Overtraining? Prospect Theory in the Gym.

Prospect theory, developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky of Princeton University, describes cognitive bias in the handling of decisions that involve risk.  Kahnemman and Tversky showed that the function described by human behavior when making decisions involving risk is asymmetrical.  The asymmetry results, because people value gains and losses differently and demonstrate different risk preferences under different conditions.

People tend to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains (loss aversion).  Some studies suggest that the negative impact of losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as the positive impact of gains.  Thus, if you have made some small gains, you will tend to behave conservatively and forego taking risks that could result in additional gains (the curve on the right is convex and flattens out quickly).  Conversely, if you have sustained a loss, then the psychological pain is likely to push you to take unreasonable risks in an effort to get back to even (the curve on the left is concave and takes a steep drop, before it flattens out).

Recent studies with Capuchin monkeys demonstrate that these behavioral asymmetries extend far back along the evolutionary time line.

Irrational Behavior in the Gym…Say it isn’t so

Like the Capuchin monkeys’ market, athletic performance and physical fitness are measured by gains and losses.  As we appear to be pre-programmed to value gains and losses differently and demonstrate different risk preferences under different conditions, we should see some recurring irrational behavior in the gym.  Below are three common instances of irrational behavior that I have both demonstrated myself and witnessed in others.

(1) Afraid to Take a Break

An athlete that is overtraining is focused on conserving their gains (this is particularly true, when training for an upcoming event such as a marathon or a fight).  Taking time away from training is seen as risky behavior and to be avoided (risk averse).  Even if resting and recovering may let the body heal, grow stronger, and result in greater overall gains in performance, there remains an irrational fear of any drop in performance due to breaking the routine.  Therefore, they are willing to forego acquiring additional gains, in order to avoid the anticipated psychological pain from any potential loss in performance resulting from taking a break.

(2) Married to Your Routine

Similarly, an athlete that is making slow gains or maintaining performance is likely to be less willing to take a chance on a new training protocol, even if doing so has the potential to lead to large gains in performance.  In this situation, most athletes prefer to make small adjustments to their established routine and will actively resist wholesale changes.

(3) Risking it All When Injured

On the other hand, if an injury occurs while an athlete is training hard and making significant gains in performance, you can expect that they will not want to rest, relax, and allow the injury to completely heal before resuming their training.  Rather, they may grudgingly scale back their training or find some other way to “train around” the injury.  With many injuries, continuing to train or compete is risky behavior, which could lead to permanent damage.  However, an injured athlete suffering the psychological pain of having sustained a loss is much more willing to take unreasonable risks to get back to their pre-injury level of performance.

Cognitive Interrupt

The trick then is to develop cognitive breaks that interrupt this pre-programmed behavior and allow you to make better decisions by recognizing:

(1) with small gains in performance, you will tend to overtrain, become overly risk averse, and may forego opportunities to make additional gains (you could even become a bit dogmatic);

(2) that when you have sustained a training setback, you are more willing to take unreasonable risks in an effort to overcome the loss and alleviate the psychological pain that comes with it.

An experienced coach or trainer can make a positive difference in these situations.  Periodization, a pre-planned training schedule, can help (See Arthur Lydiard and Tudor Bompa).  Also, keeping detailed training logs and forcing yourself to review them at regular intervals, with this asymmetry in mind, is another good way to facilitate improved decision making.

What methods have you found best help athletes step back from their pre-programmed responses and engage their cognitive systems?


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