Psychology of Adventure Racing

article012The following is an overview from Greyling Viljoen’s presentation at our adventure racing club meeting in 2002 on the Psychology of Adventure Racing.

Sport psychology is a broad field of study and application. In what follows I have tried to be as practical as possible ad also to make comments and advice applicable to adventure racing in particular.

Sport psychology or the mind in sport
One myth:The mind and body can be separated – dualistic view i.e. Racing according to a heart rate monitor will not guarantee success because it does not take in to acount your mind. The heart rate monitor may say that you are over-doing it, whilst your mind has the ability to make your body continue regardless.
One truth: Races are lost and won in the head. The “hero” and the “enemy” within.

Nature of adventure racing and impact on psychological approach
What are the differences between adventure racing and other endurance sports?

  1. Unpredictability – dealing with unknown external factors.
    • It is a known fact that top endurance athletes have the ability to focus internally for prolonged periods. Why do novices not win major events i.e. Comrades? They cannot strategise because they do not know how their minds and bodies are going to respond to the course.
    • In AR, each race is different, each route is different and it is thus by nature unpredictable, a situation which forces the athletes to focus externally.
  2. Team efficiency and effectiveness has a higher impact on success.
    The enemy is within.

Individual psychology

  1. Approach – embrace the unpredictability and adventure aspects of this sports/racing. Adventure racing by nature involves risks on a physical, tactical and psychological level.
  2. Will you ever have a perfect race? It is highly unlikely. Doing well is as much about making the right decisions as it is about dealing with setbacks and wrong decisions. Just as you will encounter physical obstacles, you will encounter psychological obstacles.
  3. Focus on the body and learn to verbalise your thoughts and especially how you are feeling. “OK” is a relative answer to the question, “How are you feeling?”. Endurance athletes are by nature more introverted and individualistic.

Managing the team psychology

  1. Get to know your team members
    • especially know how they respond to stress (physical and mental)
    • Think and feel boundaries: A group can reach a stage where the individual boundary extenda beyond the individual to become a group boundary, for example: baby and mother, Stockholm syndrome (hostage and captor)
  2. Clarify roles and responibilities but do not be rigid about this.
  3. Set team goals. The focus should be on how you can get the best out of the team as opposed to where you want to finish in the race.
  4. Design a basic game plan based on what you know about members as well as facts and assumptions about the race.
  5. Decide on decision making mechanisms and procedures.
  6. Constantly focus on ups and downs (inevitable) of individual team members and respond accordingly. Look out for each other and look after each other. Be honest and descriptive.
  7. Anticipate scenarios, especially negative ones i.e. getting lost and decide on your response.
  8. Support crew: All plans should be discussed with your seconds. Many have never taken part in adventure sports – do not take anything for granted. Give attention to their roles as part of the bigger team e.g. their role during conflict.

Author: Greyling Viljoen

Greyling is with the Institute for Sport Psychology and Adventure Therapy; As a former Sprinkbok canoeist (1981 – 1989), Greyling’s sporting career is littered with canoeing awards for all our local South African events (except Duzi) as well as a number of international events; Stella canoe race in Spain (1983), Devizes to Westminster in England – 125 miles, Murray in Australia – for which he still holds the record and achieved a second place in the Arctic canoe marathon, the longest canoe race in the World. Professionally Greyling is the Director of the Team and Leadership Development Center and a practising Clinical Psychologist specialising in Sports Psychology. He is currently finalising his PhD on “Group Functioning and the Dynamics of Small Groups”.