The super humans – what is the recipe?

Developing shot

The nursery rhyme says little boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dogs tails and little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. When those little boys and girls grow up and become athletes are they still made of such niceties or has their upbringing, coaching and training made the recipe somewhat more complex? According to research recently published in The Journal of Expertise there are not only a huge number of ingredients that separate these elite athletes from the rest of us but a few more which separate the elites from the super-elites, those who are winning gold medals on world stages.

The super-elite of any section of society are always fascinating. Super-elite athletes, especially Olympians have an additional appeal as we so often watch their exploits on the world stage. Not only are they performing at levels most of us could never imagine, but they do so under the spotlight; millions of people around the globe watching and their only chance to get that medal occurring once every four years. The Great British Medallist’s study was commissioned by UK Sport, with the aim of understanding what it takes to create multiple medal winners. The number of gold medal winning athletes is so small that it is rare for sport psychology studies to be able to delve into their histories in significant depth so this study is pretty unique. This Pattern Recognition Analysis paper is the third paper to be released from the study and makes interesting reading for anyone interested in high level performance and talent identification in any context.

The study analysed the developmental biographies of 16 super-elite athletes (Olympic and World Champions) against 16 elites (competing internationally but did not win a medal). This second group are still pretty handy in their sport, they may well be the best in the country in what they do, but they are not bringing home the bling. The biographies were developed from interviews with the 32 athletes, their coaches and their parents with a goal to identify patterns in their development. The average length of athlete interview was nearly four hours (3:54), significant media research took place before each interview, training logs spanning a year were investigated and the questions took over a year to develop so the process feels robust and the findings seem fascinating.

So what elevates the super-elites from elites?

The first element, noted in previous research and often linked to the concept of post-traumatic growth, is that the super-elites have usually had an early critical negative life experience (something like their parent’s divorcing) and significant performance setbacks along the way. The authors suggest that their sport becomes a compensatory activity; a coping mechanism for their pain.

Lots of studies have looked to see the characteristics and traits which are strong in elites. Interestingly as a practicing psychologist I find that perfectionism is trait that many elites have, but often in a way that causes them negative outcomes. Here these super-elites were found to be high in it but must have found coping mechanisms to overcome the barriers that those not winning medals have been unable to knock down. Other traits found included obsessiveness and ruthlessness – both which will help them achieve the exceptionally high goals their perfectionism sets but may come at the expense of other things in their lives, highlighted by the finding that they perceive sport as more important that anything else in their lives. These traits are joined by an intense perseverance with the study finding that the super elites continue to improve over more years, not getting their first gold medal until they’ve been doing sport for 21 years (plus or minus 6 years).

Backing all of this is the support of others. It is key to performing at the highest levels. This study finds that having a coach who doesn’t just understand the athlete’s physical needs but also their psycho-social ones is key. And this support can come from parents too. The super-elite athletes are not just getting their parent’s genes, they are getting their influence in where they grow up. The super-elites tend to be born and grow up in places with smaller population sizes (70,205 for super-elites and 170,372 for elites). The authors suggest these smaller locations offer more supportive social relationships and informal physical play but perhaps with fewer specialist teams or facilities it also means they have to wait to specialise in their sport, a further (surprising) discriminator.

Finally, and this is an element which makes my heart sing as a sports psych, is that while of course the super-elite want to win, they also have a mastery mindset. They want to ‘be the best one can be’ and that is something they have much more control over. And control helps us perform under pressure.

At an individual level there is little we can do with the study – I’m not about to divorce my husband and move to a much smaller town in order to boost my daughter’s chances of Olympic success (actually she is only 2 and unless scooting is being introduced for the 2036 Olympics we are being pretty premature) but at a governing body level it could have a major impact for talent identification and funding.

The full paper can be downloaded at:

Book Review: Start with Why, Simon Sinek

TStart with Whyhe performers I work with often ask which books they should be reading in order to be able to maintain their high performance. There are always two I recommend because their subject matter is so fundamental to being able to perform under pressure; Professor Steve Peter’s Chimp Paradox, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism and Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. If we know why we are putting ourselves through the effort and stresses of performance it is easier to stick with it during the dark days. If we focus on bring that why to life and ignoring the shiny distractions we can be truly effective. If we can recognise our chimp and learn to soothe it we can prevent our emotions self-sabotaging our performance.

Interestingly, when I recommend these books almost everyone says they’ve bought at least one of them. They are sitting there on their book shelf. But they have never got the time to read them.

So, here is why you should read Start with Why.

Between 2002 and 2007 I did a part time PhD at the London School of Economics. 5 years of my life. And yet I have no idea what my final title was. I certainly couldn’t tell you what my research found. But what I learnt and will never forget was always to peel away each layer and each question to continue to ask why until I really came to the crux of whatever I was studying. Every draft came back from my supervisor with a WHY sprawled on it. Infuriating at the time (apologies to my amazing supervisor Terhi) but one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learnt. And this is where Sinek in Start with Why is trying to get us to.

He is writing his book for those in business but I felt it transfers well over to sport or stage performance. One of the first questions I ask performers when we start working together is why. Why are you on stage? Why do you run? Why is cricket your thing? It is a question very few have an immediate answer to. Often we hone down to their enjoyment of it, the fact they are good at it, that they like winning. All great stuff – but these will often fluctuate as your form comes and goes, injury impacts or your competition season develops. We need to go deeper. We need to know our fundamental why. Because when we truly know our why we can hang everything off it. Decisions are simple: Does this match my why? If it does then let’s go. If not we can turn it down without guilt. It makes sticking with the tough stuff much easier. This track session hurts – but I know why I need to do it. It’s freezing, I don’t want to go to nets practice – but I know why I should.

The book is full of examples of businesses and business leaders who do well because they have a why; Steve Jobs wasn’t trying to build computers, his why was to create a more level playing field, computing was just a route to do that. Southwest airlines were not about being an airline, their why was to help people move around the country. These wider ‘whys’ mean that those companies don’t get stuck in a box of ‘we don’t do that’. Instead they can ask: ‘does this opportunity help level the playing field? Does it help people move round the country? Then why not.’

Since reading this I’ve worked on my why and have made big decisions through that lens. Those decisions feel like the right ones for me and when the doubts creep in I feel comfortable they were good ones. They match my why. And when working with performers and we crack their why their decision making feels easier, their motivation becomes stickier and their performance develops a passion that may have been missing before.

Book review: The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

Power of Habit

I raced in one of those triathlon’s recently where you register and put your stuff in transition at 5:30am and then, because it is in a swimming pool, have to sit around for literally hours until your slot opens up. I had over 400 people ahead of me. I took a grown up ‘work book’ The Power of Habit and a fun chick lit book for when it got boring. I never opened the Chick Lit book and nearly missed my start.

I was enthralled. The Power of Habit is really well researched – as it should be Duhigg studied at Harvard and Yale and has won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. It is full of academic studies but written really accessibly. He has that talent of a comedian, not in that the book is funny but that he cleverly storytells by setting the scene with a real life situation and the behaviours displayed within that situation. He then looks at some of the research around it (but not in a lecturing, referencing way) and meanders through the ideals and the trip hazards and sneakily brings you back to the original situation, almost as a punchline.

He explains the neuroscience behind habits and how they work, why we need them to function and how we can change them, usually one at a time, so we can be more effective, more successful, healthier or happier. Some of the easiest to understand neuroscience explanations I’ve read and watched lately focus on disease (i.e. where something breaks down in our day to day healthy functioning) as this so effectively explains how the function works when healthy and shows the significant differences when broken. Duhigg uses this element really well. It makes the case studies relatable and helps you put yourself in a similar perspective.

I love that he didn’t just read the literature, find some case studies and pull together an argument like so many self-help books do, Duhigg clearly tackled this manuscript with the eye of an investigative journalist. He’s talked to so many experts and been able to transfer their passion and enthusiasm for their findings and experiences onto the page. There are so many stories of real-life people and real-life companies you see the points he is making truly put into action. There is theory here but it is all shown in action and that makes it much more transferable into real life; our real lives.

What I really liked about this book is that whatever habits you are looking to change you can; it isn’t focused on athletes, or business people, or those struggling with performance or relationships. The stories are wide and varied enough (they include Starbucks training, record companies designing hit singles, Target knowing you are pregnant way before you announce it, gambling addictions, blue collar safety and sporting success) that you can see in each element how you could use the knowledge yourself. My favourite element was actually around the way businesses manipulate us by understanding our decision making and habits around buying.  It will make you think about your own habits and reflect on how much other people are manipulating you by understanding them. If we understand our own habit loops we can have that power too.

Book review: Need for the bike, Paul Fournel

NeedforthebikeI recently broke my elbow. It at the end of a triathlon I was savagely thrown off my bike by a bump or a dent in the road and so now, in the glorious heat of the summer, having suffered all winter, I cannot get my reward and go out riding (or running, or swimming, or do anything I usually consider fun). My big bottom lip sulking about this on twitter inspired the fabulous James Spackman from Pursuit books to stick Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike in the Post for me.

I was a little dubious when the first chapter was titled: Violent Bike. But to be fair this book covers every element of cycling and can you even be considered a cyclist if you haven’t experienced that violent bike? It offers snapshots of the crashes, the hot dusty days, the races, the deep friendships, the bikes and equipment and the lifelong love of all things cycling. The chapters match our riding. Short and sharp sprinty sections, long meandering lengthier segments, all reflective after a lifetime on the bike.

The short chapters help its poetic structure reel you in. These are the musings of a man who has spent many many hours on a bike, contemplating how his bike has shaped him, his life and his mind. The book is elegantly crafted – not just in the poetry of the language used but even in its design with the author’s love of Campagnolo reflected in the chapter fonts.

Paul Fournel comes from a different world than most of us. We did not grow up in a town famed for its love of cycling. We have not sat within the peloton during a grand tour. We haven’t committed to work on a bike in Paris. But Fournel successfully speaks to our version of our cycling story in our world. Our first bike ride. Our day feeling like a cyclist. Our first race. Our favourite coffee stop. Our favourite hot chocolate on a freezing cold ride. The days when our legs feel great and the days when they inexplicably abandon us. The “oh yes – such a beautiful way of describing it” moments appear in almost every chapter.

You finish the book knowing Paul Fournel does not just ride a bike, that he is a French man riding his bike. The book oozes France. You find your imagery while reading it bringing every stereotype to life with garlic and red wine practically seeping through the pages. And full of such masculinity too that along with the garlic and the red wine I could almost feel the heavy male sweat.

If you have fallen out of love with your bike recently this is a wonderful way to remind yourself of what you used to love about it and send you off to your garage to dust it off. If you are still in love with your bike this will remind you why and send you off to the bookshelf (or more likely now phone) to start mapping out your next adventure.

Book review: The Passion Paradox, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness

If you want some basic, good quality health and wellbeing advice then Brad Stulberg is your guy. His twitter feed (@BStulberg) is full of simple common sense and his articles, while always evidence based, are written in a way you actually want to read. He turns the driest of journal papers into actionable advice.

I figured the book he has recently written with Steve Magness (a running coach) would be good. And it is. It looks at Passion; a characteristic many of us have for something in our lives; either a sport, a hobby, an idea, a thing or a ideology. It highlights the benefits of that passion but also shows where it can all go horribly wrong when we take it too far.

Almost every athlete I work with as a sport psychologist has immense passion for their sport and initially I thought this was necessary. But spend a few years with athletes and you see that it is those who overdo that passion; who make it their entire self-identity, become obsessive, and who block out other things in their lives who struggle the most. We can be too passionate, and when we are, the thing that used to give us such joy starts to elicit misery.

Stulberg and Magness’s book takes us through these pros and cons of passion and helps us to shape our own passion in a way which provides balance and success so we have a genuine choice about what we do with our passion.

I really liked the box out advice sections (the Passion Practices) which make the book really usable. Other elements (like short sections on self-distancing) were also great to give instant accessible research outcomes we can instantly apply to ourselves.

I felt reassured the authors promote mastery mind sets (so managing to master the process rather than focusing on the outcomes) as this is a message I use all the time with athletes and can make a real difference to their enjoyment of sport. I also love the focus on fear which can sometimes push our passion projects. Many pop-psychology books are so focused on the positive they ignore what fuels many of us – our fears.

The book is really easy to read, instantly applicable to your own passion and very much needed in a world that idolises passion way beyond a level that is healthy.