Vicarious confidence – taking inspiration from those around you

I write and talk a lot about confidence – it is one of the main reasons athletes come to see me. I will often explain that from my reading of the sport psychology literature in confidence I’ve identified 12 main sources:

  1. Previous performances and skills mastered
  2. Extensive preparation
  3. Vicarious experiences
  4. Verbal persuasion
  5. Trust in advisors
  6. Environment comfort and familiarity
  7. Social support
  8. Innate factors (feeling naturally talented)
  9. Athlete’s view (it is all going well)
  10. Physiological traits (interpreting nerves as excitement not anxiety)
  11. Self-presentation (Feeling they have the right body, arm span, kit, equipment etc)
  12. Competitive advantage (having played and beaten opponents before)

The first two are really robust. These are the ones we can focus upon to give ourselves the best chance of success; Mastery of Skills and Experience and Preparation. I’ve written a piece on each recently for Performance Kitchen: Mastery (coming soon) & Preparation.

So, what of the other 10 sources. Are there any we can proactively work on?  One to focus on today – and something that is lovely to do over holidays when we reflect on our year – is looking at where you can gain confidence from others – the Vicarious experiences. This is where we gain our confidence from watching others perform successfully, especially if they are people we have some affinity or similarity with.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the people in my life who (without having any idea) prompted me over the years to go for what I waned when I was really scared to do it. Each of these people accidentally taught me a real lesson in bravery and seeing their achievements helped me make really difficult choices which have more than paid off.

10 years ago just before Christmas I cycled to meet a friend (and my triathlon coach) Annie Emmerson. We had lunch. She was pregnant with her now nine year old daughter. We chatted about work and she told me all about her long term career goal. I was amazed that someone who was about to have a baby would have an ambitious goal like that and would take a leap into going for it. But she did. Her goal has been hit many times. It meant when I got pregnant I could see that it was ok to have a baby and still go for my career goals at the same time.

Even longer ago I worked in a government agency as a communications manager. It was a small office (fewer than ten of us) and we were a mix of marketing and communications people. One of the marketing girls, Steph, was just a huge bundle of fun in the office and always really creative. We all gradually moved on to different roles and lost touch, until I saw her on Facebook launching a business. She’d had her first baby and received tonnes of flowers she didn’t have enough vases for or the energy to look after and had a genius idea to create a box of goodies for new mums. I followed her progress and she was instrumental in making me think that if someone who is not that different to me (although she pulls off an ace fringe in a way I could never even hope to) and had a similar job could set up and run her own business that maybe it was within my capabilities too. Her business: Don’t buy her flowers is doing amazingly and has expanded to cover every occasion you could imagine. She showed all of us around her if you have a fab idea and take a risk it can pay off.

Then, finally, when I was unhappy in my last grown up job I had an idea that I would love to understand more about behaviour and our brains and particularly how they work in sport. I loved triathlon but knew I only did ok from hard work – there is not a sporting gene in my body! I was curious about how mindset and attitude could influence sporting success. I really wanted to go and study it but I already had three degrees and a mortgage and who on earth goes back to uni at 37? Randomly and separately two people I followed on twitter Helen Russell and Michelle Gywnn were both vocal about how, as adults, they were going back to university, to take an MSc. Again, it felt that if they could do it, so could I. I wouldn’t be the only one taking a massive risk, I’d have others around me doing the same. I started an MSc. Then did another for good measure!

As a result of seeing the efforts and bravery of four people a little bit like me, I now have a business I adore running. While none of them set out to inspire or bring anyone else confidence – they were just getting on with their own lives – inspire and bring confidence they did.

So, if you feel you need a boost, or to gain some confidence don’t look to Instagram or in the magazines for celebs to follow. Look at those around you, who are similar to you, and take your confidence from them.

Review: This Girl Ran, Helen Croydon

This girl ranI set myself a goal for 2018 to read 25 endurance sport books. These can be autobiographies, text books or popular psychology books. I plan to review them all (as I’m often asked on twitter and by clients for good books to read about sport psychology). Five books in and finally writing my first review for This Girl Ran by Helen Croydon.

All triathletes have their stories of how naively they started out and how they struggled through their early races not having a clue about the etiquette, rules or culture they were throwing themselves into. In this book Croydon has all of these, but also provides it the juxtaposition of the fact she wasn’t coming from another sport or having done a bit of something in the past. She was coming from full on London Party Girl. She talks about the process of swapping delicate heals for clompy bike shoes, wet look trousers for wetsuits and cream blazers for hoodies. It is a growing up, discovering yourself journey but with added lake weed and a lot of mud.

I’m not usually a fan of these ‘girl done well’ books, or the ‘amateur starting out in a sport’ memoirs but having worked with Croydon recently I felt I should read her book. I’m really glad I did. Not only did it take me down a memory lane of my own start in triathlon but I thought it would be a really nice way of learning about running and triathlon if you were new to the sport. She has snuck in some really good advice on kit, training, mental approaches, physiology and race tactics without it feeling patronising or awkward.

From the sport psychology perspective I loved Croydon talking about the distraction techniques she uses to get her through the tough times on longer runs or bike rides. She uses fractions, doing the maths over and over in her head of how much she has done, or how much further she has to go. This has the effect of chunking up the race into much smaller parts, making it feel much more achievable.

Croydon also made me reflect upon my own approach to racing, and that of the athletes I work with. She talks about how she realised she didn’t have a natural talent for sport, or the physiology to be the best, but that she could be on control of the dedication and discipline she put into trying to achieve her goal. This was a really good reminder that we should stop comparing ourselves to others and focus on the processes in our sports we can control. It is a line which has been playing on my mind since finishing the book and has given me a swift kick up the bum to work harder. And something I’ll be reminding the athletes I work with. So for the giggles, the tips and the inspiration, This Girl Ran is worthwhile reading, especially if you have just taken your first steps into the world of triathlon.



Tribe of Mentors. 55 pieces of great advice


Terris book









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

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

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


10 books to add to your reading list

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


9 giant billboard phrases

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


8 great pieces of advice

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


7 ways to turn down requests or invitations

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


6 habits to copy

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


5 ways to reflect on failure

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


4 ways to find your focus

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


3 ways to solve a problem

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


2 bad recommendations

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


1 worthwhile investment

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



Learning from the best: Matt Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sets really realistic goals…

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

He uses lots of visualisation…

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

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

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

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

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


Is your Garmin making you addicted to exercise?

Tech logos for presentationI have been working on a piece of research over the last year to try to see if there are any links between the amount of fitness technologies athletes use and their risk of exercise addiction. I am presenting the findings at the annual conference for Sport Psychologists next week in Glasgow. The slide deck and notes I will be using can be read here: Technology and exercise addiction

I’ll write up a more easily accessible blog on the findings in the future but for those who would like to know more immediately this slide deck should give some of the answers.

Becoming a sport psychologist

I get at least a couple of emails each month asking how to get into sports psychology and whether I can offer work experience. I also give quite a few talks to sports science students in schools on what sport psychology involves. While I love chatting directly (and am always happy to do if you have any questions) I thought a blog post answering the most common questions could be helpful. The thoughts I’ve written here are all from my personal experience and I’ve tried to be as frank as possible but everyone will have a slightly different experience and background that they bring into sports psychology so it is just a general guide.


Where do sport psychologists work?

A million dollar question!

  • Some sport psychologists work in universities or colleges teaching sport psychology and work with athletes or teams in the evenings or weekends. This is a great way to get guaranteed decent income and keep on top of the latest research and ideas. You also have good access to athletes as you’ll be surrounded by student athletes in the university.
  • Some sports psychologists work directly for teams or national governing bodies. They are often employed through the English Institute of Sport who supply sport support specialists to Olympic and Paralympic governing bodies. More and more Football, Cricket and Rugby teams are also taking on Psychologists now too.
  • Finally, there is a group of Sports Psychologists who work for themselves or in consultancies working on contracts or directly with athletes and often using the same skills and techniques with people in business too.

What do Sports Psychologists do each day?

Another million dollar question! I tend to split my work into five areas:

  1. Dissemination. Writing for magazines or giving talks, workshops and lectures about sport psychology and how athletes of all levels can use psychology to improve their performances.
  2. Counselling. Working with athletes who need some support to help them enjoy their sport more. This will be particularly helpful if athletes are close to retirement or are injured and need to explore what else outside of sport they may want to get involved with.
  3. Performance excellence. Working with individual athletes to teach them skills, techniques and strategies to help them perform better and feel more comfortable when they compete in their sport.
  4. Performance breakdowns. Often athletes will come to me with one specific thing that they can see is holding them back. We work together to find some strategies to resolve these issues.
  5. Media training. My background is in PR and Communications so I work with athletes (and other high performing professionals) to help them navigate the issues around dealing with the media, make them feel more comfortable when doing it and stop any fears about dealing with the media impacting on their performance.

What qualifications do you need?

To be able to call yourself a Sport and Exercise Psychologist you need to have completed and passed:

If you want to work in psychology but are not worried about being able to use the official ‘psychologist’ title, instead of going through the BPS you can sign up with British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) and follow their supervised practice training instead.

How long does it take?

If you follow a straight line from BSc to completing Stage 2 and did it all full time it would take six years.

How much does it cost to qualify?

This will be different at each university and with different supervisors but for me it cost:

  • MSc Psychology Conversion course: £6,400 for the year (UK national)
  • Stage 1 – MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology: £7,300 for the year (UK national)
  • Stage 2 – BPS Supervised practice: Around £6,000 to the BPS for the full period and around £1,500 a year to your supervisor.

Can I train part time?

Yes. The MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology can usually be completed part time and it is up to you how long you take to do the Stage 2 supervised practice so you can do that alongside another job. With the Stage 2 supervised practice you are essentially gathering evidence that you can work effectively in four areas:

  • CPD – learning new skills to increase your knowledge and expertise
  • Research – a big research project which is expected to be at the standard of PhD research.
  • Dissemination – knowing how to communicate sport psychology knowledge, information and techniques. This could be through a mixture of conferences, workshops, magazine writing, a blog or teaching.
  • Consultancy – this is the work you do with individual athletes.

To pass you are expected to be able to show evidence that you have completed around 550 days of work across these four areas (which is why it takes at least 2 years full time).

How can I get work experience?

It is incredibly difficult to get work experience in psychology as client confidentiality is so important. Therefore it is very unlikely you would be able to sit in individual athlete sessions. There are a few things you can try though:

  • Skills for Performance course: There is a fantastic course run by the English Institute of Sport each year called Skills for Performance. When I attended it was five days and held at Loughborough Uni. It gave a fantastic insight in what Sport Psychologists working in Elite sport were doing and how they worked with athletes and other members of the support team. Keep an eye out on the EIS twitter feed to apply: @eis2win
  • Workshops: Many Sport Psychologists run workshops for athletes or sports parents and sitting in on one of these will give you a great insight in how the theories you learn in university are translated into applied practice. Ask any sport psychologists you follow on twitter or have met if you can attend any of their workshops.
  • Attend conferences: Conferences can be a brilliant way to learn about new research, and learn new applied techniques. The BPS DSEP (Dept of Sport and Exercise Psychology) runs a great conference every December and they offer discounts to students to attend. BASES also run conferences.

What is the industry like?

Considering there are so many sport psychologists and so few jobs I’ve been incredibly surprised by how lovely the other sport psychologists I’ve met are. It is a small sector and everyone is very helpful and supportive. It is welcoming and inclusive.

Analyse your year – get set for next

Brave listMost athletes in individual sports have now finished their seasons and many have had a training break too. Now comes winter training, which can feel a bit daunting when you don’t have anything in the near future to focus on. A great activity to do during this period involves nothing more than your favourite drink (a large very hot latte for me please!), a pen and this Annual analysis sheet. Page 1 will help you think about all you have achieved this year, consider what you learnt and put any issues or problems into perspective.

Page 2 helps you look at next year. What do you want to achieve? What will you do differently. What is getting you excited about next year (and if there isn’t anything you need to go race hunting!).

Finally, something I always do for each year that I learnt from a friend who runs the website is to set a word for the year. This year my word was Brave. When I dithered about anything, or thought it was beyond my abilities or my status, I reminded myself I was aiming to be brave and got on with it. I created a ‘Brave list’ and jotted down every time I did something I felt brave doing, and I jotted next to it the outcome. Looking back over it, at least half of the 30 new things I had to summon up some bravery to do were successful. So 15 things I’d have not achieved without that word. So what is your word going to be?


5 ways to feel more positive

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

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

Focus, uninterrupted

I work with athletes to improve their performances in their sport. An element of this which seems to becoming increasingly important is minimising the number of stressors and hassles they feel they need to cope with. A common stressor is their difficulty in focusing on anything (sport, school or work) because of constant interruptions they feel they need to deal with. Most of these interruptions come from technology.

I am undecided if technology is amazing for athletes – or a hinderance. There are ways it can really help us in our sport; tracking what we do on GPS, allowing easy access to course routes, providing video clips of our competitors, even simply allowing us to research new ideas, training plans or performance advice quickly. But it can also make us unhappy when we can no longer just go for an easy run or ride without worrying about how followers will judge the figures we post, when we can never switch off as our phones bombard us with notifications and reminders of other’s training. A quick glance at @stravawankers on twitter will highlight how seriously many people take their technology when training.

In its place technology can be amazing. But with technology being with us everywhere (the majority of people reading this will be on a mobile or tablet) that place may have expanded too much. And that is when the troubles come. Chatting to a friend and an alert pops up, trying to write a report for work and a dozen emails arrive throughout it – probably with some annoying sound attached.

Some great research has found that these distractions are harming our ability to perform:

  • The Carnegie Mellon Human-Computer Interaction Lab has found multi-tasking is bad for us as we end up doing each thing at a worse level than if they were done with full focus. The constant switching between tasks means we not only do more of our tasks poorly but that we also waste time trying to get back into each thing.
  • Research in California from Gloria Mark found it takes 25 minutes to get full focus back after an interruption, and that on average, office workers are interrupted every 11 minutes.
  • All of these interruptions and requirements to switch come at neurobiological cost says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin as they only deplete our mental resources and mean our brain stores information and memories in the wrong places. He says that our brains use glucose as a fuel, and every time you switch tasks more glucose gets burned. Over the day this excess use of glucose will make you feel tired and mentally depleted. When you get into this state you start releasing cortisol, the stress hormone which puts your body into a stress state. While your body focuses on trying to protect itself from whatever is trying to attack it, it shuts down your higher cognitive thinking and becomes unable to think clearly or solve complex problems.
  • One of the most interesting facts from his recent book on how to think straight in the age of information overload is that we now take in five times more information each day that we did 25 years ago. This is nine DVD’s worth on information a day!
  • Finally, research from professor of Psychology Glenn Wilson has found that when you are trying to focus on something, simply knowing that there is an unread message in your email inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.

How can we help ourselves focus?

  1. Understand how often you get interrupted and whether the interruptions are from others or yourself.
  2. If you have a big project to work on or know you need to focus hard on something find somewhere private to work. Switch off all devices. Put an out of office on your email and whatsapp saying you’ll reply later. Send your phone to answerphone. Tell those who interrupt the most that you need time to focus. And leave your phone elsewhere so you don’t get tempted to switch it on.
  3. If you know the interruptions are self-inflicted (especially phone checking) then decide on a goal to minimise them. How many times a day would it be acceptable to you to check your phone? Would you feel comfortable having a permanent out of office message saying you check your emails twice a day and you’ll respond to their email next time you check? Make a plan and tell someone else about your plan so they’ll help you stay on track.

Two immediate actions:

  1. Turn off your notifications: facebook, twitter, whatsapp, intstagram. Check when you want but if something was truly urgent they would phone.
  2. Get self-aware of just how often you check your phone. There are some apps to do this:
    1. Moment – tells you how many minutes you spend on your phone each day and lets you limit the time you are on it.
    2. Checky – tells you how many times a day you check your phone. If you want to shame yourself into using it less you can share your scores on twitter. It also shows you where you check your phone which can help you change your behaviours. If you check it for 30 minutes on the tube twice a day but complain you never have any time to read you may realise you could replace that time with a book.

I’m feeling brave so I’m off to download Checky onto my phone. Gulp…

Parents of athletes – helping your child survive and thrive

As it is Sport Parent week I’ve been reflecting on some of the younger athletes I’ve worked with. What struck me was that often these young athletes don’t just excel in their sport. They excel in every area of their lives; their sporting performance, in playing a musical instrument and achieving high grades at school. When you are good at so many things you have a lot of choices, but when you have so many choices, prioritisation can be hard so these young athletes are talent rich, but time poor.

Often with these young athletes, to help them become more self-aware of why they are feeling so much pressure, we will sketch out the 24 hours of their day to see just how much they are doing. It often looks like this…

Area of life   Hours
Sleep is vital for all of us – but especially for young athletes who need sufficient sleep to recover from their sport, memorise what they are learning at school and stave off illness. So we always put down 8 hours for sleep. Ideally they would also have an hour before bed to chill out. Sleep 8



Calming down to sleep 1
School – many of the athletes I work with are at schools requiring them to attend between 8am and 4pm. They are getting at least 1-2 hour’s homework on top of that. Add another hour at least for travel there and back School 8


Homework 2
Travel 1
Training – most athletes are training for at least an hour, sometimes more a day, either working on technique in their sport or fitness sessions. This, with travel, takes up to 3 hours a day. Training 1.5


Travel 1
Music or other hobbies – many athletes are also expected to spend an hour a day on a music lesson or practice. Practice 1


Total 23.5

This leaves 30 minutes for breakfast, having a meal with their families, hanging out with friends, playing Xbox or watching TV; all the things which will help them relax, recover and enjoy life.

These athletes have some of the best chances in life. They love what they are learning and they are enthusiastic and passionate. But they can find themselves under a huge amount of pressure and struggling just to keep up. With such a packed life they may just not have time to get the headspace required to cope with these levels of stress. And while they may be able to tick over in winter when summer comes and you throw sports competitions and exams into the mix they may hit their coping tipping point.

If you are parenting one of these athletes maybe sit down with them (or chat whilst taking them to school or training), and find out if they are aware of just how much they are trying to achieve, if they can see where their time is going, ways they think you could help them to free up more time, help them make plans for the crunch periods and, most importantly, remind them that if sometimes they need a break from it all that is fine and that you love them for who they are, not how much they achieve.