Achievement of Timing at the Highest Competitive Level:
The Necessity of a ‘Driving conviction’
The study analyzed the responses of eight top athletes worldwide renown for their multiple Olympic Gold and other medal successes in several sports including: canoe, diving, swimming, ski marksmanship, ice-skating and marksmanship. The central issue posed during the in-depth interviews pertained to how Performance and Timing may be achieved in competitions. The interview material, analyzed according to the Empirical Phenomenological Psychological method, generated a total of 964 meaningful units, MUs, assembled in 33 categories. Six themes were identified from the interview material: a unifying “driving” thought, the long-term aspect of preparation, the direct mental preparation prior to start of competition, the experiences of athletes during performance, the coaching and external support they have received and experience of timing. A remarkable, unifying, feature of all these athletes was that each possessed a “driving” thought under which all other considerations were subjugated to the achievement of complete success at the highest level of competition. Another such feature was that participants not regarded “flow” as a necessity for top performance. Keywords: Timing, “driving thoughts”, athletes, competition.
With the financial support of the Swedish Olympic Committee and the Swedish National Center for Research in Sports an investigation was performed with eight Swedish Olympic athletes. Seven of these Olympic athletes have achieved Olympic Gold Medals and the eighth has taken two Olympic Bronze Medals. The purpose of the present study was to obtain the athletes’ thoughts and experiences on performance and timing at the very highest Championship levels by applying a qualitative interview technique. The responders were free to share all aspects regarding performance and timing that they thought were of importance. The concept of “timing” is described in scientific literature (for review, see Janson, Archer & Norlander, 2003) and the definitions correspond largely with that provided in the Swedish National Encyclopedia’s definition: “temporal synchronization of parallel activities (and responses)” (National Encyclopedia’s dictionary, 2000, p. 1643). More explicitly, timing involves how agonist and antagonist muscles are coordinated temporally in order to facilitate the uniform and adequate movement of different joints (Williams & Barnes, 1987), whereby electromyogram studies, for example, indicate that antagonist muscles provide a “braking” force that inhibits fast (or jerky) joint movements (Janson, et al, 2003).
Flow (e.g., Jackson, 1996; Jackson, Kimiecik, Ford & Marsh, 1998; Pates, Oliver & Maynard, 2001), a concept related to timing, is defined as ”an optimal psychological state in which complete absorption in the task at hand leads to a number of positive experiential qualities” (Jackson, 2000, p.135). Since several leading sports researchers (e. g., Jackson et al, 1998) maintain that Flow is a necessary component for optimal performance, an area of research has developed that attempts to identify different components of the process(es) contributing to Flow, as well as how one may reinforce these components (Jackson, 1996). Studies performed by Csikszentmihalyi and others (Jackson & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000) suggest the presence of nine such components, namely (1) balance between challenge and efficiency, (2) fusion between action and awareness, (3) clear objectives, (4) clear feedback, (5) focus upon the ongoing activity, (6) a feeling of control, (7) loss of uncertainty, (8) temporal displacement, and (9) an experience that it is oneself that provides the purpose. Russell (2001) examined different quantitative and qualitative aspects of flow in 42 athletes recruited from different team sports and individual sports and obtained a result almost completely in agreement with Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2000) nine components with regard to factors contributing to the flow experience. Nevertheless, Russell considered the situation incomplete unless one incorporated dimensions that hindered or disturbed flow.
Jackson (1995) has postulated earlier that factors disturbing or disrupting flow in athletes be considered almost uncontrollable. One such important basic component is ”physical readiness” (Jackson, 1992), which is necessary for the coordination of all movements and thereby also a necessity for flow. This component too is a condition for action and awareness to construct a context thereby in line with Csikszentmihalyi’s second factors. ”Physical readiness” may be interpreted as mind and body coordination to achieve timing of muscle activity (e.g., Benvenuti, Stanhope, Thomas, Panzer, & Hallet, 1997; Hase & Stein, 1999; Strauss & Klich, 1999). Studies within this area point to the necessity of considering the gender variable whereby gender differences may underlie intensity and velocity of movement (Buchman, Leurgans, Gottlieb, Chen, Almeida, & Corcos, 2000).
Technical skill affects both timing and muscle tension. Aggelousis, et al (2001) performed a study involving 41 subjects, aged 19-26 years, who were required to develop a new way (taking the elbow as starting point) of ’throwing a ball’. EMG-analysis of four muscles in the elbow region showed that conditions allowing more training gave better performance accompanied by reduced tension in the agonist muscle (biceps brachii) and in the most important antagonist muscle (aconeus). These results confirmed those of an earlier study (Engelhorn, 1988) on children aged 7-11 wherein better performance through exercise was associated with reduced EMG-activity in the muscles analyzed.
The influence of psychological variables upon timing and EMG analysis of muscle tension has been subjected to investigation (e.g., Braathen & Svebak, 1990) indicating effects. Frustration (Rychtecky, 1978), anxiety and worry (Adam & van Wieringen, 1988) enhances EMG-activity, while deep relaxation (Norlander, Bergman & Archer, 1999), fantasizing (Harris & Robinson, 1986) and meditation (Harris & Robinson, 1986) reduces EMG-activity. Bird (1987) describes an experimental case-study in which an elite level 23-year-old rifle marksman demonstrated that the most successful performances were associated with ability to attain relatively low levels of cortical activation. Between ’taking-aim’ and ’firing’ EEG-amplitude remained stable until an instant before firing, when it descended sharply, rising again to normal level after firing. Lower levels of EEG during a series were associated with higher scores. Further, Janson (1995) reported a series of case-studies indicating that the most successful athletes within different technical disciplines (i.e., bowling, boxing, archery, discus, shot put, hammer, javelin, cycling, golf, marksmanship and weight-lifting) often produced lower EMG levels, pre-, during- and post-action, than less successful athletes, in each respective sport, for the critical muscles: this finding was confirmed even in the case of boxing (arguably a semi-technical sport). Janson (1995) noted too that elite athletes show a markedly higher degree of synchronized attendance to agonist and antagonist to a much greater extent than those less skilful. Those observations were possible to replicate in a controlled study where athletes performing at international level were compared to athletes performing at national and club levels (Janson, Archer & Norlander, 2003).
As indicated, good timing is necessary for maximal sports performance, as both athletes and sports psychologists agree. The present study examines the views of certain athletes, belonging to the absolute elite, regarding timing and whether or not they use/have used particular techniques to achieve effective timing or whether they conceive of timing as an uncontrollable phenomenon (Jackson, 1995).
Eight participants took part in the study, four male and four female subjects, with a mean age of 44.50 years (SD = 11.06). Participants in the present study represented the following sports: canoe, diving, swimming, ski marksmanship, ice-skating and marksmanship. Each participant belonged to the absolute world elite within his/her sport. They had been awarded a large number of World Championship medals; seven of these had been awarded Olympic Gold medals. Three of the participants are still active athletes and the others were active between 1 and 26 years ago. Regarding birthplace and upbringing, three reported a rural background, two a small town, one a medium-sized town and two a large town. One of the participants had belonged to a small club, two to a medium-sized club, two others to a large club, and three reported that they trained mostly by themselves. Regarding education, one participant had completed only basic education, four High School educations and three Higher Educations.
The participants were contacted by letter informing them how the study would be carried out, its purpose, who would carry out the study, how long each interview was estimated to take and total confidentiality for the whole of the interview material. They were informed also that the results would be published but their identities protected. Of the participants contacted only one was absent at the time of interview due to a coaching appointment outside Sweden. Throughout, a positive, interested and compliant response was forthcoming. Following telephone/email contact, a venue was arranged. The interview venue is an important part of the procedure. Thus, the participants decided exactly where the interview would take place: in their own home or in a ‘neutral’ environment. Consequently, the interviews took place in several different settings but it was essential that the participant had chosen the setting and felt comfortable there. Each interview took approximately 2 hours to complete.
Before each interview a questionnaire on background data was presented. In order to facilitate the interviews, some very open questions had been prepared although they were in most cases not followed. Typical questions could be: “What does ‘timing’ mean for you?, What do you think about when you hear the word ‘Performance’?, What do you think about when you hear the word ‘Motivation’ in connection to performance and timing?” The respondents were allowed great freedom to engross themselves and make comments, new questions or thoughts. The purpose was to get them to think freely and make associations pertaining to their athletic performance and experiences of timing. At each interview tape recorders were used and these were completely acceptable for all the interviewees. After the interview, each participant was informed that s/he would be contacted when the interview material was ready, so that they could give their opinions on this. Following completion of the interviews, notes taken from the tape recordings were transferred word for word to 105 pages of printed raw data.
Method of analysis
The Empirical Phenomenological Psychological method, the EPP method (Karlsson, 1993), provided the essential analysis of the material. According to the EPP method, the material is analyzed in five steps:
Step 1. The experimenter reads the material several times until s/he has acquired a detailed understanding and feeling. These reading are carried out through strong focus upon relevant psychological phenomena but without any purpose of testing the eventual validity of any particular hypothesis.
Step 2. “Meaningful units” (Meaning Units or MU) are identified. The text is divided into smaller units whereby a MU is identified each time there occurs a shift in meaning content with regard to the phenomena under study. It must be noted that these units are not to be considered separate parts but rather integrated parts of the whole context.
Step 3. The MUs are translated in regard to their psychological content. The implicit parts of the text are rendered explicit. Here, the Responder’s language is altered to a more scientific and abstract language that ought to be independent of any particular theoretical notions.
Step 4. The MUs are combined into categories that are described in the form of synopses, i.e. summaries of the categories obtained. These synopses may appear very different depending upon the phenomena that they purport to describe. The descriptions aim at “how” and “what” the phenomena occur/consist of.
Step 5. The categories may be combined to a general structure on condition that the process is achieved without loss of important meaning. Here, the Investigator may lay aside the empirical material and reflect at a more abstract level. The result of this analysis is presented in qualitatively different themes that may be explained and exemplified with reference to citations extracted from the empirical material.
Reliability and validity
A test of reliability (Norlander, Gård, Lindholm & Archer, 2003) was used whereby 10 out of the 33 categories were extracted randomly. Five MUs were then drawn randomly out of each of the ten categories. This material was assigned then to two independent judges. Their task was to distribute the 50 MUs into the ten categories. One of the judge’s distribution showed a 78% agreement with that of the Investigator’s categories whereas the other judge’s distribution showed an 86% agreement. Thus, the total estimation of reliability was 82% which should be regarded as a good reliability score (Norlander, Gård, Lindholm & Archer, 2003; Pramling, Norlander & Archer, 2001; Pramling, Norlander & Archer, 2003). In order to deal with the issue of validity the respondents were sent their generated MUs that had been sorted under the thirty-three categories and asked to consider making alterations if they thought that the categories did not reflect in a proper way their own responses on performance and timing . None of them had any changes at all to offer. Nevertheless, several of the participants urged that the present study ought to emphasize the enormous psychological pressures to which they felt they had been exposed during the Olympic Games.
The 33 categories that were derived from the analysis of the material are presented here. The number of meaningful units, MU, derived was 964. Under each respective heading a short explanation of the category is provided, followed by a few representative citations from the interviews.
1. When timing appears everything seems to fit (106 MUs)
2. Concentration is the most important psychological factor (86 MUs)
3. Preparation, ’pepping-up’ and warm-up is highly important (77 MUs)
4. Develop methods for tackling problematic competitive situations (54 MUs)
5. This is how I want to feel in a competition (47 Mus)
6. The training schedule and plan are critical for a good result (46 MUs)
7. One must be prepared for problems (45 MUs)
8. Control should encompass preparations and situations around the competition, never in the execution itself or in the technical details (42)
9. Mental training is carried out according to one’s own models (40 MUs)
10. Mental steps in important competitions (40 MUs) Thoughts may run
11. Nervousness before and during an important competition exists even for the most successful. That type of stress may influence the result in a positive direction (40 MUs)
12. Bad timing can occur (40 MUs)
13. It is important to have a knowledgeable and understanding coach (35 MUs)
14. It is important to get the right feeling (29 MUs)
15. This is my way to carry out a competition (21 MUs)
16. To a great extent, training ought to be like the competition (21 MUs)
17. More radical technique alterations should be carried out in younger years (21 MUs)
18. Visualization is applied to arrive at the right feeling/flow before and during performance (19 MUs)
19. Self-confidence is an important basis for good performance (19 MUs)
20. Execution is taken care of unconsciously (16 MUs)
21. The atmosphere within the whole team is important (15 MUs)
22. Inspiration from the task is important for achieving a good result (13 MUs)
23. Technique is well-rehearsed and works automatically in competitions where everything goes well (13 MUs)
24. I have not received any good coaching (11 MUs)
25. Motivation and attitude influence the will to train hard and compete (11 MUs)
26. Negative thoughts are to be avoided (11 MUs)
27. Sometimes one must alter thinking to seek good timing (9 MUs)
28. The translation of timing in the dictionary is completely correct (9 MUs)
29. In a competition thoughts must be strategic or not at all (8 MUs)
30. When everything works well all movements are smooth (6 MUs)
31. Timing can ’come-and-go’ (5 Mus)
32. One must act in the right way if technique starts to be disrupted (5 MUs)
33. Thought, image and feeling should work together (4 MUs)
All the participants in the study reported the necessity of maintaining the right “basic thoughts” when they were trying to perform at their absolute best. They did this in different ways, each to his/her own. If one was to construct a model, on the basis of the present study, depicting how the participants have presented a collective understanding of what performance and timing may look like, the following illustration presented in Figure 1 may be considered.
Here, the results from the 33 categories have been formed into six main groups, or themes. This was done through independent reflections by each of the authors and the individual suggestions were thereafter compared and found to agree convincingly. After further discussions full consensus was reached concerning the themes and how they should be included in the discussion section. The first theme indicates that there is a unifying “driving” thought that compels the top level athletes towards their goal. The second theme describes the preparations that forego the major task (a start in the Olympics). The third theme describes how one has executed the final preparations, just prior to start. The fourth theme explains how one has experienced the execution of the competition. The fifth theme describes something about how the athletes have experienced the coaching support that they have received. As a product of these five themes a good timing, during the performance at the competition, presents itself for the participants: this is the sixth theme.
The first theme covers two categories, according to the results section above (18 and 29). These categories may be described as a “driving thought”, a form of trigger that through its compulsion drives the athlete towards his/her goal. One may describe here that the will to win is very strong. Thoughts like “I’ll do it all” indicate that these athletes possess a great ‘driving-force’ that implements their victories. Under the categories 2, 3 and 4, the driving thought is always present, like a background sound, as one participant expressed it: ”Somewhere in the brain the thought ‘I shall do my best’ always exists”. In theme 3, the athletes describe how they reinforce the overriding thought through conscious, decisive and recurrent thinking about the ”driving thought”.
The second theme covers 8 categories (numbers: 3, 4, 6, 9, 16, 17, 19 and 25) that deal with the long-term aspect of preparation before important Championships. There exists an enormous amount of training invested by each of the male and female athletes participating in the study. The extent of this preparative work is described in the second theme by different categories. Physiological and psychological factors are noted both separately and in combination. These include motivation, self-confidence, nervousness prior to competition, mental training (mainly after their own fashion), the format of training, technical finesse, training under competition conditions and preparations. The ”driving thought” provides the necessary motivation which is the fundamental requirement for athletes to train as hard as is demanded. This level of motivation is so strong that the athlete to greater exertion despite the time already spent and the pain experienced and that the results are not always satisfactory. The other categories within this theme are in their turn dependent upon motivation. All the factors comprising this theme pertain to the individuals’ way of training and coping with the pressures that elite competion exert upon the absolute best athletes.
The third theme covered 6 categories (2, 8, 11, 14, 22, and 26) that may be summarized as the direct mental preparation prior to start of competition. Several of the participants consider it very important that their thoughts are strategically-oriented and most speak of envisioning what they expect will happen. In this context, it must be noted that concentration was considered the most essential psychological factor. This illustrates that at start the individual need absolute solitude, away from media, team managers and other acquaintances that may make the wrong comments at that time. Each participant had worked with his/her concentration to an inestimable extent over the years; most recognized the necessity of good concentration before even participating in their sport competively. Concentration may be interpreted in several ways, from ’narrow focus’ to ’split vision’, depending upon the particular task at hand. Mobilizing the ’right’ concentration ensures too that negative thoughts are kept aside and unity with the ”driving thought” is reinforced (theme 1). In the present study, all the participants describe the necessity of ‘concentration exercise’ as critical just prior to and during the competition, a procedure used to project an image of execution and/or accomplishment. The most desirable concentration is that with narrow focus, one that implies the absorption into oneself, internal concentration. This type of focus realizes a scanning of their bodies (the feeling of right level of tension), accomplishes a mental retrieval of correct execution, reminds them that they possess the right technique within themselves. Concurrently, one repeats mentally the sequences inherent to the competition, rehearsal, and the feeling so induced is essential for self-sufficiency just before start, a prerequisite for the desired arousal or priming, as opinions vary.
Some participants expressed a feeling of weakness just before start but nevertheless recover their ability when the competition has started, as appropriate feelings facilitate priming. Some form of ‘fighting-spirit’ is generated as the competition starts and this in turn initiates the technical ability. The awareness that they can perform well, despite the discomforts prior to start, generates this ‘fighting-spirit’. All detailed thoughts regarding technique and accomplishment must be abandoned just before start. All rehearsed-in technique, due to the massive training schedules, are established and underlie the implicit, unconscious execution of automated sequences. Some participants described themselves as being “empty-headed” but nevertheless imbued with ‘fighting-spirit’, on control questioning. One seeks a dominating, ‘driving-thought’ that induces the heightened arousal that facilitates performance over expectations.
All the participants sought control over situational aspects of the competition, i.e. schedules, coach departures, start-times, etc. Possessing more comprehensive control over the situation is considered to optimize the possibility of better timing. In a different context, Mack (1995) describes the importance, under emergency, of professions like police and fireman possessing knowledge of events. Possession of information concerning how things look at the ‘site’, what has occurred and prevailing conditions were ranked highest and it was concluded that knowledge of what will happen allows mental preparation and ensures a better job (Mack, 1995).
The fourth theme covers 10 categories (5, 7, 10, 12, 20, 23, 27, 30, 31 and 32) that describe the participants’ experiences during performance. It is now one needs good timing. If the components parts of the third theme work effectively most athletes postulate that they achieve increased possibilities to realize a natural feeling of flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihályi, 2000). However, not all athletes since the present ones implied that one may feel heavy and stiff before start and they could experience a great load, psychological and physical, during the initial stage of the competition. Despite these wearing periods, often throughout, it is remarkable that the competition is completed in the manner one applies. Normally, some sort of avoidance may be expected, breaking off or reducing the demands on oneself and performing worse. These top athletes seem to possess a strong ‘winner-instinct’ or ‘driving-thought’ that despite all setbacks during preparation and performance accept the discomforts to achieve the goal. Good timing may occur despite the ‘heavy’ feeling before or during competition: “Timing can come or go”, related one of the participants. A characteristic feature of the absolute best is that they never give up.
When thoughts, images, feelings and actions form a wholeness, one approaches the term, timing. Perfect timing may be attained even under great pressure and thinking constraints regarding risk of failure. The participants implied that even under these circumstances a good result may be achieved. One may attain good timing when under tough psychological pressure and thereby perform well. The experience of Flow is, as this investigation suggests, not a prerequisite for such high level performance. This type of reasoning is necessarily to reach coaches and athletes at the highest levels.
The athletes remained quite relaxed in certain competitions but in others they were highly nervous. Young athletes may demonstrate great mental strength, since both their own and others expectations are low and failure a real possibility. With a moderate attitude they may go through the competition as a fine experience whereas later demands, stress and discomfort may alter the situation radically. The athletes in this study appear repeatedly to cope with the expectations and demands placed on them.
The study indicated that even though the best athletes may be afflicted by serious worry prior to and sometimes during the most important Championships, they are able to perform at the highest level. The participants seem never to have doubted in these situations. They never considered escape as “being something offered within oneself”. It was established too the nervosity they experienced could be transformed to a force, an anger and motivation to be used for success as well as power and endurance; one chose always to struggle.
The fifth theme covers 4 categories (13, 15, 21 and 24) and concerns the coaching and external support that the participants had received. On one hand, this part enters generally long before the most important performances, on the other, it concerns the final preparations before start and for some of them even during the competition, through efforts of the coach and others. Team spirit appears as an important factor for good performance, as external support was critical for several. Team spirit was particularly important for the female participants (13 MUs for the female athletes as opposed to 2 for the male). Concurrently, category 15 indicates that the female athletes persisted with their own method to a much greater extent than the males: 19 MUs were obtained for the females persisting with their own method as opposed to 2 MUs for the males. This result was surprising given the observation by coaches that it was easier to instruct women whereas men were more difficult “for coaches to shape”. Regarding ‘coach-support’, the study produced a large discrepancy between athletes. Some participants considered that the coach meant everything for them while others considered that they had received hardly any ‘coach-support’. In the latter case, male participants expressed 9 MUs whereas only 2 MU such negative views emerged from the female participants. The distribution pertaining to coaches’ contribution was unanimous: all the participants (in 35 MUs) expressed definitely that they desired a knowledgeable and understanding coach.
The sixth theme, timing (Categories 1, 28 and 33), emerges for the athletes if the five preceding themes can provide a functional basis. Category 1 provided the most MUs, 106, which is understandable since the study involved timing. Despite the multiplicity of responses with a diversity of individual variations it is remarkable that the subjects’ responses display such agreement over what the concept entails, i.e. temporal setting, adaptation, adjustment and regulation.
There appear to be certain unifying factors underlying the uniquely successful performances of the eight athletes, studied here, at Olympic and World Championship level:
Firstly, all the participants described themselves as being extremely nervous before start and some even had discomfort during performance. These observations stand in contrast to a popular opinion that it is “wrong” to be nervous and worried, but are in agreement with aspects of stress research (Ekman & Arnetz, 2002), whereby nervousness and worry may be transformed to a facilitatory functional role through mobilization of the neuroendocrine systems involved in ‘fight’. This notion implies that nervousness and worry may act to ‘trigger’ the conditions optimal for maximal performance.
Secondly, the concept of flow (Jackson & Csikszentmihailyi 2000) often described as a necessity for top performance seems rather to be a transient and pleasant feeling not essential for top performance. Several participants felt heavy and sluggish before start but, once started, both body and motivation functioned well, increasing as timing worked better. This could take place without the concurrent pleasant and comfortable feeling. One conclusion is that flow offers an ‘added bonus’ to the athlete while timing must be a prerequisite for maximal performance.
Thirdly, the participating athletes described an inner conflict between feelings, reactions and thoughts required to reach harmony with the “driving thought”. When this is successful good timing emerges. A wrongful thought pattern may be devastating in these cases. Mental strength is acquired over many years and is integrated intimately with other factors contributing to performance. The participants reported that before and during important competitions the idea of ‘fighting-to-the-last-drop’ as the only possibility. This ‘driving force’, between problems and driving thoughts, appears to have a critical implication for their final result. Timing is not something that just occurs but rather an ability that emerges over many years of hard training and subjugation of thought processes to the special behavioral characteristics underlying execution, i.e. automatic decision-making and accomplishment dissociated from conscious control of technical details. The driving thought is highly personal and compelling, a prerequisite for top performance.
Forthcoming studies aim to identify characteristic features between those successful at the highest level and those producing excellent performances during training and lesser events but fail repeatedly at the highest level. The identification of further meaningful units may contribute insights to facilitate athletes’ achievement of improved timing.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Torsten Nolander by email: Torsten.Nolander@kau.se