Sports psychologist Dr Josie Perry outlines why changing your mental approach – and doing things on your terms – can bring big benefits
With events and long-term targets continuing to fall by the wayside for athletes at all levels, there has arguably never been a more important time to ensure you have good mental – as well as physical – health.
From lacking in motivation to rising anxiety levels, how someone reacts to a situation can have a huge impact on their frame of mind and overall wellbeing.
That is why sports psychologist Josie Perry believes that, as we enter winter, one of the best things an athlete can do is to make time to assess and really understand how their mind – more specifically the human brain – works. Be proactive rather than reactive, she says – and the first step is taking control.
The biggest thing I’m working on with athletes is setting goals that they are in complete control of.
Setting a goal like ‘I want to win National Schools next year’… previously it would have been sensible but actually setting a goal on something that we now know can change very easily just leads you to get really upset.
That means we’re really trying to focus on setting goals that you can do in lots of different places. As the marathon runners showed [with the virtual London Marathon], having the goal of ‘I want to finish in the top 100 runners at the London Marathon’ wasn’t something you could necessarily achieve but you could still do a marathon by running it yourself.
Perhaps don’t focus on specific races but maybe see if you can do [a total of] 2021km running this year? Or can you set your own training PB? Or ‘can you get stronger in x, y and z in the gym? These are all things you can genuinely control rather than focusing on races and events that might change.
The advantage of being in command
I think it makes a huge difference because anxiety and stress comes when we feel out of control. Lack of control can be a huge issue in mental health and it’s something which can be quite fundamental in things like eating disorders.
I find it’s much healthier to accept that there are going to be lots of things in our lives which we can’t control and instead to be really proactive about working on the things that we can.
“I find it’s much healthier to accept that there are going to be lots of things in our lives which we can’t control and instead to be really proactive about working on the things that we can”
We won’t be able to control whether or not a race takes place but we can control whether we have done our training sessions that week. Giving ourselves process goals that we are in charge of helps us feel more in charge of what’s going on.
Do your own thing
For a little while it can be quite healthy to remember what you love about your sport and just do it for the love of it, to not be tracking everything and being very data driven.
But it also means that when you don’t have your own goals then you can tend to follow other people’s and we end up comparing lots and seeing what others are doing, particularly on social media.
We can end up following what their goals are, even if they are not the right goals for us.
Finding your motivation and dealing with anxiety
There are two issues that come up most often with athletes.
The first is a lack of motivation, as in they know they love their sport but they have lost their mojo.
The other is anxiety. I call it start line stress. These are the people who will turn up to races but just turn around and go home again or feel so, so sick in the build-up that they are not able to prepare properly so they can’t give their best performance.
For motivation – and this sounds really cheesy – we call it “finding your why”.
What is it you love about running? What do you get from it? Is it the social side and the fact that you get to see your friends each week? Is it the achievement element?
We’ll really try and pull out those bits and work out how we can put more of whatever it is they love into what they’re doing.
Say they love being at a running club and hanging out with other people, then they decided to do a marathon this year and none of their friends are doing it and suddenly they feel really lonely.
We might then look at “let’s find you a training partner” or “let’s get you in a social media group of other marathon runners” so they don’t feel so alone and they’ve got people to engage with.
Sources of motivation
Our motivation – our intrinsic, real love of what we’re doing – comes from three sources.
Firstly, a sense of belonging – often that’s about the club that you’re in and the people you train with.
The second element is feeling really competent at what you do – so we’re really looking there at “do you feel like you’re a good runner when you stand on the start line or a good thrower or a good jumper? Do you have that level of mastery of your sport?”.
The third one is autonomy. I’d shorten that one to “choice and a voice”.
I think that one is really important for junior athletes because often they’ve been doing their sport for a long time and it’s just become what they do.
They go to the races because their parents or their coach tell them to and they don’t feel like they’ve got a choice about what they’re doing or a voice about how their athletics goes.
It can be really difficult as a junior because you’re going through that tricky stage anyway of trying to develop your own self identity and unless you do have that autonomy it’s very hard to go and push yourself to the level of effort that you need to to do well in athletics.
Train your mind as much as your body
When people come to see me, it’s usually as a last resort. They’ve tried a coach, they’ve tried other things, they’ve gone through lots of real drama and upset and then it’s a case of “okay, let’s see a psychologist” whereas actually if athletes were taught how their brain works under pressure and in a competition environment from an early age then they would be able to handle things an awful lot better.
It doesn’t need to be particularly personalised – it is simply understanding what is going on in your brain when you feel under pressure. You might personalise your coping mechanisms or your responses to things but you can almost see what is going on in your head.
Rather than it feeling really scary and out of control, you are able to take charge.
Your reaction is key
I heard the phrase which got me into sports psychology on the start line of an Ironman I was doing. It was a very scary race and there were huge waves.
The guy on the tannoy said: ‘you can’t change those conditions, you can change how you feel about them’.
Once you understand that and understand that you are not your thoughts (the thoughts are there but they don’t dictate you) and understand that your brain works incredibly fast under pressure – it’s much more emotional, it doesn’t make good decisions and it makes you behave in irrational ways – then you can look at the triggers for that and work out how to reduce them.
You can look at ways to calm that side of your brain down and suddenly these things that felt huge and caused this great level of anxiety beforehand feel much more manageable.
Tackling your ‘chimp’
I use Steve Peters’ version of how he describes the brain called ‘the chimp paradox’. With athletes we will name our chimp (this is the part of the brain which makes us act impulsively and emotionally) and we will draw it so that we have an image of what he or she looks like. We look at all of the things which can trigger our chimp to go off.
The individual issues that tend to prompt our chimp are very personalised but we also look at those environmental factors that are more likely to make your chimp go off, like feeling expectation from others, being a perfectionist, being hungry, being fatigued, feeling under pressure to achieve.
We know that when we’ve got lots of those environmental factors going along and something triggers us – like our biggest nemesis is on the start line looking really fit or somebody says something horrible to you just before you start – those are very likely to make your chimp go off and then suddenly you are not in the right head space to race.
I had someone recently who just did two sessions and all we worked on was their chimp, the anxieties that come up and the triggers. We went through considering each scenario as they might happen and what would they do to combat that?
It was all kind of logistical.
It was wonderful, because they won their next race.
Just that basic education about what is going on in your head can have such an impact on people.
Once you understand it you can respond with behaviours you can be proud of, rather than behaviours which can frustrate you.
Practice, practice, practice
It is something you have to practice all the time, however it’s so beneficial because it’s a short cut to having those difficult conversations with somebody.
“My chimp is really sensitive today because I saw my biggest rival got a 5km PB and that seems unattainable to me”.
That then opens up a conversation. “Is it that I want a 5km PB or is it that I’m just feeling a bit stagnant at the moment and that I’m not really progressing?”.
By being able to look at the different triggers we are able to have very different conversations and then we’re more successful because we’re focused on us and what we truly want, not just on “everyone focuses on getting a 5km PB because that’s what you do”.
Distance your thoughts
When you do it in your own way and become much more aware of the thoughts you’re having – one of the beauties of it is that it makes you distance yourself from the thoughts.
So rather than thinking “I am a rubbish runner”, which isn’t helpful to anybody, you should think “my chimp is telling me that I’m a rubbish runner” and that puts things a level apart.
Then you can say “I’m aware that my chimp is telling me I’m a rubbish runner” and suddenly there are two degrees of separation.
It takes all the sting out of it and you can then have a productive conversation with yourself “why do I think I’m a rubbish runner?” rather than just believing that you are because that’s what your thoughts said.
We try lots of different thoughts on for size, but it doesn’t mean they are true.
» Dr Josie Perry is a chartered psychologist working with those in sport and on the stage to help them overcome their barriers
to success so they can achieve their goals. Visit performanceinmind.co.uk
» Performing Under Pressure: Psychological Strategies for Sporting Success by Josephine Perry (Routledge) is available now