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Ageing athletes and the power of psychology
How to develop a mental edge as you age
Article at a glance
Rather than applying a blanket rule that says we all slow down with age, it is more a case that some slow down more than others. Here, Andy Lane examines psychological states associated with ageing and offers practical suggestions on developing a mental edge as you age.
The one fact of life is that we die. As we age our hair turns grey, wrinkles develop in our face, muscle definition is lost, and we begin to slow down. There are few world-leading athletes aged over 40 years old and even fewer aged over 50.
Although these are the “facts”, age-group world record times are still impressive, particularly in sports such as cycling, running, swimming and triathlon.
Thus in this article I have re-examined data from a few of our studies. We have collected data on thousands of runners and triathletes over the last 20 years. Most recently, we collected data in conjunction with Runners’ World and AudioFuel from over 1000 runners (1, 2). Runners were from varying degrees of experience and speed ranging from elite and fast runners to beginners. Datasets of this size represent a useful ally for researchers and practitioners alike, as they are representative of a larger population.
When we compare older runners with younger ones, we tend to find that younger athletes set more ambitious and sometimes unrealistic goals than their ageing counterparts. Younger athletes tend to set a goal that is close to, or faster than their personal best. Moreover, they also tend to do so on courses and in conditions where achieving a personal best performance is unlikely. In contrast, older athletes tend to be more realistic in their expectations. This could be because older athletes have learned from experience and set goals that are more realistic. In this simple description, age is acting in the same way as experience; people learn from their mistakes.
However, not all older athletes think the same way. It is common for researchers to use the average score to describe how a sample of people might act, feel or think. The issue with averages is that the specific number that is found might not actually describe many of the people involved. In terms of ageing athletes, there are runners who have resigned themselves to getting slower and there are runners who still set themselves challenging goals. When you look closely at the standard of goal that an individual sets him or herself, and then compare this with their previous performance and personal best, you find that many individuals set a highly challenging goal; that is, many older athletes show no discernible differences to their younger counterparts.
When you then look at the psychological profiles of ageing athletes in terms of emotions, and use of psychological skills such as imagery, positive selftalk or relaxation strategies, this begins to reveal some interesting observations. We found that older athletes reported using psychological skills frequently and did so in preparation for training and competition. The sport psychology literature contains studies that report the benefits of using psychological skills in training and in competition(3). It appears that older athletes who continue to pursue challenging and meaningful goals also tend to use these psychological skills to aid preparation. Older and younger athletes alike who do not pursue meaningful goals tend not to use such skills. Hence possibly a key point to maintaining a sense of competitive edge is continued use of psychological skills, and usage of such skills should be encouraged with age.
Psychological skills that can be used include techniques such as imagery, engaging in positive self-talk, and setting specific goals both in training and competition (3). However, the act of using psychological skills might be saying something in itself. To use psychological skills such as imagery, the athlete will need to devote time and space to do this. For example, he might sit down in the changing area and spend five minutes mentally rehearsing for the start of a race. It is worth noting that this additional and comparatively (to actual training) fatigue-free method can help you perform better (4). The act of using psychological skills could be a reflection of a highly motivated person. The person who did five minutes of imagery training spent longer training than the athlete who did not (3).
However, it is argued that engaging in psychological skills can aid performance via a number of mechanisms in addition to raising motivation. Psychological skills can help people perform skilled movement more efficiently. For example, imagery has been found to stimulate brain activity, sending signals to working muscles and help coordinate activity and increase efficiency (5). As someone ages then it is possible to maintain a certain level of performance because he or she has become more efficient; that is, a person can achieve the same effect for less.
Our study also revealed that older athletes experience less intense unpleasant emotions such as anxiety and anger and use fewer strategies to manage such emotions (1). In contrast, younger athletes tended to experience intense unpleasant emotions and also reported investing a great deal of effort to try to reduce the intensity of these emotions. Research has found that managing emotions uses resources (6), and having difficulty managing emotions tends to combine with perceiving exercise to feel hard (7). In a study where riders performed an identical 10-mile riding task in a laboratory under stressful and non-stressful conditions, we found that performing under pressure associated with using more physiological resources and experiencing unwanted intense emotions.
The unfolding story is that some older athletes have learned from experience and become better at managing unwanted psychological states before competition. A question that might be asked is whether they are defying the ageing process. Physically, it is not possible to do this; you could slow it down, but data from the fittest ageing athletes still reports physical decline. The answer is more likely to be found in the suggestion that such athletes underperformed in their youth. It is not that people are defying age but they have learned to overcome factors such as excessively ambitious goals or being paralysed by unwanted emotions that contributed to performances in their youth.
What about veteran athletes who have written themselves off?
Why do some athletes develop a pessimistic view of ageing? Athletes who performed to high levels in their youth, who for instance won national or international races, are unlikely to maintain this level of performance. Even before an ageing process started, performance levels can wane and people find it difficult to maintain previous standards of performance. A key aspect of holding onto positive beliefs is to learn to see things positively. Such a statement seems obvious and flows from the pages of many popular self-help books, but how you go about developing this mindset is not so easy. One approach is to look at how you attribute reasons to explain how well or how poorly you performed. A very simple way of looking at attribution is divide it into two styles (8):
a) that you attribute success or failure to stable factors such as skill or ability; or
b) that you attribute success or failure to unstable factors such as effort or luck.
If you performed badly and attributed performance to ability or skill, this is likely to have a demotivational effect. It is an attribution that says, “I did not perform well and this is because I am not good enough and next time, I still will not be good enough.” In contrast, if you performed poorly and attributed this to something that is readily available to change, such as effort, poor performance can be motivational. It can send the message, “I performed poorly because I did not try hard enough and so if I try harder, my performance will get better.” If this process is applied to age, and an individual says, “I did not perform well because I am too old,” this mirrors the de-motivational process of saying you do not have the necessary skills.
With age, though, the problem is exacerbated by the knowledge that the ageing process will continue and physical capacity will decline. If you buy into this argument and see it is an irreversible fact, then one poor performance will be the start of a series of poor performances. It is worth noting that if an athlete attributes poor performance to ability and believes ability cannot improve, then the same downward spiral of deterioration in performance will occur, and this will happen to an athlete of any age. I argue that such as selfstatements are highly de-motivational and should be avoided mainly because they are not true. I am not saying that we can offset the ageing process but am saying that it is not likely to have a dramatic effect overnight. For example, heart-rate peak will reduce approximately by one beat per min per year of age. And so if someone’s peak heart rate was 180 beats per min, then he or she might expect it to be 179 the next year and 178 the year after. So returning to how you attribute a poor performance, if you attribute to something under your control and readily available to change, such as how much effort you gave, then the message learned is, “Next time I will perform better because I work on these factors in my preparation”.
A key point when you are trying to change your attribution style is to avoid contrite attributions. If you perform poorly, and you know you did not try hard, then attributing the cause of defeat to “bad luck” or “how well the opponent played or performed” is unrealistic. Looking to see things positively does not mean denial of the evidence but does mean you look for positive aspects of even the worst case scenarios. If you perform poorly and attribute this to lacking effort, then shame might be the emotional response (10). These feelings of shame will present themselves the next time you think about performing in a half-hearted way. In this way past experiences guide the projection of future states; thus to prevent experiencing shame after performing, you increase effort.
A key difference between younger and older athletes is the hope or expectation that performance will improve. It is entirely reasonable for athletes in their 20 and 30s to hold expectations that times might improve. Older athletes start looking to preserve performances and possibly halt or slow down the rate of decline. Hope is a powerful emotion and influences motivation. An absence of hope is associated with a-motivated states where people struggle to initiate even mundane tasks (9). However, hope is not lost! Younger and older athletes should use comparative data to judge performance. The emergence of age-group methods such as WAVA,which Parkrun uses, arguably offers a means through which age-group athletes could look to improve performance. WAVA compares performance (finish time) against the age-related and gender-specific world record. You are given a percentage score for each run; for example a time of 17.45 is 80% for a 45-year-old male athlete. If the same athlete maintains that time when he is 46, the percentage improves to 82%. Practically, this means that as you get older (over 40), you could get slower but maintain the same percentage score. However, it also means that if you maintain the same speed, your percentage improves. Therefore, it is advisable for older athletes to compare performances with age-related comparators rather than use absolute score. An age group athlete could even see ageing as a positive aspect of competition if he or she believed that they could hold current standards over the next year or two.
Ageing and physical decline is a fact of life. How you approach this is not, and it is possible to view ageing positively for the opportunities it brings. You can still improve, still enjoy competing, and learn to perform consistently. Learning to draw lessons from past performances is no less an important message for age-group athletes as it is for the elite. Practical approaches such as the agerelated methods of examining performance offer a simple way to judge progress. You can get better as you get older!
Andy Lane Sport psychology professor, University of Wolverhampton, UK
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10. The psychology of cycle training and competition: A brief introduction. Performance Cycling: The science of success. InHopker, J., & Jobson, S. Bloomsbury, London, 2012, 147- 164.