Daily Use of a Sports Psychology Tool

Posted by Scott Christensen

For the most part coaches interact with the athletes they coach by using the herd mentality.  The herd (training group) is seated in front of the coach, with similar words of greeting spoken to each, and then the same workout is explained to all.  Usually time is short, and athletes are many, so more personal interaction is difficult at best.  Older athletes have different non-training issues than younger athletes do, and coaches try to deal with these issues on the fly.  Some coaches are better at this than others, but all coaches can improve their coaching relationships using a sports psychology tool which can help with discovering stress levels and sources of stress for the various athletes they coach.

Many young runners are emotionally distracted and overwhelmed by the thought of racing and the possible performance outcomes that may result from their racing efforts.  The most common feeling of the inexperienced distance runner is that of anxiety.  In many cases, they exhibit anxiety to their coach and teammates by showing nervousness and apprehension about an upcoming race.  In some cases, they withdraw from interaction and contain their feelings of anxiety.  In either case, these feelings are accompanied by feeling out of control or not in control of oneself prior to a competition.  Many of these feelings can disrupt performance and undermine all the pre-race training that has been accomplished (Vernacchia and Statler 2005).

Young or old, experienced or inexperienced, the ability of an athlete to perform their skill in a non-distractible way is a key characteristic of an effective athletic performer.  Athletes who are successful in this endeavor possess the attribute of mental toughness because they react effectively to unexpected stressful situations due to mental skills gained in preparation for competition.  They are motivated by goals, confident in their fitness, secure in their abilities, and prepared for the unexpected events that are bound to occur in competition.  Their stress level and symptoms of stress are under control.  In almost every case the development of these important mental skills occur under the direction of a coach using a sports psychology tool. The coach-athlete interaction will ultimately determine the fate of an athlete.  A skilled athlete needs a skilled coach.  How the coach as a teacher prepares the athlete on both the physical and mental aspects of sport and competition is vital to preparation and success.

The coach needs to be skilled in drilling into the problems that athletes encounter concerning stress, not just in recognizing a few symptoms of stress.  With this in mind, it is important for an endurance coach to learn of appropriate psychological inventories that are available for recognizing the problems that athletes encounter daily.  An athlete’s answer to a simple coaches’ question [How are you doing today?], is not enough information to gain an understanding of really how they are doing today.  Well administered athlete inventories quickly recognize such problems, and allow for specific intervention by the coach.  This is a practical application of the principles contained in a field of knowledge known as sports psychology.

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A Case Study Restoration Assessment: The DALDA

The Daily Analysis of Life’s Demands for Athletes (DALDA) is an easy to use restoration assessment that harvests fascinating psychological data on athletes.  The DALDA is a self-report inventory of life-stress and symptoms of stress.  It can be used to determine the nature of an athlete’s response to training, particularly their capacity to tolerate future training loads.  Collected data sets for each athlete are made from the restoration inventory questions.  The data sets are used by the coach in order to determine: (1) the training responses that are perceived by the athlete to be either under-stressed or over-stressed, (2) the ideal level of workload stress to promote the optimum level of training effort, (3) the influence of the outside-of-sport stresses that interfere with the training response, (4) preliminary indicators of over-training, (5) reactions to travel fatigue, and (6) the perceived response to the peaking period.

The DALDA was developed in 1990 by Dr. Brent Rushall of San Diego State University.  In introducing the DALDA, Rushall states the following: “It has been recognized over the past two decades that the stressors associated with elite athletic performance are quite varied and originate from outside as well as within the sporting environment.  The reactivity of an athlete to all life stresses, including the activities associated with a sport depends upon the number of stressors which exist at any one particular time” (Rushall 1990).

The DALDA inventory is divided into two sections.  The first section (Part A) of the self-assessment asks questions concerning the general stress sources that occur in the everyday life of an athlete.  The sources are separated into nine categories of possible stress and are as follows:

DALDA Part A.  Questions Concerning Sources of Everyday Life Stress – © Brent Rushall Ph D.

1.   Diet.  Consider whether you are eating regularly and in adequate amounts. Are you missing meals? Do you like your meals?

2.   Home-Life. Have you had any arguments with your parents, brothers or sisters? Are you being asked to do too much around the house? How is your relationship with your siblings? Have there been any unusual happenings at home concerning your family? 

3.   School/College/Work. Consider the amount of work that you are doing there. Are you required to do more or less at home or in your own time? How are your grades or evaluations? Think of how you are interacting with administrators, teachers, or bosses? 

4.   Friends. Have you lost or gained any friends? Have there been any arguments or problems with your friends? Are they compliments you more or less? Do you spend more or less time with them/ 

5.   Training and exercise. How much and how often are you training? Are there levels of effort that are required easy or hard? Are you able to recover adequately between efforts? Are you enjoying your sport? 

6.   Climate. Is it too hot, cold, wet, or dry? 

7.   Sleep. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting too much? Can you sleep when you want to? 

8.   Recreation. Consider the activities that you do outside of your sport. Are they taking up too much time? Do they compete with your application to your sport? 

9.   Health. Do you have any infections, a cold, or other temporary health problems? 

On a daily basis, the athlete participating in the DALDA completes a self-assessment of the nine categories.  They answer the questions in each category with a single collective response: (1) better than normal, (2) about normal, or (3) worse than normal.  The coach then tallies the totals for each of the three responses for each athlete participating.  Besides the raw data, the coach is able to view a daily snapshot of how the athlete is dealing with stress in each category.  This data gives the coach information in which to talk with the athlete if they feel compelled to do so.

Assembling the data sets and constructing a scatter-plot graph for each athlete participating in the DALDA assessment allows the coach to see how the daily life of the athlete and the stress of their training co-exist.  For example, during phases of hard training, such as pre-competitive sessions, the athlete’s response data graph reflects what effect this has to their perceived stress levels (Figure 2).  John Smith’s “worse than normal” responses reflect the loading and unloading effects of the training stimulus over a three week period on their daily stress levels.

Figure 2.  Worse than Normal responses to Part A questions of the DALDA over a period of heavy training.

Responses to DALDA Part A questions attempt to locate the general stressors which may be detracting from an athlete’s exercise-adaptation potential.  Rushall states: “Athletic performances can deteriorate when stressors other than exercise are incurred and added to the load.  Thus, this analysis [Part A] could be used to locate the effects of training on the mood and readiness of the athlete and possible causes for poor performance in training or competition” (1990).

The second section (Part B) of the DALDA inventory is designed to determine what stress-reaction symptoms physically exist in the athlete.  Part B has 25 questions that the athlete self-responds to on a daily basis at the same time they respond to the questions in Part A. The 25 physical symptoms identified are known to be associated with stress in humans.  The questions concerning symptoms of stress are as follows:

DALDA Part B.  Questions Concerning Symptoms of Stress – © Brent Rushall Ph D

1.   Muscle pains. Do you have sore joints and/or pains in your muscles?

2.   Techniques. How do your techniques feel?

3.   Tiredness. What is your general state of tiredness?

4.   Need for a rest. Do you feel that you need a rest between training sessions?

5.   Supplementary work. How strong do you feel when you do supplementary training (e.g., weights, resistance work, stretching)?

6.   Boredom. How boring is training?

7.   Recovery time. Do the recovery times between each training effort need to be longer?

8.   Irritability. Are you irritable? Do things get on your nerves?

9.   Weight. How is your weight?

10. Throat. Have you noticed your throat being sore or irritated?

11. Internal. How do you feel internally? Have you had constipation, upset stomachs, etc.?

12. Unexplained Aches. Do you have any unexplained skin rashes or irritation?

13. Technique strength. How strong do your techniques feel?

14. Enough sleep. Are you getting enough sleep?

15. Between sessions recovery. Are you tired before you start your second training session of the day?

16. General weakness. Do you feel weak all over?

17. Interest. Do you feel that you are maintaining your interest in your sport?

18. Arguments. Are you having squabbles and arguments with people?

19. Skin rashes. Do you have any unexplained skin rashes or irritation?

20. Congestion. Are you experiencing congestion in the nose and/or sinuses?

21. Training effort. Do you feel that you can give your best effort at training?

22. Temper. Do you lose your temper?

23. Swellings. Do you have any lymph gland swellings under your arms, below your ears, in your groin, etc.?

24. Likeability. Do people seem to like you?

25. Running nose. Do you have a running nose?

The categorical response numbers, and pattern of responses, can then be used to assess whether an athlete is being affected by life-stressors (and training), with actual physical symptoms of stress.  As in Part A, the questions in Part B ask the athlete questions that the athlete self-responds to with: (1) better than normal, (2) about normal, and (3) worse than normal.  As in Part A, the coach tallies the raw response numbers and notes anything peculiar that they may want to discuss later with the athlete.

Assembling the data sets for Part B and constructing a scatter-plot graph for each athlete participating in the assessment allows the coach to view how the combination of daily life stressors, plus the stress of athletic training, exhibits physical symptoms in the athlete.  For example, during the time of peak period training, the athlete’s response data graph reflects what effect this has on their incidence of stress related symptoms (Figure 3).  John Smith’s “better than normal” responses reflect the l symptomatic effects of the peak training period stimuli, which is characterized by a time of increasing rest and regeneration of the body; as it gets closer to the most important competitions.  Using the data in Figure 3, one can conclude that the peak period training stimuli are effective and are leading to readiness in John Smith as he approaches the championship races.

Figure 3.  Better than Normal responses in Part B questions during a peaking period portion of training.

The entire inventory takes less then 15 minutes per day, even if administered to multiple athletes.  The athletes take the assessment at a comfortable time each day, always before training sessions begin.  The response sheets are all prepared in advance for both parts of the DALDA so that the athletes merely have to circle their response choices for each question.  The coach then processes the raw data (Christensen 1991).

The data sets and trends are used by coaches to communicate with athletes in meaningful ways concerning how the athlete really feels during various periods of training.  It may also be used to adjust training loads on any give day.  The DALDA is a scientific instrument with quantitative data that allows coaches to make strategic assessments of athletes restoration during different training periods. 

Assessment tools like the DALDA would be ineffective without open, honest, and frank communication between athlete and coach (Vernacchia 2008).  A part of the coaching and teaching process is assisting the athlete to communicate information that the coach needs.  The coach needs to be a good listener and convey openness to the athlete.  There should be a practice atmosphere that creates a learning environment in which the athlete is comfortable conveying information to the coach and that the athlete is frequently assured that they are valued and their feelings considered.  In turn, the athlete must be able to give intrinsic feedback or kinesthetic awareness back to the coach in respect to their body feelings, the sensations they perceive, and their experiences during a performance activity.

To read more about cross country running from Scott Christensen, Preparation of the Elite Junior Cross Country Runner

Christensen, S.  2001.  A psychological application for distance runners.  Track Coach < 155: 45-50.
Rushall, B.  1990.  A tool for measuring stress tolerance in elite athletes.  Applied Sport Psychology 43(2): 51-55.
Vernacchia, R., R. McGuire, and D. Cook.  1996.  Coaching Mental Excellence.  Wade Publishers Inc., Portola Valley, California, USA.  Pp. 52-62.
Vernacchia, R. and T. Statler.  2005.  The Psychology of High-Performance Track and Field.  Tafnews Press Inc., Mountain View, California, USA  Pp. 98-111.
Vernacchia, R.  2008.  The Psychology of High Performance Distance Running.  USATF middle and long distance Podium Project presentation.  Las Vegas, Nevada,  USA

Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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