Researchers seeking ways to coax best performance out of Emirati athletes

Helping athletes stand up to pressure and overcome anxiety is the goal.

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ABU DHABI // Researchers are working on ways to enhance the performance of Emirati athletes, examining the theory of “the choking effect” – when less experienced athletes crumble under pressure – and looking for ways to overcome this.

Dr Massimiliano Cappuccio, assistant professor in Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at UAE University, has received a Dh400,000 grant from the university and the National Research Foundation.

So far, he has spent much of the past year laying the theoretical foundations and is awaiting approval from the university’s ethics committee to begin the practical assessments.

He will begin the practical research with a group of Emirati golfers from the Al Ain Golf Club.

The research he says is twofold.

“We’re solving the problem of professional athletes performing under pressure of competition and also educating young Emiratis on the culture of sport and training for people who don’t really have a sport culture.”

The Abu Dhabi Sports Council had noticed that “young Emiratis, especially the footballers, have a shyness compared to their colleagues at clubs in other countries such as those in Europe. They get the ball but they kick it away quickly like they feel pressure of being under the spotlight”, Dr Cappuccio said.

One factor being considered is the cultural and social background of the athletes: big families with several siblings where individual responsibility is rare and a group mentality is more prevalent.

Experiments will look at how athletes are able to cope with instructions while doing basic drills.

“Experts can go on to autopilot where novices will struggle,” said Dr Cappuccio. Expert footballers dribbling between cones are able to simultaneously respond to instructions such as bending knees or focusing on the feet, while the less experienced will panic.

Dr Martin Kramar, a stress and anxiety psychologist, said there was a lack of awareness of the role psychological coaching can play in sport.

“I don’t know if they believe in this and see that it can help them,” he said. “Awareness really needs to be raised in schools and universities.”

Dr Kramar teaches at the Dubai branch campus of the Middlesex University in the UK, where he will be adding a sports psychology class this year. It is in the final stages of accreditation.

“There is so much research to be done here in this field and especially relating to the coping mechanism, which is a problem not only here but all over the world.”

Dr Cappuccio said he not only wants to help build the capacity of researchers in the field, but added this type of work can only help the local athletic community.

“We need to get testing them in situations they are not used to,” he said. “Taking them out of what’s familiar to put them into situations which are new and unpredictable. That’s when you really begin to look at skill.”

Some testing situations may be real-life, while others may use computer simulation.

“It doesn’t matter how we do it and computer programmes like this are easy to produce now,” Dr Kramar said. “The brain studies will be important for both the research and athletic side.”