Psychological barriers in Orienteering

Sport is full of psychological barriers. It is much easier to achieve something you know is achievable, than breaking new limits and conventional thinking. Bannister’s 4-minute mile and Fosbury’s flop are just some of the classic examples that new horizons can be opened up in sport and business by breaking the limits of conventional thinking. For some athletes a key psychological barrier in international orienteering is set by the word “independently” in Rule 1.2.

The IOF Council should consider the option of a rule change that both simplifies the Rules, improves Fair Play by removing a key psychological barrier, and opens up new horizons to orienteering as an inclusive new team sport with high spectator appeal.

This could be a highly impactful outcome of the follow-up discussions planned by the IOF Council after WOC 2021 Long. This archaic word not only prevented excellent athletes from achieving their full potential, but triggered bitter debates and harmful division within the ranks of the aficionados of our beloved sport.

The most likely root cause of all these debates is that the very concept of “independently” appears to be lost history.

The removal of the word “independently” from Rule 1.2 is unlikely to cause any change in practice of orienteering events, because it has long lost any practical relevance anyhow.

By the removal several goals could be achieved quickly and efficiently.

  • No more debate whether the WOC 2021 Long medals were awarded to the Team or Individual winners
  • No more fruitless discussions trying to define what independent navigation is
  • Overall improvement in Fair Play by removing self-restrictive practices
  • Simplified Rules, a pet project of the IOF President
  • Unleashed creativity for orienteering teams
  • New level of interaction with spectators as team members

Below I briefly outline two simple ideas, one for forest and one for urban events, that could be easily implemented to make orienteering a more spectator and media friendly sport after removing this paralyzing psychological barrier.

The important thing to realise is that there is nothing in these ideas that would be in conflict with current practice of the IOF. The barriers are only psychological even today.

Express train through the forest

Forest formats may borrow interesting ideas from road cycling. In both sports moving together improves speed. In orienteering running together results in an estimated boost factor of 6-7% in speed due to faster running and fewer mistakes. (see Main report on separating runners and earlier article in SJO #16 (2005)) Obviously, the longer the runners move together, the higher the impact of the boost factor.

Today the opportunity of running together is grabbed by both hands by most athletes. Some are less idealistic and more interested in getting medals than a “do it yourself” badge associated with the obsolete concept of “independent” running and navigation. Others may feel the shame of breaking the rules.

The IOF could easily stop this disparity by removing the word “independent” and allow athletes to reach their true potential with pride.

Teams could follow the example of road cycling on the Olympics and World Championships. Great athletes set aside their individual ambitions and work as a team to try to secure an individual gold medal for their nation, instead of having 3 or 4 riders scattered between places 4 and 20.

In orienteering a basic tactic for a nation with 3 athletes in the Long final could be as follows: Runner A starting first should comfortable reach a control around halfway and study the second half until he is caught up by his teammates. Runner B should wait near the start flag and study the first half of the course. Runner C (the designated Champion) shall run the first half with Runner B, and then switch over to Runner A. This way Runner C could achieve his full potential by enjoying the boost factor for the whole course.

There is nothing in the IOF practice today that would in any way restrict how long athletes can study their maps. Running together is obviously not an issue. Only the psychological barriers (and maybe some egos) that stop nations from achieving their full potential.

Urban community effort

Urban sprints could allow a new level of spectator involvement that could be revolutionary and fulfill the ambitions laid down in the Leibnitz Convention.

The IOF considers spectator-athlete interaction as part of the game not only during arena passage. After the 2018 Sprint Final it was clearly confirmed that there were no Fair Play issues with spectators showing the way to competing athletes.

The spectator help in 2018 was clearly premeditated, but apparently lacked the team effort. There is nothing in the Rules or IOF practice that would prevent fellow countrymen to join this enthusiastic spectator. The only psychological barrier is the empty notion of “independent” navigation. Removing it would allow all nations to organise teams of spectators to travel to WOC.

In return WOC attendance would improve to levels unseen today: orienteers prefer to travel with purpose! The beauty of this approach is that no special arena setup required, because the extra spectators will be spread around over the competition area. The only easily fulfillable requirement is to select Sprint competition areas more like WOC 2018 (Riga) and forget about closed areas like the one on WOC 2021.

A basic setup could involve organising a team of several dozen members of a national spectator team spread around the expected competition area. After the start of the competition they can concentrate their presence in tricky navigational areas. Early runners from the same nation could indicate the best points spectators could help by giving direction. Teams speaking more common languages may even decide to develop their own code to communicate, an effort that would further strengthen spectator involvement and commitment. The last runner of the given nation could fulfill his or her potential way above today’s possibilities.

– * – * –

These are only two ad hoc ideas that could make orienteering a more interesting sport. If only the IOF could help teams to step over the psychological barriers by removing the uninterpretable relic of “independent” from the Rules. The good news is that there is nothing in these ideas that contradict current IOF practice.

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