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: 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: 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.

 

Eight ways to manage a difficult conversation

January provides the obvious opportunity to assess where we are in life, and where we want to be. We may have had some time over the Christmas break to reflect and we may have set resolutions, or goals for the new year. This can be really positive and give us a feeling that we’ve got a fresh start coming. But it can also mean we realise there are some things that need to change. And change can be hard, and sometimes requires some difficult conversations. Those conversations may be with a partner, or a relative, or even someone you work with like a boss, a team member or a coach. They are usually really daunting and nerve wracking which means we get flustered, we feel under threat and what we want to say can come out wrong.

Here are eight of tricks to put yourself in the best place to have those difficult conversations:

Your physical positioning: Rather than sitting face to face with someone which can feel rather confrontational, being side by side can feel much easier and can take some of the emotion and threat out of the situation. Side by side during a walk or car journey can work well.

Preparation: Write yourself a short note of what you want from the conversation. This helps when you get flustered to keep the tone positive and proactive, rather than becoming an opportunity to throw angry points around. You may want to yell and scream but keeping in mind what you actually want from the conversation will make it a lot more productive with fewer implications if you say something you can’t take back. Use this ‘goal’ as your mantra to keep you on track if you get tempted to pour out everything you are feeling.

The right timing: Make sure there is enough time for the conversation needed. The worst thing is for it to be squeezed into a small gap and the other person to get called away and you having gone through that worry and preparation and not having an outcome.

Know where you will compromise: There is no one universal truth, we all have our own versions, from our own perspective, so it is rare that a difficult conversation ends with a black and white, yes or no or simple outcome. Instead think about your boundaries and where you are prepared to flex them in advance so you don’t feel on the back foot if someone pushes you back.

Try to talk early in the day: If we are nervous about a tough conversation we will wind ourselves up over the day until we are in a great deal of stress. This stress puts our body in a ‘fight or flight’ mode where the part of our brain responsible for rational thinking gets hijacked and we find it much harder to have the conversation we want without tears or frustrations or anger creeping in, ramping up the feeling of conflict within the room.

Use a breathing technique: To calm yourself down before a tough conversation try colourful breathing. This is where you breathe in red (or choose a favourite colour) air for four counts through your nose, hold deep inside you for two counts and then breathe out blue air for six counts through your mouth.

Let the other person vent: Sometimes we just need to have our views listened to, and acknowledged as valid, before we can even think about working on a solution. Playing the grown up in a tough conversation and letting the other person have their say can actually speed up the process and get you both to a resolution much quicker.

Use breaks strategically: if you find yourself getting too worked up and too much emotion creeping into the room excuse yourself for some water or a bathroom break to get yourself calm again. Keep it positive though (rather than looking like you are running away!) so say something like: “I’m so sorry but I could really use some coffee before we continue. Would you like one too?”

 

Tribe of Mentors. 55 pieces of great advice

 

Terris book

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tim Ferris – known for the 4 hour work week recently wrote to a bunch of successful people he admired. He asked them 11 questions:

  1. What is the book or books you’ve given most as a gift and why?
  2. What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life?
  3. How has failure set you up for later success?
  4. What would you write on a giant billboard?
  5. What is the most worthwhile investment you’ve ever made?
  6. What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
  7. In the last five years what new belief, habit or behaviour has most improved your life?
  8. What advice would you give to college student about to enter the real world?
  9. What bad recommendations to you hear in your area of expertise?
  10. What have you become better at saying no to and how?
  11. When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused what do you do?

140 people sent back replies and the hefty book he’s just released contains them all. It can be bought here. I think the book will work differently for different people and we’ll each take out own nuggets from it, but the points that really struck me are here…

 

10 books to add to your reading list

  • Sam Barondes – Making Sense of People – useful mental models to explain what makes people tick.
  • Viktor Frankl’s – Man’s Search for Meaning
  • Christopher Alexander – A pattern Language
  • Chungliang Al Huang – Thinking Body, Dancing Mind
  • Bob Richards – Heart of a Champion
  • Gary Mack – Mind Gym
  • John Wooden – Wooden: A lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the court.
  • George Leonard – Mastery
  • Charlie Munger – Charlie’s Almanack
  • Don Migual Ruiz – The Four Agreements

 

9 giant billboard phrases

  • Bozoma Saint John – Be the change you want to see in the world.
  • Richa Chadha – “Be so good they can’t ignore you”.
  • It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default (JK Rowling)
  • Bear Grylls – Storms make us stronger.
  • Fedor Holz – Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right (Henry Ford)
  • Peter Guber – Don’t let the weight of fear weigh down the joy of curiosity.
  • Sarah Elizabeth Lewis – Keep the main thing the main thing.
  • Dr Jim Loehr – To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children….to leave the world a bit better…to know even one live has breathed easier because you have lived; this is to have succeeded.
  • Daniel Negreanu – To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing. (Elbert Hubbard)

 

8 great pieces of advice

  • Make sure you have something in your diary every day that you are looking forward to.
  • Andrew Ross Sorkin – Persistence matters more than talent.
  • Marie Forleo – Pursue every project, idea or industry that genuinely lights you up, regardless of how unrelated each idea is, or how unrealistic a long-term career in that field might seem now. You’ll connect the dots later.
  • Jason Fried – Time and attention are very different things. They are your most precious resources. You always have less attention than time. Full attention I where you do your best work. Protect and preserve it.
  • Daniel Ek – Good things come to those who work their arses off and never give up.
  • Darren Aronofsky – Most of the game is about persistence. Keep the vision clear in your head and every day refuse all obstacles to get to the goal.
  • Strauss Zelnick – Figure out what success means to you – and make sure your choices are in service of those goals
  • Linda Rottenberg – don’t keep too many doors open – it can lead to paralysis or self-deception.

 

7 ways to turn down requests or invitations

  • Kyle Maynard – rate any requests or invitations on a scale of 1-10 but you are not allowed to give a 7. Then it becomes clear whether you actually want to do something or not. A 7 is an obligation to do it. 8 or above is a want. 6 or below is not going to happen.
  • Neil Strauss – I ask myself if I’m saying yes out of guilt or fear. If so then I give a polite no.
  • Annie Duke – I always imagine it is the day after an event and I’m asking myself if the travel was worth it. If it was I’ll say yes. If not, no.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk – I need a healthy balance of 20% yeses to things that seem dumb because I believe in serendipity.
  • Tim O’Reilly & Esther Dyson – Would I say yes to this if it was on Tuesday. Because if it gets to Tuesday and you think ‘why on earth did I say yes’ then you should have said no.
  • Sam Harris – I say no to more or less everything. I realised I was being given a choice between working on my own projects and spending time with my family or working for someone else (usually for free)
  • Drew Houston – you don’t owe anyone lengthy explanations and you don’t have to respond to every email. Brief one-line responses like ‘I can’t make it but thanks for thinking of me’ are enough.

 

6 habits to copy

  • Greg Norman – Brushing my teeth while standing on one leg – It is great for your core, legs and stabilisation.
  • Sarah Elizabeth Lewis- Taking privacy very seriously when working on creative work. Going off social media as this stops me worrying about what others might think of some unusual idea your pondering and you give it a chance to grow and mature.
  • Muneeb Ali – I ask myself ‘when I am old how much would I be willing to pay to travel back in time and relive the moment that I’m experiencing right now. That simple question puts everything in perspective and makes you grateful for the experience you are having right now.
  • Ben Silberman – Keeping a gratitude journal. If you build up a habit of writing things down your brain is constantly looking for those thing and you feel happier.
  • Dr Jim Loehr – Daily journaling. Quantifying behaviour raises awareness and as a consequence habit acquisition times are typically accelerated.
  • Robert Rodriguez – On a task I need to focus on I sit down with two notebooks. One for the task and one for distractions. I set my timer for 20 minutes. Every time I find myself getting distracted with something else I could do I write it down on the distractions notebook and go back to the task. Any incoming missile goes on the distractions notebook and I go back to focusing on the task.

 

5 ways to reflect on failure

  • Arianna Huffington – Failure is not the opposite of success but a steppingstone to success.
  • David Lynch – a real good failure gives a person tremendous freedom. You can’t fall further down so there is nowhere to go but up. There is nothing left to lose.
  • Marc Benioff – I look at every failure as a learning experience and try to spend time with my failures. I stew on them for a while until I pick out some nugget from them that I can take forward. I learnt that if I’m upset about something I should spend time asking myself “what could I learn” because another opportunity is going to come in the future and I will be better able to re-execute it.
  • Dr Jim Loehr – Failure will happen and failure is an opportunity to build resilience, to practice forgiveness of self and others and to gain wisdom.
  • Kristen Ulmer – Fear is not a sign of personal weakness but a natural state of discomfort that occurs when you are out of your comfort zone. It is there to sabotage you but to help you come alive, be more focused and to get a heightened state of excitement and awareness.

 

4 ways to find your focus

  • Jesse Williams- I ask myself: “What would you do if you if you weren’t afraid.”
  • Neil Strauss – Overwhelmed is about mentally managing what’s coming from outside yourself, unfocused is about mentally managing what’s going on inside. What works for both is stepping away from work for a while.
  • Andrew Ross Sorkin – I always think ‘Would it help?’ When something happens and you start to think about if you should be worried you then think ‘would it help’.
  • Ingvar Kamprad – You can do so much in ten minutes. Ten minutes, once gone are gone for good. Divide your life into ten-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.

 

3 ways to solve a problem

  • Jocko Willink – Prioritise and execute. Take a step back. Detach from the mayhem, look at the situation. Assess the problems task or issues, choose the one which will have the biggest impact. Execute a plan based on that.
  • Tom Peters – MBWA – Manage by wandering around. Talk to people. Be in touch. Learn from everyone.
  • Ed Coan – I tend to break it down, put it down on paper, then look at it half hour later. All of those smaller things don’t look like such a big deal.

 

2 bad recommendations

  • Rick Rubin – When people give you advice they are giving it to you based on their skills, experience and perspectives. Often people are telling you about their journey, and your journey will be different. So feel free to ignore lots of advice.
  • Dr Jim Loehr – We advise people to stay away from stress but protection from stress serves only to erode my capacity to handle it. Stress exposure is the stimulus for all growth and growth actually occurs during episodes of recovery.

 

1 worthwhile investment

  • Dr Brene Brown – Spending 55 minutes defining a problem and then the final five minutes fixing it. The more time you spend defining the problem the better you will fix it. SO invest in problem identification.

 

 

Learning from the best: Matt Jones

Matt Jones Frames of MindA few weeks ago I got the chance to interview the freestyle mountain biker, Matt Jones. I work with lots of cyclists but none of them are yet doing the kind of tricks that Matt routinely fits into his rides and I was fascinated to find out how he approaches something that is so risky.

Matt’s tricks got noticed by Red Bull who offered him an amazing opportunity to create a video showcasing his skills. However there was one problem. On the day he was supposed to start practicing and designing the course he was injured. He couldn’t ride. Here he tells us how he overcame that huge hurdle (and the daily hurdles which come with his sport) to make the beautiful film: Frames of Mind.

He prepares really really well so he feels more confident and relaxed…

“If you are very relaxed and not paying attention to risks and importance of doing everything properly you are basically putting yourself at risk. There are riders like that who go into things with very little care and it is quite amazing to watch them and they really go big but they have either very short careers or spend a lot of time with their feet up with broken bones! So I think to have the approach and go into things with a very focused mindset about where your limitations are and where you are very calm and confident within yourself as a rider and kind of maximise what you are good at that’s really important and then you can be more relaxed then and have faith and know what you are capable of. Whereas if every trick you are going to do back to back consistently feels high risk to you then you are going to be super stressed about the whole thing and that is a difficult way to be.”

He focuses only on his tricks, no-one else’s…

“Something I’ve found more useful lately is not look so much at what everyone else is doing because that is always quite hard, you are always comparing yourself to the competition so if you just stay in your lane and focus in your own thing and however you are judged, you are judged, and however well you do, you do, but as long as you do that it takes a massive level of stress away from the whole thing and pressure because you just do what you know you can and spend all day practicing.”

“It is super hard when you are all practicing for a competition and there is someone practicing the most amazing tricks in practice. It used to put me on a downer and think there is no way I could do that and accepting that you are not as good as someone is quite tricky especially when you are at an event, or just before but I sometimes find it easier now just to reframe things and if someone is doing a trick I know I would struggle to do or am not happy to do in practice, if anything it is an opportunity to watch them do it and seeing someone else do it makes you realise it is possible, you don’t have to be the first guy to do it.”

He sets really realistic goals…

“If I go to a contest where I think I can win and if you don’t win you are really on the back foot. Whereas I went to an event this year where I changed my outlook and I went for the top ten because I’d been injured leading up to it and so I thought what am I here for; am I here to win or would I be happy in the top ten. When I accepted that I was just going to chill out a bit and just accept the result I got and if it was in the top ten I would be happy it made everything so much easier. I even enjoyed the contest day because I was doing stuff I knew I would be happy with. I got ninth so really happy with that actually. It wasn’t my best result of this year but one where I was really happy because what I set out to do I achieved and that is the same as setting out to win and winning really.”

He uses lots of visualisation…

“With this video project I used visualisation out of necessity. I was injured at the start of it, when we went into building the course. I was injured so I couldn’t practice anything or even try out the jumps we were building so I was basically having to give dimensions and features I was telling the builders to make and I was having to look at them enough that I thought they were definitely perfect and trust when it came to filming on them they would be ready to go. But it was quite hard. Some of the stuff I did for the first time when we were filming. The day the cameras were set up and ready to go that was the first day I was doing the jumps. I had to do tricks I’ve never done before so it felt like real high pressure but I was pretty confident it was built to the right spec and that it was going to work.”

“It helped to be there and look at it with my own eyes and imagining it, definitely in slow motion and then speed things up. I found that if I did that enough, when it actually came to doing it for real on my bike it didn’t feel new. It felt almost familiar which is quite cool. Generally, if you do something for the first time you have no idea about the outcome but with these tricks it didn’t even feel new. When it worked I didn’t even feel surprised because it had worked in my head so many times.”

“I could lie on the sofa and I could go over and look at the course and use that time to visualise riding it. Now I’m not injured and I’m back riding every day I’m still using it now to bring that element of risk down and try to get to the end goal quicker. It is super useful to be honest.”

Uses other people’s confidence in him to build his own confidence…

“I’d be lying if I said every time I was starting to work on a new trick knowing the filming was coming up I could capture it. I never was 100% sure but I had to tools to make it work and a bit of mental strength to go with it but there is always that element of risk and some stuff doesn’t go. I think the confidence came from a bit of self-belief and the drive to make the most of the opportunity with this video. Because I’ve never had that before. If it wasn’t for this big project I’d probably have tried a trick a few times and if it wasn’t working I’d have left it but because everything had been built in a bespoke way and these tricks had been worked out it almost felt like I had no choice but to keep working on it and there was enough push from people around me to see it through which was really cool. On normal typical jumps I ride, if I wanted to do a trick for a video or contest and it wasn’t working I’d find the next best one and compromise but with this because everything was so specific and tailor made there was no compromise it was the trick I’d written down or nothing. There was a lot of pressure riding on ‘will it even work’ because if it doesn’t that is a whole idea gone out of the window. There was pressure but also opportunity with you have that thing you have asked for to make this work; let’s do it. So that was a massive benefit and a level of excitement that I had the opportunity to do it and I didn’t want to let that one away really.”

 

Tough Girl – Sarah Williams

Tough Girl pictureSarah Williams is the brains behind the fantastic Tough Girl podcast. She is currently studying for a Masters in Women and gender studies and goes off on her own adventures when she gets the chance. Through her podcast she has interviewed over 150 female athletes and adventurers and has created over 100 hours of content. The podcasts have been downloaded 400,000 times and are listened to in 172 countries. Sarah shows great skill at not just teasing out the women’s incredible stories but helping them acknowledging what they learnt about themselves through the challenges they have taken on, and highlighting how they have helped to inspire and empower other women.

Here we turned the tables. The interviewer becomes the interviewee. We learn more about what inspires her, what she has learnt from these 150 women she has interviewed and which elements of sport psychology she uses in her own adventures.

What inspired her to start tough girl…

“I was going into schools to give motivational talks and chatting to the girls about their goals and aspirations for the future and it was just disheartening. These girls were wanting to be wags, to be pretty, to find a rich man and this was 2015.  I was thinking why, you can be so much more than what you look like and who you marry. And then I was looking through a newspaper and it was all just men, men, men – all football and rugby – I was thinking where are the women? There were no women at all. Where are all the role models? If these young girls can’t see it how can they become it. How do they know they can go out and be adventurers and explorers and swim the channel? When I started looking into what challenges I could do I started coming across all these amazing women. I like to think of myself as a connected person; I read a lot but I just didn’t know about any of these women or any of these challenges they had done. So how would a 15 year old girl know about this?

With a podcast, when you hear someone’s voice and you hear that passion and you hear that doubt, it really connects with you mentally. To share that, to get all those voices heard and out there, to increase the amount of people who are role models, podcasting was a good way to do it. The feedback is amazing. So humbling. One today almost made me cry. It just arrived this morning. I think a lot of people don’t know who to talk to and to reach out to but because they have heard my voice they’ll reach out to me.”

Why role models are so important…

“There is a ripple effect. For everyone going out running, your friends and family see it and suddenly others see it is possible and so they feel it may be for them too. I remember my first London marathon. My sister was doing the London Marathon, pretty much every friend I have was doing the London marathon. I felt left out. Everyone else was running and training and you want to get involved and do more of it.”

What has she noticed about her interviewees…

“That everybody is just normal and anybody could do it. It is just that they DO go out and do it. Fear is something we talk about a lot. It is all the fears; the fear of success, failure, all of them. There is one lady I interviewed called Kat Davis (listen here) and she was sharing about the time she hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She was saying I’m scared of bears, I’m scared of snakes, I’m scared of the snow. I’m scared of being by myself and scared of failing. I’m still scared of all those things but I still go out and do it. And I think that is a really big thing. It is worth talking about more and more. Doing it and the fear. That is the common theme. Everybody is scared and has their own personal fears. The worst line I hear is I could never do that. I’m not like you. Actually you could. You just have to try and just have to give it a go.”

Any triggers she has spotted making people want to take on these adventures…

“I think sometimes people do have those live changing situations happen to them. But then sometimes I think it can be a very gradual build-up in the case of just starting for a walk, then it is 5k, then 10k, then a half marathon, then a marathon, then an ultra, then a 100 miler. This trigger is always one of the key things. What can make people take those key steps? How do you get people to do it? I do think about that first step a lot.

The mental skills she has spotted her interviewees using…

“Visualisation, being really specific about goals, having accountability and needing to tell people what they are doing and why they are doing it. Once a goal is out there you’ll be asked and that is very very powerful for getting people to the start line and giving that motivation and incentive. The other thing around mindset that comes out a lot is about gratitude and positivity. I see people realising they cannot control the environment so if someone is climbing Mount Everest they realise they have no control over the weather and what is happening on the mountain but actually what they can control is their internal emotion.”

“You’ve heard about the Egg and the Potato? It is Jasmijn Muller’s mantra. So Jasmijn got that from the podcast from a triathlete called Parys Edwards who shared a story about how the same boiling water which makes a potato soft, makes an egg go hard. The circumstances will be the same but how you respond to them gives a different outcome. So if you can, then ‘be the Egg’, and for a lot of women this just clicked for a lot of them. It was like when situations are overwhelming I can give in or can I be positive so even when I was doing something like Marathon De Sables I’d be thinking I can’t control the heat, or the distance, or the terrain, but what can I be grateful for? The sky is blue, I’ve trained for this, I love the temperature etc and actually that can shift your mindset in a powerful way.”

“Mantras we talk a lot about. Sometimes they can almost get a little bit complicated. Depending how far you are in when you are doing an ultra, at one point for me it got down to a point of just saying ‘Step’. ‘Step.’ ‘Step.’ Just keeping me moving as I was slowing down so much. Even counting helped so much. 10 minutes running but I would break it down into 3 minutes and then to 5 minutes and then 8 minutes. So even a 10 minute block I would break it down even further. But even for these big overwhelming goals that people take on it works as well. So a marathon isn’t running 26.2 miles, it is running 1 mile 26 times. There are so many ways of breaking things down but most people don’t even start because they get so overwhelmed by the big challenge. But if you just take it down to the very first step, it is ‘what do I actually need to do’. I don’t think it is complicated but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you start going out and doing these events you start picking up these little tricks that work specifically for you. It is also rewarding yourself and celebrating what you have achieved.”

On the adventures she is planning….

“One thing I’m looking at the moment is basically rowing an ocean. I’m looking at what can I do my Masters thesis on and there has been a lot written about female mountaineers and female mountaineering but I look at trying to find academic research about female ocean rowers and there really isn’t any. So Roz Savage has rowed the Pacific and then the coxless four women have also done it and that is it for the Pacific. There is quite a lot more for the Atlantic and I think for the Indian there is Sarah Outen and Roz Savage and another group of four women who have done it and I think that must be fascinating to look into that. When I was chatting with Mollie Hughes she said one of the reasons she started climbing Mount Everest was because she started doing her dissertation around the mental preparation around climbing Mount Everest and obviously got so into it that she ended up going to climb it twice. So I think that rowing an ocean would be incredible. I think I’d like to do it as part of a team; in a pair or a four. I think there would be a big difference being by yourself in the middle of the ocean in a boat than there is being by yourself in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. It is very very different.”

“I’m definitely now more interested in the longer challenges. I could not motivate myself to train for months for an Ironman for it all to be over in one day. That literally has no interest for me at all now. Running a marathon doesn’t really interest me, anymore. That is not to say it isn’t amazing and not fantastic, but I can’t really psych myself up to go and do four months training for four and a bit hours. For me it is about the experience. It is about making it more of a lifestyle choice and making it a longer challenge and making it more interesting. I think when I hear about Elise Downing who ran the coast of Britain. I think I’d prefer something like that to put yourself under that pressure at the end of the day.

What is the biggest thing she has learnt from 150 interviewees…

“That you can always do more. What I mean by that is I interviewed Stephanie Case who inspired me to go and get my masters in women and gender. She works for the UN and runs a charity called free to run. She trains for these incredible events even when she is working in places like Afghanistan and living in a compound and only had the top of the roof to train and she would run for hours and hours and hours in a circle round the compound. And I’m sat there thinking she has got a full-time job working for a global agency, she’s training for a marathon and running an international based charity and I’m thinking I can do so much more.”

“I can dream bigger and I can do it. And even when you are pushing yourself on the Appalachian Trail even when you might be mentally or physically exhausted after 20 odd miles I listened to someone who says you can always do 40% more than you think you can. So when you think you are at the end you are not. You can push yourself another 40%. You can always do more. You can always achieve more. My sister is very inspiring to me. I think you have one life. What can you do with it? How she makes use of her time is incredible. Most people just don’t. Do more. Dream bigger. Time is going to disappear anyway and I think sometimes you’ve just got to do it. There will always be people who comment on your choices and your decisions, but you’ve just got to be comfortable with you and not with what other people think cause actually, in 20 years’ time, you won’t even remember who these people are.”

5 ways to feel more positive

It is gloomy and cold and we are all trying to hold off on Christmas excitement till December so here are five ways to help ourselves feel a little bit more positive on a grey November afternoon:

  • Start a thankful journal. Before bed each night write down three things, people, or events for which you are grateful. Means you go to sleep in a more positive frame of mind and helps prevent negative thoughts ruminating around in your head.
  • Get a really good night’s sleep. Sleep is where our memories are consolidated, particularly from everything we have learnt over a day, so to make sure we are benefiting from the efforts we make each day we really need a decent amount of sleep.
  • Make a do lists and break down any big tasks on it into their component parts. Breaking things down into small chunks not only makes each thing feel more doable but you will also get a buzz of achievement each time you tick something off. More mini activities, more ticks.
  • Actively practice turning negative thoughts into positive ones. It will feel awkward and weird at first but over time can become more natural. So instead of; ‘I can’t do this’ think ‘I can’t do this yet, but I’m going to have a go’.
  • Do scary stuff first. There is a great idea called ‘Eat the frog’. If you know you have to eat a frog today you will feel nervous (and probably nauseous!). You are likely to procrastinate all day about eating the frog and will mar the whole day with this fear. But if you prioritise doing it first thing then it gets it out of the way, gives you a lovely smug feeling and frees up the rest of the day for less intimidating activities.

Seven tactics to stop comparing ourselves against others

In sport comparison is inescapable. If you are racing or competing there will always be numbers ranking us, digitizing us, making easy comparison to anyone else. It is a very quick way for athletes to lose confidence and develop low self-esteem. This social comparison can be harsh as someone else will always be better than you. Even Bolt got beaten. And Research has found that the harder we are on ourselves the harder it is to regain our motivation and we are less likely to achieve the goals we do set so, the more we compare, the worse we will do.

You can only compare effectively if you are starting from the same starting blocks as the person you are comparing to. We are each too unique to compare fairly. Even identical twins will have different personality traits, different talents and different motivations. But we never are. So comparison puts focus on something you have absolutely no control over putting yourself in an unwinnable, and very frustrating situation. To get on top of this negative comparison here are seven tactics to try:

  1. Focus on temporal comparison where you look at how you are doing compared to where you were in the past and where would you like to get to. You can then make clear steps and plans to get where you want to go and this helps you feel much more in control. In doing this we become more self-aware and can understand our motivations and ambitions better. If we tie this in with our own values we can feel authentic in the route we take. To identify these values ask yourself three questions:
    • What do you want to be remembered for?
    • When you look back over this year what will you need to achieve to feel proud?
    • What are the three values that matter most to you?

Once we look deeply at the ‘then, now and the future,’ and understand our values which support that then everything is in the open it is much easier to confront and deal with it.

  1. Remind yourself that the perfection you see in others is just an illusion. We only see the instagramable perfection of other’s lives. Research found people more likely to show positive emotions than negative ones and that we each tend to overestimate the presence of positivity in the lives of others. This means we a comparing our lives with an incomplete picture of someone else’s. You may see the great race result a club mate had but not the pain they have gone through in training. You see the picture perfect family day posted on facebook but not the mega tantrum two minutes before the shots were taken. There is always a far more realistic story behind it.
  2. We beat ourselves up for not ‘trying hard enough’ yet we are on a different journey in life to other people and were born with different advantages. There is a great saying – don’t measure yourself against someone else’s ruler. If you compare yourself to other people around you those people start become enemies, instead of your friends. Benchmarking their successes to evaluate ourselves against will make us jealous and bitter rather than supportive and excited for them. If you find yourself succumbing to this then a good point to remember is that we become like those we surround ourselves with. Surrounding ourselves with successful, ambition and hard working people and some of those elements will brush off on us – so it is not just altruistic, it is actually in our own interests for those around us to do well.
  3. Celebrate your uniqueness. What do you love about you? Forget being humble. What is great about you? What values do you have, what traits do you love, when do you feel proud?
  4. Remember and document your successes – keep a diary or a ‘jar of joy’ and note down when you have been proud of something you have worked hard towards and achieved. When you find yourself starting to compare with others pull out a note and read through it.
  5. Find things that matter to you which cannot be measured. Race times, school grades, work appraisals all use numbers and are very easy for us to use to compare to each other. But some of the loveliest things in life can’t be compared. Seeing an amazing view from a mountain you have climbed, drinking the perfect cocktail on a lovely beach, eating fish and chips with your best mate on a park bench putting the world to rights, a run along the river where you come up with a solution to a problem you’ve been ruminating over, taking a picture of a friend or child that completely captures their personality, making someone’s day by baking them a cake they weren’t expecting. All things which have no measurement, but will bring you, and often someone else a little piece of joy.
  6. If you can’t help yourself comparing then study the person you are envious of and understand what it is you envy and then work out how you can achieve that. If they are famous then read interviews or autobiographies. Pull out the envy element and make a plan for how you can develop that. Write down three things you could learn from them to help you get closer to what they have achieved? When you find yourself starting to get jealous look over these, remind yourself you are on a different journey to them, and pick one of the things you can learn from them as your goal for the next week.

 

 

You can do anything – but not everything

This is my favourite phrase. It reminds me that that much as I’d like to be a superwoman there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be one. It suggests I’m not a failure if I don’t achieve everything – just that time is limited and no-one else could either.

I thought of this phrase when I went to chat to a group of new mums who are soon to head back to work. Having 6-12 months out of work to bring up a new baby is an amazing experience. But it can also leave us feeling rather vulnerable when we go back to work. Not only are there many questions floating round our heads about whether we remember what to do, how we will ever see our baby, will flexible working be possible, do we need to prove our work commitment all over again and whose job takes priority when baby is ill, or childcare falls through but we may have lost a little work confidence too, making it a nerve racking time. Before baby we were able to stay late, work weekends when projects required it, and have a good gossip over lunch. When nursery hours are limited and we want to get home for baby hugs we need to remember that ‘superwoman doing everything’ goes out the window and prioritisation comes into play.

So I chatted with the girls in my NCT group and we came up with five areas where a bit of honest reflection, some planning, and a dash of performance psychology techniques could help us get back into working life as comfortably and stress free as possible.

Feeling out of the loop professionally:

Lots of us were worried about things having moved on in the time we were away. It could be systems, computer programs, teams, colleagues, line managers, senior staff and, particularly for those in legal, HR, clinical and accounting professions, regulations and laws having changed.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Ask for a KIT (Keep in Touch) day a few weeks before you go back so you can reacclimatise to the workplace, understand what has changed and prepare yourself for it.
  • Be open to learning new stuff – you have just learnt from scratch how to keep a baby alive so picking up computer changes will be well within your capabilities!
  • Instead of thinking you are going back to your own role maybe try to see it within your head as starting a new job – mentally it will feel less frustrating than going back to the same job with lots of changes.

Feeling out of the loop socially:

If you have been away from an office or your work environment you will not just have missed processes or systems changing but people. When you start in a new company going on staff nights out or lunches is a great way to get up to speed. But if you are working compressed hours to get back in time for nursery or childminder shutting or would rather spend your evening with your little one than networking in a pub then this isn’t possible.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • A baby commodifies everything. You are constantly prioritising and working out the value of something again the cost of childcare and whether you genuinely want or need to do something over seeing your baby. So accept this rather than fighting it or feeling it is unfair. I’ve found it helps me make decisions about what I value doing and prioritising becomes simpler. Would I rather go to X event or spend my evening with baby. Baby wins a lot!
  • Agree with your other half on how you will deal with evening events. Do you have one evening a week each to use for yourself; work, networking sessions, seminars, gym, drinks with friends? Or agree to own certain nights as your bath / bed nights for baby where the other one has more work or social flexibility.

Having to prove yourself again:

If you have spent a long time building your reputation in work, particularly in companies which have a long-hours culture or are very heavily male dominated, you may feel you need to re-establish your reputation and deal with some of the stereotypes that may be banded about around where your priorities will be.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • This one can feel really unfair and can be a real issue in some industries. Write a stock answer you use for all the annoying comments. Something like: ‘Work will feel easy after looking after a baby 24/7’. Repeat it over and over again until they get bored of winding you up.
  • Don’t try to prove yourself to anyone except the people you have to. It just causes lots of stress. Use your lack of time and flexibility to your advantage and be really focused on just what you need to do and who you do that for. This means being really clear from your line manager what your objectives are and what they see as priorities. Stick to these. Goal setting can be really helpful here. There is a template and worksheet you can use here. It is based on athletes but works just as effectively for mums heading back to work.

Justifying decisions:

Many of us fear being judged. We want to do the best; for ourselves, for our babies, for our companies, for our society. It can be difficult being questioned or judged about the choices you make, or even thinking you will be questioned. Many of us worry if we have had too much time off or too little? Should we go back flexibility or ask for fewer hours? And not only do we question ourselves but very unhelpfully lots of other people feel it is ok to question us too.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Everyone has an opinion. Either because something genuinely worked for them and they think they are being helpful, because they want to validate the choices they made or sometimes just trying to make conversation. But it can feel intrusive, personal and judgemental – especially if you are questioning any of your choices yourself. Expect the opinions. Makes it feel less personal.
  • When you are offered advice, nod and smile and say “that sounds interesting I’ll think about that.” And then forget it instantly. They feel important and listened to. You get them off your back.
  • Internally, in your own head, have a mantra. This is a short phrase you repeat over and over to yourself and can block out some of the negative or guilty thoughts we have. It could be ‘I’m here so my baby has a great role model.’ ‘Baby is learning great social skills at nursery.’ The mantra needs to be personal and honest but can help you block out the naysayers outside and inside your own head.

Staying robust and resilient:

Finally, it is hard to stay robust and resilient when you lack any confidence. And if you have had a chunk of time away from the workplace it can be easy to let your confidence slide. Add to this fears about the choices you’ve made for childcare, the fact you may be surviving on very little sleep and simply missing your little one and your confidence can be knocked very easily.

Some tips to cope if this is an issue for you:

  • Actively build your confidence. Confidence comes from many sources but the two most robust ones are knowing you have the skills to do what you want to do and feeling you have the experience and evidence of this experience to do what you want to do. So grab a piece of paper and write down all the skills you already had in the workplace and the ones you have added by learning how to look after a baby. The mums I chatted to had some great strengths they had developed over their maternity leave including procrastinating far less, an enhanced ability to multitask, a new sense of perspective on what was really important and the ability to do everything on very little sleep.
  • Create your ‘what if’ plan. Every Olympic athlete does this but it can work really well in our daily lives too. Down one side of a sheet of paper write down all the things you are worrying about happening, then what you can do to prevent them happening, and what you will do if they do occur. This means you front up to everything that is weighing down on your shoulders and you feel much more prepared if something does happen.

We prepared a couple of examples:

Fear To prevent it happening I will… If it does happen.…
All the regulations in my field have changed. I’ll have to learn everything again. Ask if there is a junior or intern in the office who could pull together info on any regulatory changes in the last year.

Sign up to email updates for my profession to keep updated.

Get hold of the last nine months of magazines for my profession and read them during baby’s nap time.

Agree with line manager that I can have a session with them on changes in the sector while I have been away.

Ask line manager if I can attend a professional conference where many of the recent changes will be discussed.

Ask for someone to mentor me back into the workplace while I find my feet again.

 

Being new to the team I worry I still have to prove myself and I can’t do this if I have to leave by 5pm to pick up my baby from nursery. Work out with my other half that one of us will do drop off and the other pick up so we can work hours needed at one end of the day.

Log on after baby is asleep so you can show you are working flexibly.

 

Explain to line manager that you feel you are being judged on time in office rather than productivity and ask for their support.

Find another parent in the office and discuss how they have been able to prove their worth and be there for their children (People are really flattered to be asked for their advice so this can work well)

So hopefully there are some ideas above that can help you feel a little bit more like superwoman -while remembering that you don’t have to. The most important thing to do is to reflect on what is worrying you and prepare for it. The more prepared we are, the harder it is for something to knock us over so we can be strong for ourselves and our babies.