Brain over brawn

What gives you the edge in professional sport?
12 July 2016

Interview with 

Steve Trapmore, Cambridge University Boat Club, Claire Rossato, Anglia Ruskin University


Brain oIt's another super summer of sports and with the olympics just around the Rowing Teamcorner, we wanted to know just what it is that makes the difference between winning and losing. Connie Orbach tracked down one of Cambridge's local sports stars to find out...

Steve - It's the captain's room.

Connie - Wow!

Steve - And it's got on the walls the crew list for every single boat race crew since the very first one over there in the corner which is 1829.

Connie - You're going to run out of space.

Steve - My name is Steve Trapmore. I'm the Chief Coach of the Cambridge University Boat Club. Before that, I was in the National Rowing Team for 7 years, I went to 5 world championships and one Olympic games, and won a gold medal in the 8 in Sydney in 2000. So, it's kind of the heart and soul of the club in here. It's testament to history and I guess the rivalry of the competition that's the boat race and all you see on the walls is the date and crew list, and whether they won or lost. It doesn't matter about the distance, whether it's the third or a mile. It doesn't matter. All we care about is winning.

Connie - Elite sports like the Olympics, the World Cup, or even non-professional Oxford Cambridge Boat Race are - let's face it - another world where in the end, all that's important is the win. So when it comes down to securing that ultimate aim, how much of it is in the mind? Sports psychologist Claire Rossato...

Claire - I think that when you get to professional level, the difference between winning a medal and not, could be contributed the psychological elements and their psychological preparation for that competition which they have been I guess, building up to for the last 4 years since the last Olympic games in 2012.

Connie - And so, what's going on? What's happening between the brain and the body that's meaning that it can have such a big impact on something which seems so purely physical?

Claire - We could both have very similar physiological responses to stress but it's how we perceive those that could make the difference between winning and losing. So, we kind of go with the notion that if you think you have enough resources to cope with the demands of a specific competition and you're perceiving it as a challenge, you're more likely to experience positive emotions and that has an impact upon your performance in a positive way. Whereas if you perceive it as a threat, you start to think, "You know, I'm feeling quite anxious. Actually, this is a bad thing..." then you can start over focusing on your performance. You can have skill breakdown which happens quite a lot in elite sports where athletes are placed in really highly pressurised scenarios. They start to focus on their actual movements and that can cause disruption.

Connie - What's the kind of physiological mechanism that's going on?

Claire - Recent research suggests that cardiac output increases. So, it's the amount of blood flowing around your body in one minute and with challenges in association with the decrease in TPR. That basically is constriction or dilation of the arterial walls. So really, we associate challenge with that state and more of an adrenalin response. Whereas threat, we see more of a cortisol response, so quite an increase in a stress hormone which is something that I've looked at in my research. We found that in a threat state, physiologically, there's not really much change in cardiac output. It's either sustained or actually, decreases a bit. But there's an increase in total peripheral resistance so therefore, the arterial wall starts to constrict. Blood isn't easily flowing around the body compared to in a challenge state.

Connie - So, in a challenge state, you're actually getting increased blood flow which I guess is then going to your muscles, also back to your brain re-oxygenating.

Claire - High glucose utilisation and that can help impact on decision making as well. An example is golfer Rory Mcllroy. He found it really difficult to putt on a really easy ball from 19 feet and that was in a major competition. I think that's a really good example of where a really high level athlete can actually breakdown because of pressure and not dealing with that pressure in a very good way.

Connie - So this is really high class athletes doing really quite simple mistakes.

Claire - That's correct, yeah. And I'm sure you know some of these things will happen again during the Olympics in Rio.

Connie - Okay, so bottling it at the last minute would definitely put a dent in your game. Does that mean coaches like Steve train their team's brains as well as their brawn?

Steve - I think every single training session you look at adds an opportunity to develop psychology in some aspect. It might be through discipline and focus and consistency, or it might be through toughness and pure grit. So, it's something that we developed actually through training as well as off the water or in the classroom that they will win.

Connie - What are the goals that you are aiming within them? You just said grit and resilience. What do you mean by that?

Steve - We're talking specifically about the boat race here and it's a hugely mental battle. A lot of the delivery comes down to belief and belief in not only what you're about to do, what you are doing, but what you have done to get you into the race. We keep pushing and keep pushing, and keep developing all of the areas that come together and culminates at the pinnacle on race dates. So, we do a lot of work on how to handle the pressure, how to handle people shouting at you, how to handle encouragement, how to handle people shouting derogatory things at you. All of that stuff goes in to how we build the guys up and the team up, to make sure that there's a real good robustness and confidence when they go out and perform.

Connie - You've mentioned how you're really building in this psychological training within everything you do, but you also do things in the classroom. Has that changed because you must have around a 20-year career in rowing?

Steve - Yes, it has very much. I think if I looked back to when I first came here, I came into a programme after winning year and I took the bull by the horns and moved on with the experience that the previous coaches have built up. I think that was fine at that time, but we've been up against some really, really tough opposition from Oxford. I think this year more than ever, I've drawn my own experience as an athlete because we won the Olympics in Sydney in 2000 and that was 88 years since the previous brief win. I used that experience that I went through as an athlete to help the athletes here understand that just because something seems insurmountable, it is possible. And we started right from day one with a really, "go after it! go get it!" mentality and pushing each other to the limit to find where those limits are. I think one of the things that people or certainly coaches can do too easily is put a limit on what is possible. I think one of the things that I've learned a lot over the period of being at Cambridge actually, is the athletes always surprise you - how far they can go, how hard they can go, how well they can go.


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