Can training your brain to think like an athlete help you get ahead in life?
It’s easy to see the physical effort that goes into winning an Olympic medal – the blood, sweat and tears are, after all, caught on camera and beamed across the globe. But what we can’t see is what’s happening inside the athletes’ heads – the mental strength that gets them through gruelling tests of endurance and helps them emerge victorious. According to psychologists, it’s this edge that counts. ‘All Olympians have comparable physical ability, but what separates those who make it to the podium is their psychological ability to thrive under pressure,’ says Ruth Anderson, lead psychologist with British Cycling and director of MiND HQ. Here, some of the UK’s leading Olympians (and the people who train their brains) reveal their top tips, so you can get ahead.
Talk yourself up
You know that nagging inner voice that likes to remind you that you might fail? ‘The mistake most people make is trying to avoid negative thoughts altogether,’ says Anderson. But that can actually cause more stress (as soon as someone tells you not to think about something, you’re bound to think about it). The key is learning to manage these thoughts. ‘If your inner critic is telling you that you can’t achieve something, you can either believe it, or ignore it and move on, like successful athletes do,’ she says. Remember, you are in control of your thoughts, not the other way round.
Dr Tracey Devonport, from the University of Wolverhampton, sport and exercise psychologist to many top Olympian athletes, agrees. ‘As humans, we are predisposed to be self-critical. We say sabotaging things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to someone else,’ she explains. ‘We should talk to ourselves as if we were encouraging another person – we’re more productive that way.’ Research published in the Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology has also found that people who speak to themselves using their own name or the pronoun ‘you’ (rather than ‘I’) perform better under stress. Worth bearing in mind before the next big meeting with your boss.
Goal-set like a pro
Speak to any sports psychologist about goals and they’ll explain the importance of the ‘growth mindset’ – the idea that ability is limitless and can be built upon gradually over time. ‘A growth mindset is all about improving yourself by small amounts,’ says Devonport. ‘British cycling coach Dave Brailsford talks about the significance of marginal gains – constantly becoming 1 per cent better at something – and it’s definitely an approach you can apply to everyday life. We should think in terms of small goals [get through that meeting, get a good appraisal] and see everything else as a chance to grow, learn and improve on our ability.’ A lesson for the impatient – little changes seriously add up.
‘I always put my goals on paper,’ adds Team GB cyclist and Wattbike ambassador Joanna Rowsell. ‘I’m much more inclined to stick to something if I’ve written it down.’ Research carried out by the Dominican University of California found that you are 42 per cent more likely to achieve your goals just by jotting them on paper. The same study also found that more than 70 per cent of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend achieved their goals. Time to get texting.
Use your imagination
If you find yourself paralysed by fear, picture yourself doing what it is that scares you. ‘Visualisation is vital for me,’ says Olympic middle-distance runner Hannah England. ‘A couple of days before a race, I’ll set aside 10 to 15 minutes to picture what’s going to happen when I arrive at the stadium, – where the loos are, where I’ll collect my number. It would be exhausting if I thought about the race all the time, so I do it in concentrated bursts.’
Devonport agrees that this can be a useful tool for all of us in tricky situations, such as asking for a pay rise. ‘The more you visualise yourself in a scary environment – imagining the sights, sounds and emotions – the less daunting it becomes,’ she says. ‘I’ve had many golfers in my house, standing in my cat-litter tray, so they can get a realistic feeling of what it would be like if they were in a bunker during a competition. This is called “functional equivalence” – the idea that mental imagery functions in the same way as the physical perception.’
Create ‘healthy perfectionism’
Unsurprisingly, a 2014 study published in The Review Of General Psychology found that perfectionism can have a negative impact on our self-esteem, and those who describe themselves as perfectionists are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. A more workable approach is to strive for perfection, but never demand it of yourself. ‘Getting things right 80 per cent of the time works for me,’ says Rowsell. ‘I’ll expect to get my nutrition correct, hit the right numbers in training and perform well most (not all) of the time. It’s far healthier.’
Of course, this isn’t always easy. Thanks to something called ‘negativity bias’, our brains are more attuned to bad news, so we focus on our failures, rather than our successes. The key is knowing that this will happen, and avoiding it. ‘My psychologist reminds me that my brain will naturally catastrophise,’ says England. ‘But it’s more important to recognise what you are doing to achieve success, rather than what you’re not. I tell myself that on a daily basis.’
Take failure in your stride
In order to excel in life, you have to accept failure – and nobody knows this better than Olympians. Paralympic gold medallist Hannah Cockroft, MBE says, ‘2015 was a tough year. One of my best friends passed away and I lost my first race in over seven years. That’s when I started seeing a sports psychologist. Even though I had been training hard, I had totally switched off mentally. Getting to know all my psychological strengths and weaknesses, and accepting failure as a way to learn made it much easier to bounce back.’
There is also truth in the adage ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’. A 2015 study by Rutgers University in the US showed that focusing on what we can learn from failure builds resilience and helps us persevere. So, for instance, we’ll have a better chance of nailing the next job interview if we consciously evaluate why the previous one didn’t quite go to plan. ‘The most important thing to remember is that failure is temporary,’ says ex-Olympic swimmer and Slazenger ambassador Rebecca Adlington. ‘I can recall racing in the World Championships in 2007 and coming tenth. I didn’t even make the final and was so upset. But then a year later, I got two gold medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Failure is fleeting. It hurts like hell, but you will always move on.’
Now train like an elite athlete
So you’ve got your head sorted – here’s how to work your body like an Olympian, too.
1. TRACK IT
‘Keep a record of how you feel on training days, so you can recognise positive patterns,’ says Sarah Claxton, ex-Olympic hurdler and personal trainer at Embody Fitness. Also note down how much sleep you had the night before, what you ate, when you trained and what you did. It will help you keep track of what you need to do to ensure you perform well every time.
2. TREAT YOURSELF
‘I always balance my training sessions with rewards,’ says Hannah Cockroft. ‘You should always acknowledge if a goal has been reached, otherwise it’s as if it never happened. There’s got to be some joy somewhere.’ Emotional rewards like a new book or an hour of watching Netflix work well.
3. GO BITE-SIZE
‘Break down each training session into small blocks,’ says Joanna Rowsell. ‘Looking at a session as a whole can be daunting. I tell myself I’m just going to do the first block and then I’ll stop. But I’m more motivated once I’ve ticked off one block, so I’ll move on to another.’