Originally from the USA, Stephanie Hanrahan is an associate professor and the sport and exercise psychology program director at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. She was a competitive volleyball player for close to twenty years before knee injuries caught up with her, forcing her to quit. She is an accomplished author, the most prominent of her books being the Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology. Her main areas of research are mental skill development for athletes with disabilities, as well as the use of sport psychology in life skill development among at-risk youth in developing communities. Like Judy Van Raalte, Stephanie was so full of good ideas that I’m forced to write two posts to fully cover her topics.
The effect of culture in sport
You do not immediately see the effects your culture has on your life. However, working in a field where cross-cultural interactions are frequent, you quickly realize that a whole multitude of perspectives exists on everything, from the most complex systems (ie: ethics, morals) to the simplest (eg: counting fingers, money, as above, or even fish length, as below). Umut from Turkey was quick to point out this last, asking everyone, “Hey, how do you show fish sizes?” We all spread our arms wide… he laughed, raising his left arm to his right bicep. “This is how we do it in Turkey.”
Keeping this in mind, Stephanie based her first lecture on underlining the importance of being culturally sensitive as sport psychologists. She started this session with a simple question: “Think of a terrorist. Who do you see?” I immediately saw a bearded, Middle Eastern man in a turban, with the imagery of bombs and planes not far behind. Even though I know this to be patently wrong — the man I saw was a Sikh, and anyway, the majority of terrorist attacks are performed by nationalists/separatists worldwide. But the image persists.
The importance of the topic burned into our minds, she then went on to surprise us with some interesting facts like, for example, that there is often a greater variability within a culture than between cultures, and then gave us another interesting mental exercise to make us aware of our own biases. She told us to pick random people (races, religions, etc) and imagine what our own reactions might be if we found out they were our locksmiths, sisters’ dates, and so on. If a scenario made us feel uncomfortable, Stephanie encouraged us to delve deeper into it and discover what it was that made us feel so. Enter implicit bias. This exercise prompted Tom from the Netherlands to tell of a related Dutch study, using the implicit association test, wherein participants were shown to have an anti-Moroccan bias even if they were not aware of it (Moroccans being a major ethnic minority in the northern European country). Participants were presented words and asked to tap with one hand if the word was positive or a Dutch name, and with the other if it was negative or a Moroccan name. Results were timed. For the second round, the word groups re-paired so that participants were now tapping with one hand if the word was positive or a Moroccan name, and with the other if negative or a Dutch name. These results were much slower and registered more mistakes, implying the presence of a strong anti-Moroccan sentiment in the population. The causes of this effect have since been widely discussed, with even its strength being shown to diminish when the test is done in a person’s non-native language. Some argue the phenomenon is due more to an in-group/out-group exclusion — not necessarily racism. Still, the phenomenon’s existence points out the implicitness of some of our deepest feelings.
These discussions around culture brought the conversation to a natural stop alongside the eastern/western divide, with the former portraying a collectivist mindset and the latter leaning toward individualism. This reminded me of two exercises from undergraduate days that can be used to determine which culture one identifies with more. The first consists of simply asking a person to name five words that describe them best. When done, you can analyze these words to see if they come bundled with relationship or with individualistic connotations (eg: “daughter” v. “funny”), thereby revealing your subject’s inclination. A second test is getting the subject to describe the fish picture, inset. An individualist usually relates to the foremost fish, describing it as leading the others, while a collectivist tends to side with the group of fish, saying they are chasing or following the one in front.
Stephanie gave us some pointers to use when working with disabled athletes that may very well be applied to more average populations. For one, she finds instant replay imagery to be better than looking back on an activity some days later. Secondly, she is a big proponent of working more on fewer skills than the inverse. Lastly, she distinguished between internal and external imagery, with the first defined as seeing “from within yourself” — essentially seeing as you would when actually doing the activity. The second, external, is best explained as seeing yourself the way you would if you were watching yourself on TV; that is, from “outside”.
Both types of imagery have their uses. Internal imagery is generally better for raising kinesthetic awareness because you are “within the machine”, while external imagery is good for helping nail routines that might be judged on aesthetics, including gymnastics or surfing.
This distinction in place, Stephanie then had us complete a quick-but-very-interesting activity to show our own personal preferences regarding internal v. external imagery use. She asked us to imagine a clock on our face reading 3:00, and then to tell her which ear the hour hand was pointing to. Those who favoured external imagery saw it on the left ear, while those favouring internal imagery said the opposite. One interesting note was that there were those among us who so favoured the one approach (usually external) that they weren’t able to imagine any other alternative, even after extensive explanation.
Stephanie wrapped this topic up through sharing some of the practical elements surrounding imagery implementation. First, some benefits: it is not physically draining, it avoids risk of injury (or, in some cases, re-injury), and it can be practised anywhere. It can also accelerate the learning process and facilitates a temporal change of pace, allowing the speeding up or slowing down of an image as needed.
Next: implementation. The two most important elements of imagery — as mentioned before by Tony Watt when he talked of the PETTLEP approach — are its vividness and control. Stephanie reminded us the importance of being relaxed but alert, of being realistic and patient, and of imagining with as many senses as possible when undergoing this training. Imagery is best performed in short sessions and in real-time, though slow-motion may be use to isolate, analyze, and perfect key moments.
Lastly: increasing its effectiveness. It is key to remember why the imagery is being performed (to cope with anxiety, enhance confidence/motivation/focus, etc), to focus on imagining task execution but to follow through and also imagine its end result (many athletes omit the latter), to imagine elements as close to oneself as possible (eg: racquet instead of ball trajectory), and to include audiovisual scripts because they have been show to not only be effective, but to be more effective than written scripts alone.
During our coffee break, Stephanie had us pair up and gave out sleeps masks, one to a pair. One person would then don the mask and rely on the other to get to and from the cafeteria, with the second person doing the same on the way back (and it was no cakewalk: there were stairs, poorly paved roads, grades, doors, and interesting twists and turns all along the way). This was for us to see how a few minutes in a disabled person’s world might feel. When we later analyzed this exercise, the common themes that emerged were how all the other senses became more prominent, how lost we felt when our guides were not with us, and how trust became an exceedingly important part of our lives. When guiding, we were surprised how quickly the “blind” turned still and silent, even those who were normally quite cheerful and talkative. Stephanie then used these moments to show how exercises might need to be altered for athletes with disabilities — for example, imagery for relaxing the blind might not be very useful as imagery is how they live their world; putting more images in their mind might just increase their activation instead of suppressing it. Here is a video of what it all looked like:
A second exercise had to do with field of vision and focus. Stephanie had us move into groups of three where two members would link arms and the third would watch them form about a metre away. Then the group would move their outside, non-linked arms, each however he wanted. The watcher’s job was to mimic the movements of both the pair with his two hands. As if this wasn’t difficult enough, Stephanie then had the pair move apart about a metre and the watcher move back about 50 cm to repeat the drill. This proved not only fun, but a good way to practice keeping focused on key elements in a scenario, even with this focus stretched into the periphery.
Overall, Stephanie’s workshops were a resounding success, providing a sandbox for a lot of spontaneous fun as we explored our newfound boundaries. Here is how I learned not to trust Brent, for example:
Q & A:
- Have you any career-related regrets? None.
- What are you glad you did? Working with disabled athletes was a blessing. It has made me a better practitioner overall, helping me with my ability to communicate and making me see things from much different perspectives. Now I have a much greater toolset to use in my work. Travel has also been huge in showing me that there is always more than one way of doing something.
- What one psychological technique do you find most useful? Breathing. It helps relax, develop awareness and promote mindfulness. In the initial stages of an intervention, I look for what is working and what is good, rather than immediately trying to locate someone’s weakness. During later stages of intervention, it is good to take advantage of discovered strengths instead of “fixing” weaknesses.
- A book you’d recommend? The Routledge Handbook of Applied Sport Psychology, not because I edited it but because I really think it’s a great resource. Orlick’s In Pursuit of Excellence is great for athletes who enjoy reading, while Williams’ Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance is a good academic read for its presentation of research with an applied emphasis.
- A movie? King of Hearts. It puts the question, “What is normal?” on its head.