Moscow was a blast! These ten days flew by faster than I would have imagined. Ten days full of action, emotions, tears and joy, and lessons learned. I could learn so many new things and perspectives from a sport psychological perspective which I'd like to share with you. One question, I tried to better understand was the reason why some nations were more dominating than others. Are there any single factors that make a whole nation more successful? How do these nations differentiate from others? And what can we learn from them?
I guess when I'm talking about "dominating nations", everyone will know who I'm talking about. With no doubt, the past years, Japan – and this year also Slovenia – have been dominating the competition circuit, both in adults and youth competitions. Their athletes all seem to move effortlessly, they seem to be determined and have a strong mindset. Well, I know "all" is a strong word and you can hardly ever generalise these characteristics on everyone. But well, that's the impression I've been given watching them.
I had a talk with a Japanese coach about (cultural) differences, which was incredibly interesting and insightful. You will see, some of these distinguishing factors also apply to other successful nations. So what were such important, deciding factors?
Japan, such as most Asian countries, is a collectivistic culture. A collectivistic culture puts the needs of a group or community over the individual's needs. The self is part of a larger social network, including family, friends, and in this case a sport team. It's about being there as a team, supporting each other. Science supports that a good team, being among friends is really important for youth athletes. Having a motivational climate, a good time hanging out with your friends, motivating each other is essential. According to Wyllemann & Lavallee (2004), friends within a team are the number 1 reference people – and one main reason for young athletes to stay in a team.
You might argue that climbing is an individual sport, and therefore the more professional (and older) athlete get, the less important a team (or teammates) gets. Well, if you talk to or look at really successful athletes – most of them train together with equally strong people, they have a good social network around them, supporting them, they have friends who they train with. To sum it up, a team is very valuable for a good, effective, motivating training.
Having a good team is also important in competitions. How are you supported when you climb a competition? Are your teammates watching the live stream in the hotel room next doors or are they at the competition venue? Are they in the back seats, maybe even having a chat with some other people while you're climbing or are they at the front railing, screaming their hearts out? I observed the American team be very passionate about firing each other on "Come on, you can do this! Believe in yourself! You got this! Do what you love!" These words might make you smile at first (particularly if you're not used to being fired on this passionately). However, you'll have to admit that there is a huge power as well as (group) dynamics in the way of them supporting each other. Having a team behind you when you climb, is amazing. I heard athletes say that they simply couldn't let go because they were "screamed up the wall". Watching e.g. the French, Japanese or American youth team standing at the front railings to scream for their athletes, gave me goosebumps.
Positive emotional contagion leads to improved cooperation, decreased conflict and increased perceived task performance (Barsade, 2002). Even if climbing is an individual sport, this so-called "Ripple Effect" still plays an important role – and I do believe that the power of a supporting team in your back shouldn't be underestimated.
Isn't perfectionism a "bad" trait? Why should it be positive for climbing?
The Japanese culture is known for its perfectionism. There are high expectations in society that you achieve something and that you are good at something. "To be someone, you have to be good at something." I recently wrote a blog post about perfectionism. I'd classify this type of perfectionism as socially prescribed perfectionism. These high standards and expectations definitely have their detriments (e.g. Japan has one of the highest suicidal rates in the world). However, perfectionism is a really complex subject – and it's surely not only a bad thing. It depends a lot on how you deal with it. Moreover, there are different types of perfectionism – some of them probably being helpful for being a successful climber. I will go into more detail about this now.
Many sports require flawless, errorless performance in order for athletes to be successful. Climbing is definitely among these sports – in particular, recent bouldering with its many volumes, where everyone has to find an optimal position oneself to solve the problem as quick and as effortless as possible, diversified walls and hence physical and mental challenges. (Udo Neumann, 2018). According to Feher et al. (1998) "high self-worth, competitive traits, perfectionism and a high score of life satisfaction" have a positive impact on a climber's performance. Having high personal standards (e.g. achieving something in order to gain a certain social status) is also correlated with high task orientation (focussing on tasks rather than on outcomes). A high task orientation in climbing means that the focus is put on solving the problem, finding the best solution rather than thinking about the outcome. I was told that the focus on solving tasks and moves during training and competitions plays an important role in Japan.
However, high expectations and perfectionism may also result in a lot of social (and in turn, personal) pressure. How do athletes deal with it and what do coaches do to foster a good environment? "We try to have fun".
3) HIGH TASK-ORIENTATION
If you are asked what type of climate in a training group is more effective, what would you say: a task-orientated climate (focus on improvements of the individual's abilities, focus on the efforts of the individual, intra-individual comparison) or a competitive climate (focus on winning, inter-individual comparison, beating each other)?
Well, obviously there is no black-and-white answer to this question and it obviously strongly depends on several factors such as the people, the goals, the age, etc. But it is indeed scientifically proven that a highly task-orientated climate is (generally) more effective than a competitive climate within a training group. Why? It fosters the development of intrinsic motivation and enjoyment of the activity, it leads to a smaller drop-out rate, it minimises the fear of failure, it puts its emphasis on effort, persistence, improvement and hard work, which in turn leads to an increased self-esteem. Effort is seen as key to success. And the list can go on. A highly task-orientated climate is supposed to be about 10-times more influential than an ego-based climate.
As already said before, a high task-orientation in climbing means that the focus is put on solving the problem, finding the best solution rather than thinking about the outcome. A high task-orientation can also take off pressure in stressful situations such as important competitions. It helps us to stay in the "here and now" and focus on our given tasks step-by-step.
At this point, I want to mention that a high task-orientation doesn't mean to not set high goals. Setting high goals and striving to become the best is essential for long-term motivation (also see one of my older blog post about goal setting). Also, we can use our goals as motivation to push ourselves even further:
4) HIGH GOALS FOR MOTIVATION
Watching the top athletes in their category, I was amazed at how focused they were. They gave you the impression that they really wanted to win and perform. They gave everything, they fought for every move and sometimes, when you had thought, they had already run out of energy, they pushed themselves further, made more moves, held on to the tiniest crimps, didn't let go – and well, so often that made the difference whether they were on the podium or not, whether they got into finals or not. It was interesting to have a look at some of their Instagram profiles – "I'll never stop the pursuit of victory in the open", "I want to be even stronger" (with a podium in their pocket), "I can't wait to give a good performance"... and many more. These athletes didn't compete for the sake of competing, they went in there to give everything, to win. You might think that having high goals and aiming to be the best contradicts what I said before? Well, intrinsic motivation to strive to be better is essential to becoming better. Having high goals is essential to be motivated and to push ourselves further.
However, it's also true that many athletes might feel paralysed in competitions if they only think about the outcome since it's something they can't control – for these athletes it's recommended to specifically focus on process goals during competitions. Athletes who don't see their goal as a threat but rather a positive, exciting challenge, can use their goals as an extra engine to execute each move, each step, each task more precisely and more focussed. Interviews with very successful athletes say "I really wanted to win, so I gave everything in that moment". The motivation was to win. The task-orientation (process goal) was to give everything, knowing that if they get to give everything, winning might be a positive consequence. It needs both – high goals and a high task-orientation – to be successful. And if you have a team behind you that supports you the best possible way, even better!
Of course, this list is limited and there are definitely many other factors that influence performance and outcomes.