Why exercise is vital during lockdown

Running postIf you dare to look at your local Facebook group, or the rants on Next Door forums you would find there is a new ‘enemy of the people’. Not a politician, or someone failing to deliver PPE, but ‘joggers’. Who knew someone exercising could be so vilified? The walkers dislike anyone running near them, the runners get annoyed that people are ambling all over the place, the cyclists breeze on by. Frustratingly my usual run route has been completely closed off to runners and cyclists so walkers can use it. We are all in this together but somehow still find our tribe and our enemies. And can get very grumpy about it in the process (and as a runner get grumpier still when I’m labelled a jogger!)

We’ve got at least another 3 weeks of lockdown and increasingly confusing interpretations of what is and isn’t allowed with some wondering why anyone is exercising at all, suggesting it is downright dangerous. A comment on twitter from cyclist Julie Elliott really highlighted this…

Juliet Elliott tweet

So why is walking, running and cycling still allowed?

It is allowed because although it creates logistical challenges, it will maintain the nation’s physical health, improve mental wellbeing and also makes economic sense. In short it will keep people healthier for longer and that is just what the NHS needs right now.

We know what in many parts of the world over two thirds of adults are not active enough. This has led to insufficient physical activity being one of the leading risk factors of global mortality. World Health Organisation studies have found that those who are insufficiently active increase their risk of death by up to 30% and put massive pressures and additional costs onto health care systems. Even if we have a chronic health condition we can still find strong value in exercise, in fact, especially when we have a chronic health condition, there is a huge amount of benefit to exercising.

Physically, exercise improves muscular and cardio-respiratory fitness, improves bone and functional health, reduces the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and lowers the likelihood of falls and fractures.

Mentally, it reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression, boosts mood and quality of life and cuts down loneliness.

It is also thought exercise plays a large part in enhancing our cognitive functions (these are the different aspects of our mental functioning such as our thought processing, memory, attention, concentration and creativity), meaning we become better at controlling our behaviour and regulating our emotions. Pretty helpful when we are dealing with things we’ve never dealt with before.

Together this shows that exercise has tremendous powers which, when taken regularly and with the right intensity, can make a huge difference to our mental, cognitive and physical health. So, what counts as exercise.

It isn’t just physical activity. Exercise is purposeful, with the intention of improving fitness and with at least a slight elevation in your heart rate. Going for a very slow walk while eating an ice-cream or smoking a cigarette (which seems rather common on my local route) might be great for your feeling of wellbeing but isn’t going to do much to improve your fitness. Walking quite briskly, but still being able to chat is the minimum of what we need for both physical and mental benefit. I love this piece from New Scientist explaining it. When we are looking to improve cognitive function the studies suggest we need to be more active – into the vigorous activity level; running, cycling, circuit training, football or rowing types of sports.

And the message is clearly getting through. Sport England commissioned some research which ran at the beginning of April (3rd-6th) and found 63% of adults feel it is more important to be exercising now than they did before Coronavirus. Really interestingly it suggests that the mental health benefits described above aren’t just in research papers, they are being felt, with 67% saying the exercise they are doing is helping them with their mental health during the outbreak. Here is the full release.

So who is right? The walkers, the runners or those staying home?

My view is it is all of them. As long as there is about 30 minutes of purposeful exercise each day where your heart rate rises quite a bit and you get at least a little out of breath then you are doing a good thing for yourself and society. Carry on.

Two weeks in… Interview with Counselling Psychologist Dr Natalie Raiher

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

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

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

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

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

It is changing at all?

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

How are people coping?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. We follow a two pronged approach.

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

Grounding techniques

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

TIm Rogers photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim’s biography:

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

Managing emotion through tough times

Emotion wheelJust a short post as I am trying to fit as much writing in before the schools and nurseries close and I have to work whilst entertaining an energetic and adventurous 3 year old. If any magazine articles get published in the next few months with random Peppa Pig phrases in them you’ll know why!

But as everything is up in the air I have really been thinking about how athletes cope. They are often used to uncertainty and ‘controlling the controllables’ but in this COVID-19 situation what is controllable? If you are someone who likes certainty, and things to grab hold of and dates to work towards and plans and goals then the next few months might be really tough.

Discipline is needed in sport but, when you get really used to following a disciplined approach, sharing your emotions can be hard. We may believe that to be taken seriously we just need to ‘suck it up’. but we can only do that for so long before it harms our wellbeing and then it can then be very difficult to tell people how we feel, what worries us, when we are scared or when we are angry.

Something I have recently started using with the younger athletes I work with is an emotion wheel and I think it could benefit all of us, whatever our age. There are thousands of emotions but I would guess that from the top of our head most of us could only name 10-20. An emotion wheel names 130 of them. If we are soon to be confined to our flats and houses for weeks on end then having good quality, open communication will become vital. Without a way to escape and get some space we may get resentful or hostile. Being able to chat up front about this, looking through the wheel each day and having a chat about which is the word you are currently feeling can help deal with some of those issues and open the door to better communication. Better communication and seeing things from each others’ perspectives will make a much less stressful living environment.

The emotion wheel I usually direct people towards has been created by Geoffrey Roberts and is downloadable here: https://imgur.com/a/CkxQC

Would love to hear if anyone tries it and how you get on.

Racing interrupted…

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

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

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

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

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

Reframing

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

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Unplanned, but beneficial improvement space

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

Helps you become more flexible

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

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

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

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

Kate tweet

Practice without pressure

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

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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.

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!

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.

10 tips… for athletes setting up a Facebook fan page

Facebook

Facebook is the second most popular social networking site in the world with over 1 billion active users. With Facebook it is essential to choose how you would like to use it; as a personal communication tool to stay in touch with friends and family (especially if you spend lots of time away on training camps or competitions), or as a way of promoting you and your sport. If you want to use it for promotion you can either make your regular page open to everyone (which has lots of risks) or you can set up a fan page which can be used for more general social media posts.

A fan page means you can separate out private and public information, and build a more external focused community. There is a limit on the number of friends you can have on a regular page, but no limit to the number of likes a fan page can have. These pages are also indexed in search engine results, so they can be found more easily. You can make someone an administrator of a page on your behalf so they can post for you if you are in competition mode and trying to get into the bubble and staying away from all social media. It will allow you to reach thousands of potential fans by creating a large base of followers, which in turn can help you get funding and sponsorship.

  1. When you set up your fan page the most important thing is to use your name or, if it is taken, differentiate by using your sport. My sporting ability is not worthy of a fan page however if I was significantly faster in my sport it would be Josie Perry Triathlete.
  2. Once the page is created make your profile a professional picture, your cover picture a great action shot and make your biography relevant and up to date. Include links to your other sites (Twitter, Instagram, blogs or website). Make sure you have the right to put up the pictures you do so you don’t end up with a large copyright bill.
  3. Many Facebook pages look unprofessional, are out of date or just look like they were set up to try to get sponsorship. So doing yours properly will make it stand out positively. Great content will get you more followers (or Likes) so really focus on creating value for followers so they feel they get lots of benefit by following.
  4. Decide what you would like the tone of your content to be. Do you want to be seen as funny and entertaining? Factual and interesting? An expert on your sport? A commentator on your sport. Choosing this tone early on helps you put out suitable content straight away.
  5. Take people behind the scenes – what more do they learn from following your page that they wouldn’t see without it. The daily routine of training may be dull to you but the life of an athlete is interesting to many people. If you are travelling to competitions shots from the country you are in are great, and any insight for how things are done differently in the country you are visiting.
  6. Put up your schedule of matches or races – with links to buy tickets or ways to get involved (even race themselves).
  7. If you have any tips or information you have been taught or told by the experts who support you (physios, psychologists, strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists) then share these. This technical expertise will be really well received.
  8. You can upload video directly to Facebook so it plays automatically in your friend’s news feeds. Facebook’s algorithm likes videos which are directly uploaded so they will get more exposure. Think about what might be of interest; particularly training or prep before competitions. A highlight reel of matches or races. Something which works well for this is a video diary around big events so people can see how your training is going leading up to your competition or big event. If you have a high enough profile you can host a Q&A to answer live questions yourself or for you to interview experts you work with.
  9. If you want to give extra thanks to sponsors and more value for their sponsorship you can give them some space on your page with their logo, reviews of their products and how you use them, run a give-away of their products, put up posts with discount codes, put up videos of you using their products or speaking to their staff at company days, thank them for their support. You can use your page to thank others who support you like your coach, physio, strength and conditioning coach, psychologist or nutritionist.
  10. You can share other people’s content: You can set up a Google Alert to find out if anything is posted about you online (it will send you an email if your name is mentioned on a website) and then share that. You can also use a website called Mention (mention.com/en/) to tell you if anything comes up online about your sport so you have access to the latest news and information on your sport to be able to share with your followers.