Learning from the best: Kristin Armstrong

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong won three Olympic Gold medals in the Time Trial in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. After each Olympic Games she retired but came back 18 months before the next Olympics. Performance in Mind chatted to Kristin about her drive to keep coming back, the injuries that nearly scuppered her chances and how she now finally has closure.

Why did you retire the first time round?

The first time around I stopped because I wanted I wanted to have a family and I was 37 years old and I thought if I wanted to have a family I should get on with it.  [she gave birth to son Lucas in October 2010).

Why did you return after having your son?

I was active during my pregnancy. That competitiveness never really went away. I could play games indoors with my family and I still want to win. So, I’m pregnant, I’m on my bike and I had a text message from my coach. I was three weeks before delivering and you are just hot and you are disgusting and sick and he text me and said ‘22 months – wouldn’t that be an amazing goal.’ I said ‘what are you talking about.’ He said ‘London’. I am so pregnant and said back ‘are you kidding me – you should see what I look like right now. There is no way I’ll ever be able to compete again’.

After you have your child you feel like your life is out of control. It takes you a few weeks to even think you want to go for a walk or do anything physically cause you are so tired. A few weeks went by and I’m like ok I get this and then once you think you’ve figured it all out your baby changes again. Then my coach hit me with it again and said what do you think?  I’m thinking I need a goal. Even if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a goal and I need to start training again. My only goal for the first three months was fitness, it was just about being active. And I was like oh my gosh this is amazing.

So once that transition happened I remember everything changed. When I did get on my bike I was in a hurry to get home because I had this mum anxiety – I felt like after an hour I had to be home and whenever I went out for a ride I’d never felt this before but I was always looking around. I felt like a car was going to hit me or there was this whole thing around now I am finally responsible for something that isn’t myself and it was a little bit scary actually. I announced I was coming back in November and by January I had a lot of regrets. I wanted to quit. I don’t know why I had made the decision because I just felt so guilty. I had a discussion with my friend and ‘how do you work full time and get through this because I feel so guilty’. She said you just have to embrace mum guilt cause it is never going to go away. I don’t care what you do, you will always have mum guilt. You just have make sure when you are at home be present and spend quality time with your child and be really present with them. You still have to go after what you do want to go after and it is a really great example for your child because you have to work hard. That conversation really helped me and coming back after having a child was very different cause I would travel with the team but instead of having massage after a race I would breastfeed my son because I was racing on the road at six months so before I stopped breastfeeding him. I had my pack and play and my stroller. I always prioritised that I was a mum first and a cyclist second and when I go to do public speaking engagements I talk about how everyone felt sorry for me being a mum and I learnt it became my strength, my balance. Because when I got home from a really bad training day, or a race, your child is there smiling. And Lucas is like I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, it never really mattered. So what it did was it kept me positive and it lifted me so those athletes who are completely embraced; they don’t work or volunteer; they don’t do anything else apart from their sport; if they have a bad day they dwell upon it and for me if I’ve had a bad day within two minutes of walking in the door I’m having a great day cause nothing matters but your child. Nothing. That was the cool power I had. Nothing really matters cause if cycling didn’t work out I had this amazing family. People who aren’t in that position, if cycling or sport doesn’t work out, they are stressed about what job they are going to have. The stress is enormous, so for me it felt like a secret weapon.

Why did you return for Rio?

I always got asked: ‘Why?’ You won Beijing. You won London. What more do you need in your life. Why would you even risk going after the pinnacle of sport and lose it’ (for they always say you are only as good as your last race) but in the moment that didn’t matter to me.

As a woman athlete you don’t make a lot of money, so I’ve always been an athlete that believed you have to prepare yourself for life after sport because any day you could be finished as an athlete. So I always used to work part time throughout my career and I was engaged in the communities I lived in. Prior to London I was working for a hospital here in the United States and right after I finished London I had a job offer from the hospital and I took it. I was so excited. Finally, normal life. I took the job and for the first year and a half I was in a position that challenged me every day and I could hardly come up for a breath. I had to have a couple of surgeries and after that my position changed within the health system and it got a little slower, I moved too quickly for the new department. My old department did it yesterday and my new department was like, let’s talk about it for a little while. I found that I wasn’t moving the dial I wasn’t reaching anything. I had a vision but I knew at the pace we were going I might not live to see the vision. And I knew in sport I’ve been trained, for every four years you are going to have some huge outcome and some little check marks along the way. I decided to start riding more. My old position my boss was so fast. My pace. Id be up super early and home late. I’m not saying that is healthy but for my personality and as a cyclist I’m so driven and competitive that as much as my mind thinks it would be nice to chill out and relax for a little while that is not who I am. So as much as I wasn’t being pushed enough. I didn’t feel like I was being stretched or challenged enough in life, relative to going to the Olympic games and what I realised was in the business world it is similar to the peloton in cycling you are surrounded by a lot of people who are still trying to find success in life and I found that while every day I was working I was in amongst individuals who had not yet found their success in life and they are always fighting for the credit and I’m like, I don’t really care about the credit. Let’s just do this. It can be your idea, lets go. I just wanted it done. Compared to this I realised being on my bike I found so much joy.

So I would go home and I would be thinking about what is a good answer about why am I doing this. I didn’t mind the question but on the flip side of the question I got ‘oh my god she’s a mum, she’s the flip side of 40, I can’t believe she is doing this. It is so selfish.’ So finally I just came out with ‘it is because I can. I’m healthy, I love to compete and I can still do it at a high level.’ I didn’t need to give any more answers.

I just felt I just need to ride my bike. I don’t mind the pain [she had had three hip procedures by this point]. I just need to ride my bike cause I’m going crazy now. So I started riding my bike. I went to my husband and said “I really miss having a goal. You know like marathon runners pick one of two goals in a year and they work full time. I’m not asking to quit my job or change our lives again but maybe if I chose nationals at the end of May that would be a good goal”

So, I trained for nationals and I win. And when you win nationals in America you qualify for Worlds. In all my years of competing, Worlds have never been in the United States. And it happens to be in Richmond, Virginia. So, I train and show up to Richmond and we have this deal. If I don’t get top three we are done. And I go to Richmond and I get fifth. But I say I am top American. I’m fifth, and I’m going back into athlete mode. I say to my husband ‘I’m fifth because I’m working full time. All it showed me is I’m trying to take short cuts and you know where short cuts take you – they never get you to the top. I’m working full time, I’m being a mum and I’m training half the time I was before and I got fifth.’

I came home from Richmond but by the second week of November I had spine surgery. I didn’t ride my bike again till January 1st 2016. Everyone around me was like ‘why are we going through this?’ But the more of a challenge in front of me, I just respond with more determination. So, January 1 I get on my bike and I train very very hard and I go very part time at my work. I go to Rio. I win. By barely anything, five seconds.

Do you have closure now?

How do you define closure? I don’t think you know what it is until you find it. So right now I’m coaching some of the top athletes in America, two of which I think can medal in Tokyo. That’s closure, I’m not coming back. I ride five days a week. I love riding my bike but the closure I have is that I can sit and love watching a race. I can coach somebody to become a gold medallist. Three years ago if someone had asked me if I was willing to coach somebody who could win a gold medal I don’t know if I was ready to pass it on. Now, as someone said last week, I can’t believe there is an international time trial in your home town that you are organising and you are not racing. Is that not tearing you apart?. I said ‘I have no desire’. And I define that as closure. I feel so fortunate. It is amazing. I love riding my bike but I have complete closure from competing. I’ve done everything. I have everything I have ever dreamed of in sport but it is a really cool feeling cause there is no unfinished business.

I can’t explain why closure didn’t come at two gold medals or after just going for London because after having a kid London was enough for me but it is hard to put my finger on why closure didn’t come and I had to keep going back other than the fact that I could do it and I had the drive. Someone did tell me is you are physically going to be able to do it as long as you want but once your mind goes and you don’t want to hurt every day and turn yourself inside out that is when you know you are done. To train for the Olympics or to be a professional cyclist your brain has to want to hurt every day.

I am starting to see with the athletes I coach it is not about whether they are going to do the physical workout, it is me saying ‘why don’t we work on hurting a little more today’. I have gotton more out of people I coach now because I’ve recognised that not everyone knows how to hurt. As a coach I’m trying to teach people how to hurt and it is ok.

Could the time out between each Olympics have helped you?

I always said my secret was my balance in being a mum but my other secret which I do laugh about is that each time I retired I gave my body a two year break. Think how hard it is to go inside out for four years, 365 days a year. It is incredibly tough on the mind and if we are saying the mind is what takes you to the top I also think back and for those last eight years I really only was on for four years because the other years I rode but it was not intervals or anything that killed my mind. It only helped my mind. And I recovered my body. For two years I was doing healthy exercise. I wonder what would it be like if endurance athletes did take an 18-24 month period where thy totally regrouped, refreshed and recovered and then went forward again. How much stronger would they be? I have always been intrigued by what did those breaks do for me.

 

Learn from the best: John Levison

JohnLevison1Endurance sport is tough on athletes; lots of training and preparation, a long day out at a race, needing to fuel properly and maintain consistent energy. Something I’d never thought about is about how all of this also relates to those putting on races; the people behind the scenes who direct, set up, marshall, referee, draft bust or time races for us. Chatting to John Levison really highlighted this and I felt learning from his routines, perspectives and knowledge could give us all a lot to chew on.

John is basically ‘Mr Triathlon’. He has been around triathlon for almost as long as the sport has existed. He not only runs Tri247.com – the website most UK (and probably other country too) athletes go to for news on the triathlon scene – but is regularly found at races as the go to race commentator. His knowledge is deep and having spent so long in the sport he knows the courses and athletes inside out.  I jumped at the chance to pick his brains and learn about what goes into commentating a race and what psychological traits he sees displayed prevalently within the most successful triathletes.

The triathletes you are usually interviewing or commentating on will have all prepared for their races. What sorts of preparation do you need to do for your commentating sessions?

In some ways, I would say there are lots of similarities to what the athletes themselves do. Firstly, the majority of the work if you like is not necessarily specific. Just as an athlete will have some events they are racing / targeting, the fitness and ability to do those comes from consistency of general training, month-on-month and year-year, which builds them the base and the fitness and strength to which they then fine tune / taper / specific prep for the requirements of that event.

Similarly, that my day ‘job’ if you like is following / reporting / writing / researching / interviewing and more within the triathlon world – and that I’ve also been around for a long time – gives you a pretty strong base of experience, knowledge and understanding to call upon when needed. To that, you then do your specific ‘homework’ – what is the course? How many laps? Who is racing? What happened last year(s)? Who has been in form this year? That type of thing. Depending on the type of race, I might contact an athlete, a coach, someone else within the triathlon world, just to get their thoughts, and hopefully that gives you a rounded view of what you are going to expect and might highlight something you hadn’t thought of. Just like an athlete though, simply doing lots of hours of prep immediately before with no base, probably won’t get you very far!

I always estimate that you probably only ever use about 10% of the information that you might have (or is probably tucked away in the triathlon archives of my brain somewhere!), but for me at least, just going through that process gives me more confidence that I’ll be ok on the day. The objective is to try and be ready and potentially use elements of that preparation – not to try and use every statistic, just because you happen to have it.

Just like many of the athletes, I’m reasonably confident that I could probably get away with doing less and ‘winging’ it so to speak on race day on the basis of all of that accumulated knowledge / experience – but that’s not something I try to test out, as I’m sure it would come back to haunt me!

I’m probably also quite fortunate that my memory for triathlon history (and as my wife will confirm, not a lot else!), is quite strong, so most of the time, there is usually a nugget or two of trivia or memory about an athlete or a race that might come in useful.

JohnLevison2Commentating on a triathlon sounds like it must be quite a feat of endurance – especially those with lots of waves so will last for hours – how do you pace yourself and stay focused?

It definitely can and does get physically and mentally tiring. On a bigger and/or longer event, you will typically be working with one of more other commentators, and you do have to take those breaks. Your natural inclination at something like an iron-distance event is that you want to be (and you probably think you can be…), ‘there’ all the time, but you just can’t.

If you get too physically tired, you just can’t keep the energy up in your voice which will show. You’ll also not be switched on mentally, so if you are trying to communicate for example on an Age-Group World Championship, and there are multiple waves in progress at the same time, having a clear head and being able to track what is happening in real time across multiple categories is – to me – really important. I want to be ready to potentially call an athlete down the finish line to be a British / European / World Champion and ideally be building up to that for the crowd (which will likely have friends / family / coaches there), and give them that moment and recognition as it happens – and ideally not 15 seconds after they have crossed the line, when that time has passed. Seeing the smile on someone’s face – and it may be the one and only time in their life they achieve it – when they can hear that they are being recognised and that quite possibly it’s the first moment that they know they have won a medal, is really special.

I’ve also now done several events over the years which will span 3/4/5 days of back-to-back work, like the Commonwealth Games / European Championships / Grand Final and the Nottingham-Leeds double-header this year. You also have to remember that you want your energy (and voice…) to get you through the entire competition, not just the end of the day. Triathlon does lend itself well to natural highs and lows (in terms of energy and excitement) during a race, so you’ll have natural excitement at the start / swim exit and transition / laps (if appropriate) as athletes pass, so there is opportunity there where you are naturally calmer and other times where you need that energy.

Do you get nervous commentating?

Weirdly, I can’t honestly say I’m nervous when speaking to a crowd even if there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands (Hyde Park in years past I’m guessing?), or indeed, for some of the online stuff I’ve done. Even that you don’t actually know what you are going to say / there’s no script / anything can happen.

I can only rationalise that as a) it’s a triathlon, b) I figure approaching 30 years of in-depth watching / studying / writing / researching means I’ve got some solid experience, history & understanding to call upon, and c) I arrive prepared!  Typically I may have only one piece of paper (number / athlete / country and a couple of bullet point / memory jogger notes), but have found that’s way more useful than a folder full of information that you will never, ever get to refer to in real time. I suspect I only ever use 5/10% of the ‘stats’ I know – but just going through the process provides that extra confidence, plus there can always be that random elite who appears out of nowhere!!!

I think I’ve also come to the conclusion, that what probably helps is that I genuinely ‘care’. Might sound a bit weird, but there are plenty of people (and commentators and other people in sport generally), for whom it is a ‘job’. That’s fine, I get that but for example I really was genuinely ‘in the moment’, and getting excited and trying to build up that finish to the women’s Age Group 70-74 race when I spotted with about 10 minutes to go that there was a realistic chance of a sprint finish. And I don’t even know the people involved !!!! Doing that isn’t difficult – but it is if you don’t have the passion to be looking ahead / working things out and trusting your instincts.

All things considered, I would much rather have a microphone and be talking to thousands of people than have to go into a room with 10 others and try and make small talk. That’s way more pressure and stress to me.

You have watched a lot of triathlons over the years. What traits have you seen in triathletes that you really admire? Are their traits that seem to be much more common in triathletes than other sports?

Triathletes, even the Pros, tend to be there because they truly love the sport. At the (very) top of the sport – a Gomez / Brownlee / Ryf / Duffy / Frodeno – the rewards can be significant financially, but that can only be part of the motivation. The sport is simply too hard in terms of the training requirement and competition, to do without passion. One way you can see that is randomly go to the results of say a World Junior Championships 15 or 20 years ago. Assuming you’ve been around a while, I bet you will recognise a significant number of those names from 17/18 years of age, still racing all those years later. A few may have become ‘big’ names, others not so, but there has to be internal motivation to keep doing it for all of those years that goes well beyond hoping to gain fame or riches.

I’d say that triathletes are also very resilient, perhaps stubborn, and seem to be able to bounce back from things that most would struggle hugely with. Of course, in recent months I think everyone has seen what Tim Don has come through with a broken neck, the Halo and then winning his first Pro race back. There are so many more though – look at Gill Fullen’s return from cancer and surgery, the winner of the Age-Group Champs (Overall) in Glasgow recently, Trish Deykin, suffers with MS, a former club mate of mine, Fiona Ford, got totally wiped out by a car and was told her sporting career was done… she subsequently made the podium at Kona. And that’s just three that spring to mind, there are so many others, Pro and Age-Group.

Triathletes also tend to be organised and dedicated – and not just those that are at the top of results lists. I’m also constantly amazed out how many doctors / medics / surgeons and the like manage to also be top performing triathletes! There is a saying along the lines of, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”. That does seem to ring true in our sport. Most the British Age-Group athletes that you may see on the Kona podium multiple times, tend to be very busy professionals too.

JohnLevison3If you could put together an Ironman relay team of any triathlete in the world who would you pick for each leg and why?

That’s a tough one!

If we take men first, from a commentary viewpoint you take Harry Wiltshire – because it doesn’t matter how far away you are, you just look for his windmill left arm and you can confidently state exactly where he is. And to be honest, that’s typically at the front anyway!

The bike? Perhaps either Marino Vanhoenacker or Sebastian Kienle. I was in Klagenfurt when Marino broke the IRONMAN world record and I’ve followed his career quite closely. He races for one reason – to win. He has no interest in playing safe for a podium, it’s usually win or go home in an ambulance! I remember a quote he gave me in an interview, “I’ve definitely lost out on a lot of podium positions in my career which I might have gained by being a bit more conservative – but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever lost a race that I could have won.”

Sebastian is similar – races with such passion, and when he is in full flight, a sight to behold. I still remember when he caught and passed the lead group at a 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. He went past with such power that it was as if he was on a motorbike.

Run wise, well to absolutely guarantee yourself some killer quotes at the finish you go with Lionel Sanders! He’s got one of the worst ‘styles’ you’ll ever see, he looks permanently injured and as if he is limping – but he can push himself to deep, dark places – and stopwatch tells you he can run too. Being in Kona last year and actually feeling the conditions first hand, Patrick Lange finishing at sub–6 minute mile pace after almost eight hours is staggering too, while given his performances this year, I would like to squeeze Jan Frodeno into this team somehow too. So many options!

For the women, swim – Lucy Charles. No explanation necessary! For the bike, well I think right now we are seeing Daniela Ryf proving that she is absolutely the best female cyclist we have ever seen in the sport. If she can produce the all round race in Kona on a good day that she is capable of, her own course record will be smashed apart.

For the run, I pick Chrissie Wellington. Her final race in Kona was truly remarkable. She was a broken, physical mess coming into that race after her recent bike crash, yet at her ‘worst’ she had the mental strength and pain tolerance to still beat the best, and she did that on the run. She looked out of contention at T2, but in the first 100m of that run you could see that she was not ready to give up yet. It was a worthy way to call time on a wonderful career. I think we may have seen faster ‘runners’ than Chrissie, but would any of them beaten Mrs Wellington, head-to-head, when the chips were down?

What has been your favourite triathlon to commentate on?

Genuinely, I really don’t know if I could pick just one. While we generically might call it all ‘commentary’, exactly what you are doing, what you are talking about, who you are taking to, will depend upon the type of race, the length of race, where you are within that event, are you ‘on the ground’, the voice in the air, live broadcast etc.

A few that spring to mind:

European Games 2015, Baku, Azerbaijan – I can pretty confidently say I would never have been to Azerbaijan, had it not been for triathlon! That was a great week, working with a great team of people. The British men’s team (Benson, Bishop, Graves) produced perhaps the single best team performance I have ever seen. The domestique / pilot approach to racing has many critics, but on that day Tom and Phil gave absolutely everything they had and Gordon finished the race off in style, holding off their fast finishing Joao Silva. It was a staggering performance from the British team.

Outlaw Half 2017 – A month or so earlier I’d done a big interview with Gill Fullen (https://www.tri247.com/triathlon-features/interviews/gill-fullen-interview-cancer-strikes), a brilliant Age-Group athlete now in the 50-54 category who is just a legend of an athlete. Gill had recovered from cancer and major surgery that winter, but had kept it pretty secret from all but her closest family and friends. We’d spoken privately a few months earlier, as Gill found out that I’d had cancer myself some years previously, and I said that – when / if she was ready – I would be interested in doing an interview with her about it. That time came, and it turned into a long and detailed piece that I wanted to do ‘properly’, and I felt that Gill had really given me her trust and was very open, to someone that she didn’t really know that well. I got to know her better through that – and that interview was very widely read. So, when she then won – overall – the Outlaw Half a month later and I got to be the one explaining to the crowd who this was and calling her across the line – it was a special moment.

Glasgow 2014 & 2018 – Commonwealth Games and the recent European Championships, both wonderful events at Strathclyde Park. Great venue and both brilliantly organised. I’m a big fan of Nicola Spirig (who also won in Baku), and so it really is a pleasure to be able to just watch her at her best and be able to share that with the crowd. The Mixed Relay events at both were also brilliant. The battle for Silver and Bronze in 2014 between South Africa / Australia / Canada was epic, while last week just shows how close and unpredictable the relay format can be. I also really enjoy commentating on the Age-Group races too, and trying to give those and the athletes in them proper attention and focus. The team in Glasgow just did a brilliant job, they really did think about the Age-Group event and I’m pretty sure 800+ athletes will have left with a very positive experience of being part of Glasgow 2018.

I feel guilty not mentioning so many more! My first ever commentary was World Triathlon London in 2010 when Alistair Brownlee hit the wall with 200m to go and wobbled down the finish straight – that quite a start! The Club Relays at Nottingham is just a fabulous race and part of the fabric of the domestic season while doing some live stream broadcasts is a different buzz. I hope there are plenty more highlights to come in the future.

Athletes online: Research finds technology is fuelling exercise addiction

Twitter_Logo_WhiteOnBlueHeadline points:

  • My research has found that the risk of exercise addiction in ultra-endurance athletes (marathon runners, long distance cyclists, half / full Ironman triathletes) is 44.7%. This figure is higher than has previously been reported in other sports.
  • My research also found that endurance athletes using connected health technologies (such as fitness trackers) and social media in their training are increasing their risk of becoming addicted to exercise.
  • Athletes who use lots of technology and are at risk of exercise addiction are often using technology to seek out an online community to cope with the loneliness of their training. These online communities support athletes, but also facilitate them in extensively comparing themselves against other athletes which can cause them stress, increase injury risk, lower potential performance and reduce enjoyment in their sport.

New research I have just published has found that technologies which are often designed to help those with poor fitness to increase their exercise levels are also being used extensively by ultra-endurance athletes and the ‘stickiness’ of these tools is pushing some of them into exercise addiction. Those using a large number of technologies in their sport were found to have the highest risk of exercise addiction. There was a significant positive correlation between the level of use of fitness technology and risk of exercise addition. 4.6% of the variance in risk of exercise addiction could be explained by the level of use of fitness technology. While the strength of the link was not large it is important as fitness technologies, especially trackers and social media, are now used so much by athletes.

The same research found the level of ultra-endurance athletes who are at risk of becoming addicted to their sport is 44.7%. Across the key sports this breaks down into triathletes (46.1% risk), runners (44.3% risk) and cyclists (39.6% risk).

Exercise addiction usually begins as a beneficial activity but over time progresses to a state that is pathologically excessive. When the person uses exercise to modify their mood, requires increasingly higher doses, gets frustrated and angry at the thought of missing a session, sees physiological changes if they try to withdraw and then relapses when stopping, they risk losing self-control over their exercising. The tipping point is often when the compulsion to exercise is prioritised over other parts of the athlete’s lifestyle; harming their social relationships, work focus or family time and causing conflicts. It can have damaging effects such as injury, personal inconvenience, marital strain, interference with work or reduced time for other activities.

The research found the most commonly used technologies by ultra-endurance athletes were; GPS watches or trackers (92.2%), online trackers (84.3%) and Facebook (70.2%).

In my research I found that exercise addiction is a really under researched area, but one which is important for sports psychologists, coaches and athletes to know more about as it can cause such distress for athletes, and sometimes their families too. Diligence and focus is necessary in order to be a great endurance athlete but when we get too absorbed and inflexible around our training, particularly if we are intently tracking our data, we can lose sight of our real goals and cause ourselves harm.

The study saw that the high technology using, at risk of addiction athletes, were often using technology to seek out online communities to help them cope with the loneliness of their training. The in-depth interviews with these athletes found while they really valued these communities, the technologies also allow them to extensively compare themselves with other athletes. This comparison is causing them stress and pressure, increases their likelihood of getting injured, lowers their potential performance and reduces their love of their sport. A particular risk on relying on the online community for support comes when an athlete gets injured. It can increase the isolation they feel and prompt feelings of jealousy or despondency about what they cannot do. If they are training as a coping mechanism for other things (often stress or mental health issues) then not being able to train, and losing all support mechanisms at the same time, could exacerbate the original issues.

I also found that the gamification of some of these technologies, alongside personality traits which see athletes work incredibly diligently towards their sporting goals, means that they can get fixated by the data and have a strong adherence to using the tools. What was eye-opening in this study was that technologies like Strava or Garmin were driving some athletes to deviate from their own ‘real life’ goals. This reduced their chances of achieving success and, far worse, increased their risk of injury. The way these technologies allow athletes to compare their data to others can cause some to worry about what others think and is pushing them to question themselves or second guess their coaches or training plans. In some cases, the athletes reported this had caused them to become injured or to burnout. Others stopped them enjoying their sport and began to label themselves a failure.

Q&A:

Why do you only talk about ‘risk’ of exercise addiction rather than exercise addiction?

In studies like this we tend to assess risk of exercise addiction rather than diagnosed exercise addiction as an addiction needs to be diagnosed in a one to one situation directly with a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. It would be irresponsible to try to do this online. What we can do online however is identify if the indicators of exercise addiction are evident.

What can athletes who are worried they are addicted to their sport do to tackle this?

Athletes worried they may be too absorbed in their sport in a way that could be causing them harm should read the following statements and consider how many apply to them:

  • My exercise is incredibly important to me
  • I have increased the amount of training I do
  • I use exercise to improve my mood.
  • I struggle when I can’t exercise
  • I feel guilty when I can’t exercise
  • When I stop exercising for a while I always go back to it and often with more intensity
  • My sport gives my life a focus and I can feel aimless without it
  • Competing in my sport has caused conflict with friends, family or work.

If they recognise themselves in a significant number of these (particularly the point about causing conflict) then it would be beneficial to seek treatment. Currently CBT and motivational interviewing are the suggested routes to try.

What are the main risk factors for exercise addiction?

Previous research has found an athlete’s addiction risk increases:

  • When race distances get longer
  • When training hours increase
  • When the level of competitiveness rises
  • As athletes get older
  • If an athlete has a higher BMI
  • If an athlete has an eating disorder
  • When certain personality traits (narcissism, extroversion, conscientiousness, excitement-seeking, perfectionism and achievement striving) are strong

Who took part in the study?

  • 255 amateur endurance athletes (average age 41 but ranging from 19-70) completed an online survey in the summer of 2017.
  • Eight of these athletes who have a risk of addiction and use a lot of technology in their training were also interviewed in depth about how they use technology.
  • On average the participants:
    • Had been competing in their sport for 9 years and 3 months.
    • Train for 10 hours and 16 minutes a week.
    • Have a risk of exercise addiction of 22.74. The measure use gives scores from 6 – 30. Anyone scoring 24 or over is considered to be at risk.

What technologies are ultra-endurance athletes using?

The most commonly used technologies were:

  • GPS watch or tracker (92.2%)
  • Online tracker (84.3%)
  • Facebook (70.2%)
  • Twitter (39.6%)
  • Posting on a forum (35.3%)
  • Using an online training diary (34.5%)
  • Being in WhatsApp group (27.8%)
  • Listening to sports podcasts (18.4%)

Learning from the best: Jasmijn Muller – mental toughness

J Muller 1

Jasmijn is the current World 24 hour Time Trial champion. She is known for her mental toughness. Her she talks about those elements of her training and racing where that mental toughness really shines through.

 

 

 

 

On picking her challenges…

My awareness of challenges usually comes through reading, hearing about or seeing others do cool things. For something to grasp my interest sufficiently to then become a goal, there needs to be an emotional connection (it needs to excite me and make my heart buzz) as well as a logistical fit (with work, lifestyle and support network). It either needs to be a step up from something I have done before (e.g. stepping up from a 12/24-hour to a multiple day/week challenge) or something entirely new that nonetheless allows me to build on skills/strengths developed to date (e.g. going from long distance supported to unsupported racing). Essentially, the goal needs to scare and excite me in equal measures and allow opportunities for self-development and learning. I am not someone who enjoys doing the same thing year in year out.

On sticking to goals…

I keep a blog and use social media as much to share my journey with others (to take something from both my successes and failures) as a way to commit myself to my goals. Sharing goals helps with accountability and also provides opportunities for social connections, support and advice. I also find it essential to work with a coach to help me set out the steps I will need to take to work towards my goals and to give feedback on my progress. If left to my own devices it is just too easy to either overdo it or to put off things to tomorrow. I am goal-driven, but also know when to be flexible when life gets in the way. I don’t like unfinished business. I don’t expect to achieve my goals upon my first attempt, but as long as the desires to achieve a goal still burns strong enough, I’ll keep pursuing its, even if that means that I will need to move the goal posts or delay the challenge. There are times where it is hard to stay focused, especially when planning and preparing for a goal over a prolonged period of months or even years. But those moments are easily overcome by reminding myself how badly I want to achieve this goal (breaking the solo women’s cycling record from Land’s End to John o’Groats).

On how she approaches training…

Key steps are to define the goal, identify the key ingredients required to successfully achieve my goal and asses those areas where I am currently weak. It is important for me to keep a training diary for physical training, but also keep feedback notes about how I was feeling during those sessions, what I ate and drank, what logistics I experimented with etc. I like to keep lists and enjoy ‘ticking’ off things or seeing TrainingPeaks boxes turn green when completed. It is also important for me to work on both weaknesses and strengths. If I only work on improving weaknesses I can loose motivation and feel down about my abilities. It is nice to mix things up with a few sessions where I get to work on strengths and feel more in control of things. I am happy working on my own, but also enjoy being able to call on others and use them as a soundboard. From time to time I get carried away by wanting to enter additional challenges or events that I know full well do not contribute to my overarching goal, but just seem so much fun and are are so tempting. In moments like these I would contact my coach for his opinion. Usually this results in weighing up my underlying motivations for wanting to do those challenges and identifying to what extent they are distractions or can usefully serve the bigger goal.

On how she approaches racing…

I certainly have done plenty of races where I just hoped for the best or set off way to fast, hoping/thinking I may be able to hold on, but I have become more and more methodical over time. I no longer leave things to luck. Much of the goal I am working towards hinges on good planning and preparation. That includes planning of the route (e.g.potential road works, closed bridges, peak traffic times), planning the logistics (e.g. support vehicles, available drivers, crew manuals), adjusting my nutrition to the route profile, weather and intensity of effort (e.g. timing, type of nutrition, location of handups) and selecting appropriate equipment and kit, to name but a few. Planning for my goal is complicated by the fact that it does not just concern me, but also the support team. My challenge is dictated by the weather and thus complicated by not knowing when it will actually take place until 48 hour or maximum 72 hours in advance. This has implications on available support crew, travel and accommodation arrangements and also has financial implications. To be best prepared for this uncertainty and last-minute mayhem it is crucial to have a very detailed master plan ready that can be put into motion at short notice, that gives enough guidance yet is flexible enough to adapt on the go. This is where support from others is vital and where as an athlete I want to be able to delegate, switch off and just focus on my physical and mental preparations. I have tried to do it all myself in the past and learned that that does not work and something has to give.

For important races, I recce the route and take a detailed look at the wind, weather, road surface etc and use specialised software to allow me to assess the required power profile to achieve the target speed or distance I will have targeted for that event and to model my pacing plan. Nutrition, bike set up and kit will be tailored to the challenge and tested in training.I make packing lists, pack the night before and I even make diary entries and set reminders on the day for what time I need to get changed, when I need to start my warm up, what time I need to make my way to the start etc. The routine helps me to stay focused.

On her motivation…

My underlying motivation for long distance riding is based on a mix of performance goals and self-development goals. Although I enjoy just riding long distances, I think I would get bored if there wasn’t a competitive element in at least some of my rides. Long distance racing satisfies my need for speed AND my need for adventure. I am an ambitious person but also a curious and fiercely independent person. Long distance racing allows me to explore and expand my physical and mental boundaries; it allows me to grow as an athlete, but more importantly to grow as a person.

My immediate motivation for breaking the LEJOG record is three-fold. There is the personal performance challenge: I want to take that next step up from being successful at 24-hour races to something twice the length. Then there is the romantic pull: Racing across the length of a country under my own steam and hopefully following in the footsteps or some phenomenal male and female heroes who have achieved this feat before me. It is this impressive and unique history that, if successful, gives my attempt meaning and hopefully inspires someone else to break my record in turn. Although it is important not to let emotions take the overhand while I am actually racing, it is important to me that my goals are underpinned by a strong passion/emotion. That ties in with the final part of my specific motivation for wanting to break the LEJOG record: It is also an important way to raise money for Cancer Research UK, the charity through which I got involved with cycling in the first place, that I want to give back to each time I ‘up’ the challenge and which does such important work to help find cures for one of the leading causes of death.

On owning her performances…

In time trialling (the type of racing I mostly do) it is not uncommon to see athletes making excuses. It often even starts before the events with comments or social media posts like ‘Not the ideal preparation for this race due to …’ a busy week at work, illness, injury, sleep issues , you name it, ‘but hoping for the best’. After often amazing performances, this may then be followed by a comment like ‘happy with my time of x or nth position, despite aforementioned issues, being held up by traffic, a headwind, etc etc’. Yet, all participants face more or less the same conditions and in races like that most people are amateurs and have to deal with the realities of life intervening. I can’t say that I haven’t been guilty of such comments myself in the past, but when you fall short of your goals, you are ultimately better off focusing on those things that were entirely within your control and reviewing what you can do to improve than to dwell on the excuses of external factors.

Success is never mine alone. I have a strong support network of friends and family enabling to do these races and work with a coach, sports psychologist and sports massage therapist to put me in the best possible physical and mental condition. Many of the races I do are supported races and rely on volunteering friends and family handing up bottles by the side of the road at all times of the day and night. I couldn’t have won National 24 and World 24 hour TT championships without their support.

On bouncing back after a failure…

It is important to realise that failure is always an option. Of course, this depends on how you define success, but success is never guaranteed. Whether in sport or in business, people tend to look for ‘top tips’ for success or ‘best practice’ examples. Nobody deliberately strives for failure, but failure can also be a gift that ultimately helps you grow. And that, after all, is what I am seeking from pushing my boundaries in cycling. It is about the journey of self-discovery and development, more so than a hunt for fast times, records, titles or any other badges that may be the tangible results.

Success is great. It is what we all strive for and what everyone wants to hear about. Sometimes success happens because of sheer luck; more often it comes as a result of hard work and a lot of trial and error. But when you succeed, it is easy not to query enough why you were successful and what you can learn from it. Failure can be a bitter pill to swallow, but also a great opportunity for self-reflection, to evaluate why things went wrong and what you can do next time to make sure you don’t fall into the same trap again. Failure helps to build resilience, grit and determination to succeed at the next attempt. Failure is a gift we should perhaps all permit ourselves to at least consider as a plausible and valuable option.

It is important to allow some time to deal with the disappointment. You need to get those emotions out of your system. For me that is often by taking some time out, by doing some different things, by realising that there is more to life and that sports performances and achievements (or failures), do not define who you are, they are just part of what you do. After that, my analytical mind is usually keen to assess what went wrong and why, and if I still feel strong about my goal, to identify how to improve next time and make a game plan for the next challenge or next opportunity to try and achieve that goal after all. Sometimes, I work through these steps alone, but often I involve others be it as soundboards or to get a different view on things.

Failure forces you to be honest with yourself. It forces you to pause and reflect.  I have seen people ‘fail’ big goals only to realise that they were chasing the wrong goal for the wrong reasons. The beautiful thing about amateur sports is that we have choice. As long as your goals give you a buzz and fill you with excitement, keep chasing your dreams. If not, take a break, refocus and find something else that makes you happy.

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.

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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.”