In this ongoing series about learning how some of the very best athletes in the world approach their sport from a psychological perspective I was dead chuffed to interview not just one of the best athletes in the world but, in Paralympic cycling, THE best athlete in the world. Having competed in both swimming and cycling across a 24 year career, Dame Sarah Storey has collected 22 medals from six Paralympics, 28 World championship medals, been European champion 21 times, 140 national titles and she holds 73 world records. None of these would have been possible without an incredibly strong and well developed approach to her mental skills. We chatted about her approach to sports psychology, her hour record and how she stays motivated after 24 years when she has already won everything there is to win. What I really loved was how much she appreciated and had incorporated her parents’ values into her psychology and I summarize these at the end for other parents of elite athletes to consider.
New research suggests that your levels of motivation and how you are able to control your perception of effort have a significant impact on your success in sport. What would be your thoughts around this?
I think it makes sense. Motivated athletes who are thinking clearly make good decisions. They don’t have the emotional side of the brain distract from the computer programme side of the brain so they are able to control an effort without worrying on not whether it hurts. When you just focus on that effort it is amazing! If you don’t limit yourself by numbers it is amazing where you can get.
I think its important to understand what your brain is doing and why it’s doing it and how you can maximize its function because some of the people either misunderstand or they misuse. People often think if they go to a sports psychologist that it will be a magic wand and be able to make them think amazingly and actually it requires your own mental strength to function from a brain perspective in the right way and the most effective and efficient way.
When I started out as a fourteen year old on the British team in my first games in 1992 we had sports psychologists and it was honestly like they were still evolving and I never really found a synergy between what they were telling me and what I was doing. I always struggled to understand why they wanted me to lie in a quiet room and visualize my race. As I got older and I look back on those sessions where I was trying desperately hard not to giggle I realize that sports visualization doesn’t have to take place lying in a room with the curtains closed lying flat on your back. For some people that is a great place to do it but for me that visualization is best to take place in training, if I’m climbing a hill I’ve got a rival next to me, I’m going to beat her up it, if I’m riding round a track, I’m visualizing constantly in situ, everything is a game if you like. Which I think in turn helps the motivation of pushing further because you are constantly in an environment that is a familiar competition environment. So for me there is no way I’d be lying down on the floor, and certainly not now with a two and a half year old! So whale music and lying on the floor has never appealed to me but I was always made to feel like I was the one in the wrong, because I wasn’t using my brain in the right way.
I think sports psychology is a very individual thing. The function of the brain; the biological science behind it, how it works, how it is made up, how different parts of the brain interact to impact positively or negatively on other parts of the brain is so important. It was never explained this until I met Steve Peters when I came to cycling. He really defined and put into words everything I’d been doing but without knowing why. So the idea being that you control this chimpanzee inside. The idea you just focus on yourself was something my mum and dad always said to me. I was a fairly late developer even though I made the team at 14, whereas as a 10 or 11 years old I was pretty poor if I’m honest and I wasn’t the greatest swimmer. But I look back and think why did it matter I was only 10! So at that point they just said do your personal best, just be yourself and in a way that was the best psychology that I’ve ever been given because it stayed with me and then it got defined by Steve when I came into cycling. Steve gives the analogy of a pianist who can play without worry because they know where the keys are and they know what works really brilliantly and as soon as they start thinking about how many people are in the audience they drop a clanger or a mistake as their emotive brain is impacting on the computer programme part and then as a result they panic and make a mistake so I think for me sports psychology is about that really, making sure that you have that strength.
So you’d agree you need to practice the skills you are learning? It is not just something you can switch on and off?
Definitely, I think people have to get around the idea that they are going to see a shrink but that is not what sports psychology is about it is about. Sports Psychologists give you the power and the skills to keep practicing. They are not going to wave a magic wand, they’re not going to turn a tap. They’re going to help you find a way to make the brain work more effectively. And they may end up with an element of counseling or quantifying the issues so Steve talks about when he first arrived in sport and the baggage that the athletes had. There is an element of getting that baggage off your chest so allowing your brain to be free so once you no longer have that baggage the skills you get from sports psychology on race day the way you utilize your brain in training, in physical training, so it is a constant. It is not something which switches on and off.
I have so many things if you execute correctly in training you can execute correctly all the time and sports psychology isn’t just for when you are pedaling on competition day, it’s about doing the right thing all the time and using your brain in the right way to maintain its health. You need to constantly maintain your brain, just as you constantly maintain your cardiovascular machine. It is just the same. Nobody makes a massive issue about training their body, their heart and their lungs yet they forget about the brain, but if you constantly do it day in and day out, that psychological strength can be there all the time.
So you’ve been competing internationally since you were 14. You’ve won everything you could win. What is your motivation to continue to do more?
I thoroughly enjoy competition and I don’t find it as stressful as I think other people find it. I find it quite exhilarating.
People who have a sporting career find it is quite short. I know lots of people who’ve retired from an injury when they didn’t want to have to retire. And while I’m still improving and I’ve got my health, or I expect I have, I don’t want to turn my back on something that so many people have put so much into for me and I enjoy so much as well.
I also don’t really know what I’m going to do afterwards. My psychological strength as an athlete is going to be needed in gallons and gallons when I retire because I’ve spoken to athletes who’ve had relatively long careers and they talk about the void which happens and I’ve spoken to athletes who didn’t compete for very long and they’ve had that too. Where do you channel that energy? I’ve reached out already because I know I’m going to need a lot of support and that void you have after the games well I think that’s going to be, I can’t even imagine what that is going to be like after a career. And that’s also an element of fear. But I know it is going to be hard and I’m already preparing myself.
That sounds like you are already very well prepared then?
That’s just one of the benefits of longevity, you get to prepare yourself. And I don’t have any plans for retiring. I don’t want it to sound like I’m making a plan. People ask me if I’m carrying on after Rio and I say, yes, most likely. But you just don’t know. I’m not an athlete who can say yes I’m going to retire after this competition and that might be in two and a half years time. I could never do that because obviously over the next two and a half years if you get injured you have retired already. So for me it is just about taking it four years at a time and trying to be as healthy as possible so you get to the next four years, and the games and say right, where can I go from here? Is there more to give? Am I still improving? Should I call it a day and enjoy the fact that I have done more than I could ever dream of?
I guess as well I can keep going because I’m in a second sport. When I came into cycling there was no pressure at all because I’d done it all in swimming. I always promised myself I’d never make any of the mistakes in cycling that I’d made in swimming, so things like complacency. Not from me but from people around me. I’m very strong to that and if people become complacent with me I just tell them straight, you know, this isn’t going to last forever I can’t become this invisible person just because I’m very reliable with my results. So I suppose for me the idea of retiring in cycling is that I know that you suddenly make a decision one day and that is it. That is exactly how it happened from swimming to cycling. And I’m pretty sure that is the way it will happen when I move to archery or whatever it is going to be?
You’ve got to come to triathlon next!
Oh no no – I’m not dealing with that open water stuff!
When you were setting your hour record were there any mental skills you had to really rely on?
I can’t remember because I think the skills were working so well that I was making no memory. I don’t know if you agree but most memories are created in the emotional part of the brain so if you are working on autopilot in the way that you’d practiced and the way you are expected to as an athlete then you don’t record many memories. Most athletes talk about their race from watching it back on the TV they don’t remember a huge amount about the event.
For me the hour is a little bit the same. I remember parts of it. I remember glimpses of seeing things out of the periphery of my vision but I’ve completely forgotten, I’m trying to imagine what the pain was like again. I’m not going to do it but I know it wasn’t that great. I can’t remember the specifics. I do remember thinking that it was just in my hands, not to get cramp. But the overriding memory is just from watching it back. Not that I’ve watched the full hour! I think a lot of my competitions are like that. I think that the only thing I remember is the end of road races when you are in a breakaway and you can say with that emotional side of the brain, ‘look there isn’t going to be a puncture, there isn’t going to be a crash on the next corner, focus woman’. And those are the only races where I’ve come out of autopilot and allowed myself to think about it. But for the hour I just remember just concentrating and thinking get back on pace, get back on pace, get back on pace. And that is what I had been practicing the whole time.
So you were using self-talk to yourself?
My thought processes were: got to get back on pace, got to get back on pace. Maybe other people talk to themselves constantly.
So whether people self-talk out loud or inside their thoughts, it can help them with instructions or motivation. It sounds like you were doing that automatically.
I think most of the things I do inside my own brain are voices to myself. I think it is like when my mum and dad say if you’ve not got anything nice to say don’t say anything at all. I mean you voice what you are about to say and if it doesn’t sound nice you are not going to say it. So I suppose that is how my brain works anyway.
And are you able to do that to yourself? To stop negative self-talk going round. Are you able to block out those thoughts?
I don’t think I ever really had them. Certainly not when I’m on the bike. There might be times when you are in a cobbled stage of a race and its 250 kilometers long and I’m out the back and in my head I’m in the car thinking ‘I don’t want to be in this race. What am I doing?’ and then think ‘Hurry up and get yourself to the finish woman!’ But there is never that element of despair that someone else is laughing at me. One of the things my mum and dad always told me was what other people think really doesn’t matter and if they don’t like you for what you do or who you are then that is their problem not yours. So I suppose from being so young I’ve always managed to be completely oblivious to anything like that and I don’t ever have to deal with it.
Sounds like your parents should be sports psychologists!
My mum is not pushy, neither of them are, but they are very nurturing and very focused. If I wanted to go morning training at 5:30am that meant I had to get them up at 4:50am. If I overslept it clearly meant I needed more sleep and that was not an issue for them but they were never going to wake up to wake me. Everything was my motivation. They were very much behind me. And I was pulling them along rather than them pushing. And I was always taking the lead with my dad going to every competition; what are we doing, what’s the location, what do I need to know, how early can I get there, what is the pub like next door you know? He ran the supporters club for the swim team for the last few years of my career there so that was pretty much that nurturing environment so I think that is one of the things that sometimes gets missed inside sports teams whether that is a group of individuals like a triathlon team or swim team or a group of teammates like a football team. That environment like ‘we are here to support you to do something and we are not going to give up on you or force to do something within a certain timeframe’. I think that helped develop healthy psychological skills.
Do you ever use distraction techniques like counting cars or counting in German up and down again as other athletes have said they do?
No No No. I’ve never ever done that. No. I enjoyed what I was doing so the idea that I would need to distract from it would never even enter my head even on the turbo and if I have got time in my own thoughts like I did in my swim career I used to do my homework in my head so when I got home I’d just have to write it down. When I’m on the turbo or when I’m out now I’ve got loads of things happening in my life that gives me things to think about. The mind does need to wander and to do something constructive. Nothing that is a waste of time. I think for me cycling is not something I need distraction from. If someone needs a distraction I would always make the suggestion that it was positive interaction rather than a negative one like planning something that needs planning. Or doing something constructive like working through the homework you’ve got to do or if you know you’ve got a do to list can you work though that in your own head so when you get home you are more productive. Or if you’ve got concerns you write them on a balloon in your head and let them fly away. Some people go out exercising or participating in sport as a release and if that release requires a negative distraction then I always think it is a shame because you are not maximizing the benefit of that release so I think go positive and that will be a useful distraction.
Five top tips to take away from Sarah (and her parents’) approach to training for elite sport:
- Let your child pull you along. The athlete should always take the lead. If they want to be at training it is their job to wake you and get ready. Not your job to drag them along.
- Teach your child to think positive and have a mind open to learning new things. If you bring up your child to only voice positive and instructional views this perspective will become their head voice which comes to the fore in their training and racing.
- Help your athlete child express how they feel about any mental skills they use or are taught and help them fit them into the world they see so they get most benefit and are able to usefully put them into action.
- Keep your child athlete focused entirely on what they are doing in their sport and what they can control personally. Not on anyone else. If they learn early on to not worry about what others are doing, saying, thinking or performing but only what they are doing, thinking and performing they will have great skills for everything in life and be able to always focus on always aiming for their personal best.
- Sport at a young age should be focused on enjoyment over performance. Young athletes develop at very different speeds and the skills they learn in sport; team work, focus, discipline and hard work will be helpful whether or not they progress to elite level in the future. Push performance too hard and their passion for sport maybe short-lived.