New Blog from Phill Heritage

Phill Heritage is a Sport and Exercise Scientist and Lecturer in Physiology and Health. He is the course Lead for the BSc (Hons) Sport, Exercise and Health Science degree here at AECC UC and the coordinator for our Sports Performance Centre

Psychological Challenges Facing Para Snow Sport Athletes

Research exploring performance for both athletes with a physical disability (AWPD) and able-bodied athletes (AB) has suggested that the ability to cope with pressure when competing is a universal challenge faced by all. Indeed, there has been a suggestion that the psychological challenges experienced by AWPD are very similar to those experienced by AB athletes. While there will be significant overlap between these two groups there has been some suggestion that AWPD suffer additional challenges. In order to understand these challenges further researchers at AECC University College conducted research to explore the challenges experienced by parasnowsport athletes as part of the partnership the University College has with the Armed Forces Parasnowsport team.

One of the key factors highlighted by the athletes in the study was the importance of having the correct mindset including being motivated, resilient, confident, and relaxed.

A number of stressors (factors that cause stress) were highlighted which are similar to the challenges experienced by AB athletes including: finances, time missed with their family – and their personal life more broadly. The athletes also highlighted a number of factors that appear to be more specific to AWPD including issues with access to facilities, the reliance on others, access to disability-friendly accomodation, recovering from falls and injury, and the challenges of training at home. The challenges of recovering from falls is an interesting one as AWPD have been reported to lose more training time due to injury when compared to AB athletes.

A significant challenge highlighted by the athletes in this research related to the importance of ensuring they had good mental health, and spent time focused on looking after their mental health and wellbeing. In the last 5 years this topic has become increasingly recognised as a priority in performance settings. Both in terms of maintaining the health and wellbeing and the quality of life of athletes and to maximise performance outcomes as well. It was interesting to see the range of strategies that athletes reported they used including: the important role played by family and friends, having a good, positive and supportive performance environment, and the importance of enjoying participating in the sport.

How can I support my athletes better?

The majority of the factors that we found athletes reported on negatively were organisation-related. As most coaches of adaptive athletes come from non-adaptive backgrounds it’s easy to overlook the barriers to life for AWPD, let alone to performance. Consider barriers to travelling for training and competition locations and what can be done to prepare for them. Train providers will often take instruction to assist you at the station if you offer forewarning. Similar services, including shuttles to connections, are available at airports and alleviate the stress of making tight connections. Investing time in overcoming these barriers for your athletes will reduce time delays and stress making for a more relaxed experience. It will also protect athletes from potential feelings of indignity or that they are interrupting the lives of others. Similarly, take time to ensure the facilities you use (e.g. hotels, gyms, training centres) have adequate access routes and that you understand how to navigate them before you arrive with your athletes. This might require you to scope them out in person first.

With regards to athlete health make time in your daily schedule to check athlete health on a one-to-one, informal basis. AWPD are experts in their physical disability and the illnesses/injuries they most frequently experience. This will make it easier for you to protect your athletes from worsening injuries which are likely to impact their day-to-day as well as their athletic life.

What should I do as an athlete?

Where travel is involved communicate with your support team about the main barriers you come across so they can help to prepare for them. There were strong themes established in our research related to mental health and social media. It is important to understand that, while interaction with social media has become a core aspect to enhance financial income and public awareness of your achievements you need to also invest in your social support network. Take time to relax from training with your support team, whether it’s your team mates, family, or friends. Coaches should plan for down time every day during which you can take time to video call or message your support network and recharge your mental health.

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