Psychology and athletic performance

Competing in Lake Placid is a goal for many elite winter sports athletes, some of whom train in this area. High performance is something that all of the creative endeavors embrace, from ballet dancers to vocalists to musicians and professional skaters. While each of these domains defines a skill set that is unique, these fields all require cognitive and emotional stamina. In fact, especially with the challenging environments for elite athletes and other creatives, psychological fitness is a crucial part of being able to pull off an outstanding performance.

Anne Bennett, who lives in this area, became a trailblazer and record shatterer when, in 2020, she earned a silver medal in both the World Figure & Fancy Skating Championship and the World Junior Ladies Championship. She is the first artist to achieve two World medals in different categories in the same year. She also won the 2019 World Junior Figure and Fancy Skating competition.

As the president of the Skating Club of Lake Placid, Bennett is passionate about guiding and advising fellow skaters.

When asked about the role of music in her successes, she explained that she doesn’t always have complete autonomy in that domain. However, when she is able to choose, she will choose music that she relates well to.

In a 2019 study in the Netherlands by Nadja van den Elzen, et al., the role of music positively impacted physical strength performance in older people. Music might also cause a dissociation from the fatigue and discomfort that is produced by exercise. It was determined that “music appears to have a positive influence on many aspects of life, including physical performance.” All creative endeavors can be augmented by listening to the right music for each person.

In the 2023 book titled “The Musical Brain,” written by Lois Svard, it is noted that although music may be a universal language — and that we enjoy and are motivated by it — the majority of people don’t know the science behind this. However, the average American, in a Nielson analysis in 2017, listened to music for more than 32 hours per week. Furthermore, the complex structural architecture that music impacts has no counterpart in language. Music is unique to itself, and is processed separately from language.

Memory storage and retrieval, as a part of musical thinking, is being pursued by scientists less as a cultural phenomenon, as it had been in the past, and more like a biological mechanism.

There are even studies that evaluate chills that can occur when we listen to emotionally impactful music. As research grows and surpasses current knowledge, hopefully we’ll be able to better understand the role of various musical compositions on any given individual, like which musical stimuli induces the same reaction among individuals, versus those that impact individuals differently.

The field of musical psychology and cognition will help us to better understand and impact the wiring of neural pathways in our brains. In fact, the profession of music therapy, which utilizes science based tools to maximize response to musical interventions, has a strong foundational role in improving motivation and perseverance.

In the 1999 Journal of Sport Psychology, Singer R. N., Janelle C. M, et al., noted that expert athletes, compared to those who are less successful, can extract more meaning from the environment and how to connect with it. In this capacity, Bennett would be more effective in accessing and storing information, compared to those who are not experts at skating or other sports.

Given the split second control that a professional skater like Bennett must have, studies have demonstrated that experts can create more appropriate and rapid decisions in response to the environment. This allows her to adapt to unexpected or unanticipated physical challenges on the ice. Although more research is needed, it is most certainly likely that these qualities would be comparable in any sport, and can provide a short-term goal post for superior athletic and creative performances.

When Bennett practices for a skating competition, she will frequently begin to learn her routine on a dry surface, instead of on ice. This is comparable to an expert pianist doing warmups prior to performing, or a comic doing an informal monologue in front of friends to prepare for doing well in delivering the complete routine.

In the Journal of Sport Medicine, a 2004 research article by Emily J. Kovacs, et al., says that “results suggest that off-ice neuromuscular training can significantly improve postural control in figure skaters, whereas basic exercise training does not.”

Figure skating is both an artistic and an athletic activity, which integrates dance and music on the fulcrum of balance and posture. Performing on the ice requires both art and athletics so that the technical components of figure skating help the skater to maintain balance in motion and at rest. The variables that define elite ice skating develop an integration of muscular flexibility and strength and creative artistry.

The article continues that “for the present study, we operationally defined postural control as the combination of sensory and motor processes involved in the maintenance of standing balance.” There are three interactive elements to maintain postural control and these are composed of visual, neuromuscular, and proprioception abilities. Visual refers to what one observes with their eyes, the vestibular perception of posture and motor efforts … and neuromuscular capabilities. Proprioception is defined as “the conscious and unconscious sense of limb position in space, including an awareness of both joint position and movement.”

Optimal performance of the neuromuscular system “is particularly important during figure skating because information pertaining to the position and movement of the limbs is necessary for the successful completion of jumps, spins, and field movements. Information pertaining to the position and movement of the limbs is necessary for the successful completion of jumps, spins, and field movements.”

In the same way, any individual, regardless of their personal goals, can utilize safe practice before performing in the actual event. For an important phone call, an individual can privately practice jumping or stretching in place to help to prepare one for a goal, such as successfully completing a job interview and being hired.

Working and practicing off ice provides a powerful positive impact to the on ice performance, and this has relevance to any activity that an individual wishes to master. For example, an individual who is academically-oriented may experiment with study techniques that are optimal to their school performance. This might include determining if they are a visual or auditory learner.

Some people learn best by hearing a mathematical equation whereas others require a visual appraisal, such as reading an equation from a text or lecture. As an example, a highly motivated student might be more likely to elect to enroll in a calculus class but, due to wanting to accomplish successful mathematical understanding, might first choose a course in precalculus to provide them with the necessary background to succeed.

Just as off-ice practice provides a more secure base to attempt challenging motions, precalculus isn’t a regressive feature but, rather, a logical and wise way to prepare for more challenging work on the “ice” of taking a calculus class.

Being fastidious about both cognitive academic practice, or positional and strength based skating artistry, depends on some of the same skills. There might be a temptation to skip the practice and move directly into calculus for an academic protagonist, or to the ice as a first step by a championship skater, bypassing the off-ice practice, but the results are going to be inferior to obtaining the basic and thoughtful practice of beginning with a less challenging approach that, with practice, will move one closer to the perfection they are seeking to obtain.

The role of physical activity in skating also is likely to reduce the risk of developing diabetes, cancer, depression and cardiovascular disease. This is noted in a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2022. The study by Juan Manuel García-Ceferino, et al., demonstrated this inverse relationship between disease and physical activity.

This article, titled “Creativity in Recreational Figure Roller-Skating: A Pilot Study on the Psychological Benefits in School-Age Girls,” identified the pro-health benefits of a minimum of 60 minutes daily of mostly aerobic and vigorous exercise. The opposite approach, of having no physical activity, has been correlated with worldwide obesity. It is noted in the study that figure roller skating improves artistic movements and improves spatial orientation and the sense of motion in space. Figure (rolling) skating practice contributes to forming proactive behaviors and improving mental and social skills. Athletics, of course, can help improve focus and performance, even if the actual event one is preparing for is not an athletic performance.

Regardless of the preferred sport, or level of expertise, it can likely be extrapolated from these studies that practice in less challenging circumstances helps to improve performance in increasingly challenging environments. Even Grammy award winners have practiced songs that will never be heard by an audience because, in the opinion of the performer, they were a step towards progressively better music, despite the sacrificing of a subpar song enroute to musical perfection.

Whether the goal is elite ice skating — or another activity, cognitive or physical, that requires frequent practice — an abundance of practice eventually results in near perfection. Pacing oneself and increasingly challenging our limits will eventually prove relevant and important to whatever goals that we prioritize.


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