bike psyche

02Apr08

Great Britain again dominated the World Track Cycling Championship at the Manchester Velodrome this weekend. I watched only briefly, taking a break from the Twitter stream to see an interview with team psychologist Steve Peters.

Peters is something of a phenomenon, if not a genius; Undergraduate Dean of Sheffield University, much in demand in a variety of UK sports, he’s a sometime visitor to the England rugby training camp here at the Sports Training Village in Bath — which, by the way, seemed to be a secret he did not want told on national TV.

Vicky Pendleton and Shanaze Reade

But most interestingly, perhaps, he is a former forensic psychologist, who spent many years working in Rampton Secure Hospital, exemplifying our own belief here at Knackered Towers that the study of that which is broken yields useful lessons if you want to succeed.

If that were not enough, the unassuming Dr Peters is a highly competitive Masters M50 sprint champion (that’s running fast for old folks). His training regimen, discussed here, would likely pass muster with that most eminent of critical thinkers on all things sporty, Professor Art de Vany. It’s very unorthodox.

Now, recently I’ve been tempted to comment on Reuters’ CEO Tom Glocer’s blog, but held back. Tom was talking about national character, negativity and optimism. If I understood his point correctly, he was saying that if only you think positively, good things will follow (that was the post title in any event). He referred to the need for an optimistic outlook, drawing on the athletic coach and the self-talking salesman as examples.

You can’t really argue with that. Except that, as Ed Smith painted in his book, the truth is a lot less certain and requires a more subjunctive qualification: think positively and good things might happen. The corollary being, think negatively and it ain’t gonna happen, not now, not never. And that’s more my own experience; as Woody Allen would have it, 80 pct of life is about turning up.

But, in my own corporate experience, positivity and negativity tend to be understood in very binary terms. And because of that, useful information about how products could be improved (or an organization better configured) does not flow freely up the ranks. With tools like wikis, of course, it now flows much more freely across reporting lines, if managers take the step to encourage their use. And it flows pretty freely among the folks who stand outside the office smoking, but let’s not go there.

Returning to individual and team confidence, what Peters had to say was quite brief but highly nuanced. What was clear was that positive thinking, and the psychological tools needed to create it, were not straightforward: they were specific to the individual, but also situational depending on the person, whether a team was involved, the type of event, the coach, championship and location. What mattered was educating athletes into how their minds worked, what trigger points led to negative emotions, and how those could be turned around.

Vicky Pendleton, the diminutive and self-confessed “girly girl” who won two gold medals and a silver over the weekend, had lacked confidence, according to Peters, when he started working with her. But he described how she had been able to train herself to turn her mood around within 10 minutes of a setback.

Peters explained how large events, such as the Olympics, create a huge range of distractions (from transport to security) each of which will affect each athlete differently, and for which all need to be prepared if they are to secure their own best chance of success.

What makes sport an interesting crucible through which to understand performance these days is that there is just so much of it, it is so professional, and there is so much research (physiological, neurological, psychological) . And it produces characters like Peters, Martin O’Neil and Ed Smith.

Sportsmen and women are dealing with the most intense of situations in which their vulnerabilities are very public, even on a day-to-day basis in training. They have a lot of complex information to understand, and failure to self-manage can quickly lead to injury, loss of form, loss of a place on the team, loss of funding, denial of access to quality coaching, etc. And that ignores the consequence of a random fall or illness at a critical moment in a training schedule. This cascade gathers its own momentum because at each stage the athlete finds him or herself increasingly isolated, so the reversal becomes commensurately difficult to effect.

It should not be forgotten, and if you have ever trained really hard you will know, that resulting sharp mood swings can affect motivations and relationships outside of the sport as the body and mind adapt and recover from the process of extreme exertion. Indeed, a protracted bad mood is a sign of over-training syndrome which is very hard to pinpoint in oneself until it’s too late, and takes a surprisingly long time to recover from.

There don’t seem to be enough Steve Peters to go round sport, let alone international business. I wonder how we should go about making more?

Photo: British Cycling

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