Book Review: Bespoke (Tom Bromley)

I was recently working on a piece for Cycling Weekly on Imposter Syndrome and realised one of the reasons cycling can seem such a mysterious world (even to really competent riders) is the history and the language. We may know that simply grabbing our bike and going for a ride is enough to make us a cyclist – even if the ride is just commuting to work or to the café to meet friends – but deep down when we know there are hundreds of years of stories of races, riders and roads we feel we can’t be a ‘real’ cyclist until we have learnt a lot more.

That is where Tom Bromley’s book Bespoke comes in. It is a beautifully illustrated, highly knowledgeable encyclopaedia of cycling. Everything you might need to know to feel like a ‘real’ cyclist and feel less of a wally in group rides or on the club WhatsApp groups when secret squirrels, badgers or herons come into discussion. It covers the big races, the key riders, prizes, interesting stages, nicknames, tactics, cheating and a who is who in any race. It is super easy to read, great to pick up and put down when time is short and breathtakingly illustrated. So many cycling books are full of photos of people cycling which is fine – but this is full of fabulous illustrations I would willingly frame and have on my wall. Helpfully it was being published just as my piece was coming out so he was happy to send me a review copy and chat about the book.

Tom told me he had edited a number of cycling books over the years and it was the history that he found triggered his interest. “Historically, before cycling was on TV, if you were interested in racing you had to dig the stuff out so it became very exclusive and a few people built their knowledge so had more control and power of other people.”

He was keen to break open this secrecy and give more people the power. “Cycling has always been a slightly secretive clubby thing. When the British started time trialling they had to be done secretly by yourself in the morning. Even positive elements like the secret squirrel club looking at ways to tweak and improve where hidden away. This cultural element means cycling sometimes doesn’t feel as welcoming as it should be.”

The lack of cultural accessibility to cycling is odd he says as in many ways cycling is more accessible than any other sports. He points out the Tour de France is on open roads and anyone can go along to watch for free but the cultural secrecy makes it feel less welcoming to ‘outsiders.’ This is before we even touch on the fact it is still predominately white at pro level and female riders are treated as second class in terms of pay, days of racing and equipment. His book opens up the options to feel like less of an outsider.

Tom says his book should give you a little bit of grounding in the knowledge and history of the sport so when watching a race or talking when riding you’ll have more knowledge of where it comes from so it feels easier to fit in. In doing so you suss out the rules and etiquette of cycling and can appreciate cycling as a fan much more. So, if you feel you need to learn your Lantern Rouge from your Poursuivant or your Commissionere from your Soigneur, Bespoke is a really lovely book to do it with.

Book review: Start at the End

Dan Bigham is a cyclist and engineer who wanted to use his engineering knowledge to have a crack at the national team pursuit championships. I won’t give too much of a spoiler but the process went well and gives a story we all love to read; the wannabe’s underdogs taking on the establishment and overcoming. His book covers this journey. It does it in a really accessible way and in doing so highlights the lessons we too can use to hit our own goals.

Dan and I have entirely different backgrounds; he is an engineer and I am a psychologist, so I was dubious how I would find this book. In fact, the only thing I thought we had in common is that we ride bikes (him fast, me pootling), but having read it, it seems that engineers have more in common with sport psychologists than I could ever have imagined.

Dan’s premise as an engineer is if you start with the goal you want to achieve and work backwards then you bypass all the assumptions and historic ways of doing things and you can be far more effective. The more usual process is that we start with what we know and tinker a little to make things better. Dan’s approach strips everything back to basics. Assuming nothing. Or, if there are assumptions, assume there are better ways to do things. He describes his approach as reverse engineering: Set a goal, forensically take it apart, assess your resources, develop your tools, set the plan in motion and deliver the performance. Exactly the route many of us in sport psychology take. Not just in approach but also with specific mental skills we often teach; goal setting, process over outcome, preparation, mastery focus, performance profiling, the importance of your environment, managing the hassles and stressors you are subject to and the additional watts that happiness gives us.

Ten points I particularly loved:

  1. Being yourself is central to success.
  2. Knowledge is more important than talent.
  3. You need inspiring goals.
  4. Innovation comes from passion first – perseverance, success and money will follow.
  5. Don’t look at the competition and what they did to get there – look at what route would work for you.
  6. Try to get ideas sex: The cross fertilisation of different sources or disciplines to give a new way of looking at things.
  7. Ask lots of questions – and encourage others to do so too – and share the answers widely in the team.
  8. Measure what matters.
  9. Data is only valuable if you proactively use it to improve performance.
  10. You need people to be involved in the process if they are going to adopt the outcomes.

Start At The End isn’t just a great story – but a really nice reminder of how to approach performance forensically, intelligently and purposefully – and these lessons don’t just belong in cycling but in all areas of high performance.

It publishes 13th May and is available for pre-order at the usual places like Waterstones

Book Review: Running Stories

I was intrigued about this book as one of the authors (Jerry Lockspeiser) is at the same running club as I am. It was co-authored by Andrew Roberts. I love hearing the stories of runners; what they love about running, what they hate, what helps them to thrive and what helps them survive. Running Stories does this. The book profiles 88 people with only one thing in common; they run.

The stories are themed into six sections; Running Got me Through, Running Journeys, Racing Tales, The Competitive Spirit, It’s About Other People Too and It Makes Me Feel so Good. I love seeing how in each section the benefits of running are laid bare. I particularly loved the stories on the connections we make with others through a shared passion for running – the sense of belonging to a brilliant community that the whole book embodies feels like food for the soul when you are missing being able to run with lots of others.

We are all unique with our own stories and background and journeys but in sport psychology we know that a brilliant way to boost our own confidence is through vicarious confidence – seeing other people a little bit like us doing really well. I would imagine most of us could find a number of people in this book who feel a little bit like us. When we find one of these people we start to think… ‘maybe I could do that too’. In profiling so many everyday people who run, the authors are giving us inspiration and motivation. Accomplished runners will recognise the discomfort, the racing efforts, the injury talk. Potential runners will realise that becoming a runner is more possible than they have imagined.

If you fancy reading Running Stories is available here: Running Stories

11 tools for athletes to build mental fitness over lockdown

At the start of lockdown2 (November 2020) in the UK, Performance in Mind ran some free workshops to teach some tools and techniques that will help us cope better in lockdown and be able to come back to our sport stronger. In January 2021 when the UK went into lockdown3 we ran another session and added in an additional tool; the boost box – because what many of us need right now is a boost. The slides are available below for anyone to learn from:

Locked down running… Head space…Heart space

I’ve not blogged in what feels like forever – basically since April. I have an inbox full of blog ideas I’ve sent myself to work on and they sit there glaring at me – guilt seeping off the screen but, you know, lockdown.

But someone put a comment on the posts about training for Paris that it would be interesting to know what happened once Paris went out the window (currently scheduled for October 18th but I’m assuming it won’t happen) and it got me thinking that it is actually once we suffer a setback that the lessons really begin and we can get stronger – so here I am. Reflecting.

Compared to many others I’ve got away really lightly over lockdown. I’ve not been ill. In fact the three of us (I live with my husband and our 3 year old daughter) have been healthier than ever as we’ve not been run down or outside picking up our usual colds and viruses. My husband can easily work from home and I can still see the athletes I work with over Skype. Athlete work has reduced but writing work increased so it balances out well. But both of us working full time and looking after our daughter has not been easy. There has been far too much Ben and Holly (v v irritating cartoon), not enough ABC Mouse (which is an educational App) to learn her numbers and letters and while we tried to do lots of treasure hunts, bouncing (we gave in half way through and bought a trampoline) and den making it always felt rushed because we had emails piling up and constant guilt about not doing anything properly. On the lovely side though we have skipped together, learnt how to hula hoop and she has finally got brave enough on her balance bike to ask for a fast bike with pedals. In reflection it sounds pretty good. At the time not so good. So much stress from not knowing how long it would last and so spending the whole time feeling guilty about not doing enough of anything and failing at lockdown (not once did we make Sourdough or Banana Bread).

I gave myself 30 minutes a day to run and found one route that was fairly safe to run on (we are in a city – people everywhere and my usual run route banned runners and cyclists) and getting to listen to podcasts normalising that full time work and full time childcare and trying to stay somewhat healthy is really tough.

Most sports psychs I know well don’t have children yet so I was envying the time they would have to really focus on their own growth and development. What really helped was hearing a podcast (Locked Down Parenting – Loved it) with one of the comedians they interviewed being in a really similar situation saying: ‘This isn’t a writing retreat – it is a global pandemic’. Really gave a good kick up the bum to count my blessings.

So what happened to all those miles in the legs, the great habits developed and the mental skills honed in the build up to Paris. To be honest I let most of them go. I’m ok with that. It was great to know I could train properly if I want to but I definitely need a goal to do it. And when I don’t have a goal I’m not built to push myself too hard. I have run five times a week. I did 100 miles in May for Miles for Mind and liked the challenge and I have done a few of my coaches brick sessions but hard efforts don’t entice. I need a purpose to push myself and right now my purpose is just to stay fit and healthy.

Running had become my head space, my place to day dream, learn and come up with new ideas. And I love that. It doesn’t have to feel hard and full of effort. Ambling along with Josh Widdecome (Locked Down Parenting) or Annie Emmerson and Louise Minchin (Her Spirit podcast) in my ears is more than enough.

Our daughter is back at nursery now. The day before she went back she told me: ‘I love you and daddy but I really want to see my friends’ and my heart sang. She wanted normality back as much as we did. And she is absolutely thriving being back.

And yet the desire to race and get fast has stayed away. Instead I’m using running for a lunchtime catch up with my husband or a way to get to the park to see friends for a socially distanced coffee. It is no longer head space but heart space. Allowing me to spend time with people I love. A purpose I’ll hang onto for a while.

Podcasts for Sport Psych geeks

I love listening to podcasts to hear the stories of other sport psychs, to learn new techniques and skills, to build knowledge of new research and just for opening up my world. Here are a selection for those interested in sport psychology. If you have any other suggestions would love to hear about them on twitter: @josephineperry

Sport and Performance Psychology

Finding Mastery (Dr Michael Gervais) – A huge number of followers listen in to hear from some of the most accomplished performers in the world talk about what makes them masters of their own universes.

The Sport Psych Show (Dan Abrahams) – Dan is a qualified sports psych and over his 84 (to date) episodes has chatted with some phenomenal people who work in high sports performance. He focuses on motivation and applied tools so really helpful for those looking for activities to try. 

A Slice of PIE (Hosted by Pete Jackson) – A new podcast exploring Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) in sport, business and other performance fields. Although very new I include because I love Pete’s approach to high performance psychology and trying to understand where what is used in one sector can be really effectively repurposed in another so I’m looking forward to more coming out.

Working in sport

Supporting Champions (Steve Ingham) – I’m a bit biased because I’ve been a guest on Steve’s podcast but it is one I listen to regularly – especially when I feel like a bit of insight into how others might be dealing with their sporting careers. Steve has worked in high performance sport forever (sorry Steve) and it seems like he knows everyone so he has some brilliant guests. He is really focused on their stories and their journeys through their careers so brilliant advice (whether you are just starting out or been going for years) is interwoven throughout.

The Private Practice Startup Podcast (Kate & Katie) – If you are an applied sports psych then although the basis for the chat is America and focused on clinical psychology (so they are in a different ‘system’ to us) the interviewees have great insight and ideas to make private practice really professional and valuable. And the chemistry between the hosts makes you feel like you are listening in to the two of them chatting over a class of wine.

Wider psychology

How did we get here (Claudia Winkleman & Professor Tanya Byron) – Discusses emotions and every day issues using the insight of a clinical psychologist. 

Choiceology (Katy Milkman) – Covers the questions we’ve often wondered (one of my favourites was around why we love specific numbers in sport such as the 4 minute mile or the 2 hour marathon). So if you have questioned it Choiceology has probably considered it. The idea (and why it is sponsored by a finance company) is to expose psychological traps that push us into poor decision making.

General Sport

Don’t tell me the Score (Simon Mundie) – Simon has some fantastic interviewees so although he is focused on sport in general there is lots of psychology interwoven.

Clean Sport Collective – I just adore these interviews – It is American focused but lots of female athletes are profiled and you feel like you privileged to listen into a friendly chat. Full of people who deserve more profile and these guys are helping to achieve that.

Science of Sport Podcast (Ross Tucker & Mike Finch) – If a journalist wants to get a quote from a world-renowned sports scientist they go to Professor Ross Tucker. He fronts up this podcast with sports journalist Mike Finch to break down the myths, practices and controversies in sport. Their episodes on doping and ‘The Shoe that broke running’ are musts if you want to be informed of all the perspectives on these contentious issues. They also include interviews with some of the world’s leading sporting experts. For those who love sport.

Tough Girl Podcast (Sarah Williams) – Sarah has a passion to give female adventurers the exposure they deserve. She knows if you can’t see it you can’t be it so profiling female athletes and explorers is vital and she has set up a brilliant podcast to platform these women and their stories.

Endurance Sport specific podcasts

Marathon Talk (Tom Williams, Martin Yelling, Holly Rush, Tony Audenshaw) – – Love all these guys for their relentless positivity, weekly running updates and fascinating interviewees.

Mind over Muscle (Ant Middleton) –  – I am definitely biased on this one as I’m the resident Sport Psychologist on it but I genuinely think we come up with some good stuff so I’m including it! Ant Middleton (the SAS guy), Mara Yamauchi (two time Olympian and super speedy marathon runner) and I take 5 first time marathon runners towards their first London Marathon in April. Of course (Spoiler alert) we don’t get there as the marathon has been postponed till the Autumn but we have some fun and some tears on the way.

Runners World (Rick Pearson & Ben Hobson) – Has interesting runners on for short chats that are easy to listen to on a shortish run.

The Tripod (Annie Emmerson & Louise Minchin) – – This was a 7 part series last year taking three newbie athletes on their first triathlon. Annie and Louise have lots of superstar friends – they got cycling advice from Chris Hoy, Swimming advice from Rebecca Adlington and some top tips from Vicky Holland. Really relaxed and lots of fun – all while soothing the nerves of the triathletes.

Free Weekly Timed (Vassos Alexander & Helen Williams) – – For anyone with a love of parkrun (which is most people!) this is a great listen hearing from different parkruns, people from parkrun HQ and a weekly quiz.

Others that have been recommended by fellow Sport Psychologists:

Free courses in sport, exercise & psychology

Courses logos

When I was a trainee I was also a new mum. I needed to do as much of my learning and development as I could online while my daughter slept. I found some really valuable courses which were completely free. With the lockdown meaning work is quieter than normal I’ve been using the time to top up my professional development and have really enjoyed it so thought I should share some of the great courses out there for those interested in Sport and Exercise and Psychology. They all come from either Open University, Future Learn, Coursera or Class Central so each are worth checking out if you are looking to do some free learning.

Sport Psychology specific

Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Open University
Course explores the influence of coaching and psychology through the lens of sports people and teams who have been successful. Focuses on coaching practices used with young people and adults, including research and advice of leaders in their fields.

Exploring communication and working relationships in sport
Open University
Covers skills required to boost your ability to vary your communication approach according to the situation and the needs of the people involved.

Exploring the psychological aspects of sport injury
Open University
This course examines the relationship between injury and psychological factors, looking at the link between injury and psychology at two distinct points – before an injury has occurred and then following an injury.

Learning from burnout and overtraining
Open University
A course looking at those sports people who have thrived and those who have experienced burnout. By exploring burnout you will gain a deeper understanding of the physical and mental aspects of sport such as athletic identity, overtraining and perfectionism.

Motivation and factors effecting motivation
Open University
This course explores the term ‘motivation’ and factors affecting motivation. This includes looking at the most influential theories of motivation that contribute to understanding the causes of motivation. The motivation of sports people and people working in sport and fitness environments are used to help understand the theories presented.

Working with client skills

Developing Clinical Empathy: Making a Difference in Patient Care 
St George’s, University of London
To learn skills to help you understand a client’s situation. Helps to develop relationship-building skills such as compassion and empathy. Covers different types of empathy, explores non-verbal cues, and understanding key opportunities for showing empathy in clinical care.

Psychology

Introduction to Psychology
Yale
Provides a comprehensive overview of the scientific study of thought and behaviour by exploring topics such as perception, communication, learning, memory, decision-making, persuasion, emotions, and social behaviour.

Science of Wellbeing
Yale
Challenges designed to increase happiness and build more productive habits. Covers the misconceptions about happiness, annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do, and the research that can help us change.

Learning how to learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects
University of California, San Diego
Provides access to learning techniques used by experts in art, music, literature, maths, science and sports. Covers illusions of learning, memory techniques, dealing with procrastination, and best practices shown by research to be most effective in helping you master tough subjects.

Wider Sport Science

Science of Endurance Training and Performance
University of Kent
Learn about the science behind endurance sports training and performance, including effective preparation and rehabilitation.
(NB: Course not running right now but you can sign up to get an email when it does).

Managing your health – the role of physical therapy and exercise
University of Toronto
Course covers the concepts and benefits of physical therapy and exercise.

The Science of Exercise
University of Colorado, Boulder
Helps you to have an improved physiological understanding of how your body responds to exercise, and will be able to identify behaviours, choices, and environments that impact your health and training.

Introductory Human Physiology
Duke University
Learn to recognize and to apply the basic concepts that govern integrated body function (as an intact organism) in the body’s nine organ systems.

Lifestyle medicine

Essentials of Lifestyle Medicine and Population Health 
Doane University
Covers the foundations of population health and lifestyle medicine and makes the argument for why healthcare delivery models based on these foundational principles are essential to addressing global healthcare crises.

Introduction to Lifestyle Medicine 
Doane University
Lifestyle Medicine is the science and application of 49 healthy lifestyles as interventions for the prevention and treatment of lifestyle-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, some neurological conditions and some cancers. It is bridges the science of physical activity, nutrition, stress management and resilience; sleep hygiene and other healthy habits to individuals through clinical practice in healthcare.

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.

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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5 weeks to go…magic mantra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mantra band

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

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