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Science of Sport

Dr Rhonda Cohen

ROLE: Head of the London Sport Institute
SCHOOL & DEPARTMENT: Faculty of Science and Technology London Sport Institute

Is a certain type of personality drawn to extreme sport? Are they extrovert, introvert, or one of life's sensation seekers? Do elite sports participants have different personality traits from those of the amateurs? What motivates them to take risks? These are all questions studied by Dr Rhonda Cohen, Head of the London Sport Institute at Middlesex University, who discovered that personality factors are significant in facilitating success.

Dr Cohen's research focuses on the relationship of personality, sensation seeking and reaction time, examining extreme sport versus traditional sport. Spending time with drag racers, free divers, base jumpers, racers, and other extreme sportspersons, she found that mental challenges were important, that fast, accurate cognitive perceptual processes were needed for a successful outcome.

However while working and researching as a sport and exercise psychologist, Dr Cohen found that there was no consistent definition of extreme (high risk) sport. She coined one herself: "a competitive (comparison or self-evaluative) activity within which the participant is subjected to natural or unusual physical and mental challenges such as speed, height, depth or natural forces and where fast and accurate cognitive perceptual processing maybe required for a successful outcome. An unsuccessful outcome is more likely to result in the injury or even fatality of the participant than in a non-extreme sport". 

Dr Cohen explains: "Speed is often essential in extreme sport as is maintaining a high level of accuracy."

Extreme sports involve risk, which is dependent on age and gender according to her research, as well as whether competitors are amateurs or experts. There is also an emotional component. "The more people get involved in extreme sport, the more their anxiety levels escalate.  Psychology can help people cope with that pressure. It requires knowing when to pull out and when not to compete," explains Dr Cohen. "Interestingly, females are starting to become increasingly greater risk takers as they look for different kinds of challenges. Is it good for us?  I think it is a positive thing in our society to get out of our comfort zones and do something which gives us a great sense of achievement and a thrill.

"The impact of this research is important for talent identification, understanding participation in sport and in maintaining the positive well being of the extreme sports person. This is all useful in providing insight for psychologists, trainers, athletes, recreational participants and coaches to consider the manner in which 'extreme sport' participants learn to respond to requirements of their sport. It teaches us all about having confidence in challenging ourselves."

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