Racing interrupted…

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

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

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

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

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

Reframing

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

IMG_9446

Unplanned, but beneficial improvement space

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

Helps you become more flexible

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

IMG_9447

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

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

IMG_9448

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

Kate tweet

Practice without pressure

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

IMG_9450

5 weeks to go…magic mantra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mantra band

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

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

 

 

6 weeks to go…Training diary

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

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

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

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

Training diary

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

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

Things you could add into your diary are

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

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

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

7 weeks to go…stars in the dark

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

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

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

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

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

Stars in the Dark

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

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

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

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

8 weeks to race day…Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 weeks to race day…Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

10 weeks to race day…Goal setting

BooksI knew on Monday this week would not be a ‘green’ week as coughing and sneezing flew around everyone in our house. I have asthma and every cold turns into a chest infection (if I’m lucky) or sinusitis (if I’m unlucky) so I try to be really gentle with myself when a cold pops up. Owning a gorgeous but snotty 3 year old means colds pop up a lot (thanks nursery!)

So Tuesday I ran home from seeing a client and then noticing my resting heart rate was much higher than it should be did nothing for a couple of days. Friday I did a bit. Saturday was a planned rest day as I was away working.

The time off meant I did some reading. I actually read two books this week and loved both. Anne McNuff running the whole way across New Zealand inspire me to think more adventurously about running and Ronda Rousey’s mindset for competition is astounding.

Sunday I got back into it and did my long run. 15 miles. Would have been incident free but for the path being completely flooded due to high tide and me having to run a diversion. I’ve run along the Thames path for 11 years now – one day I will learn. As I was out for over 2 hours I did really enjoy catching up on some podcasts though. I love:

  • Doing it for the kids – great for freelancers and small business owners trying to run businesses around childcare. Which makes it sound boring but it’s really funny and full of fab advice.
  • Marathon talk – always helps me feel like I’m not the only one out there for hours and hours and listening to Holly (one of the presenters) interviewing Fergus Crawley who has been doing some crazy challenges to raise awareness for male mental health was brilliant. Made my 15 miles feel pathetic!
  • Free weekly timed – a podcast all about parkrun. I am biased as one presenter does my local parkrun and the other is a friend I’ve known since we both used to time trial but I love the passion and enthusiasm they both show for running. And I’m dead chuffed that I’ll be on the podcast soon talking about running addiction.

So not a green week – but that is why when I set my goals I didn’t set out to achieve a green week every week. I’m realistic and knew at least one cold was likely in 13 weeks and I’m sure more stuff will come along to knock me off track. SO I actually only set myself the goal of getting 4.

So goals. So many studies show that setting clear, specific, realistic and timely goals which come completely within an athlete’s control can increase their motivation, commitment, concentration and confidence, reduce negative anxiety and improve their performance. To me it feels like it can be the key to so much else and so important for keeping us on track.

Once I’d completed my performance profile (in last week’s post) I needed to turn those elements which would make the biggest difference to my performance into my actual goals. The process I used is one I use with all the athletes I work with. I’d already got my outcome goal so the next stage is to create some performance goals along the way. Performance goals give us staging posts to see whether we are on track towards our outcome goal.

The important bits come last – these are the process goals. They give us the building blocks of training and preparation. They are the behaviours, actions, strategies and tactics we need in place if we are to achieve each performance. These are all within our own control (with the right support and work ethic) and following them should ensure we have regular progression as they are gradually ticked off.

Marathon goals

So, I developed mine, stuck them above my desk (so I see them every day) and in my training diary (hopefully something I will also see every day) and so far am on track. Feels really good. I’m a little bit proud of myself!

This week is busy so I’ll be buying some gym passes (Hustle – my new favourite website – you can buy one off passes for gyms you will be working near) and trying to squeeze in whatever I can to get green week number four.

Project Paris…

Paris Logo

I ran my first marathon in 2004. I’ve run one most years since then. But I’m not convinced I’ve ever really tried to run one properly. In fact, I’m pretty sure I haven’t because while being a sport psychologist is fantastic for helping you understand how you can improve in your sport, it is awful for exposing you to your weaknesses. When you spend all day with people striving to be the best in their sports or fields there is no hiding your self-awareness as to where you don’t stack up. I know I have an inner Homer (Simpson) and my spiritual home is the sofa, not the treadmill. I know I negotiate with myself that as long as I’ve done something (even though it is not the session my coach set) then I’m happy with that. As a positive it means I am rarely anxious about my sport and enjoy racing.

In fact, this process; trying to put my sport in context, seeing it as clearly just a hobby and not feeling like my race times define me is a great strategy. It is one I often recommend with athletes who are becoming overly anxious about their sport. But… it leaves me with a niggling feeling I could go faster and I’ll never know. So, for the next 13 weeks I’m going to try and go down the other strategy I sometimes suggest; going all in. Setting a goal that really matters to me, preparing properly, putting in place all the techniques and activities I would suggest to the athletes I work with.

I can’t ever share what we do with athletes, but I can share what I do myself. So over the 13 weeks I plan to share:

12 weeks to go: Explain how I’m shaping my goal

11 weeks to go: Creating my performance profile

10 weeks to go: Developing my goal setting

9 weeks to go: Highlighting how I incorporate my values into my training

8 weeks to go: Identifying my weaknesses – and how I will try to overcome them

7 weeks to go: Identifying my strengths & turning one of these into my super strength

6 weeks to go: Using a training diary properly

5 weeks to go: Developing a magic mantra

4 weeks to go: Working on my what if plan

3 weeks to go: Designing my imagery around the marathon moment I’m most scared about

2 weeks to go: Chunking down my race and planning out tactics for each section

1 week to go: Creating my confidence booster

And to keep myself accountable I’ll be blogging it weekly – because I hope knowing that I have to type about it will scare my lazy self into following exactly what my coach sets. I know it won’t be easy. I have a business to run, amazing clients to see, an awesome three year old daughter I love hanging out with and a book deadline five days before Marathon date (yup – genius planning there!) but I’m genuinely excited about the challenge and knowing there might be someone out there following my journey should give me the kick up the bum I need to stay focused and diligent and consistent until April 5th when I get to run Paris…

 

Mental Health and Mental Performance – Seminar

AASP picThis week I am at AASP Conference. AASP is the Association of Applied Sport Psychologists. There are about 2500 members in 55 countries and about 50% of those members have turned up at conference. That is how good it usually is.

One of the sessions I was most looking forward to attending was on how practitioners support good mental health when they are trying to promote high levels of mental performance. The panellists had experience from youth elites (Valerie Valle at IMG Academy), Olympians (Sean McCann, US Olympic Committee), NCAA students (Vanessa Shannon, Uni of Louisville) and Pro Baseball (Angus Mugford, Toronto Blue Jays). It was pulled together and hosted by Duncan Simpson who is also at IMG Academy and is one of my ‘go to’ guys when I write features as he explains complex research findings in a way that is instantly usable by athletes.

The elements I thought would be helpful for me if I work in a team environment in future and maybe helpful for other Sports Psychs to reflect on:

How the panel deal with tricky or clinical issues when athletes are off at competitions or camps:

  • Realise there is an urgency
  • Have your phones switched on all the time when working with a team
  • Train the sports medicine staff in Mental Health First Aid so they can triage the situation if you are not there
  • Expect tricky things to happen but remember every situation is different so slow down to make decisions
  • Have communication processes in place
  • Be proactive in relationship building with other staff so support can be collaborative.

Stressors and risk factors for poor mental health in athlete populations:

  • Age – around 14 is the time when many mental health issues start to appear – especially if young people are away from home so have more freedom but also more pressure – so we really need to understand what happens to the brain during adolescence.
  • Time travelling – thinking ahead about what might happen if… In competition athletes should be in the moment.
  • The biggest occasions – i.e. Olympics can become a magnifying glass of emotion as it is often a once in a lifetime opportunity.
  • After big events – athletes may struggle even if they did well and if they are not prepared can suffer with depression or substance abuse.

Working in Multi-Disciplinary teams

  • It can be really hard to collaborate across a large number of teams so you will need to identify communication systems which keep you all updated but don’t risk the athletes privacy.
  • Can split mental health and mental performance so there are fewer issues for athletes on what is shared.
  • Collaboration is rarely efficient but it can be very effective.
  • Think about informal connections and discussions which can be had
  • Develop an athlete management system so each athlete feels like they have 1 unified programme.
  • On a team know who your ‘high awareness’ players are who will need more support and attention.

Transition of athletes into a programme

  • Provide coach education so they know and understand what athletes are going through
  • Provide lots of support in an athlete’s first few weeks on a programme
  • Get seen a lot so it is easy for anyone struggling to come and see you.
  • Run an induction session with new athletes – and maybe with their parents too.
  • Do some screening to see who is likely to need support; Anxiety, Patient Health Questionnaire and Eating Disorders.

Transition of athletes out of a programme

  • Be clear everything is on the table for discussion.
  • Most athletes (and often their coaches) will not want to consider what comes next but those who do enjoy performance benefits and an easier time after retirement.
  • We need to prepare them for the ‘after’.

Stigma for athletes of seeing a Psych

  • Coaches and other athletes who have had support can be the best people to spread the word the sports psych can be trusted
  • There will always be discomfort when we don’t have experience of something but most athletes will not have learnt mental skills before so will not know their value- you may need to sell them what you can offer – sell this as ways to maximise potential.

Ways for Sport Psychologists’ to maintain mental health

  • Share our vulnerability
  • Admit we are not perfect but that we are trying
  • Get good colleagues we can consult with
  • Practice what you preach when it comes to self-care: Lots of sleep, good nutrition, other self-identities, lots of support
  • Have boundaries
  • Accept you probably won’t get balance if you are embedded in a travelling team but find your blend and know your non-negotiables and set up routines.
  • Find autonomy and meaning and value and create proactive systems.

Lessons to remember

  • We need to manage our own expectations of what we can achieve (be realistic!)
  • Remember that we are performers too
  • Keep focused on it not being the outcome which matters. Think about what being a good sports psych looks like – it is usually about the process and never about the outcome.
  • Value ourselves – but don’t over value ourselves!

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.