Review: How to support a champion, Steve Ingham

InghMI attended a week long workshop a couple of years ago at the English Institute of Sport and one of the people leading it was Steve Ingham. He had some great advice on how to build our skills as applied sport scientists so I bought his book as soon as it came out. And then it spent a year sitting in my reading pile as it felt like it would be too heavy and ‘grown up’ to read.

Today I finally got a chance to read it and it was so easy to read I finished it in an afternoon. It was not at all what I was expecting. I bought it thinking it would give me lots of things I could do with athletes to make them better – what it gave me was lots of ideas and approaches I should be using with my attitude to be a better practitioner. This is far more valuable. It doesn’t tell you how to be a good practitioner – but it really makes you think about your practice, the questions you ask and the way you ask them. He is really clear that often it is not what you know but how you know it. He suggests that sometimes you have to question your grounding thoughts to build yourself a firmer evidence base and think critically around what you read. He is also clear that often it is not about the facts and figures but about the ‘so what’ – what should athletes do with the information you give them.

It is incredibly honest. There is no ego bursting out of the spine of the book here. Ingham is very open about all the mistakes he has made and how he would behave differently now. This gives a real authenticity to the book and all the suggestions he proposes.

I loved his advice for those already on the journey – here are a five nuggets which I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing:

  • Before you aim to build rapport and trust with your athletes ask for feedback from people you trust about how you come across.
  • To work well in a team then only push the ideas you are passionate about if they are something you would pay for yourself.
  • To think critically question everything including, and especially, the literature, and start to build your own evidence base.
  • To be truly accountable think about who your key relationships are with, what their needs are and what keeps them up at night.
  • If you are trying to influence others use reflective thinking and find someone you trust to share some of these thoughts with before you share wider.

If you work in any area of sport science or coaching; in fact with athletes in any way there is so much you will learn in this book. It will set your brain off on new adventures and force some really positive reflections. It should be on the reading lists of all practitioner courses.

Review: Mental Combat, Phil Pierce

Mental combatI bought this book on Amazon as a suggested read so didn’t realise it was self-published. I’m sure some self-published books are great but this isn’t. It really needed to have gone through the review processes that a publisher would have required. There are scant references, lots of statements which made my eye brows rise with ‘really’ and the book reads like it is written by someone who has an interest in sport psychology and recently realised the benefits of it but has never formally studied it. Unfortunately the author doesn’t tell us anything about himself or his studies or expertise to be able to judge whether they are qualified to write this or not.

It feels a little awkward to read, is very naïve, doesn’t explain concepts particularly well and regularly misses the ‘but how?’ A chapter on visualisation doesn’t once explain how to do visualisation. There are also the helpful(!) points like ‘remember to breathe’ or ‘remember to relax’ which are forgivable in a magazine article, not appropriate in a book promising to give you the secrets to sport psychology.

I’m sure this book has been written with the best of intentions but there are far far better ones out there that will have been written by psychologists who have got vast amounts of experience at translating research into helpful nuggets for athletes and working directly with those athletes on sport psychology techniques. Buy one of those instead.

Review: The Brave Athlete, Marshall & Paterson

Brave athleteNot your normal sports performance book.

The language is much jokier and friendlier than you’d usually expect from a professor (in public anyway) and there is a lot more swearing than I have spotted in any of the other sport psych book, or most books really! It is written by a world champion triathlete (Paterson) and her husband; a coach and psychologist (Marshall).

If you have tried to read Steve Peter’s the Chimp Paradox and struggled at all (I loved the theory – would have preferred it to be slimmed down to a chapter) then in The Brave Athlete, Marshall and Paterson sum it up really nicely (giving a clear hat tip to Peters for coming up with the concept) and succinctly explain how three parts of our brain (chimp, computer and professor) interact to sometimes help us but more often sabotage us.  He pulls apart how each area works for us; chimp (emotional and prone to acting up and having tantrums), professor (deals with facts, truth and logic) and computer (habits and routines) and for each dilemma and frustration that endurance athletes come up against (feeling like a fraud, low confidence, not fulfilling our goals, comparing ourselves, injury, being too fearful to try, quitting, lack of mental toughness, poor concentration and handling pressure) they explain how Peter’s Chimp theory explains what is going on, and give us a ton of strategies to use to overcome the issue. They spend a huge amount of space offering solutions so you don’t finish the book going ‘but how’ like so many other books.

On top of the issues listed above that many of us suffer from I love that they have been brave enough (I guess they had to with their title) to include a couple of issues which most sport psychologists would firmly place in the clinical psychologists’ basket: eating disorders and exercise addiction. The more these are discussed in endurance sport the easier I feel it will become to help the athletes dealing with them.

A real highlight for me is around the way the authors highlight the importance of knowing your self-identity, or identities and understanding if ours is based around our sport. This can have a big impact on how you behave in your sport, the importance you give to it and how you cope when you can’t do your sport (perhaps through injury). Our unique individual characteristics and how we all bring something different to our sport is something that continually shines out from all the athletes I work with and yet many sport psych books lump all athletes together. Marshall and Paterson don’t do this. They regularly remind us that our differences mean the same tactics won’t work for everyone and we need to find what works for us and our own identities. It is really refreshing to see.

I found this to be a great book that should help athletes become more aware of their barriers to success and find some strategies to deal with them.

Review: Faster, Fitter, Happier, Tony Westbury

Faster Fitter HappierThis author of this book, Tony Westbury, a Sport Psychologist, aims to answer 75 questions that athletes or coaches may be thinking about.

Westbury is both an applied sport psychologist and a lecturer so spans the world between academics and consulting. In this book he brings the academic theory to try to answer some of the common questions that receives when working with athletes. In doing this he offers a gentle introduction to many of the processes, ideas and theories behind sports psychology and the ways they can be used to support athletes. It covers a wide range of subject areas (particularly helpful ones included retirement, perfectionism and youth sports) and a huge number of popular theories, explained simply but effectively, making it a great general introduction to sport psychology in an accessible format.

I really like the emphasis on wellbeing with the word ‘Happier’ in the title as the wellbeing of athletes once you get into a performance setting can sometimes be forgotten but in my opinion is the most important element, for both their mental wellbeing and success.

Undergrads interested in going into sports psychology, coaches, PE teachers, physiologists, physiotherapists, parents or trainee psychologists would all be able to take something from it, but a specific audience was not obvious and this made the book a little hard to follow at times.

Westbury definitely succeeds in spanning the gap between research and practice, but you do come away with questions of ‘but how would I actually do that,’ and you would need alongside this book a practical, intervention focused book to help you put these well explained ideas into action.

Review: Endure, Alex Hutchinson

Endure pictureAs soon as I opened Endure the green-eyed monster snuck out. This is absolutely the book I wish I’d written. If you are an endurance athlete, curious about how to go faster or longer Hutchinson has collated all the research that you should be relying upon. What he does so nicely is package it up in a way that makes it compelling to read, leaves the academics behind and pulls out the points that will pique your interest. The book is really well referenced but in an unobtrusive way. It is detailed enough to know you are getting the latest well researched evidence but well written enough you don’t feel like you are wading through ketchup to find the nuggets.

He explains the debates between the biologists, physiologists and psychologists as to how our bodies work when we are attempting endurance sport and then focuses on the individual limiters to improved performance; pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst and fuel. He neatly finishes though by looking at the elements which are attempting to bypass those limiters; training the brain, zapping the brain (something I recently tried with the Halo system) and mental skills.

If you are a runner, or interested in running extremes, Hutchinson was also involved in the Nike Breaking two project so includes some insights from that project within this book which give a real insight into not just how research says things happen, but how this research actually translated when applied into practice. It reminds us the research usually takes place in sanitised labs. Real life races are so much more complicated. Even in controlled environments like the Nike 2 project interference is everywhere and it is only when we learn to manage those interferences which uniquely destabilise us will we be able to endure more; whether that is more speed, or more distance.

There are lots of books which cover the physiology of performance, and more coming out all the time focusing on the psychology of performance. Hutchinson neatly merges the two giving a much more (I believe) realistic picture of what happens in our bodies where the mind and body work (in the main) together rather than as separate systems as older-fashioned books have suggested.

CW picture

I was lucky enough to interview Hutchinson for a piece I wrote recently on Brain Training for Cycling Weekly and could only use a little piece of the interview in my article. So here is the full interview so you can see what really stuck out to Hutchinson in the 12 years he studied this area. 

Interview with Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure: Mind Body and the Curiously Elastic limits of Human Performance.

Was there any specific study you came across during your research for the book which really changed your mind about the role of the brain in modulating performance?

There has been a bunch over the years which have been significant to me. In chronological order one of the ones which really stood out to me was in 2009 Samuele Marcora’s study on mental fatigue and physical performance. He had people do a Stoop task, basically a computer based cognitive task for 90 minutes and the control group just watched a documentary and then they did a cycling time to exhaustion test. Right from the start the people who had done something mentally fatiguing had a higher perception of effort, it stayed higher and they reached exhaustion earlier so that was pretty interesting and people have been talking about the brain forever, but that was a good example of something which effected only the brain, it wasn’t physically tiring and yet it had a very immediate. In 2013 there was a study from Brazil on Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation which had an immediate impact on perception of effort and also on performance and that was to me another watershed demonstration of that you can manipulate the brain in a way that should have no effect on other parts of the body and that can change your endurance. And the third that made me confident that the brain was really was not just a placebo effect was another Samuele Marcora study where he did subliminal images, unconscious visual cues and I know that is a field where people have doubts about the replicability of studies, but he found subliminal images of smiling faces increased endurance by 12% compared to frowning faces and the cyclists weren’t aware of the intervention. They didn’t know there were faces were being flashed again so in theory really it was placebo proofed.

Was there a mental training technique or a piece of technology that wowed you when researching?

Brain stimulation really wowed me, but I have a lot of misgivings about its use. From a safety perspective it feels a little odd particularly if it becomes widespread you have young people using it with still developing brains. And maybe using it day after day. So, I have misgiving from what is the purpose and mean of sport, what is the point of pressing a button to get faster. I think it is cool and I understand the argument of Halo to tap into the strength in your body but personally I would rather see sport develop in a direction that doesn’t involve zapping your brain.

From the other perspective after spending a decade covering and writing and researching science of endurance if I had a time machine to go back and give my 20-year-old self advice to maximise my running career what I would probably tell myself is take techniques like motivational self-talk seriously. Don’t laugh them off. We had a sport psychologist for my university team and we just through it was a joke and again people have used motivational self talk for decades but the studies by people like Marcora and others have done in the last few years helped to convince sceptics like me that this is real and not just a placebo effect. The one that really stood out for me was Stephen Chung’s study in heat chambers where he found that motivational self-talk not just improved endurance but allowed the cyclists to push their core temperature half a degree higher because it really is allowing them to dig deeper into their physiological reserve. That is my number one take away and I think it is a widely applicable one for athletes but also to keep in mind in life in general.

The results in studies are impressive and I can remember from my competitive days that my internal monologue was not positive in a lot of cases and that probably had an impact on my performance.

If, now you have done all the research for the book, you could design a study to clarify your thoughts on what limits us, what would you test?

I haven’t thought about that but I guess in the book I lay out the different theories; the general governor, Marcora’s psychobiological model, and the more traditional physiological models and a lot of that is probably skewed towards Marcora’s work because he is such a good experimentalist. A lot of people have theories and good ideas and he is a master at testing those ideas and I think that’s a really powerful role and if I had some research money to spend I would want to try to replicate rigorously some of Marcora’s results. Independently. Like the subliminal one. The self-talk one, the brain endurance training one because I think these results are a lot more revolutionary than he maybe get credit for they are potentially game changing experiment but I have a lot of trouble saying you should do this about any of them with the problems of replication in studies like this are challenging so all these studies have to be considered tentative until they start being replicated, in studies of more than 8 people and last a long time and are done by people who don’t have a stake in the confirmation of the theory. No matter how good a human you are and how good a scientist you are that it is very hard to design an experiment where the results are totally immune from your hopes and your expectations. Particularly in psychology.

Are there three things would you advise a cyclist to do from a mental perspective to improve their performance now you have done all this research?

Self talk is top of the list. It is important to learn to consider pain and to reframe what discomfort and pain. To be able to consider pain non-judgmentally, non-emotionally. To consider pain as information. There was a study from Oxford Brookes last year which compared two training programmes one of which was moderate pace and longer and one of which was high intensity intervals and they were designed to create the same physiological changes and the same improvement in VO2 max lactate threshold and the people who did the high intensity training they had a greater increase in pain tolerance and also a greater increase in top speed performance. From a cycling perspective often the emphasis is on long rides and maybe some hills now and then but including some real sprints even if your races are several hours long there is a role for including some acute discomfort in your training to learn to cope with it. Yes, you will also increase your power but even if racing at a steady pace you should be including some discomfort in training through high intensity work.

Could any of the techniques you covered in the book; mental resilience training, Halo, VR headsets etc be considered doping?

I guess my take is cheating is breaking the rules because it is impossible to, even with the WADA code is 2 of 3 with it enhances the performance of the athletes, damages the health of the athlete or dilutes the spirit of the sport and the spirit of the sport is difficult to articulate as everyone has different feelings about it so it is really hard to make arguments based on natural law that one thing is wrong; that baking soda is right and caffeine is right but pseudo-ephedrine is a wrong. But ultimately my take is that we have to understand that there is no line that is obvious of what is right and wrong and there is always going to be a grey area and what we have to do is agree on a set of rules accepting that the rules will be semi-arbitrary and then adhere to those rules so we are all playing on the same playing field – knowing that this is allowed and this isn’t. And if you adhere to those rules it maybe a little unsavoury if you are going right up to the edge of the rules whether it is Team Sky or Alberto Salazar seem to do but the rules are the rules are the rules and if you are not breaking the rules then that is fine. The bigger question is what should the rules be? For me, looking at things like brain stimulation I would like to live in a sporting world where brain stimulation isn’t a part of that. Where I don’t feel that if I want to be competitive with my peers that I need to be doing things like that because they are going to be doing things like that but I don’t think it is the only way.

What technique or technology did you find most valuable to access hidden reserves, that can pull little bit extra out of somebody?

Self-talk and brain stimulation are the two things that seemed most powerful to me. With Marcora’s brain endurance training, I have heard rumours that there is an unnamed pro cycling team that have been trying that approach but it is only rumours. That is something that has produced some great results in studies and a PhD student at Birmingham has just replicated the results so this is something that again could be a powerful technique but having tried the Brain Endurance Training my take is that it is so hard and boring there is nothing elicit about getting gains that way. Anyone that does that they have worked for the gains, it isn’t a short cut or anything. If you are a top cyclist it is your body that is unable to take any more than the five hours of training you put it through but you still have another hour in the day so you can push your brain if you want but I don’t envy the people who are taking that route.