Diving Mind Games: Combatting The Pressures of A Judged Sport

Photo Courtesy: FINA

By Erin Keaveny, Swimming World Contributor.

Athletes who learn to be competitive at a young age can often conflate their identity, or their worth with their performance. For divers, that means a score, and the pressures of a judged sport.

Performance is measured in a number with innumerable variables.

To start, meets can be generally high scoring or low scoring meets. If its a multi-day meet, it can vary day to day.

When coaches are judging, its almost impossible for them to be unbiased. While its easy to assume coaches would overscore their divers, that’s not always true. A diver could get underscored by their own coach, because they’ve seen them do the dive better many times before.

Then, there’s always going to be an aesthetic bias. Some divers have a certain look, or technique, or something about them that the judges might just like better one day.

While judges claim to be unbiased, the human aspect of judging is naturally biased, and variable, and that’s ok.

But, when athletes try and measure their performances with a subjective and naturally biased score, there are bound to be psychological repercussions.

In order to combat any negative health effects, it’s important to first understand a little of the psychology behind this.

Event 27 - Men's 1 mtr Diving

Photo Courtesy: Eric Kelley

Dr. Eva V. Monsma, Ph.D., a professor in the department of Physical Education at the University of South Carolina and a Certified Mental Trainer with Mental Training Inc., is an expert in developmental sport psychology.

Dr. Monsma places diving, and other judged sports, into the aesthetic sports category. These are sports where success is based on evaluation of body form and shape, sport specific demands call for a lean physique, and uniforms are typically form fitting and revealing.

Elite athletes in aesthetic sports like diving are often late biological maturers. Late maturers tend to have leaner physiques, and longer limbs because their growth plates are open longer.

This is a major difference between swimmers and divers, according to Dr. Monsma. Female swimmers, who tend to be early or average maturers, are nationally between 50th and 90th percentile for height and 50th to 75th percentile for weight, while divers tend to be under 50th percentile for both height and weight.

This study puts a general perception into numbers, that divers are little and lean.

This idea of what a diver is “supposed to” look like is not always the reality. Pressure to look a certain way for judges and overall performance can lead to issues with body image.

Body image dissatisfaction and body image distortion are both more consistent in women, who generally want to be smaller, and perceive themselves as bigger than they are. In men, it is much more variable based on sport and position. Plus, regardless of gender and sport, body image satisfaction is, on average, higher among athletes than non-athletes.

These body image issues are linked to social physique anxiety, or anxiety about presenting yourself in front of others, a predictor for eating disorders and depression.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

According to Dr. Monsma, female athletes in aesthetic sports are generally more likely to have lower self-esteem, weight concerns, eating disorders, and depression. Further, their body dissatisfaction is greater when they are in their uniforms than their normal clothes.

Dr. Monsma has found that the risk for body image issues, social physique anxiety, disordered eating and depression is also linked to the perception of coaches, parents and teammates.

It seems like diving meets could create the perfect storm here. There are people watching in the stands, judges giving you a score on how you look, competing in a revealing swim suit, and potentially comparing yourself to other divers.

The solution? Education and encouragement.

According to Dr. Monsma there are a few ways that can help combat the potentially negative effects of a sport like diving.

First, parents and coaches should shift their focus onto capabilities rather than appearance. This can be done by using phrasing about “how you feel” or “how you perform” as opposed to “how you look.”

Coaches, parents, and judges should also be educated on early and late biological maturation. Some physical characteristics are determined by biological maturation timeline, and can never be changed through diet and exercise.  For example, the longer limb length linked to late maturation may be sought after for sport aesthetic, but cannot be changed. The same can be said for muscularity associated with early maturation.

Athlete’s should further be encouraged to participate in activities they can partake in throughout their lifetime, things they can partake in after they can’t participate in their sport. This especially pertains to sports where there is an acrobatic aspect, like diving.

Finally, Dr. Monsma suggests that on a collegiate level there should be proactive sports psychology training. This can include thing like mental skills training, goal-setting, and competitive anxiety management.

“If athletes believe that success in their sport, regardless of type, is significantly contingent on mental toughness, they should increase the time they spend training mentally,” said Dr. Monsma.

All commentaries and research are completed by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.