Paula Thesleff is a top professional in the field of sports psychology. 'Suorituskyvyn psykologia’, her non-fiction book about psychology of performance, co-written with colleague Paula Arajärvi, was published last year. We interviewed Paula on the subject of mental well-being of athletes and dancers.
Success often requires an insane amount of practice. Is it worth it though to fully dedicate yourself to your sport? How much should you let sport define your identity?
The idea that an athlete should live and breathe the sport and forget everything else is deep-rooted. At our work, we still encounter those conceptions that thinking about and planning other life would distract the career in sports. But based on studies and our experience the truth is quite the opposite.
Current research shows that versatile, holistic identity supports both well-being and performance. A strong athlete identity is related to e.g. post-career adaptation problems and anxiety from retirement.
Similar results have been found with ballet dancers.We constantly hear the stories where an athlete has felt relieved by the thought that life has and is allowed to have other important things. That helps focusing on the performance and alleviates the experience of pressure.
In addition to sport or art, it would be good to encourage individuals to think about their various roles and identities, to find other things in life. Especially social relationships are important. Everyone around an athlete or an artist should back up the idea that a person's worth is not defined by their results or by the quality of their performance.
Can relaxation also turn into a stressful performance?
It sure can. If one gets anxious or has a guilty conscience from missing a relaxation exercise, relaxation can be a far cry from self-care.
In relaxation, body's tension decreases and thoughts settle down. This is extremely important in order to preempt exhaustion and burnout. But, just like trying to fall asleep, relaxation doesn't happen by trying harder. When you try harder, your body tension actually increases rather than decreases.
How could this be avoided?
We can only create good circumstances for relaxation and then let go of trying. Everyone has their own way. One may enjoy a daily relaxation exercise, listen to their favourite music, go to sauna or relax with their favourite TV show.
The main thing is to have breaks from the hard work to ease up your tension. Anticipation and good planning can help. You can for example mark your breaks and free time in your calendar. When it's time for a break, you can pause and ask yourself "what do I need right now?"
There is a time and place for separate relaxation and consciousness exercises, when we want to practice our presence and controlling our tension. These skills can be very important, for example if you have stage fright.
Paula Thesleff lecturing at Kuopio Dance Festival 2016. Photo: Petri Laitinen.
What kind of individual differences are there in regards to how people respond to mental coaching?
Lots of differences. They can be due to may things, such as age, personality and life experiences.
If an individual comes to us voluntarily, they are usually motivated and willing to work. Occasionally for example young people urged by their parents can be reluctant. There are still some prejudices about getting help being a sign of weakness or some kind of fault. These thoughts obviously result in some resistance.
Our brains also mature and develop at different stages and self-reflection comes with both age and experiences. Encouraging conversation and phrasing one's emotions starting from childhood is very important, so that for example emotional vocabulary develops. It's understandable that one does not respond to mental coaching if they are not familiar and comfortable with phrasing their own thoughts and emotions.
At first it's important to take baby steps. To become motivated, a person needs a personal experience a a proof that conversations and practices are beneficial. We all have different characters. Some people are more eager to analyze and discuss their feelings than others. This must be respected too. Pen and paper are better for some people. A safe relationship with trust is the main thing, and the key to build a channel for discussion.
Does an athlete have to dig up their intrinsic motivation themselves or can a mental coach do it for them?
Motivation is a complex and interesting subject. Motivation is influenced by person's own perceptions, values and goals, as well as the interaction, feedback and atmosphere of the environment.
So the environment plays a role, but of course we are all different and thus fundamentally interested in different things. So it's important to support the children and young people in finding an enjoyable hobby.
Intrinsic motivation means that the activity itself feels rewarding, interesting, nice. Motivation becomes intrinsic when we feel like we can do it, feel like we are making progress.
A mental coach can use questions to help the athlete reflect on what brings them joy and other positive emotions. Setting goals can also help one in becoming motivated an recognizing progress. It's good to have physical, technical, mental and performance-related goals for practizing. Reflecting on even tiniest of successes can significantly strenghten well-being and intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is also affected by the feelings of belonging to a group and the having an impact on something. A mental coach can help to realize that being an athlete is one's own choice and there are always options. When "they don't have to", people are more free to look for and find things that keep them going. And if those things don't exist, there has to be a chance to quit.
Do aesthetic art forms and perfectionism go hand in hand? How realistic are the representations in Black Swan, for example?
Athletes and dancers often both possess and learn perfectionistic traits. And the environment may encourage perfectionism too.
Individuals that report perfectionistic traits are more likely to face problems with motivation, well-being and managing. A person tormented by perfectionism cannot achieve their goals since perfection is impossible. Thus one can experience constant feelings of inferiority and failure.These stories are very real in the world of sport and dance.
Being very demanding and self-critical and experiencing inadequacy is very common amongst our clients. These feelings cause a lot of suffering and predispose one to more severe mental problems. It has been reported that compared with average dancers have three times the risk to have eating disorders and perfectionism has a strong connection in causing and maintaining them.
Researchers encourage to talk about aiming for a perfect performance in that specific narrow sector or occasion. Such aspiration isn't exactly perfectionism itself.
It's important to make sure that individual learns self-compassion, coping with mistakes and failures, as well as enjoying training and performing and appreciating self and others regardless of the results. This is only possible if the environment prioritizes such aspirations instead of success and pursuing perfection.
Text: Kalle Saarela
Photos: Paula Thesleff (header photo), Petri Laitinen (photo from Kuopio Dance Festival 2016)