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Mental Traits Required for Competition in the Decathlon and Heptathlon

Casey D. Thom- MSS, CSCS

The multi-events are perhaps the most demanding events in track and field. Each event takes place over two days. The decathlon requires men to compete in ten events testing different physical skills, while the women compete in the heptathlon in which they contest seven events. Speed, strength, flexibility, coordination, and endurance are all necessary for success in the multi-events, but can an athlete get by with just physical talent? In an event that requires athletes to channel their emotions into peak performances several times in different events over two days it seems that athletes’ mental skills such as relaxation and concentration would also play a large part in an athlete’s success in a multi-event competition. This paper will explore a variety of mental skills and how they can be implemented into a multi-events training to improve an athlete’s performance.

The mental skills that will be discussed are arousal control, confidence, visualization training, and relaxation. After discussing the demands of the decathlon, and each of these mental skills, an evaluation will be made of how, where and to what degree these skills fit into the decathlon program.

What is the decathlon? It is a competition in which athletes compete in ten different track and field events and amass points for their performance in each event. It takes place over two days. During the first day the 100 meter dash, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump, and the 400 meter dash are all contested. The second day the 110 meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin, and the 1500 meter run are contested. The heptathlon is also contested over two day, but involves only the 100 meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, and 200 meters the first day, and the long jump, javelin, and 800 meters the second day. Both of these events require athletes to maintain high levels of physical performance, and mental concentration over a two day period and are therefore extremely mentally and physically challenging.

To be a top notch heptathlete a woman must according to Rovelto, “…adopt a lifestyle that allows her to develop psychologically and physically. The heptathlete must be dedicated, determined, and possess great desire. Physically she must concurrently develop all the biomotor abilities: speed, strength, stamina, skill, and suppleness.” Here we find similarities to the demands that a decathlete faces. A decathlete must possess muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, ability to learn technique, and must be strong psychologically (Blockburger, 2003, 1). You might notice the emphasis made by each of these two men on the necessity of psychological strength for both heptathletes and decathletes.

McGuire and Rovelto (2003) suggest that each event requires a different amount of arousal, but suggest relaxation and refocusing techniques between events should be similar. They suggest that each athlete needs to find what ever particular level of arousal is best for peak performance for themselves, but suggest moderate levels of arousal for the warm-up and 800meters, high levels of arousal in the 100 meter hurdles, high jump, and javelin, and very high states of arousal for the shot put, long jump, and 200 meters in the Heptathlon, with corresponding events for men being treated in a similar manner. For example men’s 1500 meter run is most closely matched with the women’s 800 meter run. Both of these events require continuous energy output for longer periods of time, so a moderate arousal state in most cases would be the most beneficial.

Weinberg and Gould (2003) suggest that arousal has both psychological and physiological aspects, and can range from no arousal (comatose) to highly aroused (frenzied). With high arousal an increased heart rate, respiration, and sweating can be found. These states are not necessarily associated with positive or negative events. Weinberg and Gould give the examples of the fact that a pleasant event winning $10 million dollars might create a high level of arousal; where as an unpleasant event like learning about the death of a loved one would also likely create high levels of arousal.

Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlon champion in 1976, would become very anxious before competitions. He would experience an increased heartbeat, tremors, rapid breathing, increased sweating etc. often before a decathlon. At first he took these as signs of nervousness and felt that this meant that he would do poorly, which became a self fulfilling prophecy. However, over his years of competition he learned to channel that anxiety into a sign of readiness for competition, and whenever he would experience an increased heartbeat or tremors he would just consider it a sign of readiness for competition (Ungerleider, 1996).

Achieving the optimal level of arousal for peak performance requires a mix of relaxation, confidence, and anxiety control. However, there must also be a level of energy involved. Athletes need to find the appropriate mix of relaxation and stimulation to achieve optimal performance (Jackson, 1992). As previously stated this is particularly challenging for multi-event athletes, because they have to find this appropriate balance for not just one event but for ten in the case of a decathlete, and seven events for heptathletes.

Dean Macey the great British decathlete who just missed out on the bronze medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sidney describes his routine to motivate himself for the 100 meters as “harnessing” his nervous energy to make sure that he doesn’t use too much too early and burn out. Then he spends sometime listening to aggressive music on his walkman to raise his arousal to the appropriate level.

Tom Pappas, the 2003 world champion is the decathlon, is known for his laid back attitude during even the biggest competitions, while Roman Serble the world record holder and only man in history to surpass 9000 points in a decathlon is known for his high emotion during competition (Smith, 2004). This further goes to show that each athlete has to find the most appropriate arousal level for themselves.

Frye (2000) suggest that for the short sprints (the 100 meters in the decathlon and the 200 meters in the heptathlon) the most important psychological trait for success is confidence, and this can be achieved by being well prepared, setting realistic goals, and visualizing correct technique. Although this does not suggest any particular level of arousal for success in these events, it does give an athlete the means of discovering their own most appropriate level of arousal. This strategy can be used not only just for the short sprints, but also for all the other events in a multi-event competition.

One of the main ingredients in Frye’s recipe for success is confidence. Confidence in an athlete can be greatly aided by giving an athlete the perception of control. This sense of control can come by decreasing the amount of uncertainty an athlete has proceeding an event. Uncertainty can be decreased by adequate preparation and control of anxiety. Confidence has been known to arouse positive emotions helping athletes stay calm under pressure. It has also been known to help facilitate concentration, challenge to set higher goals, and allows athletes to give a greater effort (Weinberg & Gould, 2003). All of these things would be greatly beneficial to the success of a multi-event athlete. However, there are two major pitfalls athletes can fall into related to confidence. These are overconfidence, and allowing other peoples performance to dictate your worth as a performer, often leading to underconfidence.

Overconfidence is when an athlete believes that they have greater abilities than they actually do, or underestimates an opponent. The main problem athletes face when they believe that they have greater abilities than they actually do are discouragement issues that carry with the athlete into later events.

In the multi-events underestimating an opponent is less of a problem since athletes with the right mind set will be competing against themselves rather the rest of the field, however this can disastrous in two events in particular, where gauging your performance on your opponent is necessary. These two events are the 1500 meters and the 400 meters or the 800 meters for heptathletes. If an athlete believes an opponent is less skilled than he or she actually is this might lead an athlete to go out to fast and create a situation where the athlete “dies” at the end of the race costing the athlete seconds which would give them valuable points. This can also occur when an athlete overestimates his or her own ability and goes out to hard. Conversely, if an athlete underestimates their own ability or overestimates an opponent this can lead to running a slower race than desired also costing the athlete valuable points. However, in general it is much better to be overconfident than to be underconfident.

Underconfidence is often found in athletes that measure their success against others performance instead of determining a way that they can improve their own performance. This is of particular concern to athletes just starting out in the multi-events. Many of the events are very technical and if an athlete doesn’t take the time to go through the learning process, but rather tries to make quick fixes in order to keep up with the competition this can be detrimental to their overall development as a multi-event athlete. Dean Macey reiterates this fact saying that in the decathlon an athlete must, “…concentrate on what you are doing and not on anybody else.” (Macey, 2004). Kenneth Baum (1999) restates this idea while relating the story of Dean Starkey, a pole vaulter who experience great success, but never beat Sergey Bubka, the world record holder in the pole vault. If Dean had measured his success against Sergey Bubka he might have become discouraged and gave up vaulting. However, he just focused on doing what he could do to become better, and he has had a very successful, fulfilling career.

In multi-event competitions competitors are allowed 30 minutes in between events to prepare for the next event. McGuire and Rovelto (2003) believe that the time between events is as crucial as the events themselves and should be treated as an “event within the event.” They go on to suggest that this is a time for an athlete to let go of the previous events performance, whether it be positive or negative, and start to shift the focus to the next event. They suggest that after the athlete has let go of the previous event that they take five to seven minutes to calm themselves. This allows them to relax their muscles, and time to shift their mindset about up the upcoming event. Following this period they suggest that an athlete should review their strategy for the next event. This includes how they will run a race, what bar they will open at in the high jump or pole vault etc. Then they suggest athletes review technical performance cues, and finally finish with psycho-emotional preparation. This includes reviewing what their arousal state should be for the next event, refocusing their attention, affirming that they are capable of performing desired goals, and finally putting their plan into action. This break is also a good time to practice visualization for the next event.

Visualization is a key tool for many of the greats in track and field. Lee Evans relied heavily on visualization training before his Olympic victory in the 400 meters in 1968 (Baum, 1999) and Sergey Bubka spent a good deal of time doing visualization training with the Russian gymnasts who were known for their mental practice techniques (Ungerleider, 1996). But how does it work, and why is it important for a Decathlete?

According to Baum (1999) every individual has two hemispheres in their brain, the right and the left, which are both in use all of the time. The left is used for logical type processes, and the right is used for imagery. During visualization training athletes use more of their right brain creating images, but are also linking both sides of the brain using all the tools necessary to help an athlete’s performance. Researchers are also finding that during visualization training subtle but real firings of neural pathways used in the performance of the skill being visualized occur.

Why would this be important to a decathlete? The first reason is that the decathlon is a very physically demanding event and requires that a great deal of time be put into practice each day. This becomes extremely physically taxing on athletes. However, if some of this practice can be done in the mind it can alleviate some of the heavy load placed on a decathlete allowing them to be fresher in subsequent training sessions. This is not to say that they should completely scrap physical training sessions. Physical training should still have a great emphasis, but multi-event athletes should look to also incorporate visualization as well.

Another reason that visualization training would be beneficial to a multi-event athlete is the fact that many of the events are very technical, and visualization training would help to create a better awareness for the execution of those techniques.

Furthermore, visualization training would allow athletes to review strategy for those events that aren’t as technical like the 400 meters, or 1500 meters for decathletes, and the 800 meters for heptathletes.

The combined events are unique events in track and field because they are the only events that take place over a two day period. Mcguire and Rovelto (2003) suggest that special consideration should be given to the time in between these two days of competition. They suggest that this should be a time for an athlete to process the previous events, and the day as a whole. They go onto suggest that athletes take this as a time to relax and be “away” from the competition. Athletes should have a relaxing dinner, and a nutritious breakfast, and use the warm-up time the next day to achieve the appropriate level of arousal for the next day. Relaxation seems to be the key here, but why is relaxation so important in a multi-event competition?

Weinberg and Gould (2003) suggest that if individuals don’t take time to relax they will experience both physical and mental fatigue leading to burnout. The old myth of more is better is not the case, especially with events as demanding as the decathlon and heptathlon. This is true for weekly training as well as for competition. Athletes need time to rest. This rest allows athletes to release tension, refocus their energy, and come back to the track with a feeling of freshness.

Inner-event relaxation is also very important. If an athlete becomes tense and their muscles tighten up they are not working as efficiently as possible. They are more likely to “choke” or produce sub-par efforts. Dr.Patrick J. Cohn (2004) suggests a strategy to deal with this tension and stay relaxed under competitive pressure. The first step Dr. Cohn suggests is to slow down. He states that anxiety causes individuals to speed up and become tense. This leads to a decline in performance. He suggests to be very slow and calm in warm-ups and to take time to relax during competitions (between jumps, or throws etc.). The second step he suggests is to breathe deeply, because it helps to reduce muscular tension and makes it easier to focus on positive things. He suggests abdominal breathing, and also suggests that athletes practice this in their spare time. The third step to relaxation is to release tension. He suggests using progressive muscle relaxation to accomplish this. Progressive muscle relaxation is when individual contracts a muscle and holds it contracted for approximately eight seconds then releases the muscle, which should be more relaxed then it previously was. The fourth step is to talk to yourself. All self talk should be positive, and he believes that this will help an athlete build confidence and relax. The fifth step is take excitement due to competition to your advantage. There is extra adrenaline released in competitions that allow athletes to perform better. However, they must make sure not to get over excited. Rather they should look at this excitement as a sign of readiness and use it to focus.

Summaries and Conclusions
From our research we have found that arousal control, confidence, visualization training, and relaxation all play different and important roles in the decathlon. Arousal control can help multi-event athletes experience success by putting them in the most appropriate level of stimulation for the particular event that they are competing in at that time. It also is useful in the conservation of nervous energy which can be advantageous to an athlete’s success if channeled properly. Confidence also is an instrumental factor in a multi-event athlete’s success. Confidence creates positive emotions in athletes and allows them to stay calm in competition. This also helps athletes maintain their focus. Confidence can be developed through adequate preparation, and positive self-talk. However, it is important that athletes don’t become overconfident, which can lead them to be discouraged because of results that do not live up to their unrealistic expectations, or can cause athletes to underestimate opponents. It is also important that athletes do not gauge their success on other people, which can lead to underconfidence, but rather on their own personal progress.

Visualization training can be of great use to decathletes and heptathletes due to its ability to allow athletes to practice skills without physical stress. Since training for the combined events is so physically challenging, any preparation that spares the body extra physical stress is highly beneficial. Visualization training is also of great importance to multi-event athletes because it creates a connection between the mind and body, and allows athletes to review technique and strategy which will make them better prepared for competition and in turn increase their confidence. Proper relaxation can play a large role in a multi-event athlete’s success due both to amount of time it takes to complete a decathlon, and to the effect it can have on performances in individual events in the heptathlon or decathlon. Relaxation between events can help athletes calm themselves and better prepare for the next event. Relaxation between days can help maintain the energy that is essential for success in a multi-event competition, and relaxation during an event allows an athlete’s muscles to work more efficiently.

In conclusion, mental skills play a very important role in an athlete’s success in the multi-events. Arousal control, confidence, visualization training, and relaxation all serve to help athletes perform better. Perhaps more coaches will start to realize the importance of mental skills and begin to put more emphasis on mental preparation.



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Cohn, P. (2004). Staying relaxed under pressure. Sports Specific, Article Retrieved May 1, 2004, from http://www.sportsspecific.com/members/449.cfm

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McGuire, R. & Rovelto, C. (2003). Transitional control in the combined-event. USATF, Article Retrieved May 1, 2004, from http://wwwcoachr.org/transcont.htm

Rovelto, C. (2000). Heptathlon. In USA track and field coaching manual (pp.300-308). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Smith, G. (2004, February 16). The strange genesis of Tom Pappas. Sports Illustrated, 73-81.

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Weinberg, R. & Gould, D. (2003).Foundations of sport and exercise psychology (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.



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