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by Dr Kirsten van Heerden
16 February 2018

By now most people have heard about the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment. It was a piece of research done by psychologist Walter Mischel, who became interested in issues of will power when he tried to give up smoking but failed again and again to do so. His eventual findings were significant. Dr. Kirsten van Heerden, one of a handful of people in South Africa to have both represented her country on the sports field and also hold a PhD in the area of sport psychology, explains how you can use these findings to increase your willpower in running.

Let’s recap the experiment
5 and 6-year-old children were given a marshmallow (or some other treat) and told that they could eat it immediately, or, they could wait while the researcher went away for 15min and when they returned, could then have two marshmallows. Double the reward for a bit of patience and will-power. The twist was that the marshmallows were left right in front of the child as they waited alone for the researcher to return.

As it turns out, many children – about 65% - couldn’t wait. They ate the marshmallow. (to see some funny footage of the children trying to wait it out go to to

Follow up studies were done over five decades with these children and what Mischel found was that the children who had resisted the marshmallow and waited out the 15minutes to get two, were generally doing much better than the other children in terms of grades at school, relationships and just general well-being and health.

So, there we have it: the ability to delay gratification is important to success in life (and therefore running too) and some people just seem to have more than others.

BUTthis is not that whole story.
What many people overlook is the follow up Mischel did to this study where children were warned before hand about the experiment and told ‘It will be okay, just pretend the marshmallow is not even there’. In this experiment, most of the children could RESIST the temptation and wait out the 15 minutes. 

What was the difference?
In the second experiment the children were instructed how to re-frame the situation and, in Mischel’s words, ‘cool’ aspects of the situation or environment that were ‘hot’ (things that were moving them away from their double marshmallow goal).  When they thought about the marshmallow in a different way, could create a different picture in their head of what it was (maybe a flower or cotton-wool, rather than a marshmallow) or put a ‘frame’ around the marshmallow to pretend it was a just picture not a real sweet, will-power increased.

The good news is..
What it means is that the ability to delay gratification, or will-power, is not necessarily an inherent personality trait that you either have or don’t have. Rather, your ability to ‘resist’ something has to do with your environment and your ability to rethink (or cool down) those aspects of the situation that make it difficult to achieve a goal.

In other words, your ability to distract yourself or to rethink those parts of the situation that are drawing your attention like a moth to a flame, is critical for performance, and as Mischel’s points out, 5-year-olds can be very imaginative in distraction: one little boy turned his toes into a piano keyboard!

So how can you apply this to running?
Well, let’s take the Comrades Marathon. The ‘Marshmallow’ could be the distance – all 89km’s of it – or it could be the weather on the day, or maybe Polly Shortts. When it’s there right in front of you it’s difficult not to allow it to consume your thoughts, which more often than not creates doubt and anxiety.

In order to resist the temptation of these marshmallows, you need to rethink them and distract yourself from them. How do you do this? Maybe you sing to yourself, maybe you count your steps, maybe you look at your surroundings and take note of all the colours and sounds.

Everyone is different, so spend some time finding out what your toe keyboard is.

The author Dr. Kirsten van Heerden has worked and travelled extensively with high performance athletes and teams for more than 10 years. Many Olympians, World Champions and South African teams have used her services and techniques. Kirsten works with multiple sporting bodies and associations and is currently acting as performance psychology advisor to SASCOC’s high performance commission and is regional and national player development manager for the South African Cricketers Association’s Player Plus programme.

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