Like a lot of people I’ve been taking a keen interest in The Island with Bear Grylls. I genuinely enjoy these kinds of programs for two reasons; firstly it takes me back to my army cadet teenage years and secondly because we can see the typical endurance of a ‘normal’ person, when taken out of their comfort zone, often within elite sport we find that athletes, coaches and support staff are taken well out of their comfort zones. This blog post is going to take a lot at the psychology of endurance performance and survival. Not something I’ve done before but there are many parallels between surviving on a remote island and performing in elite sport, hopefully I will clear these up a little.
The psychobiological model of endurance performance give us a pretty good model to explore endurance performance and I’m pretty sure that surviving on an island for 6 weeks 5000 miles from the UK can be classed as an endurance performance. We often seen in endurance sport that exhaustion (the ability to maintain a required physical task) and fatigue are intrinsically associated with exercise performance (Smirmaul, Dantas, Nakamura, Pereira, 2013) and after 5 days on a remote island with minimal food and water these two set in pretty rapidly. The main determinant of endurance performance is the idea of perception of effort. If a person perceives that task less effortful then they will continue to engage until a time when the perception of effort is greater than that of what they are willing to expend. In simple terms a person will give up when they exceed the greatest effort they are will to exert. Interestingly this idea suggests that as people we often give up before exhaustion sets in. In essence our mind will give up before our body. Remembering this is useful for any survivalist.
A quick note on how tough the human body is… firstly let’s look at the rule of three, three minutes without air, three days without water and three weeks without food. Not bad, if we look at The Island, these people should be able to last half the time without food. However they have to concentrate and survive so a lack of food is often a hindrance. Especially seeing as your brain takes about 20% of the calories you take in. Our bones are pretty strong; a matchbox sized piece of bone can support 9 tons of weight. We are actually designed to run long distances over time and many of the remote tribes around the world chase their food until it is exhausted rather than hunt it and kill it with weapons.
Self-regulation refers to the process in which people seek to align themselves with appropriate goals or standards (Brocker and Higgins, 2001). Higgins (1998) has suggested that there are differences in the process through which people approach pleasure and pain. Peoples regulatory focuses are composed of three factors which illustration the differences between promotion focus and prevention focus (Brocker and Higgins, 2001), these are a) satisfying needs, b) the nature of the goal and c) psychological situations. People have fundamental needs (Maslow, 1995). These needs include growth and development, safety, protection, security, food and a need to belong. The ability to meet these needs in a survival situation is important as Maslow states that without one being satisfied then a person cannot move on to the next, so for example a person who does not satisfy their physiological needs (food, water, sleep) then they cannot move on to developing their need to safety (shelter/ protection from the elements) and then social (friendships). As we see when people don’t eat, sleep, drink or have a decent shelter then they start arguing, tempers get frayed and social norms go out of the window. Satisfying these needs in this order is the key to successful survival and limits the amount of stressful situations that one endures during survival.
During the program we hear a lot about ‘staying positive’, being happy and taking everything in my stride. Well there is an entire area of psychology devoted to researching this phenomenon. Positive psychology is study of ordinary human strengths and virtues. Normal human functioning cannot be seen as a negative experience and that despite hardship many people manage to live happy and fulfilling lives. Positive emotions serve as markers for optimal well-being. Emotions such as joy, interest, and love are moments that are not plagues by negative emotion. The balance of these emotions can be a subject measure of overall well-being. An emotion begins with an individual’s appraisal (view) of a specific event (e.g. surviving on an island, or getting lost in the jungle) which dependant on whether the appraisal is positive or negative will result in an emotion (either positive or negative) which will then in turn result in a behaviour (either positive or negative). These kinds of appraisal can have either a positive or negative effect on the resulting outcomes of a situation. Having the ability to positively appraise a situation can influence the overall experience of a situation, which in a survival situation can be the difference between success or failure.
Regulatory focus theory suggest that the principle of approach pleasure and avoiding pain works differently depending on the needs that people are trying to meet. For those who are promotion focused growth and development needs are more dominant however those who are more prevention focused are driven by security needs. Standards represent peoples beliefs and reflect their hopes and aspirations around their ideal self (Higgins, 1987) and others have standards such as their felt duties and responsibilities these are based around ‘ought selves’. Promotion focused individuals seek to attain goals associated with the ideal self and prevention focused seek success around standards based on the ‘ought self’. Upon bringing themselves into alignment with their ideal selves those her promotion focused with gain a sense of pleasure however when they fall short they experience nongain (Brocker and Higgins, 2001). Contrastingly those who succeed in aligning themselves with the ‘ought self’ then feel the pleasure of a non-loss (e.g. avoid negative outcomes) and failure to do so elicits the pain of loss. The regulatory focus theory suggests that people’s degree of promotion of prevention influences the nature and magnitude of the reaction to success of failure. People engage in behaviour that is designed to bring themselves into line with their perceived goals and standards. When combined with the psychobiological model of endurance performance we can understand a persons perceived effort and can work with their goals, standards, beliefs and values to develop a psychological training program that will enhance the self-regulatory ability of an endurance runner.
So what does all this psychology mean for survival on The Island, well firstly I fully believe that having an ability to appraise a situation as positive is certainly beneficial for the typical survivor. This can be influenced by a number of small adaptations to the way in which we approach tasks. Secondly having targets and goals for each day/ half day can be useful. Thirdly getting into a specific routine and knowing exactly what needs to be done to aid survival is an important aspect to completing this specific challenge. Getting these ‘rules’/’targets’ set out for each day can be useful when your memory, cognitive processes and energy is being sapped by lack of food. Finally controlling the controllables will certainly help with regards to appraising the situation as positive, the ability to remember what is inside and outside your control will help dramatically within the first week or two of this challenge and once established will help to keep you on task and focussed even at the worst of times.
For more infomation developing psychology within your performance please feel free to get in touch at www.sportpsychologykent.co.uk.