Free courses in sport, exercise & psychology

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When I was a trainee I was also a new mum. I needed to do as much of my learning and development as I could online while my daughter slept. I found some really valuable courses which were completely free. With the lockdown meaning work is quieter than normal I’ve been using the time to top up my professional development and have really enjoyed it so thought I should share some of the great courses out there for those interested in Sport and Exercise and Psychology. They all come from either Open University, Future Learn, Coursera or Class Central so each are worth checking out if you are looking to do some free learning.

Sport Psychology specific

Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Open University
Course explores the influence of coaching and psychology through the lens of sports people and teams who have been successful. Focuses on coaching practices used with young people and adults, including research and advice of leaders in their fields.

Exploring communication and working relationships in sport
Open University
Covers skills required to boost your ability to vary your communication approach according to the situation and the needs of the people involved.

Exploring the psychological aspects of sport injury
Open University
This course examines the relationship between injury and psychological factors, looking at the link between injury and psychology at two distinct points – before an injury has occurred and then following an injury.

Learning from burnout and overtraining
Open University
A course looking at those sports people who have thrived and those who have experienced burnout. By exploring burnout you will gain a deeper understanding of the physical and mental aspects of sport such as athletic identity, overtraining and perfectionism.

Motivation and factors effecting motivation
Open University
This course explores the term ‘motivation’ and factors affecting motivation. This includes looking at the most influential theories of motivation that contribute to understanding the causes of motivation. The motivation of sports people and people working in sport and fitness environments are used to help understand the theories presented.

Working with client skills

Developing Clinical Empathy: Making a Difference in Patient Care 
St George’s, University of London
To learn skills to help you understand a client’s situation. Helps to develop relationship-building skills such as compassion and empathy. Covers different types of empathy, explores non-verbal cues, and understanding key opportunities for showing empathy in clinical care.

Psychology

Introduction to Psychology
Yale
Provides a comprehensive overview of the scientific study of thought and behaviour by exploring topics such as perception, communication, learning, memory, decision-making, persuasion, emotions, and social behaviour.

Science of Wellbeing
Yale
Challenges designed to increase happiness and build more productive habits. Covers the misconceptions about happiness, annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do, and the research that can help us change.

Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects
University of California, San Diego
Provides access to learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, maths, science and sports. Covers illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.

Wider Sport Science

Science of Endurance Training and Performance
University of Kent
Learn about the science behind endurance sports training and performance, including effective preparation and rehabilitation.
(NB: Course not running right now but you can sign up to get an email when it does).

Managing your health – the role of physical therapy and exercise
University of Toronto
Course covers the concepts and benefits of physical therapy and exercise.

The Science of Exercise
University of Colorado, Boulder
Helps you to have an improved physiological understanding of how your body responds to exercise, and will be able to identify behaviours, choices, and environments that impact your health and training.

Introductory Human Physiology
Duke University
Learn to recognize and to apply the basic concepts that govern integrated body function (as an intact organism) in the body’s nine organ systems.

Lifestyle medicine

Essentials of Lifestyle Medicine and Population Health 
Doane University
Covers the foundations of population health and lifestyle medicine and makes the argument for why healthcare delivery models based on these foundational principles are essential to addressing global healthcare crises.

Introduction to Lifestyle Medicine 
Doane University
Lifestyle Medicine is the science and application of 49 healthy lifestyles as interventions for the prevention and treatment of lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, some neurological conditions and some cancers. It is bridges the science of physical activity, nutrition, stress management and resilience; sleep hygiene and other healthy habits to individuals through clinical practice in healthcare.

Two weeks in… Interview with Counselling Psychologist Dr Natalie Raiher

When we know athletes are about to have a tricky time; a training camp they need to go on with team mates they dislike, a really hard period of training focusing on a skill they are currently weak in, the biggest competition of their year that is fuelled with pressure, we often discuss how they can suck it up. We all know we can cope with tough stuff for a few days or weeks. It helps to put the period in context and see light at the end of the tunnel.

But we are now two weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown. And while every athlete knows they can cope with three weeks of something (as the original period was given from the Prime Minister) we mostly know it will be longer. But none of us know how much longer. It is that uncertainty that is so tricky to deal with. The novelty of isolation has worn off and we’ve probably tried lots of things to keep us busy, entertained and fit but now is the time to ensure we have some coping strategies and routines in place to keep us mentally fit.

I chatted to Chartered Counselling Psychologist, Dr Natalie Raiher, from The Practice at 322 in West Hampstead (where I sometimes also see athletes in clinic). She is still seeing her regular clients for video sessions but is also volunteering using her skills to support NHS staff. We talked about how she is helping all these people deal with this period. She offered some great advice that will be valuable for athletes and performers both now and when things return to normality.

What are the main worries you are finding people have about Coronavirus?

“The worries tend to vary depending on what part of their lives has been impacted the most. People whose businesses have had a sudden downturn, such as those in travel or hospitality or those who are in debt, their main worry is money and livelihood and what to do. For some people it is the loneliness if they live alone or are estranged from loved ones, some people it is the chaos and the lack of access to their usual coping resources like sport or hanging out with their favourite people. We are used to having support structures in place but they just don’t exist in the same way right now.”

It is changing at all?

“The profile of worry does seem to be changing as the virus is getting more virulent. In the beginning people were worried about lockdown and food and trying to organise things. Now people are more worried about their own health and more emphatically worried about others; their health and how they are coping.”

How are people coping?

PyramidSome aren’t. We are seeing a rise in domestic and child abuse statistics – people are finding it very hard to function in small places under stress. Substance abuse is going up too with people reaching for unhealthy coping mechanisms. When I work with people we use a coping mechanism pyramid [I’ve added a picture of one here – it was created by Dr Alice Boyes – http://www.aliceboyes.com] – the behaviours at the top are ones you use sparingly and those are the bottom are those you can use liberally. All coping mechanisms serve a purpose but there can be a fine line between healthier ones and unhealthier ones. You don’t want to take away the coping mechanism they have but we do want more alternatives for people.”

“We must remember most of the worries and anxieties people are experiencing right now are completely normal. From a mental health perspective it is entirely appropriate not to feel great right now. Lots of people have lost jobs and structures so it is fine not to be feeling ok. Some people have responded to this by fleeing from the reality of this using denial and this is a solid way of coping but it can come under many guises. So some people have developed things like over-productivity or OCD. They are denying what is happening, which is perfectly understandable – it is bloody scary. It is perfectly normal to be grieving our normal lives and feel the loss around it. It is ok to feel the fear.”

Athletes are often used to high levels of routine and structure in their lives. How can they cope without this?

“Even if you are someone who likes the freedom not to be too structured, during times like this everybody needs some structure. The degree is dependent on personality. Some people need a lot of structure to feel safe – others need less. But everybody needs some type of routine as it regulates our limbic system and things like our appetite and body clock. Routine can be quite soothing and a gentle structure is beneficial.”

“For athletes used to a high level of structure in their training to go to none is very distressing so they need to find gentle structure in their day. It can be unique to each athlete but a few elements which create a routine will help them.”

Many of the coping techniques that athletes rely upon; such as exercise or focusing on a goal are either not possible now or only possible a different way. Are there any good coping mechanisms you can suggest athletes could try instead? 

  1. Focus on function. Again this will be personalised but you can think about the function of what each thing in your normal routine does for you. What is the function of yoga class, or work or taking the train? When you drill down into this then you can write your own prescription to replicate that function within the constraints of your life right now. Whatever you get out of that activity that is a good way to translate it. Replicating the same function within our new constraints.
  2. Stay goal driven. Keep the idea of being goal driven but focus on the soft skills which will help your performance down the line, such as learning to tolerate pressure or stress better. If you can use this time to practice tolerating higher levels of anxiety and uncertainty or using a different approach to unhelpful thoughts then that you will have developed some really positive cognitive skills that will help you in the future.

Are there any specific cognitive skills that athletes could work on? 

“Meditation is really good. We know from neuro-imaging that meditation turns off the fear part of our brain. When there is over-activation in our fear brain we can turn the volume down when we meditate. Meditation also turns up the impact on the self-soothing centres of our brain so cortisol [our stress chemical] release goes down and we are better able to reflect and to be present. Apps like Calm and Headspace can help these.”

If we are used to being very active, always in and out of home and often at work or the gym what should we look out for to spot if our mental health might be becoming fragile?

“It is completely to be expected that everyone’s mental health will be a bit wobbly right now. Angry, moody, feeling helplessness is completely normal when everything has changed in the way it has.  But if these feelings persist and don’t vary throughout day or they start to get in the way of you functioning then you need to keep an eye on yourself and ask for help. If you find yourself starting to use unhealthy coping mechanisms such as gambling, drugs or withdrawing from others these are also signs need to seek help.”

We realise that being anxious or feeling some grief during this period is a very natural and rational response – but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to feel better. Have you found any ‘pick me up’ techniques which are helping people when they are having a down moment? 

“Yes. We follow a two pronged approach.

Coping cardsFirstly, we have to feel our feelings. It is like digesting food. If we don’t do it then it gets stuck and we get panic attacks and will have angry outbursts or become obsessive about things. So if you are feeling down acknowledge that feeling and only then focus on comforting yourself. Some people will make a ‘coping card’ with a message to themselves or a quote that they love. They can keep it with them – or have a photo of it on their phone and look at it when they need comfort or strength.

Grounding techniques

The second prong (if it is anxiety you are feeling) is to use a grounding technique which can use your five senses and pull your body down.

 

 

 

 

Another second prong (if it is low mood you are feeling) is to focus on ACE. This stands for Accomplishment, Connectedness and Enjoyment.

  • Accomplishment – When our mood drops over a period of time we withdraw so we need to increase our sense of accomplishment. These can be any small tasks; baking a cake, having a shower, something on our to do list.
  • Connectedness – when we withdraw the only way to come out of it is to get back to connecting with other people. We have to force ourselves to connect with another person – even if that is a text or a phone call to someone else that day.
  • Enjoyment – This is the biggy in this is many people are depriving themselves of enjoyment and pleasure. People are getting on with the task at hand but not factoring in any pleasure and that really effects our mood so got to look for some enjoyment and pleasure in the day – this is your prescription for better mental health.”

 

Advice from Dr Tim Rogers on how athletes can cope during the Coronavirus changes

I remember interviewing Dame Sarah Storey and asking her if she’d ever used Imagery. She said she uses it all the time; but whilst on the bike, visualising the events going on around her. Never lying on a dusty floor being talked at. She couldn’t see the value in that. And she is not alone. There are lots of mental skills we teach in sport psychology which work wonderfully. But they often require athletes to sit still, or sometimes even lie down, eyes closed, to learn them. Those techniques are not popular. When we introduce them eyes will roll and stomachs will sink. They want to be outside, in the gym, on equipment – using physical energy.

So, take these athletes, who want to be outside, to be active. Cancel all their races. Wipe out their goals. And, if they are not key workers, ask them to spend three, four or five weeks at home with only a short amount of time to exercise each day. Of course, they understand why and will do what they can to help. But it doesn’t make it easy.

So I asked Tim Rogers, one of the UK’s leading sports psychiatrists for ideas to help them cope.

TIm Rogers photo

What do you see as the biggest mental health challenges for athletes who have to isolate?

Athletes don’t escape the same issues as non-athletes.  In that sense, although social distancing prevents infections, social isolation can significantly increase the risk of other health problems, both physical and mental.  Blanket corona virus coverage on social media and through 24-hour news cycles mean we miss nothing, including hearing about everyone else’s worries.  Worry and anxiety become unhealthy when “what if” thoughts multiply and fill our thinking space with scary things all day.  This is tiring and hard to sustain.

Specifically, in sport, athletes and coaches across the board are struggling with the sudden unexpected loss of their goals, their events (major and minor) and sometimes even their livelihoods.  This was unthinkable only a few months ago.

Elite sports people can find these losses harder to cope with – emotionally – for a few reasons.  Sometimes they have had to invest such a large amount of themselves in their sport: who they are; what they value about life; how they spend their time; who they connect with in their social groups; that sudden changes like this can feel catastrophic.  Sometimes, they have set themselves extremely high expectations for what they want to achieve for their season.  Although there is nothing they could have done to control the onset of a pandemic, they nevertheless find themselves feeling guilty about not training, having a negative conversation with themselves or feeling that they have in some way let themselves down.

The combination of these things can place emotional wellbeing at risk, at a time when it’s important to look after yourself in all respects (both mental and physical).

How do you advise athletes to cope with a complete change of expectations for their season?

Take a moment to pause, step back and notice how you’re feeling during such an unprecedented time.  It’s OK not to be OK, whether or not it has anything to do with corona directly.  If at all you do need support: reach out in the normal way; don’t tell yourself you need to push on through, single handed or alone.

Putting yourself out there to compete in sport has to come with an awareness that things might not go as expected.  Sometimes this is the small stuff.  Right now, it’s something unprecedented.  Striving to achieve amazing things also means being flexible to adapt your goals when you have to.  Once you’ve done the best you can, remind yourself that this is enough.  It’s ok to readjust expectations.

Self-isolation need not mean social isolation.  Being connected to others in a supportive community does more than just help us feel better, it buffers the biological effects of stress hormones/pressure. It’s so easy to forget to reach out and connect but it’s still possible to experience the same sense of community and the same mental health benefit digitally.  One of the benefits of our era of tech is how readily we can now do this from our phones, tablets and computers.  A great example is the digital community in which I work: Big White Wall

Don’t just reach out to those closest to you, reach out to your wider group and be together with them online.  Giving support can be just as beneficial as receiving it.  When you do that, take a moment to notice how many non-sports areas of life you actually value really highly: family; relationships; friends; community; hobbies; spirituality; leisure; physical health; politics; caring for the environment; something else altogether.  Falling back onto the things that are important for each of us helps us through difficult moments and helps us manage unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

How do you advise athletes to cope with the increased levels of frustration and boredom?

A little worry or frustration can be useful if it nudges us to plan our way through difficult moments. Don’t revert to reading the news too much or ‘lurking’ on social media.  Set aside 10 minutes each day to get up to date with the latest developments, then that is enough until tomorrow.  If you are online for other reasons, think about what you post.  Share stories of coping, share care and support and share the things that have helped you.

Give yourself permission to focus on something else: a to-do list for today.  Any more worry about what might or might not happen in the future (or what cannot now be achieved) is not helpful for you or for others.

Routines are helpful.  I read a great thread about life on a submarine recently.  Submariners cope by routine: from making sure they rise early, wash and dress; all the way through the other aspects of the day.

There are lots of ways to help you get back into the moment right now, whether free mindfulness resources online, or anything else that pulls your focus into the present.  This enables us to cope and to problem solve.  Is there something you can take the opportunity to get done?

Your full training plan might not be possible for now but movement is still medicine.  Set yourself a goal to find the best ways of staying active and fit for your own situation.  For most people (except in situations of exercise dependence or disordered eating) any activity – however little – helps your mental health. Try to find some physical activity that is fun and enjoyable for each day.

Tim’s biography:

Tim is a medical doctor and consultant sports psychiatrist.  For many years, Tim has worked across the spectrum of wellbeing and performance with both individuals and teams in elite football, in the Olympic and Paralympic Systems, elite rugby, cricket, tennis, horse racing and many other areas.  He is one of a very small number of experts to have undertaken dual postgraduate training in applied sport and exercise psychology.  He understands the culture of professional sport and the unique pressures that come with this. Tim is also clinical director at the Big White Wall, an anonymous online mental health service with projects across sport, both in the UK and internationally.

Racing interrupted…

A virus we hadn’t even heard of when we entered many of this season’s races and competitions may now cancel many of them. We might feel upset and stressed because everything we have been working towards feels uncertain and also feel guilty for feeling that way as we know people are already poorly and it is important that we don’t contribute in any way to the spread of this disease.

I was both upset and guilty when I heard a rumour Paris Marathon might be cancelled. My motivation went out the window. My race the next day was lacklustre and my attitude sucked. Once it was officially postponed it was easier. I had stability and confirmation and I could plan around it. With a little reflection I could see there are far more important things in the world and that I had already learnt so much on my marathon training journey to date that nothing was wasted.

Part of the strategy when we get a setback is to allow space to sulk. We suggest about 48 hours is fine to throw all your toys out of the pram, to stomp your feet and be a grump. But then it is time for action. The five steps I follow with athletes in this position are:

  1. Sulk
  2. Research
  3. Adapt plan
  4. Find the positives
  5. Get back on track.

I think this can work really well for a specific setback – such as just one race being cancelled for say logistical or weather reasons. But as we are looking at so many competitions having to cancel or postpone maybe a wider, more strategic mental approach is required. I asked on Twitter how athletes are approaching these challenges and how they are maintaining motivation. The awesome answers that came back seem to fit into five main categories.

Reframing

One of the strongest responses, and something we often practice in sport psychology is to reframe a situation. I loved the response from Gill Bland (super speedy runner and writes for Fast Running) that all challenges can be seen as training opportunities. We can use tough times to see that and do things differently. We can also use this period to get some perspective. It is just a competition we are missing and we are incredibly lucky we are fit and healthy enough to be able to compete in the first place.

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Unplanned, but beneficial improvement space

Many amateur athletes are squeezing their sport into already full lives; family to care for, money to earn, friends to socialise with. We schedule everything to within an inch. An unexpected and unplanned interruption can be a blessing in disguise as we get some space to reflect and then focus on areas which usually get forgotten. More yoga, strength and conditioning, specific skill weaknesses can all become part of our maintenance programme.IMG_9443

Helps you become more flexible

To do well in sport we need to be able to focus on just those things we can control, and minimise our thoughts around those we can’t. We should be doing this for any competition which matters to us. Get a sheet of paper, divide it vertically into three columns. On the left hand side write all the things you can control about the situation you are in, on the right, all the things you can’t, and the middle is the things you might be able to influence. Then focus 90% of your mental energy and preparation on the left hand column and just roll with whatever happens on the other side of the paper. These interruptions offer a great practice opportunity.

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Helps you uncover whether you have been extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.

I loved the response from Alice Hector (ex Pro triathlete and generally a super supporter of anyone doing long distance stuff) which was that cancellations offer us a chance to reflect on why we are competing. Do we do our sport because we love it (intrinsic motivation) or because we have goals to reach (extrinsic motivation). When the goals disappear we can clearly see if we are in our sport because of the feeling of doing it, the joy it brings us, the way it makes us feel. If we are not maybe it isn’t the right sport for us, maybe there is something out there which would give us genuine joy even when there is nothing external in it for us? So perhaps these interruptions can help you either see what you do love about your sport (and that we just really benefit from the process) – or help you to hunt out something you might love instead.

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And if we are intrinsically motivated, as Kate Carter (fabulous runner and running journalist) reflects, then you get a chance to consider exactly what it is you love about your sport so you feel more motivated to do more of it.

Kate tweet

Practice without pressure

Finally, while sport is brilliant – it is fabulous for physical, mental and cognitive health and wellbeing – and we should treasure what it gives us – it can also create pressure. Once we start to take it seriously, instead of relieving some of the strains and stresses of life, it can add to them. Races or competitions being cancelled can give us an opportunity to get back to the fun side, the bits that helped us fall in love with it in the first place.

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5 weeks to go…magic mantra

Big Half medalSo the big focus for this past week was The Big Half. A fab half marathon which starts near the Tower of London, heads under the Rotherhithe tunnel all the way to Canary Wharf, back to Tower Bridge and along to Greenwich. You finish in front of the Cutty Sark. We got a stunning day and the organisation was great but I forgot to tell my body all this. I’ve had a cold which had started to go into my chest and while I thought I would be fine I know realise my asthma inhaler wasn’t working and so I felt like I only had the top third of my lungs working. I was light headed and wobbly and just had nothing. Knowing my little girl would be waiting with a high five was enough to get me to Tower Bridge at seven miles but by eight miles I was really low. I had a little sit down on the curb. Sulked. And had a chat with myself. This could either be a DNF and I’d feel rubbish for ages or it could be an opportunity to prove I was mentally tougher than I think I am. I repeatedly realised I would have to tell my little one that mummy found it too hard and quit. That was enough of a kick to stand up and go again. I also realised having to write a blog post about DNFing was going to seriously dent my ego. I kept repeating my mantra (more below) and just jogged it though. Finished in 1:55. Probably a personal worst time for the distance but proud I made it. Next time though I won’t race when struggling with my asthma. It is not big or clever!

Pace chartI know an additional issue was that the night before the race the French government banned all gatherings of over 5000 people. This meant the Paris Half (supposed to be starting 12 hours later) got cancelled and now we don’t know if Paris Marathon will go ahead. Frantic searching for another marathon in April which still had places led me to the Bungay Black Dog marathon. Not what I was hoping for in a big city marathon but all reports suggest really nice and friendly and interesting course. And it is near my parents so I might get some extra support. But because that big goal I was working towards got all fuzzy I definitely lost excitement for The Big Half. When we don’t have a strong ‘and tummy turning with excitement’ goal it is really hard to stay motivated.

Anyway – as the Big Half went so badly I had a chance to practice some mental skills. The main one being some mental toughness not to DNF. I used to DNF a lot and I really disliked it about myself. With my little girl coming to watch lots of races I don’t want her to see things getting tough and me quitting. I built this into my mantra.

A mantra is a short word or phrase we use to focus our mind to either maintain our motivation, keep us focused on our goal or to remind ourselves of something that will help us run better.

It works best when it is really personal so it resonates deeply. When we have a dark moment (or dark five miles in my race) repeating our motivational mantra over and over again will help us stay focused and working hard. It is really useful for athletes in sports (just like runners) who have a lot of time to think and to talk themselves out of putting in the required effort, especially as research has shown using a mantra can help increase perseverance.

Good times to use your mantra are on the start line of a race if feeling nervous, mid race if you realise you are not doing so well or when you feel your effort levels dropping.

The mantra you choose doesn’t need to be set in stone. You can choose one which really works for you in every competition or mix and match depending on the race ahead. The one which works best though will make you slightly emotional, giving you a bit of a lump in your throat thinking it. To be most effective it needs to be positive, purposeful, memorable and short.

My mantra revolves around my daughter Hattie. At her christening we asked our friends and family to help us develop and maintain three characteristics in her; happiness, kindness and bravery. And as we know role modelling is so important for what children internalise it means we as parents need to show our happiness, do kind acts and be brave when we really don’t want to be. So I use this in my mantra; Make Hattie Proud.

Mantra band

Once you’ve decided on your race mantra, until you get into the habit of repeating, it you can write it on your hand or use a wrist band – we have some in our Sporting Brain Box to help people practice. A really nice touch if you have a mantra that really works for you is to write it on stickers on your gels. Gives you a little reminder every time you take out a gel in your race.

Anyway, on Sunday ‘make Hattie proud’ took me through five miles of misery all the way to Greenwich. Her first question after a high five at the finish was ‘Did you win mummy?’ I answered that ‘anyone who finishes is a winner’. And I meant it. And I have my magical mantra to thank for making me one (in her eyes anyway!).

 

 

6 weeks to go…Training diary

Brighton HalfThe Brighton Half marathon was fun. But it took a lot of mental energy to make it that way. A few days before with Storm Dennis on his way they decided there would be no finish barrier or infrastructure that could be blown over but other than that all was going ahead. The day before I went for my shake out run and it was 17 minutes out, 13 minutes home. Strong winds.

Race day was fab. Decided if I was going to run in 40mph winds I may as well enjoy it. Forgot to charge my watch so no pace to follow and no time goal – just to try as hard as I could and to feel proud of my efforts afterwards. I smiled lots (it is an official psych strategy – I promise) and actually felt like I was having fun. 6 miles of running into the wind was hard work but all good practice for Paris – especially if there happens to be a storm! Our best friends had snuck down from London to give some high fives which was a fantastic boost and despite the weather there were still supporters out cheering and brilliant volunteers marshalling which was awesome.

One of the first things I did after the race (after playing on the 2p machines on the pier to warm up my three-year-old and eating hot sugary donuts by the beach to warm up myself) was top up my training diary.

I’m a bit geeky about using training diaries – they are ace. I ask all the athletes I work with to keep one. There are lots of reasons why. A big one is that we get robust confidence from knowing we have the skills required to excel and having done all the training required. A training diary is an easy way to be reminded of this.

Training diary

Ideally in this diary we log our physical training, fitness sessions, physical or mental skills we are working on, any niggles or injuries we are feeling, the types of training we enjoy and how we are feeling about our training. If we fill it in every day when we get to our race we have a huge amount of information at our fingertips to help us prepare effectively. I do mine before bed each night so it becomes a habit.

While online training diaries are great for convenience, many restrict athletes from adding in that extra information so a paper diary, with lots of space is best. A paper diary means as well as keeping track of what our body is doing, we can also keep track of what is going on in our head. I was in a rush when I set up my programme so printed some pages out via calendarpedia.co.uk  but my partner on the Sporting Brain Box, Sarah at Art of Your Success sells a great training diary  if you want something much more professional and full of lovely tips too.

Things you could add into your diary are

  • My goal for today’s session was ….. and I…..
  • Physically I did…
  • My fitness levels seem…
  • The skill I mastered best was…
  • What I did well in this session…
  • Any niggles or cramps?
  • The negative thoughts I had were…
  • What I have gained by doing this session?
  • How do I feel?
  • How tired am I?
  • Is there anything in my life right now causing me mental fatigue?

Mine is fairly simple at the moment with just what I’ve been doing and how I’m feeling but I’ve also been adding my Resting Heart Rate (once it goes over 55 I know I’m getting poorly so it is a good way of keeping an eye on my health) and my Peak Flow level as I’m trying to get on top of my asthma so this is a good prompt to do so.

The next race is the Big Half. I’ll be using it to practice my mental toughness in a race, my nutrition strategy and whether my mantra is strong enough. The race starts on Tower Hill in London and finishes in Greenwich. I’ve asked my husband to strategically stand our daughter at the end of Tower Bridge (7 miles in) as my incentive to work hard and get a high five and a cheer from her half way through. Apparently Storm Jorge is on the way but I think we are all pretty good at running in storms now – if the weather gods are reading I’d love some practice running in the sunshine. Please….

7 weeks to go…stars in the dark

A good week for training. Started badly though. Went for a run and after 25 minutes felt dizzy and blugh. Did another 5 minutes but no better so turned round and headed back. Next day’s intervals not much better. But a swim on the Thursday was pretty magic. My coach has this theory that swimming during marathon training makes you a better runner. I dislike swimming so I wish she was wrong but unfortunately she really does know what she is talking about and legs and head felt great afterwards. I also had a sports massage from Joseph on Friday who is fab (apart from the regular reminders to stretch!) so went into my long run on Saturday feeling good. Which was handy cause running in a storm is hard work. Managed 16 miles ambling round Richmond Park. Sunday was just 10k home from meeting friends for coffee in Richmond. My friends looked at me like crazy setting off in the rain to run but I promised I was ok because I love running in the rain. Something so liberating about it. It is a pretty good strength to have too seeing as it can rain quite a lot on London.

It was a good run to use to reflect on my strengths. Because although in training (and many sports psych sessions) we tend to focus on our weaknesses, on competition or race day we really need to know our strengths, so we can use them to our advantage.

It is one of my favourite sessions to do with athletes. Most are so humble that they look at me in horror when I initially ask about their strengths but once we get into it and break them down into areas they find they have loads, and start to feel much prouder about how good they have become.

We start by doing a strengths audit. This is a list of all those elements which make us feel confident we can achieve our goals. Proactively identifying strengths is helpful as we are prone to a number of cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias where we are more likely to notice things which support what we already believe or negativity bias where we focus more on negative information than positive. Countering these by promoting positive elements, reminders and memories can help us overcome these biases to stop downplaying everything good and seeing it through this negative lens. The strengths audit is also great for a confidence boost. Even if we don’t believe we have a natural talent for our sport, we can still see the elements which help us perform well in it. And it helps us focus on our own skills and mastery, not on those of our competitors.

This one is easy to do as a list but to make it resonate a bit more I raided our Sporting Brain Box to do my strengths audit as ‘Stars in the Dark’. This gives you what you need to put your strengths up somewhere you can’t miss them. I’ve just stuck mine up right above my desk.

Stars in the Dark

Stars in the Dark gives you 10 silver stars. We are looking for at least one strength from each element:

  • Fitness
  • Strategy
  • Skills
  • Tactics
  • Mindset
  • Support

If you struggle then you can get out your training diary to see which sessions you always nail, or look through your phone to see who gives you the best support with your sport. If you really struggle then think about other areas of your life which may highlight transferable strengths. And if you still struggle (and many athletes, especially if they are in a bad period within their training will find this hard) then talk to other people about where they see your strengths coming from. It could be a coach, partner, parents, friends or club mates. The benefit of this is knowing your strengths are strong enough to be recognised by others should mean they can be pretty confidence boosting for you to remember in the build up to and during competition.

So with my Stars in the Dark staring down at me I’m off into Brighton Half Marathon this weekend.

8 weeks to race day…Weaknesses

Tramill screenLast week’s training went ok – I’m not great on sticking to paces outside so when one of my sessions called for different paces throughout I thought I should do it on the treadmill. We have a treadmill in the garage so at least I didn’t need to fight to be allowed to hog one in the gym for ages but even still 100 minutes on a treadmill is the longest I’ve ever done and was mentally really tough. And really annoyingly I was using imagery to get through the session visualising the screen showing 100 minutes when I’d finished it and didn’t realise the number of digits was limited so as I finished it clicked over from 99:59 to 00:01. Cue big sulky bottom lip! But the session was definitely one to consider a ‘gold medal session’ to give me some confidence when it comes to Paris race day.

The storm squashed my weekend racing plans as the Winter 10k round central London was called off. I was recording a podcast the day before though which, as it is a running podcast, actually meant I had to run 10k with the athletes on the show so added a 12k run home from that and I felt like I’d got a decent session in to replace the race.

When I got home from the run I found out my shy 3 year old had managed her first swimming class – for weeks she has refused to get in the pool – so this was a really big deal. We went straight out for celebratory dinner – I want her to learn that we celebrate success – especially when we have had to be really brave and leave our comfort zone.

And leaving that comfort zone to confront our weakness is the point of this week’s reflection. A key session I will do with athletes as their sports psych is to consider their strengths (we will look at this next week)  but I never need to ask their weaknesses – so many athletes are perfectionists that they are highly attuned to their weaknesses and consider them over and over again.  They can reel off a long list.

But being aware of them is different to actually facing them and working on them. And that is vital to perform at a high level. We want to focus on our weaknesses in training so we can benefit from our strengths in racing.

I know my biggest weakness is my ability to make excuses. I am really good at justifying what I have done to block out what I was supposed to do. So if I have a 1 hour run at 7.5mph I might do the run, but only at 6.5mph. I’ll argue to myself it is good enough I did the run. And it is – but not if I want to get faster and stronger. I will offer myself the excuse the day got too busy and no-one can run a business, look after their family and train effectively. But you can if you put away your phone and get off social media thus freeing up lots of additional time.

As Project Paris is all about trying to do everything properly I’m trying to address these weaknesses so my mindset must switch from finding excuses as to why turning up is good enough to finding excuses for why I must turn up and train properly.

Much of dealing with our weaknesses can come down to why we are racing in the first place and the values (see last week’s post) we have behind our racing. We can use our purpose and our values to address each weakness. My values are family, achievement and courage.

If working with an athlete who makes excuses we would list each excuse that they have used over a couple of weeks in their training. And then we proactively address them with our counter excuses. For example mine would look like…

Excuse… Countered with..
I’m so tired, I won’t be able to do the session properly I’ll need to be brave during the marathon when I get tired – this session will be good practice for that moment.
It is good enough to do a bit of it – it doesn’t need to be perfect I need to follow my coach’s sessions if I am to achieve my goal
I’ve got a deadline that matters more I knew I would have a book deadline when I entered this race. I can do both and I’ll feel more invigorated to write once I’ve run.

Practising these over and over – not just in the moment – will help to embed them as thoughts which automatically start to counter my excuses.

9 weeks to race day…Values

Green week 4Another green week. :0) I’ve now hit my goal of four green weeks. Some of this is more focus and effort on my part – some of this is down to working more closely with my coach so the training which goes in matches my workload better – giving me fewer excuses. I did procrastinate all day Sunday about a horrible 70 minute treadmill session but actually, as usual, once it was done I realised it wasn’t that bad.

I got my long run in by running home from a talk I was giving at the Olympic Velodrome. I think you know you are in marathon training when you look through your diary and get excited at events being held a bit of a distance away as it gives an opportunity for a sneaky run!

Another project that got me running this week was a cool new podcast I’m involved with. It is called Mind over Muscle and is being produced for London Marathon by Audible. Ant Middleton is the main dude on it and I have already enjoyed hearing his perspectives around mindset. Mara Yamauchi is also working on the show and I plan to bug her for some marathon tips closer to the race. I don’t want to ruin any surprises in it (it starts on Thursday 6th Feb) so won’t go into what we have been up to but I am really enjoying working with runners who wouldn’t usually have a sports psychologist. Seeing how some simple (but of course evidence-based) recommendations can make a big difference to someone’s mindset is really encouraging to remember why we do the work we do.

One of the other areas I really enjoy doing as a sport psychologist is helping athletes understand their values – not just in sport but in life. It is pretty rare that we get the time or headspace to really think and identity what matters to us but actually, if we truly understand where our drivers come from, what we really want and where our passion and purpose lie, it is much easier to make authentic (and thus stickier) sporting decisions.

For example, an athlete who really values trust, communication and creativity would struggle to feel comfortable with a coach who had very rigid rules and told the athlete what they thought they wanted to hear rather than what they actually thought. However, an athlete whose values were discipline, dependency and happiness may be quite happy with this approach.

To ensure I’ve picked the right goal and to keep these values front of mind I did my own value mapping. We can use a list of 56 common values to begin and the aim is to filter down to between three and five. It is really difficult. Most athletes will want to retain about 20-25.

Achievement Effectiveness Honesty Quality
Affection Efficiency Hope Recognition
Ambition Empathy Humour Respect
Autonomy Equality Independence Risk-Taking
Beauty Excitement Innovation Security
Challenge Faith Integrity Service
Communication Family Intelligence Simplicity
Competence Flexibility Love Spirituality
Competition Forgiveness Loyalty Strength
Courage Freedom Open-minded Success
Creativity Friendship Patience Teamwork
Curiosity Growth Pleasure Trust
Decisiveness Happiness Politeness Truth
Dependability Harmony Power Variety
Discipline Health Productivity Wealth
Diversity Helpful Prosperity Wisdom

For me, after lots of reflection, the three that drive my journey in life (and sport) are family, achievement and courage.

They can then be built into my marathon process: I want to impress my family – I want my daughter to be proud of her mummy. I want her to learn that if we set out to achieve something we see it through to the end. We don’t quit when it gets tough – instead we summon up all our courage to overcome the difficulties.

This can filter into self-talk so I can draw on mantras like ‘Make Hattie (my daughter) Proud’ – ‘Be Brave’ – ‘You wanted this’ and they should all help to keep me going when it gets really hard.

I have a race this weekend – the Winter 10k round central London. I’ve run it at least 3 times before so I know where I tend to tire out and where I tend to make excuses to slow down. I’ll be practising these value driven mantras to see which ones really resonate and work to shut down the excuses.

If you’ve read this far and want to work on your own values I’d love to chat about them on twitter: @josephineperry

 

13 weeks till race day… motivational philosophy

Richmond 10k medal

So the first proper week of training for Paris Marathon. It went well. I really love having a goal, especially one I’m genuinely excited by. I know why I am excited. My favourite psychological theory (yes – I realise how sad that makes me) is Self-Determination Theory. It says that in order to feel fully motivated for anything we need three pillars in place:

  • Community – we need to feel part of what we are doing, have friends in our sport, have experts we can call upon. We need to feel like part of the gang.
  • Competence – we need to feel like we know what we are doing in our sport and we have the skills to carry it out.
  • Autonomy – we need to be able to choose our own goal and choose how we get there. We really need to feel like we control our own destiny.

To stay fully motivated then I need to make sure I have the three pillars in place and I do:

  • Community – I have got this through being a member of a club (I’m a member of Serpentine Running Club which as one of the biggest clubs in England has lots of people to inspire me), using social media (I follow loads of amazing runners of all speeds and sizes and distances) and have built up some brilliant friends who run so I feel comfortable talking about running with them. I’m also married to a runner so very little negotiation is required to get a Saturday morning Parkrun in or to have a weekend taken up with races. And two of my closest friends have said they’ll come over to Paris to watch me run which will be awesome (and a good incentive not to be pathetic!)
  • Competence – If I was attempting something like fell or mountain running I’d be completely out of my depth. But running a flat road marathon on a course I’ve done twice before is fine. I know I have the physical skills to do that. My journey will see if I have the psychological skills to do it in the time I want though. I’m keeping a training diary so I can give myself evidence of my competence as a runner.
  • Autonomy – I picked this goal myself. I love the race; the atmosphere, the course, the weather at that time of year and I promised my daughter she could go up the Eiffel Tower after she missed out due to fog last time we went to Paris. I’ve also picked my own time goal. One which isn’t too unrealistic (I hope) but fast enough it will scare me into working hard.

With these in place my motivation is as high as it could be. And that is probably why (alongside having this blog for some accountability) I achieved my first ever fully Green Week on Training Peaks. Never been done before.

Green training peaks

I also got to finish the week with a race. It was a 10k in Richmond Park. I ‘warmed up’ with a 5k jog to make it count as my long run and then went harder for the 10k. Chatted to a lovely guy for the last 2k who told me he was coming back from ACL surgery and so instead of taking it so seriously like he used to now he was grateful for every mile he was able to run. A wonderful reminder of how lucky we are to be able to be active and to savour the moments (even when hot and sweaty and your lungs and legs hurt and you’ve just run through a massive pile of deer poo). And it really helped that I had both my mum and my daughter cheering me on the end – it pushed me towards a sprint finish! As a bonus my husband came third in the men’s race and won some wine which I’ll kindly help him drink tonight. 

Next week I’ll explore the start of my goal setting for this race in the shape of an approach to therapy that I love (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and the matrix we use within it to help us overcome what holds us back.