In this series of interviews from Performance in Mind I chat to great athletes to understand which sports psychology techniques and strategies they use to help them maintain their exceptional performances. This month I spoke to Professional Cyclist Yanto Barker, leader of team ONE pro cycling. Yanto has been racing for 20 years, since the age of 15 and has been racing internationally for most of that time, starting with the Junior Road Race World Championships. As well as racing full time he also runs his own cycling clothing label, Le Col. In his career he has overcome many setbacks and I wanted to find out the strategies he uses to deal with these effectively.
Have you had a cycling setback where you came back stronger or learnt lots?
I have had many setbacks during a 20-year career; from recovering from injury to overcoming disappointment when I failed to achieve objectives when there was no obvious reason I didn’t achieve my goal. Sometimes those are the harder setbacks to come back from because you have nothing to assign your ‘failure’ to. In my view, to achieve great results you have to be strong, tough and dedicated amongst other things. All these characteristics are often easy to look like you are doing them while things are going well and you are in a ‘strong’ place but it’s when things don’t go well you see how connected to them you really are. Anyone can act tough when everything is going well. I’ve always looked at setbacks as an opportunity to actually be tough, for example. Until it gets tough you don’t need to ‘be’ tough so it’s just an image of yourself you maintain but can’t really say for sure if it’s real. When everything seems to have gone wrong and you are in a weak place then you have to assume all those characteristics that will get you back to a ‘strong’ place, whether it is recovery from injury or a psychologically strong and confident place to attempt another big goal.
What did you learn from those experiences?
The thing I’ve always learned from setbacks, and largely they are a similar experience in their essence, is; life is ‘reality’ and you just have to deal with it. The quicker one stops fighting that, the quicker and more focussed one can get on with the job of recovering and again it’s all about getting back to a ‘strong’ place mentally and physically. I’ve always been very practical in my approach, definitive and methodical about next steps and focussing completely on that next step so as not to get overawed by how many steps there might be if it’s going to be a long process.
Do you always approach setbacks in the same way?
I was lucky to have had a lot of psychological coaching from a young age and I was quite disciplined in adopting these mental practices. I’ve approached setbacks in this similar way for as long as I can remember. In the beginning I had a coach who would help remind me what I should be focussing on, but for a long time now I don’t need that input to stay focussed. I approach all setbacks in the way I describe above and have done for a long time now.
When do you learn more? When things go wrong or when things go right?
I think we always learn more when things go wrong because it requires us to first understand what went wrong and why (given we didn’t want it to go wrong) we have to understand what we did that created an outcome we were not looking for and then what we can do to make it better and also what we should not do again if we don’t want things to go wrong again. This requires an intellect to understand because ultimately I believe we create our own reality, however there are some things out of our control and some things within our control and it’s important to understand what happened and which category the elements that created the reality we are in should be filed into. Then you focus on the things in our control and make them better. We have to understand elements out of our control but not spend time trying to control them just knowing they are there and need to be factored into our analysis.
Having said all that I believe it is technically possible to learn as much from things going right as when they go wrong it’s just that we are more motivated by the pain of things going wrong to look a bit harder at why that happened. When things go well we tend to get distracted by success and not look so hard at what we did rather revel in our success. But people are often successful by accident and they couldn’t recreate it because they either didn’t know what they did to succeed or worse wrongly believe they know but are in fact mistaken. That’s a hard lesson because it’s got so many layers to it.
If a cyclist just starting out had a setback, how would you advise them?
My advice would be to first analyse what went wrong. Was it them or was it something else? Then identify what they can do about it and commit 100% to the practical steps they can take to correct or recover from the reality they are in and not to get distracted by the feelings of frustration and disappointment that they are in the situation they are in. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you feel, you still have to do what you have to do. It’s the difference between process and emotion. They should run parallel but not intertwine so as your emotion does not distort your process.
Do you take this approach in all your racing?
In my view that major goals and success are achieved with exactly this same approach. So the characteristics that help recover and get back to a ‘strong’ place (where real results are achieved from) are also the same characteristics needed to progress from strong to stronger. It’s actually ‘progress’ which is the measure, whether that’s from weak to strong or from strong to stronger.
A confession. I love triathlon. For 12 years I’ve been racing in them. I’ve raced every distance from super sprint to Ironman. It’s taken me to amazing places round the world, introduced me to my husband, given me fantastic friends, helped me develop a wonderful support network of likeminded people who I love learning from and even made me change career. So I will always defend triathletes.
We can be a fickle bunch when it comes to new gear, gadgets and gimmicks. Some have been known to spend hundreds on equipment or toys which can save a few watts off their bike, or grams from their trainers. And one area which is always moving is around recovery. Which magic vegetable should we be drinking before bed? Are we supposed to be sitting in hot baths or freezing baths this month? And just how many items of fluorescent compression gear are actually necessary, if any?
So when I attended Elevate conference and found there was a session on ‘Athletic Recovery’ to highlight what the current research is telling us about which strategies actually work I was there! The session was hosted by Dr Ken van Someren, Head of R&D at GSK with talks from Dr Jessica Hill (Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s Uni), Prof Glyn Howatson, Reader Northumbria Uni) and Nick Littlehales (Sleep Coach). We learnt…
Recovery is really important
- It gives you faster and better adaptation from training which gives you better winning margins.
- But we need to be clear each time what type of exercise we are trying to recover from and adapt for that.
The focus with nutrition should be on quality and in real food
- We need to focus on quality and those products which have been through informed sport programme (i.e. tested to not contain any WADA banned products) or, even easier, are real foods so no processing required and no contamination possible.
- Functional foods have added value beyond basic nutrition and can potentially improve your health through reducing inflammation, exercise induced pain, blood pressure and by improving your cognition, vascular function and sleep quality. Important to have the right food at the right time of the right quality and over the right duration.
Always bear in mind the placebo impact
- While researchers will do all they can to remove the placebo effect some recovery interventions are very difficult to randomise or blind. There is just no way to disguise the fact someone is standing in a vat of icy water!
- There can also be a belief effect – with athletes who already believe an intervention is effective reporting more effective outcomes.
Different recovery interventions may work differently on different groups
- Highly trained athletes may respond differently than untrained members of the public.
- Strategies may work differently with people of different ages. For example anti-inflammatories can supress adaptation in the young yet in older athletes paracetamol and ibuprofen were found to help with adaptation.
How an intervention is carried out can make a massive difference to how it works
- The duration that an intervention is run for, temperatures used, quality or purity of product, used just once or multiple times or the type, length and intensity of exercise completed before the intervention can all impact on the efficacy of an intervention.
Research on specific interventions
Cryotherapy (ice baths) – the therapeutic application of cold has a number of benefits: Reduced blood flow, constriction of blood vessels, reduced tissue temperature, compression of water. What they can see so far is that you need to spend 5-10 minutes in water that is between 5-10 degrees to be effective.
Compression garments – the theory is that the muscle fibre reacts when damaged meaning there is less space for any swelling to occur. It is thought to improve blood flow, reduce DOMS and decrease muscle oscillation. The research to date finds that wearing compression does not help race performance at all. But that they do have a role in recovery when the compression garment actually fits properly. Their advice is to wear them straight after a race and sleep in them overnight.
Tart cherries – when they gave 10 athletes tart cherries and 10 athletes a placebo over a 7 day period (5 before competition and 2 afterwards) they found the athletes who had the cherry juice had reduced inflammation both immediately and over time. They suggest taking them before competition increases your anti-oxidant capacity. They also ran a cycling test, mirroring a three day stage race (in the lab) and found that the cherry juice reduced inflammation.
Blackcurrants – Worked with a group of modern pentathletes and gave them a placebo and then blackcurrant juice. They found with the blackcurrant juice they had reduced inflammation and reduced oxidative stress.
Sleep – As you can’t control how you sleep it is about what you do leading into sleep. Suggested that instead of talking about hours of sleep you have had, talked about how many cycles of 90 minutes you get, and how many cycles you need. Then you can add extra in the day if you need to. You need to prepare well to sleep so you get all levels of sleep and not just lighter levels of sleep. One key tip is to breathe through the nose so if you struggle with this look out for tools which can help.
On Tuesday I attended Elevate, an exhibition with seminars for those working across exercise, health and performance. A seminar I really enjoyed was chaired by Prof Greg Whyte and focused on what it is to have a ‘Winning Mindset.’ He hosted Sally Gunnell (a former Hurdler with titles including World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion), Lucy Martin (former GB Cyclist), Joe Townsend (GB Paratriathlete) and Dr Peter Jones (Sport Psychologist).
I loved some of their insights into what it takes to have ‘The Winning Mindset’ and wanted to share a few. I was scribbling frantically so may not have got their quotes word for word, but should be pretty close.
On the importance of mentally preparing to race
Sally Gunnell: The biggest thing that lets lots of us down is that inner voice. I realised this when I was in a race and at the 8th hurdle I started wondering how other people were doing. At that point I stumbled. I then realised the power of the mind. You need to prepare ahead. It takes time to really prepare yourself to get in the right mental state. My brain won those races. It was about 70% mental.
Lucy Martin: My mind was always my biggest challenge. I always beat others in training but on the day I would always mess up. Then I learnt to just focus on myself. You have a lot of time to think on the road, 3 to 4 hours, and I’d find myself comparing myself to all the other competitors. I learnt to completely focus on myself and my performance improved. That was more important than any other training I have done. In the Olympics in 2012 I felt relaxed and had my best training. All because I had been training my mind. And I took it into other parts of my life too. Those girls who are not emotional, who think logically are the ones who succeed in challenging times. My mind is now more important than my physical training. I would prioritise it over my physical training – it is that important.
Joe Townsend: On the start line I feel cool, calm and collected because I am in an environment which is familiar territory. Compared to the Marines where I was always going somewhere unfamiliar. On the start line the hard work is done and you get to race. Most people have a fear of the unknown when racing and yet all the information you need is in front of you. Three days before an event I will have a schedule to follow. It reduces loads of the stress and anxiety. You have all the information you need before the race so you know what you are going into.
On the importance of using visualisation
Sally Gunnell: I was taught to visualise. Preparing mentally. Every day. Go through the perfect scenario in my mind. It also taught me to visualise what happens when things go wrong: in every scenario they could. But I would also finish the scenario winning. I would never cross the line below first in my visualisation. I would always win in the image.
Joe Townsend: You can visualise the race. You know what you are going to be faced with. Visualisation allows you to keep calm. You know you have the tools to help you stay focused.
On how to deal with pressure
Sally Gunnell: I trained myself to deal with more pressure. I felt the more pressure I had the better I would do. Never let that voice finish that negative sentence. Instead, force feed positive thoughts.
Peter Jones: The pressure is always there. It is how we choose to deal with that pressure that matters. There are either challenge or a threat mindsets which sit on a continuum. A challenge mindset athlete will focus on just what they can achieve. They have perceived control, they focus on the process and on what they can do. A threat mindset athlete will focus on what can go wrong. They may have lower self-belief, lack of control over their environment, focus on avoidance and find reasons not to compete. Sports Psychologists can even see a physiological difference between those with a challenge and a threat mindsets. The role of the psychologist is to move athletes who have a threat mindset towards more of a challenge one. To do this the athlete needs to grow their self-belief, control their environment and focus on their approach and what they can do. Each of these will help the athlete increase their resilience. It is also not a constant so it is important to build behaviours and practices.
On their racing mindset
Joe Townsend: If you can’t change a situation, then don’t worry about it. If something happens and the course has to be changed then you are all in the same boat. You just go away and learn a new course. There is no point getting wound up – you can’t change it so you have to deal with it. Maybe I have been desensitised to some of those tough situations going through the military. I also always race myself and not my competitors. Stick to my own race plan and as long as my process has been followed then this counts as a great race.
On their pre-race rituals and routines
Lucy Martin: I don’t have a ritual but I had a routine where I would get ready very early and check over everything; my bike, how many gels I had on me etc. I would try not to focus on the race and would aim to save as much mental energy for the last 30 minutes of the race. Others would arrive much later and be much more relaxed about it.
Sally Gunnell: I used to have a lucky bag. Each year I or my husband would buy a lucky stone or something to add to it. 2 weeks before Barcelona Olympics we had a Chinese and in my fortune cookie it said: You are the chosen one. That went into my bag. When my bag went missing I retired.
Joe Townsend: I have a routine and the same process that I always follow. It works well for me. It means everything becomes very familiar.
On a winning mindset being nature or nurture?
Lucy Martin: You can be born with a winning mindset but you can also develop one.
Sally Gunnell: It all comes down to your mental training. Everyone has doubts but it is who can deal with the situation the best.
Peter Jones: You can be born with it and your environment can change it, but you can also change it.