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Influence of Cognitive Interferences and Self-Talk Functions on Performance During Competition in Elite Female Field Hockey Players

Pérez-Encinas, Cristina1; Fernández-Campos, Francisco J.2; Rodas, Gil3; Barrios, Carlos2

Author Information
The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: December 2016 - Volume 30 - Issue 12 - p 3339-3346
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001440
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Abstract

Introduction

Disturbances in concentration while executing a task due to distracting thoughts not related to the task execution itself are known as cognitive interferences (10,21,22). Within an atmosphere of self-focused attention, athletes frequently experience interfering thoughts when discrepancies between goals and task performance are detected (11). These interfering thoughts often emerge as task-irrelevant reflections and worries regarding performance (20,22). Disproportionate rumination about these irrelevant thoughts disturbs athletes because they are required to consume mental resources that would otherwise be devoted to executing the task (10,15,16). However, knowledge about the theoretical mechanisms by which internal distractions disrupt attentional processes in sports is still limited.

The vulnerability of athletes to self-generated thoughts has been ignored for many years, research paying instead greater attention to the influence of the external environment on the athlete's concentration (2). One reason for this research priority in sport psychology could be that external distractions are easier to measure than internal or self-generated distractions (3,17).

The role of emotions and cognitions experienced during competition has been investigated in different sporting disciplines such as basketball, volleyball, and water polo (10,11,15). Thoughts of escape have been identified as the most important component of cognitive interference for athlete behavior patterns (8,10). However, these studies did not assess athletes performing at elite levels, and little data on female athletes are available. Furthermore, research concerning the mechanism by which inner thought variables influence performance is scarce. Indirect evidence of a negative influence has been found in a study of volleyball players, where interfering thoughts interrupted their concentration and resulted in decreased effort among those athletes with lower goal attainment expectations (10).

An inverse relationship has been found between the use of self-talk strategies and the reduction of thoughts not related to task execution (performance worries, irrelevant and escape thoughts), thus enhancing concentration on the task and consequently improving the performance of noncompetitive water polo players (12). Self-talk is defined as an internal dialogue during competition that permits individuals to interpret feelings and perceptions, regulate and change evaluations and cognitions, and give themselves instructions and reinforcements (4). Considered to be positive inner thoughts, self-talk may act as a modulator of distracting or interfering negative thoughts, facilitating successful performance in sports (5,6,12).

Nowadays, the mental ability to adapt and refocus cognition and motivation following these interferences during performance may distinguish successful from less successful athletes (19). Self-talk has been used by sport practitioners as a tool to improve mental training programs by activating cognitions that supposedly enhance sporting performance (27). The management and interventions of self-talk functions in task performance have been investigated in various sports modalities and summarized recently in a meta-analysis (13). The results of this meta-analysis, particularly those findings regarding the consistent relationship between cognitive and behavioral factors and self-talk, encourage the use of self-talk as a strategy to facilitate learning and enhance performance.

From this background, it was hypothesized that restricted use of cognitive and motivational self-talk stimulates an increase in interfering thoughts that could be implicated in the reduction of performance in competition. Because female elite athletes are narrowly studied, it seems sound to explore this hypothesis regarding the interrelationship of self-talk functions and interfering thoughts in a sample of elite female field hockey players. Therefore, the first objective of the study was to describe the characteristics of cognitive interference in the form of distracting thoughts and self-talk use among the members of 2 elite female field hockey teams during a world-class competition. Players' performance level was evaluated using the trainers' perceptions. As the 2 groups of field hockey players belonged to different categories, variations between the results of the 2 teams were also explored.

The understanding of the role of interfering thoughts and their modulation by self-talk use may be considered an important research issue within the cognitive framework of sports psychology and will contribute to the literature on inner interferences on athletes' performance. Practically, if cognitive interferences are associated with athletic performance, psychological strategies for reducing interfering thoughts and increasing instructional and motivational self-talk should be implemented as a relevant part of athletes' conditioning.

Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

Participants from the First National team answered the questionnaire at the end of one of the preclassification tournaments for the 2012 Olympics held from January 11 to January 23, 2012, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Under-21 National team completed the questionnaires at the end of the Women's Hockey Junior World Cup held from August 3 to August 16, 2009, in Boston, United States. Instructions were given to participants to respond to all items and to answer each question honestly. The athletes were also reminded that the collected data would be treated as confidential. Trainers were not allowed access to the athletes' data.

Subjects

To test our hypothesis, elite female field hockey players of the First National team and the Under-21 National team were invited to participate in this observational study involving assessment of interfering thoughts and self-talk use during competition. All participants provided voluntary involvement and signed informed consent to take part in this research. There was a sole player under 18 years of age. In this case, the parents of the minor participant signed the written informed consent.

Participants completed the Thought Occurrence Questionnaire for Sport (TOQS) and the Self-Talk Questionnaire (S-TQ) as part of a packet of other psychological screening studies that included measures beyond the scope of the present investigation. Players were given information outlining the purpose and possible drawbacks of participation before completing the measures, and all participants were given the opportunity to decline participation if they desired. The participants were also informed about the anonymous treatment of their clinical data and the responses to questionnaires for research purposes.

The Research Committee of the senior author's institution granted ethical approval to conduct the study. Thirty-two elite female hockey players were included in the study. The participants' ages ranged from 17 to 30 years, with a mean of 22.5 years. Participants belonged to 2 teams: the Spanish First National field hockey team (n = 20) and the Spanish Under-21 National team (n = 12). The mean length of time that players were involved in elite field hockey was 3.6 years, with a range from 1 to 11 years. These 2 teams had never before followed a program for mental skills training. Athletes were not engaged in any other activities designed to maximize their focus and encourage a positive approach to competition. There were no sports psychology assistants among the staff members of the national teams.

The performance evaluation variables were based on notes that the trainers of the 2 Spanish field hockey National Teams had taken during competition. At the end of the competition, the trainer classified the players into 3 groups: Low, Normal, and High Performance. Normal performance reflects the trainer-expected performance according to the condition and abilities of the player. Low and High performance were considered when players developed actions that were below or above the trainer's expectations, respectively. These terms for trainers' evaluations were previously defined and agreed upon.

The results of the trainer-perceived player performances fell in the following distribution: 15 participants (46.9%) were considered to have normal or expected performance; 11 participants (34.2%) showed a high performance level (i.e., much better than expected); and 6 players (18.7%) had a low performance level.

Procedures

Participants completed the questionnaires under supervision of a research assistant or coach from their respective teams. We tried to avoid the presence of coaches altogether, but it was not possible because of the significant role of coaches within the teams. They are accustomed to closely following all matters related to their players. To address this, players were informed that the coaches would never have access to the participants' individual data. The players' specific answers to the questionnaires (raw data) were and remain inaccessible to the coaches. They only had access to the final analysis of general data. The possible limitation concerning the presence of coaches during completion of the research tools was therefore minimized as much as possible. The completion of the 2 questionnaires lasted approximately 20 minutes, including time for the research team to give participants thorough instructions on the filling procedures.

The TOQS is a 17-item questionnaire developed to analyze cognitive interferences during competition in the form of inner thoughts (23). The questionnaire comprises 3 discrete subscales: Performance Worries (6 items), Task-Irrelevant Thoughts (5 items), and Thoughts of Escape (6 items) (23). The Performance Worries subscale evaluates thoughts associated with a perceived failure to attain performance goals. The irrelevant thoughts subscale measures daydreaming and other thoughts not associated with the competition. The Thoughts of Escape subscale captures thoughts related to evasion and removing one's self from the situation. Items are rated on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (never) to 7 (very often). The factorial validity of this scale was found highly reliable in adults: Cronbach alpha coefficients were 0.90 for Thoughts of Escape, 0.85 for Task-Irrelevant Thoughts, and 0.78 for Performance Worries (9).

The ST-Q was used to provide a self-report on the athlete's self-talk and to determine which functions the athletes used: cognitive and/or motivational (26). The ST-Q consists of a total of 11 items that assess either motivational functions (7 items) or cognitive functions (4 items). This division into motivational and cognitive or instructional questions provides insight into each individual's use of the 2 functions and enables a comparison to be made between each athlete and between the 2 functions. The scoring method for the ST-Q uses a 5-point Likert scale: never (1 point), rarely (2 points), sometimes (3 points), often (4 points), and always (5 points), indicating the magnitude with which the athletes experienced each of the items (26). Reliability analysis at the time of the ST-Q's first description indicated that the 2 factors were internally consistent. Specifically, the factors indicated high Cronbach alphas of 0.91 and 0.84 for motivational and cognitive self-talk, respectively. The Cronbach alpha for the entire S-TQ was 0.92.

Statistical Analyses

Data were analyzed using the statistical package SPSS 20.0. Scores from the items of the different subscales of the tests were given as mean and SD. As this is the first time the Spanish translation of the TOQS and S-TQ has been used, inter-item correlations, inter-item covariance, and item-total correlations were calculated for the items composing the 3 subscales of the TOQS and the 2 of the S-TQ. Because some level of consistency was shown across analyses of the 2 questionnaires, scores were combined to create a single unitary index of cognitive interference (9,15) and self-talk (26). Cronbach alpha coefficient was examined for the subscales and the combined total scores of both questionnaires. Tabachnick and Fidell (24) suggested that for an acceptable internal consistency, Cronbach alpha coefficient should exceed 0.70.

Because of the small sample size, 2 nonparametric statistical tests, the Mann-Whitney and Kruskal-Wallis tests, were used to contrast data from the 2 National teams and from the 3 performance levels, respectively. In the calculation of all contrasts, the effect size was also calculated and its magnitude interpreted according to the guidelines proposed by Cohen (1): d from 0.20 to 0.50 (small effect), d from 0.50 to 0.80 (moderate effect), and d > 0.80 (strong effect). Spearman correlation analyses were used to explore possible bivariate interrelationships between age, time involved in elite competitions, and scores from each factor of the 2 different tests used. A significance level below 0.05 was set for all analyses.

Results

The participants of the first national team were older and had been involved in elite sport for a longer period. There was a trend of higher age and more experience in competition for players performing at the high level (Table 1).

Table 1
Table 1:
Age of the female field hockey players included in the study and period of time competing at elite level.*

Regarding TOQS, the mean score of the items corresponding to the Thoughts of Escape subscale (2.3 ± 1.6) showed lower values than performance worries (3.9 ± 1.0; Wilcoxon signed rank test, Z = −4.662, p < 0.001) and irrelevant thoughts (3.9 ± 1.5; Z = −4.380, p < 0.001). The results of the ST-Q yielded a similar use of the motivational (3.4 ± 0.8) and cognitive functions (3.5 ± 0.9) among these athletes. According to the Cronbach alpha coefficient, the subscales corresponding to irrelevant thoughts and thoughts of escape showed a strong internal consistency, whereas the Performance Worries subscale had a weak but still acceptable reliability (Table 2). The internal consistency of the 2 was strong for all subscales, except for performance worries, which was adequate. The internal consistency of the S-TQ was strong for both the motivational and cognitive subscales.

Table 2
Table 2:
Internal Consistency Indices (mean, minimum and maximum value) for the 17-item TOQS and the 11-item S-TQ (n = 32).*

Athletes' age was negatively related to interfering performance worries and thoughts of escape and has a strong positive correlation with the 2 S-TQ subscales (Table 3). Competitive experience showed a negative correlation only with the TOQS subscale of performance worries and positive correlations with both the motivational and cognitive S-TQ subscales. Interestingly, the mean scores of motivational self-talk were correlated only with the Thoughts of Escape subscale of the TOQS. However, cognitive self-talk showed correlation with the Performance Worries and an even stronger correlation with the Thoughts of Escape subscales (Table 3).

Table 3
Table 3:
Correlations between the different subscales of the TOQS and S-TQ.*†

The 3 groups of field hockey players, stratified according to performance level, displayed different patterns of occurrence of interfering thoughts (Figure 1). Those players classified as low performance had increased occurrence of irrelevant thoughts (5.5 ± 1.0) compared with the other groups (normal performance, 3.6 ± 1.5; high performance, 3.3 ± 1.3; Kruskal-Wallis test, χ2 = 7.831, p ≤ 0.05). These low-performing athletes also showed the highest scores on the Thoughts of Escape subscale (3.6 ± 2.2 vs. 2.5 ± 1.4 in normal performance, and 1.3 ± 0.4 in high performance group; Kruskal-Wallis test, χ2 = 10.170, p < 0.01). The group of athletes displaying a high performance level exhibited the lowest scores on all subscales. Regarding S-TQ scores, there was a slight tendency toward higher values on both the motivational and cognitive subscales for participants classified as exhibiting a high performance level (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Mean scores of the items related to the factors of the Thought Occurrence Questionnaire for Sport in relation to the performance level of the athletes perceived by the trainer. *Significant at the 0.05 alpha level. **Significant at the 0.01 alpha level.

Figures 2A, B present the mean scores of the items corresponding to the 3 subscales of the TOQS and the S-TQ for the 2 national teams. On the TOQS, the First National team had lower scores than the Under-21 team on all 3 subscales. Differences between the 2 national teams were found in the Performance Worries (Mann-Whitney U test, Z = −2.186, p ≤ 0.05) and Thoughts of Escape subscales (Z = −3.478, p < 0.001). However, the mean scores of the S-TQ motivational and cognitive functions were higher for the first team than the Under-21 team. Differences in the mean scores of the items corresponding to motivational (Z = −3.097, p < 0.001) and cognitive (Z = −3.608, p < 0.001) S-TQ subscales were also found between the 2 teams. These mean scores were higher for the First National team.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
Mean scores of the items related to the factors of the Thought Occurrence Questionnaire for Sport (A) and those of the S-TQ (B) in the 2 field hockey national teams. *Significant at the 0.05 alpha level. **Significant at the 0.01 alpha level.

When scores of the 3 TOQS subscales were combined to create a single global index of cognitive interference as proposed by the developers of the questionnaires (9,14), performance level was then related to this unitary index. As the global index of inner thoughts decreases, the performance level increases (Kruskal-Wallis test, p < 0.01) (Figure 3A). This did not apply as a unitary global index of self-talk. When comparisons of the 2 national teams were explored (Figure 3B), players from the First National team had fewer occurrences of inner thoughts (2.9 ± 0.6 vs. 4.1 ± 1.4; Mann-Whitney U test, Z = −2.279, p ≤ 0.05) and more use of self-talk functions (3.9 ± 0.6 vs. 2.8 ± 0.8; Z = −3.396, p < 0.001).

Figure 3
Figure 3:
Global unitary mean scores of the Thought Occurrence Questionnaire for Sport and Self-Talk Questionnaire in relation to the performance level of the athletes perceived by the trainer (A) and in the 2 field hockey national teams (B). *Significant at the 0.05 alpha level. **Significant at the 0.01 alpha level.

Discussion

To our knowledge, this is the first study assessing cognitive interferences and self-talk functions in elite female field hockey players during world-class competition. In addition, the influence of the type of interfering thoughts and the use of self-talk resources used during competition on the performance level was explored for the first time in these female athletes. Interfering inner thoughts were evaluated with the same conceptual structure suggested by Hatzigeorgiadis and Biddle (9) and using the TOQS scale.

In the present study, elite female field hockey players most often experienced frequent performance worries and irrelevant thoughts. Thoughts about withdrawing from the tournament were less frequent, although these were more frequent in players performing at the lower level than expected. Thus, our results are in accordance with those found by Hatzigeorgiadis and Biddle (10) in volleyball players whose interfering thoughts interrupted their concentration and resulted in decreased effort among those athletes with lower goal attainment expectations. In our sample of female elite field hockey players, those exhibiting low levels of performance during the tournament expressed the highest levels of interfering thoughts.

This study confirms that there are links between interfering thought management and performance. In this sense, our hypothesis concerning a possible association of an increase of interfering thoughts in competition with the reduction of performance is here ratified. The most relevant association was the coupling of high performance level with the near-absence of thoughts of escape and the lowest scores on irrelevant thoughts and performance worries. These findings suggest that players who are able to achieve better control over interfering thoughts may be less internally disturbed and therefore better oriented toward high-quality sporting performance.

Interestingly, the younger athletes involved in the Under-21 National team showed higher scores on performance worries, especially on thoughts of escape. This finding might be related to the Under-21 team having less experience in world-class tournaments compared with the First National team. This might be a decisive modulating factor justifying these observed differences.

Concerning self-talk functions in this sample of elite female field hockey players, there was a tendency toward higher scores on both motivational and cognitive functions in athletes performing at the high level. The interrelationship between both motivational and cognitive self-talk functions and thoughts of escape was clearly demonstrated by the negative strong bivariate correlation found. Performance worries were negatively correlated only with cognitive self-talk. No relationship was found between irrelevant thoughts and the S-TQ subscales.

Similar to that found in a large sample of Malaysian athletes (18), the 2 factors measured by the ST-Q questionnaire (i.e., motivational and cognitive) have a strong positive correlation, indicating that the 2 factors correspond to the same conceptual framework. In the total sample of 111 Malaysian athletes of different sports modalities (61.7% women), there was no predominance of either of the 2 S-TQ factors. This finding is similar to that found in our sample of elite female field hockey players. However, in our study, female athletes exhibited a lower use of the self-talk function during competition, because cognitive and motivational mean values were lower than those found in Malaysian athletes (18).

The use of self-talk as a strategy to facilitate learning and enhance performance has been widely recommended (13). In our sample of female elite athletes, the use of self-talk functions was low, possibly explaining why self-talk did not influence performance level. One reason might lie in the fact that these field hockey players were not engaged in any program of mental skills training to improve their use of self-talk in competition. A recent systematic review of the literature suggests that even negative self-talk can be motivating for an athlete and is not necessarily detrimental to performance (25).

The current study has several coexistent limitations and also suggests several areas for future research. First, the sample of elite female field hockey players recruited for the study is certainly limited, but there are not many female field hockey teams involved in such high-level competition. The participants represent the best female field hockey players in our country at that time, according to the criteria of the national coaches. Of course, the evaluation of a broader population of field hockey players at different levels, not only elite players, merits further research to improve the validity of the psychometric tools used in this study. Furthermore, another innovative research approach might be to investigate the thought occurrence profile of field hockey players longitudinally, assessing them as they progress through different level transitions from junior to elite status. This aspect of sports psychology remains unexplored.

Another limitation of the study might be related to the retrospective acquisition of data, because athletes completed the measures immediately after a competition. It could be claimed that perhaps the athletes' self-appraisal of their performance in the competition influenced their responses. That is, athletes who did not play well might be more inclined to indicate that they were distracted and did not use positive self-talk. The retrospective analysis is inherent in the characteristics of the questionnaires that evaluated cognitive interferences and self-talk occurring during competition. The occurrence of these interferences should be assessed after the event. Notably, none of the items included in the questionnaires asks about performance directly.

In summary, the findings of the present study show that the occurrence of interfering inner thoughts, as measured by the TOQS, is common in female field hockey players during world-class competitions and has an impact on performance. The occurrence of irrelevant thoughts and thoughts of escape were related to low performance level. Athletes performing at a high level had low scores for all 3 TOQS subscales, with an almost complete absence of thoughts of escape. These findings highlight the importance of understanding athletes' management of inner thoughts during competition because this mental skill may greatly affect performance.

Practical Applications

From a practical angle, this study suggests that instructional and/or motivational interventions to decrease interfering thoughts that target attentional control should be incorporated as a part of other conditioning measures. In addition, this study reinforces the idea that decreasing cognitive interference is important for concentration levels and subsequently for performance, providing evidence about their relationship. It would therefore be useful to explore whether these findings transfer to different populations of athletes and different performance situations.

Finally, this study assessed important emerging aspects of sports psychology that have been recently related to performance level. In this sense, the knowledge provided for this study could be of greater interest for coaches and players of team sports. Both coaches and players should pay more attention to the negative influence of interference thoughts on performance and their control through instructional and motivational self-talk strategies. This approach may provide a basis from which to develop useful intervention strategies for reducing cognitive interference and enhancing performance.

Acknowledgments

The authors acknowledge the players and coaching staff for their support of the study. No outside funding was received for this study. There is no conflict of interest to declare by any of the authors.

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    Keywords:

    interfering thoughts; cognitions; motivation strategies; female athletes

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