Monday, 3 September 2012

Oscar Pistorius beaten - was it the blades or his mind ?

Who would have thought that debating the technical merits of various prosthetic legs would be front page news and top of the TV and radio bulletins ? But that's exactly what has happened following Oscar Pistorius's defeat last night in the T44 200m and his subsequent outburst. I will come back to the merits of his complaint later but first of all a different perspective on the result which hasn't been discussed much and may be of real relevance to athletes in all sports.

Was it the blades or his mind ?

In the semi-final Pistorius ran a world record 21.30 seconds, looking comfortable and under no pressure from fellow competitors. Come the final and he only ran a 21.52 while gold medallist Alan Oliveira clocked 21.45. So if Oscar had simply reproduced his semi-final performance he would be the champion and the length of Oliveira's blades wouldn't be such a hot topic. Which begs the question what happened between semi and final ?

Assuming that the conditions were similar its possible that Oscar simply wasn't fit enough to recover and produce another top physical performance. I've no idea whether this is the case but I have observed a number of times when he has struggled to back up outstanding performances with another one the next day. Indeed at the Olympics he was significanlty slower than in his first round. It will be interesting to see how his week progresses at this meet. Even sprinters need good endurance to handle multiple races at a high level during the course of a championship. Michael Johnson was well known for developing his endurance in winter with repeat 800m runs on grass so that he could cope with 200m, 400m and relay in a week.

Back to the mind and its role in performance. In the last 50m you can see Pistorius starting to tighten and lose that running freedom he had in his semi. You can almost hear his mind saying "Oliveira is coming, its not fair". And herein lies the challenge for all athetes. The blades debate isn't a new one, Pistorius has been involved in arguments about his advantage (or not) against able bodied athletes and also this debate about blade length for paralympic athletes for some time now. And this latest battle must have been on his mind.
We've all experienced that little voice in the run up to a race which nags away telling us why the competion is better and we can't win. Make that voice get reinforced by your worst fear coming true and guess what - you tighten up in the last 50m and get beaten. The emotional outburst after the race just reinforces the likelyhood of that sort of internal conversation taking place before and during the race.

By contrast swimmer Ellie Simmonds has dealt brilliantly with her equivalent crisis. Having lost her world record earlier in the year and then facing the uncertainty of whether her biggest competitor (and favourite) was going to race against her or be reclassified Ellie could have gone into meltdown by focusing all her energies on these external factors. Instead she focused only on what she had control of, namely her performance. Come race day and with her competitor out then back in Ellie proceeded to swim a new world record to win the gold in the final length.

Which begs the question what can you do when your mind starts playing games ? The first step is to recognise when it is happening and this is where your coach or training partner can really help by 'noticing' what is going on and gently reminding you, or even giving you a not so gentle reminder if that is what it takes ! You then need to talk it out, preferably aloud with someone listening non-judgementally. And keep talking it out until the voice is tired and quiet. Just telling it to 'shut up' or 'go away' doesn't work ! Once you've exhausted those feelings you can start to re-focus on yourself, the things you are good at, what you need to do to perform at your best in the upcoming competition. You've then a got much better chance of executing your usual pre-competition routine and performing up to your potential.

For a discussion on the technical issues surrounding the blades take a look at the excellent Science in Sport website.

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