Sadness slows athletes down

March 27, 1998

THES reporters on the British Psychological Society's annual conference held in Brighton this week

DEPRESSION can trigger a complex psychological mindset that leads to poor sports performance, according to research at Brunel University.

Mood studies, carried out on ten-kilometre runners by Brunel's department of sport sciences, show that depression can spark anger, confusion, fatigue, and tension, leading to less successful runs.

Researcher Andy Lane gave questionnaires to runners an hour before their races. They asked competitors to assess their mood in six categories: anger, confusion, depression, fatigue, tension and vigour. They quantified the strength of each mood on a scale of zero to four.

Mr Lane found strong, predictable links between deep depression and the other moods, that combined to cause runners to underperform. Results were judged by comparing the runners' goals with their previous personal best performances. If they beat their personal bests then they were successful.

"Depression is critical to examining mood. They only had to report some depression, not much, for the other mood sets to be clearly predictable. If no depression was reported then the links are not so predictable," Mr Lane said. His research was delivered to the conference this week.

It emerged that in the absence of depression, other moods such as anger and tension could be conducive to successful performance. Depression is therefore key to the nature and influence of other moods.

Mr Lane said: "Depression causes a negative view of one's self - the runners were generally negative about the way they were going to perform. The influence of that is reduced motivation. If depression is coupled with anger and tension then the runners turned these moods inwards and were angry with themselves. This inhibits performance further."

The corollary is not that the happiest or most content runners necessarily perform the best. Vigour was the main determinant of success. High levels of vigour and low levels of everything else appeared to be the best mood combination although tension and anger were not necessarily detrimental.

Runners were chosen because the links between their moods and performance are stronger than other sportsmen and women who play team games. Running is a solo and self-paced activity, meaning that mood is important.

In team sports, success or failure is the result of a number of individuals' moods and so there is a weaker causal link between the outcome and the mood of a person. Communication with other team members can also influence moods through a game.

Mr Lane's next step may be to see how the model of mood links can be altered by changing moods. The Brunel research could have implications for the mental training of sports people.

* See research papers

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