Dr Andrea Furst, Sport and Performance Psychologist, speaks to Female First
Dr Andrea Furst, Sport and Performance Psychologist, speaks to Female First

Olympians and the British public have a lot of differences when it comes to physical ability however there is one similarity when it comes to mental focus – jigsaws.

Over lockdown Gibsons saw an all-time record for sales of its jigsaws with it rising 59% as Brits looked to desperately fight boredom.

But this isn’t the only reason people have been turning to jigsaw puzzles as a study conducted by Research Without Barriers found that 25% of people felt an increased sense of happiness after completing one and 22% said that it reduced their anxiety and helped mindfulness.

This is why sports psychologist Dr Andrea Furst recommends to Olympic and Paralympic athletes that they should complete a jigsaw to help them relax and disengage from thinking about competing to avoid stress and burnout.

Furst explained in more detail why jigsaws can be helpful to athletes, spoke about her own background in psychology and revealed why mental strength is just as important as physical strength for Olympians and Paralympians.

What is your role in helping athletes and Olympians/Paralympians?

I am a sports psychologist whose role with athletes varies depending on the context. When working with individual athletes I tend to work collaboratively with them, to help them understand themselves as a person and a performer so that they can perform under the pressure of competition, as well as develop personal habits as a healthy high achiever in complex high-performance environments.

Why did you want to become a sports psychologist?

I grew up in a very sporty family. I played as well as coached sport throughout my childhood, adolescence and into early adulthood. I was introduced to the specific discipline of psychology in my undergraduate Bachelor of Science, and I immediately enjoyed most (not all!) of the psychology courses. I then when onto combine the love of sport and psychology in my postgraduate studies.

The physical strength athletes need to compete at the highest levels in obvious, but how crucial is it to have mental strength as well?

At the highest level you’ll regularly see mental strength being the differentiating factor, particularly under pressure. Our brain is responsible for our body’s functioning so it makes logical sense that if athletes can have mastery of their mind, then their physical capabilities will be maximised.

What advice do you give to athletes who want to build and improve their mental strength?

To improve mental strength, athletes need to approach training their brain’s mental skills like they approach training their body’s technical and physical skills. It takes intent, time, energy, dedication and patience!

How important is it for athletes to feel as relaxed as they can be the night before they compete?

The night before competition will look and feel slightly different for each individual athlete, so it’s not a matter of saying everyone needs to relax. For those that want that feeling, the benefits of feeling relaxed the night before they compete include the time and space for thoughts, feelings and behaviours to disengage from the next day’s ‘job’ and give the body and mind a chance to deregulate.

What do you suggest athletes do to help relax and distract them?

I recommend a variety of techniques, exercises or strategies; some of which include breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, jigsaw puzzles, board games, podcasts, colouring in. All of these promote engagement in the task and help to disengage from their sport for the duration of the ‘task’, which helps with psychological recovery. In short, these strategies promote the ability to ‘go again’ in their next opportunity to perform in training or competition.

Jigsaws have really helped athletes and the British public especially through lockdown, why is that?

Similar to the points in the previous question. The additional points that may be more specific to lockdown include a sense of achievement working on a jigsaw puzzle until its completion and this can be a solo pursuit or with others in their ‘bubble’ making it a pleasurable and satisfying joint venture.

What would you say to people who are sceptical of the positive impact jigsaws can have on people and their mental health?

Be open minded and give jigsaws a go! The key is to be fully ‘in it’ mentally, meaning be engaged in the task of putting a jigsaw puzzle together.

To find a jigsaw right for you visit www.gibsonsgames.co.uk.

Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.

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