German Shooting Federation (and other shooting federations) “should feel strongly encouraged to counteract aggressive tendencies of their members based on the present results”.


Erle, T., Barth, N., Kälke, F., Duttler, G., Lange, H., Petko, A., & Topolinski, S. (2016). Are target-shooters more aggressive than the general population? Aggressive Behavior DOI: 10.1002/ab.21657

further reading
Are shooting club members more aggressive than most?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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10,000 hours debunked again? In elite sport, amount of practice does not explain who performs best

In elite sport, what distinguishes the best from the also rans? A new meta-analysis in Perspectives on Psychological Science looks at all the relevant data to see whether the most important factor is an athlete’s amount of accumulated “deliberate practice” – that is, practice that’s designed, through feedback and other methods, to improve performance. In fact, the new analysis shows that differences in amount of practice do not explain performance levels among elite athletes. At sub-elite levels, it’s a relevant factor, but by no means the most important.

The importance of deliberate practice for top level performance in sport and other domains, such as music and chess, was famously put forward by Anders Ericsson, the psychologist whose research has been distorted into the mythical idea that achieving greatness depends on completing at least 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson has actually never claimed that elite performance can be achieved by anyone who puts in enough practice, as suggested by some popular psychology writers. But he and his colleagues have claimed, based on their findings, that “individual differences in ultimate [top flight] performance can largely be accounted for by differential amounts of past and current levels of practice.” In other words, they proposed that at elite standards, it is the competitors who spend more time honing their skills who will usually perform at the highest levels.

To test this claim in the context of sport, Brooke Macnamara and her colleagues scoured the literature available up to 2014, and they found relevant findings from 34 published and unpublished studies, involving the practice habits and performance levels of 2765 athletes across various sports including football, volleyball, hockey, swimming and running.

They found that at the elite level, amount of practice was not related to performance (in statistical terms it explained less than one per cent of variance in performance). This makes intuitive sense – most professional athletes in the top echelons of their sport practice exhaustively through their careers. Instead of amount of practice time, what likely separates them are physiological differences influenced by their genetic makeup, as well as complex psychological factors, such as their personality and confidence. Also, competition experience and time spent in play activities might also be relevant, the researchers suggested.

At sub-elite levels, amount of past and present deliberate practice was relevant to performance, accounting for 19 per cent of the variance in sports performance – an important factor, then, but by no means the only or most important factor. This basic finding applied regardless of whether the researchers focused on team or individual sports, or ball vs. non-ball sports. Another related finding was that more skilful sport performers did not tend to have started their sport at an earlier age.

The researchers said their results suggest that “deliberate practice is one factor that contributes to performance differences across a wide range of skills [but] it may not contribute to performance differences at the highest levels of skill.”

The new findings add to earlier research into chess players and musicians, that also called into question the importance of deliberate practice. However, in a rejoinder to the new meta-analysis, published in the same journal issue, Ericsson argues that Macnamara and her colleagues used too broad a definition of “deliberate practice” to include “virtually any type of sport-specific activity, such as group activities, watching games on television, and even play and competitions”. He says that his claims about the importance of deliberate practice to elite performance refer to a much more specific subset of activities: “individualized practice with training tasks (selected by a supervising teacher) with a clear performance goal and immediate informative feedback.”

As the debate rumbles on, one message that comes through from this new meta-analysis is how so much speculation and argument is based on so little actual concrete evidence. To put things in perspective, the combined research into the role of deliberate practice in elite sport amounts to data from just 228 athletes, and that’s using the definition of deliberate practice that Ericsson claims is too broad.

Macnamara and her colleagues end with a call for more research, including studies that look beyond the relevance of deliberate practice to consider other factors: “scientists must draw not only from research on skill acquisition and expertise but also from research on cognitive ability, personality, learning, behavioural genetics, and research within the performance domain (e.g. sports science). This effort will shed new light on the origins of expertise.”


Macnamara, B., Moreau, D., & Hambrick, D. (2016). The Relationship Between Deliberate Practice and Performance in Sports: A Meta-Analysis Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11 (3), 333-350 DOI: 10.1177/1745691616635591

further reading
Exploding the 10,000 hours myth – it’s no guarantee for greatness
Musical ability – is it all just practice?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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