Self-Guided Mental Training in Military Pentathlon
Stocker H, Lechner C and Wiener I
Published on: 2022-05-12
The mental profile in sport and its impact on competition results has been widely researched. The purpose of this study was to assess the effectiveness of self-instructions to increase mental strength of athletes in a non-media covered elite sport. Participants were seven Military Pentathletes who were tested pre competition and post competition season, with the FEMKES (Questionnaire for the Assessment of Mental Competencies and Attitudes in Sport) a digital questionnaire covering the areas self-regulation, relaxation, concentration, imagination, mental preparation, coping with failure, commitment, achievement motivation and social support, overall state of mood. In between the tests, they followed oral instructions and a written training program. Results were compared with those of Austrian high performance athletes coached by Austrian Network Sport Psychology (ÖBS). Results revealed a performance increase in several areas and the method of guided positive self-instructions can support to develope mental strength.
KeywordsSelf-Instructions; Army Athletes; Coping with Failure; Evaluation of Self-Talk
In a purely military test, military pentathletes need to achieve and maintain high performance under the influence of physical and mental stress. Military pentathlon includes five different sports such as rifle shooting 10 shot precision fire, 10 shot rapid fire in one minute, a standardized obstacle course, length of 500 m and 20 obstacles, obstacle swimming 50 m, 4 obstacles in the water, grenades throwing ,accuracy and distance, cross-country race 8 km
for men, 4 km for women . Although the sport is practiced only in the military, over 35 nations participate at high level in the World Military Championships. These athletes are not in the focus of mass media or sponsors but perhaps mentally in the same situation as civilian high performance competitors. In this complex situation with the need to counteract high mental stress and overcome the maximum physical load that is characteristic for competitive activities in sports, there is a lack of research concerning the impact of physical and mental strength on performance in this military contest [2, 3]. The aim of the study is to investigate fields of mental improvements for athletes and to evaluate self-talk as an instrument for Mental Training in this specific situation.
Materials and Methods
Seven Members of the Austrian Armed Forces Military Pentathlon Squad took part in this investigation. All of them were full professional sportsmen on world championship level and filled out a questionnaire for self-assessment of mental competences pre competition season in April 2021 and post competition season in October 2021. This questionnaire was provided by the Austrian Network Sports Psychology . The FEMKES (Questionnaire for the Assessment of Mental Competencies and Attitudes in Sport) is a digital questionnaire based solely on self-assessment, therefore it is subjective data. Athletes provide socio-demographic and sports biographical data. The test includes 86 questions, in 20 minutes to complete. It covers 26 sub-areas with results from 1.0 (minimum) to 4.0 (maximum). In the following areas, high levels correspond with a high level of mental strength or mental toughness: Self-regulation, relaxation, concentration, imagination, mental preparation, coping with failure, commitment, achievement motivation, social support, overall state of mood. The following areas should always be interpreted in relation to one or more others: Result- oriented goal and process and performance- oriented goal: Ideally, both are on a high level, but the first should be slightly lower or on the same level than the second one. Fear of failure and hope for success BEFORE and IN competition: Fear of failure is ideally rather low whereas hope for success should be high, ideally expressing task orientation thinking as well. Desired recognition of commitment and perceived recognition of commitment: here as well the first one should at least be slightly lower than the second one. Excessive athlete spending should not reach a maximum level (because it could correspond with a higher risk of injury), as well as desired and perceived recognition of excessive athlete spending. Ego orientation and task orientation: athletes who are mentally strong mostly show a lower ego than task orientation. Internal, external and fatalistic locus of control: The higher the first one, the better the athlete`s self-efficacy. Therefore, external and fatalistic locus of control should range at low levels. The coded data are stored using a computer programme the Q-Designer, processed electronically and analysed by ÖBS staff. According to the results of the pre-season test, athletes got written instructions to do their mental training till the second test post-season. Independent members of military sport coaching staff evaluated the written instruction as clearly understandable and applicable. For involved athletes a coach once explained the instruction for the self-guided mental training orally. The study followed the recognized standards as per the "Declaration of Helsinki". The first part of the instruction was an explanation of the necessity of self-talk regulation in high performance athletes, followed by an explanation how to check and alter self-talk especially in highly demanding situations. Mental techniques like “Thought Stop or Pep Talk” (to enhance motivation or commitment) were also described according to Beckmann & Elbe . Based on the national database of Austrian high performance athletes, the individual results were compared with the mean values of test performance of other Austrian competitive athletes and assessed in which sub-areas are fields for improvement. The second part of the instruction focused on action orientation after diversion of attention or failure. Here, the technique of defining individual “When – Than” Clauses was explained as well as the “Reset-Technique” (“Imagine you can press a RESET-Button when you feel very angry because of a failure in competition”). Another option according to the instruction could be activating the “Inner Coach” and using self-talk in a way a good coach would give useful instructions in the moment. Furthermore, the athletes also got a table to fill in the mental techniques they used on a weekly basis shown below.
Self-Check Mental Training
Elaborate at least three times a week you’re “Self Talk” Use the table to remind yourself and make notes if necessary
Results And Discussion
In current research, it is uncontested that a good mental profile is essential for achieving high competition performance . To evaluate athletes` mental capacities psychometric questionnaires are a common instrument in spots psychology coaching [7, 8].
The results of the FEMKES questionnaire before and after implementing the self-guided mental training for each of the seven Military Pentathletes show the potential effects of mental training in sports. Mental strength is not a stable personal trait but highly variable . In comparison, they already showed good abilities in some areas but still fields for improvement at the time of the first assessment (pre-season). The individual differences between first and second assessment that could be referred to the mental training process are described. Table 1 presents all results of FEMKES test for each athlete in pre - season (February 2021) and post competition season (October 2021). Mean values represent the data of 400 Austrian high performance athletes in Triathlon, Badminton, Alpine Skiing, Sailing Judo, Ski-jumping, Biathlon, Ski Freestyle, Shooting who are supervised in mental preparation by Austrian Network Sport Psychology.
Table 1: Results of FEMKES test for each athlete in pre - season (February 2021) and post competition season (October 2021).
Comparison of Pre-Season and Post-Season Assessment: Selected Results
To compare pre-competition season assessment (pre –season) from February 2021 and post-competition season assessment (post-season) from November 2021, we present selected results of all seven athletes. Changes showing an improvement that can be referred to the process of mental training are discussed in detail.
Pre-season the task-orientated goal was slightly lower than the result-orientated goal (3.5/average; 3.67/above average). Post-season the result-orientated goal remained on the same level, but the task-orientated goal reached the maximum level of 4.0. This could be referred to the continuing process of positive self-instruction based on the self-guided mental training based on the written instruction. Of course, we cannot estimate the amount of influence of intervening variables like the influence of coaches or teammates. This athlete assessed himself in many scales like concentration or visualisation at the pre-season at a maximum level, so it was not possible to detect any further improvement (ceiling effect). However, remarkable is the fact that desired recognition of excessive athletic spending was reduced from 3.0 (above average) to 2.33 (average). On the other hand, perceived recognition of athletic spending rose from zero (below average) to 1.67 (average).
At the pre- season this athlete had a higher fear of failure IN competition in relation to fear of failure BEFORE competition (2.0 vs. 1.33). Post-season the fear of failure BEFORE competition rose slightly (1.67) whereas IN competition it remained on the same level, still all results are average. An effect of the self-instructed mental training could be the improvement in task orientation from 3.0 (below average) to 3.33 (average). The same could be for internal locus of control, which improves from 2.33 to 3.0. Although it remains below average, the tendency is positive. Changing of attitudes is a long lasting process and in many cases has to be supported by individual sport psychological counselling.
The athlete shows a pronounced effect of mental training between pre and post -season assessment: mental preparation rose from 2.8 (average) to the maximum of 4.0 (above average). Furthermore, coping with failure improves from 3.33 to 3.67 (both above average). Another positive effect seems to be the lowering of the external locus of control from 3.0 (above average) to 1.67 (average). Astonishingly the internal locus of control also sinks from 3.33 (average) to 2.67 (below average). The reason for this could only be explained by knowing possible intervening variables.
With this athlete, we saw a deterioration between pre and post season assessment: Mental preparation and coping with failure lowered from 4.0 (above average) to 3.2 (average) and from 2.33 (average) to 1.67 (below average) respectively. This seemingly paradox effect could be a result of higher self-awareness when working with the mental training plan.
A positive result is the lower fear of failure IN competition at the post-season test (2.33; 1.67; both average).
This athlete shows some remarkable changings in mental strength measured by self-assessment in FEMKES: Perceived ability to relax improves from 2.2 (below average) to 2.8 (average) or task orientation from 2.33 to 3.0 (both average). Stable remains concentration at 2.67 (average), slightly deteriorated coping with failure from 2.33 (average) to 1.67 (below average).
The tendency to improvement therefore seems to be restricted to some areas of mental toughness. An individual counselling could help to extend the improvement to further areas.
This athlete also improved his perceived ability to relax – from 2.0 (below average) to 2.8 (average). In a similar way hope of success IN competition rose from 2.33 (below average) to 2.67 (average) whereas fear of failure IN competition remained stable at 2.33 (average). Coping with failure slightly deteriorated from 2.33 to 2.0 (both average) as well as achievement motivation (3.3/average – 2.67/below average). These results suggest once more that an effect of the self-instruction in mental training is possible but has to be put in the context of intervening variables
This athlete showed a tendency toward improvement in concentration or coping with failure, which rose from 3.0 to 3.33 and from 2.33 to 3.0 respectively (all average). Fear of failure BEFORE and IN competition rose as well; from 1.67 to 2.0 (both average) and from 3.0 to 3.33 (both above average). An optimized self-talk, also expressed by the concept of the “Inner Coach” is a key element in mental training. Under the topic of athletes resilience Özdemir  points out that what makes athletes elite distinguishes them from others „is the fact that they can make the best possible combination of the right psychological and mental profile, hard work and ability.“ According to Latinjak et. al.  self-talk can help athletes to cope with psychological demands in sports. It can serve to regulate cognition and behaviour or help to regulate emotions and activation. Self-talk may also serve to diverse functions related to anxiety control and goal engagement . It may calm pre-competitive anxiety and focus athlete´s attention to their goals. While winning – or feeling to be on the road to success in a competition – self-talk may help to stay on track. Athletes who are able to direct their self-talk support their performance, mainly because they direct their attention to reach their goals . All the useful phrases of self-talk that athletes use before or in a competition find their expression in an inner coach embedded within their mind. This inner coach also can offer councel in most significant situations, as Latinjak et al. emphasize. According to current concepts in sport psychology, the ability to avoid fear of failure and strengthen hope for success is another key to becoming a mental strong athlete with good chances to show one´s abilities in competition. There is a close relationship between fear of failure and hope for success . Conroy & Elliott  showed the interference between fear of failure and achievement goals. Their research provides support for a causal sequence between fear of failure and achievement goals. They propose that fear of failure appears to energize behaviour and biases individuals toward the pursuit of avoidance achievement goals. In the relationship between perfectionism and fear of failure concerning over mistakes and doubts about actions, being both recognized as the core aspects of perfectionism, predicting all fears of failure in athletes . In Sport Psychology and Mental Coaching, general conditions like social support should never be overlooked. Özdemir  also discusses athletes` appreciation by others: athletes are mostly highly appreciated and respected in society. In cases when they do not feel enough support from their families, self-talk may be one possibility to get rid of the emotional void they feel. Looking at the results of perceived and desired social support as well as perceived or desired recognition of athletic spending higher levels of the „perceived“ domains maybe connected with negative or less helpful emotions in relation to performance. Associations suggest that some dimensions of social support exacerbated rather than mitigated athletes' stress reactions (i. e. impaired performance) when encountering greater frequencies of organizational stressors . To deal with high expectations of the personal environment or trying to win at any cost is mostly related with a high emotional burden that could either interfere with the concept of the „Ideal zone of functioning“ or trigger a behaviour with taking higher risks of injury than necessary . Social support is positively correlated with life satisfaction and negative emotional disposition and negatively correlated with perceived stress .
Studies in social science and in psychology especially have certain limitations, so has this study. Above all we had no instrument to measure the participants ‘adherence, i.e. it cannot be said to which extent they followed their mental training regularly and/or with enough attention. What is more ceiling effects are possible: when athletes already reached an optimal score in any of the areas at the time of the first assessment (e. g. 4.0 in mental preparation or relaxation), FEMKES cannot measure any further improvement. The possibly most important limitation is the fact that intervening variables cannot be detected in the described setting. It could be likely that interventions by coaches or teammates had an effect on areas like hope for success or fear of failure. Especially achievement motivation can easily be increased or decreased due communication processes with important others. Any room for improvement as well as individual needs for the implementation of mental training can only be discussed in an individual sport psychological counselling.
Keeping in mind all limitations and unknown influences this study also shows good opportunities: It demonstrates that the implementation of a self-instructed mental training is feasible and useful. It can lead to improvements in areas like mental preparation, concentration or coping with failure shown by improvements in individual results between first and second assessment with FEMKES.
The authors would like to thank the Austrian Military Pentathlon Team for taking part in the study and the Austrian Network Sportpsychology (ÖBS), especially to Andrea Engleder and Andreas Hofer for their support and providing FEMKES.
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