How Your Sports Psychology Research Gets Done: Based on Days Spent Ski Racing

Chelsea LittleJune 16, 2014
Dr. Blair Evans. Photo: Eys lab webpage.
Dr. Blair Evans. Photo: Eys lab webpage.

In our monthly series highlighting research relating to skiing, we have twice covered the work of Dr. Blair Evans of Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario. First, we summarized his work on how group dynamics affects performance in individual sports; then we dedicated a whole story to his study on competitive suffering, when athletes fail to meet their goals mid-competition. The latter was extremely popular on the site, so we figured at this point we should probably just call Evans up and chat.

As it turns out, Evans (who just recently defended his PhD dissertation and acquired that “Doctor” in front of his name) was a college skier, and his experience has informed most of his research questions in sports psychology ever since.

“I grew up doing all team sports,” he laughed in an interview last week. “Then I went to university with the idea of getting on the basketball team. That didn’t work out my first year, so my second and third year I started training with the ski team. I actually had a lot of assumptions about what individual sports were like, and most of them were shattered when I joined the team.”

What’s Special About Skiing?

Evans’ PhD work revolved around the influence of teammates on athlete’s ability to perform in an individual sport. As summarized earlier, he found that having strong friendships and collective goals was extremely important to individual performance.

“If you’re on a team in an individual sport, having a collective goal always helps but it’s especially important when you have teammates who are competing directly against one another,” he explained. “If you’re in a sport like cross-country skiing where everyone is in the same race, if you don’t have that collective outcome then things can get really competitive.”

Aside from the specific questions he has researched, Evans believes that there are a few unique and remarkable things about cross country skiing from a psychological viewpoint. The group dynamics aspect was one thing that stood out early – it’s a sport where there is very great potential to develop strong bonds between teammates.

“One of the things involves the year-round training and the different types of training you have to do, which I think is really unique,” he explained. “And also the amount of travel that’s required. Those things might change the types of relationships that you might develop with your teammates.”

Doing drills on a basketball court, laps in a pool, or running stadiums is very different than level one aerobic training for a couple of hours outside.

“A lot of the training is often pretty enjoyable, and the training is in a setting that’s outdoors and quite [beautiful], so it might create the opportunity for a lot of really positive shared experiences between teammates,” he said. “If you have to go run up a mountain with them or go travel to the top of a glacier, you might be forced to make some friendships… If you’re training 15 hours a week, that’s probably 4 hours of really intense, and then 11 hours where you’re just coasting. You can just chat and make those relationships.”

Furthermore, because skiing requires a lot of different types of training – on snow, on rollerskis, running, biking, bounding, work in the weight room – it’s likely that an athlete will dislike or be weak in at least one of those areas.

“I’ve heard this from a lot of people, if you didn’t have your teammates it would be just terrible,” Evans said. “If you had to go for a 3-hour training run, if you don’t like running, you’d have a really terrible experience, but if you’re there with really close teammates, it can make it a really positive experience.”

Evans will soon move to Queens University in Kingston for a postdoctoral fellowship, focusing on youth sports. He might have the chance to look at some of these topics as they relate to young athletes, a prospect he’s excited about.

“I think that will give me a really good opportunity to look at these things in youth settings, maybe how your sport team might shape your development in sport,” he said. “There’s a lot of different stages that an athlete might go through in sport. They’ve showed some of the really negative outcomes of early specialization in certain situations. I’m really excited about that, for the chance to take some of this work and look at it with younger age groups.”

How To Do Science?

All these questions, plus many more, were raised when Evans began skiing. But when he moved first to a masters program and then into a PhD, he was tasked with the challenge of turning them into testable hypotheses that could be addressed in studies using human subjects (there are strict rules about consent, privacy, and ethics, and researchers must apply to a board for permission before conducting studies; the Canadian guidelines are here).

Plus, people are a little more unpredictable than, say, bacteria, mice, or plants, common study organisms for researchers in other fields.

“The one thing that I’ve started to learn is that you’re never going to have a perfect study when you’re working with human participants,” Evans laughed. “Do you want the study to be really perfect – they call it “internal validity”, which means that you can be confident that what you’re seeing is really what’s going on. But at the same time, if you take a study like that, they are almost always going to have less meaning for the average individual. There’s always a balance.”

Plus, Evans’ goal is to have his findings interpreted in a way that is useful to athletes and coaches – after all, the questions were generated in his own athletic life. But it takes a lot to move from a hypothesis to an applicable message.

“You have to make it a progression in order to have a big impact,” he said. “You have to start with these really stringent methods, and then slowly but surely advance to something where it’s more applied and can be directly picked up.”

The competitive suffering study, for example, was part of Evans’ masters work. Although he feels like it needs a lot of follow up, his masters ended and the work was dropped. In the group dynamics work, on the other hand, he had a four-year PhD to follow up on as many leads as possible, so he was able to look at the topic using several different kinds of studies, from broad to quite specific, and questionnaire-based to experimental.

Evans tries not to chase publicity by claiming an application for each result. Studies typically only address a specific question in a specific framework, or only measure a few variables. While that adds to the understanding of a concept as a whole, in general single studies can’t explain everything about how athletes act.

“I’m always cautious about providing really clear and specific conclusions if I haven’t tried it myself,” he explained. “If you look at the suffering paper, I could make some suggestions for athletes and coaches, but without having tested it first, I might be leading people down the wrong pathway. There’s so many questions to ask.”

And even when a study is done, challenges remain.

“The desire to do it always comes from an applied need,” he said. “But you have to balance that with the need for, when you’re developing concepts you have to be really specific and academically-minded. In my writing I try to do the best I can to make it palatable at least for the average Joe to read, but at the same time it’s a matter of trying to balance that. It’s a struggle.”

There’s a few more challenges in academia. First of all, grant funding might not be available for every interesting question – for instance, the government is more likely to fund research which has implications for the general public in terms of health and happiness, than research about elite athletes which impacts relatively few people.

And then there’s the issue of whether a study on one group of athletes can be applied to another.

“For instance, in the competitive suffering study, I had a very wide range of athletes in terms of their 5k times,” he said. “If you’re chasing that 15:30 5k time, you need to overcome emotions – you have a shorter time frame. Someone doing a 25 minute or 30 minute 5k, probably the most important thing is to come out having enjoyed the race. That was one of the struggles with that work. The huge range really changed the findings.”

About That Suffering…

The suffering study generated a lot of interest on this site, and Evans was able to fill us in a little more on how it translates out of large, scientific words into real English. First of all: yes, it was inspired by experience.

“Of course, with competitive suffering, I’ve had lots of experiences where you may have set your goals too high or maybe something goes wrong during a race, and you try to cope with that while still trying to compete,” he laughed.

And that was a big part of the reason why he found the issue compelling. From a completely logical point of view, if we are failing at our goals and are totally miserable, we should probably just quit. Academics told Evans that very thing.

“I think that’s the biggest question with competitive suffering,” Evans said. “I had a professor I discussed it with, and he said, ‘if you’re not making your goal, I would just drop out of that race.’ But there’s a lot of cases where you might not be making your goal, but it’s still important to perform as well as you possibly can. Even if you’re not getting that top-10, you’re not going to give up. The only way to perform in that situation is to try to maintain some sense of drive to attain some goal.”

As proud, stoic, endurance athletes though, we’re conditioned that it’s shameful to DNF, even if there’s not anything (for instance a team score) on the line. And so Evans reiterated the findings of his work.

“There’s different ways of dropping out,” he explained. “If you’re not meeting your ideal goal and you don’t have a secondary goal prepared beforehand, you have a couple of choices. You can completely drop out, or you can still stay in the race but let off on the gas pedal, or to try to reframe your goals or change the situation so that you’re still competing at the best of your abilities.”

And while some people thrive under adversity, re-setting those goals is probably the best way to cope for most people.

“Based on what we know about sport and endurance sport, people have different emotional states that they are going to perform best at,” Evans said. “Some people perform best if they are as negative as possible, but for the majority, a lot of us do need some sort of positive mindset and a goal to pursue. I think being able to cope well that kind of competitive suffering is pretty important.”

Chelsea Little

Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.

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