By Emily Pattinson Sport Psychology Researcher, University of Winchester (GBR)

Recalling the best lectures of the FINA World Medical Congress

Here is a special feature, a research on the mental games in diving – an interesting read not only for the athletes and coaches but perhaps for all sports lovers.

The author earned the Cameron Award for her work, which she presented at last December’s FINA World Medical Congress [1] in Windsor (CAN).

Aquatic sports are sports of single moments, single chances to perform to the highest standard, and single mistakes that can cost a whole competition. Having the slightest performance advantage can make the difference between winning a gold medal or not even qualifying for a semi-final. We have witnessed two great examples of this phenomenon in recent Olympic cycles.

In Bejing in 2008, Michael Phelps won the gold medal in the 100m butterfly when he came back from 7th place to win by only 4.7 millimetres!

At the Rio 2016 Olympics, British divers Jack Laugher and Chris Mears entered the record books, winning the first diving gold medal for the UK in an Olympic Games when they prevailed in the men’s 3m synchronised event. Their historic victory came with a score of 454.32 points, just a 4.11-point advantage over the pair from the USA. In a sport where a good dive can score between 80 and 100 points and the difference between medals can be less than 5 points, any performance advantage can make all the difference.

“The effect of invisible or unknown barriers”

Research out of the University of Winchester (GBR) is investigating a new possibility for performance enhancement in diving, using self-efficacy. Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief about their ability to perform a specific task or cope with a situation. It is entirely the person’s perceptions about their ability that is relevant to self-efficacy, which does not always correspond with their actual ability. Athletes gain their self-efficacy beliefs from five sources: previous experience, watching others, social interaction, emotions and physiological/bodily reactions, such as shaking or increased heart rate. Initial studies performed in 2015 investigated the influence and use of self-efficacy in divers.

A qualitative study using focus groups of current competitive divers highlighted that divers felt their self-efficacy beliefs were most affected by physiological stimuli and their emotions. Many athletes mentioned the effect of invisible or unknown barriers, describing situations in which they felt they were able to perform a dive but they felt their body would not move or there was something they couldn’t describe physically stopping them.

However, many of the younger divers struggled with explaining how they felt in these situations of physical and mental block. The DIVE-SE scale To remedy this limitation the first study was followed up with a similar study using interviews with retired elite divers, and the findings were very similar. The retired divers highlighted many of the same positive facilitators of performance, such as past successful performances or preparatory skills, known as lead-ups. The divers also mentioned similar barriers such as heightened emotion and physical sensations, such as muscle spasm, lethargy and pain.

The retired divers were able to provide much more detailed accounts of mental and physical block, confirming the findings of the initial study, suggesting that addressing these physiological and emotional reactions to diving could in turn improve performance. Using the new-found knowledge of self-efficacy within diving and the effect of different sources on divers’ experience and skill acquisition, a diagnostic tool for self-efficacy in diving was developed.

The DIVE-SE scale was developed in early 2016 to empirically test self-efficacy levels in divers. The scale was validity tested, using an international sample of divers from 16 different countries, and proved to be a reliable test of self-efficacy specifically designed for use in diving. Using DIVE-SE scale, researchers were able to investigate the sources of self-efficacy, using quantitative statistics.

Findings presented at the recent FINA World Medical Congress in Windsor suggested that higher-level divers (Olympic, international and national level) had higher levels of self-efficacy than lower-level divers (novice and recreational level).

Psychological intervention in testing

This research provides the first signs of a self-efficacy performance relationship in diving.

Further findings suggested that previous experience, social input and physiological and emotional reactions appeared to be linked with performance. Findings also suggested female divers may be more susceptible to lower self-efficacy beliefs, which could affect their performance. To provide more detailed knowledge of the self-efficacy performance relationship a further study was conducted to explore if self-efficacy levels could predict competition performance in divers.

A sample of age-group divers competing at the British National Age Group Championships in 2016 completed the DIVE-SE scale and recorded their scores for their events.

The study found that physiological and emotional reactions reduced competition performance, while watching others increased competition performance in the sample of youth age-group divers. These findings further support the findings of the previous studies and suggest that addressing emotional and physiological reactions could improve performance in diving.

The research team from the University of Winchester is currently developing and testing a psychological intervention designed to help divers better control their emotional and physiological reactions by learning to challenge negative input, in an attempt to assist in competition performance and skill acquisition. The potential performance-enhancing abilities of self-efficacy are becoming evident, but there are also other benefits of becoming more aware of divers’ self-efficacy. For example, recent research has linked higher self-efficacy levels with stress and anxiety reduction, along with better mental health and wellbeing.

Taking into account a recent study suggests that mental health awareness and support provision in the sport of diving is low, the use of self-efficacy in diving could be a step in the right direction. Although the current research is focused on divers, with the help and support of the aquatic community the team hope to expand the research, diagnostic tools and psychological interventions for use in other aquatic sports.