Learning from the best: Sally Gunnell, Lucy Martin & Joe Townsend

Elevate winning mindset

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.

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