As part of the research for this project I was lucky to have the chance to work with 3 academics at Northumbria University – two sport scientists and a sports psychologist by the name of Dr Sarah Partington.
I asked her a series of questions about the psychology of endurance sport and her area of study, I was particularly interested in the limiting factor of psychology; how studies have shown that it is our psychological and neural processes that limit us much more than our cardio-vascular ones in endurance settings. I highly recommend listening to this Radiolab episode which set me along this thought path. The episode highlights the ‘central governor theory’ – that we have a fail-safe in our brain that can force the body to stop exerting itself, but that does so well before we have actually entered dangerous levels of exertion – that we can push ourselves much further than we think. Do listen to the episode if you have a moment.
This led me to investigate the performance modifying capability of the brain further. I discovered discussion around other ‘centrally acting performance modifiers’ beyond the combination of physiological factors; nutrition and hydration, training and genetics. This diagram here describes several of the types of psychological and circumstantial factors than can affect our physiological performance.
And so I asked Dr Sarah Partington about the psychology of endurance sport – specifically how – and why – we carry on, psychologically speaking, how how we think, affects us.
Sarah explained that the central governor theory etc., was more linked to physiological studies, but that she could certainly answer from the point of view of her own specialism – the Storied Self. She explained that this was a theory amongst a context of complex behaviours and environments – it was a strong theory, but (ever the academic) wanted to stress it was one among many approaches to the psychology of sport.
She explained that we are creatures of narrative – that as self-aware animals we build our sense of self through storytelling – we communicate our sense of self through stories. We need our story of self to be ratified socially, and we build our identity out of the stories we tell of our past within our social contexts. For an example in sport, you can look to a paper she co-wrote called “Mid-life nuances and negotiations: narrative maps and the social construction of mid-life in sport and physical activity” (2005) and consider the storied self of mid-life athletes:
“The findings revealed a master narrative for mid-life in sport, which is that ‘age is a state of mind’. In addition two further narratives were apparent. One, ‘life begins at forty’ was a counter-narrative, which depicted mid-life as a time of rejuvenation and an opportunity to revisit the experiences of youth. The other was an antithesis narrative, which focused upon acceptance of the ageing process and the notion of ‘growing old gracefully’. Sportsmen and women linked their own stories to these idealised narrative types, but via a process of narrative slippage, created their own personal narratives of sporting mid-life.”
http://www.researchgate.net/publication/248975365 [accessed Mar 24, 2015].”
The day to day grind of training is part of building a narrative of self-who-does-sport. All well and good, but what about in the context of extreme feats of endurance?
I sent Sarah a video, before I spoke to her – it was one I found following that Radiolab episode. Two women, competing for fourth places at the 1997 Ironman world championship.
I asked her “what makes us do that, though? What makes someone put themselves through that, when their body is so clearly screaming ‘stop’.”
Sarah explained to me that when we set goals for ourself, we add to our story. We build them into our storied self. Stories extend into the future as well as build from the past. It might be that you need to be part of that Ironman ‘club’, it might be that you always finish, no matter what. It might be that you do the things you set out to do – these are stories about yourself that are integral to your identity, they build it.
Sarah said to me that not completing those goals – failing to complete your story – it can “shatter your identity”. She used those exact words a few times.
“Self-determination experts would talk about a sense of autonomy and agency and purpose: engaging in something that you have chosen to do for a purpose that is important to you. The other part of that theory would be about connectedness, maybe connected to a broader you know, social network outside of you or something bigger so I guess for you it would be about feeling like part of that Ironman fraternity […] there’s a social group and a social identity beyond your personal identity. This sort of self-actualisation, it’s very reinforcing. [But] it may backfire. You keep pushing and keep pushing and keep pushing and it becomes very difficult and if you’ve set your heart on these particular goals and that is part of you identity to then not complete the goal could actually shatter your identity. […] It may become autotelic it may have some elements of self-determination in there and it may be linked to an identity and if you aren’t able to maintain this goal or this competence that drives you, it’s really like your identity is going to be shattered. It becomes so important that you can’t fail, you have to keep going no matter what.”
This combines the theory of the stories self with ‘flow’ – which Sarah has also researched (in big wave surfers particularly ). This is a theory of intrinsic pleasure and motivation (that you also hear about in game design, interestingly). Sarah explained that flow, autotelic, intrinsic motivation were all terms used sometimes interchangeably and sometimes to mean distinct things, but that generally all refer to the kind of activity that is its own reward.
“It’s really just when the activity becomes reinforcing in and of itself. So there’s no sort of external reward or anything that is triggering you to do that activity, it’s just the sheer activity itself that […] the easiest term for it to be would be to say that it’s an activity that is reinforcing in and of itself generally hough the joy, the pleasure and enjoyment that it brings from just actually doing the activity without having any external rewards associated with it”
It’s the pleasure of mastery you experience of progressing through levels in a video game, it’s the pleasure of improvement as you feel certain speeds or correct techniques become easier, it’s the feeling of crossing a finish line, or a personal best, or a great run in Spelunky. Intrinsic motivation, Sarah explained, can get you so engaged in activity you can lose awareness of self and environment.
Finally, we talked about psychological techniques for endurance sport – visualisation was heavily favoured by sport psychologists (it’s a form of telling yourself the story often enough that it becomes a more possible future), and also the difference between elite and amateur athlete’s thoughts when they compete: associative vs dissociative behaviours. Where amateur athletes will tend towards dissociative behaviours – distracting themselves from the pain, listening to music, thinking about other things, external motivations, elite athletes will tend to concentrate their thoughts around performance, associative behaviours – they will understand their pain, concentrate on their technique, pace, previous experience, hitting certain goals and distances within the larger race.
This made me think about the feeling of doing the Cotswold 113 last year. The middle distance ‘half ironman’. I did it in a much quicker time that I expected. And I remember… I remember really enjoying it. I remember the feeling of everything just settling, of just being wholly in the moment and concentrating on the very next, thinking about my pedalling, pushing a little harder, holding back so I had enough for the run, counting the laps, watching the distance markers.
In 122 days when I do the Outlaw, I will not (by British Triathlon guidelines) be allowed to wear headphones. Every triathlon I do is done in only in the company of my own thoughts. Just me, and myself, for 12-16 hours.
There is not another point in my life where I am every quiet with myself like that. Not ever for that amount of time. Not in our world, with the way I live. Never.
All I can hope is that I will be kind to myself.
Before this project, before looking at videos like the one above, it never occurred to me that I might not finish. It never occurred to me that I might fail. It is a plausible outcome, one I now need to consider because I’m making a show about it – I need to think about all the narrative possibilities. And yet, it just doesn’t come into my head.
I see myself cross the line, and I see my mother there, at the end, like she always is, red cheeked with pride. I see her arms wide, and the feel of the carpet under my feet. I do not crawl across it. Though I suspect if I had to, I would.
I hear her tell me “well done”.