PEZ Talk: Sport Psychologist Mike Garth
Fitness and training only gets you so far. After that, the space between the ears becomes the most important determinant of success in sports and in life. Sport psychologist Mike Garth is finding great success in helping athletes improve their mental game and overall performance, but his background as an F1 engineer was an unusual path to get here…
Pez: From a race car engineer to a sport psychologist пїЅ how did that come about?
MG: I had a пїЅroad to DamascusпїЅ moment in 2003, when I was on gardening leave from Toyota F1, having resigned in the May of that year. After spending 10 years (8 years IndyCar, 2 years F1) professionally in motor racing, as an engineer, and many years in the sport before that, I felt that in the trackside and management roles I had been in, I was working as a professional engineer whilst trying to be an amateur sport psychologist. Yes, I needed a scientific and engineering background to perform my roles, but I felt a bigger difference could come from working with people, including the drivers, addressing the space between their ears than the technology we all created and worked with. As we say in motor racing, it is often the nut sat behind the steering wheel that we need to tighten the most!
From the nuts in the race car to the nut at the wheel, thereпїЅs plenty of wrenching to go around for Mike!
This moment coincided with me aiming to start my own business and move back to the UK from Germany, where I was with Toyota F1. As with any business, mine had to solve peoplesпїЅ problems in a different way to others, if it was going to survive. IпїЅd always been interested in sport science, going as far as applying for an undergraduate course in it (but ended up doing physics and so moving into engineering). The area of Cologne where I lived and worked with Toyota, housed the best sport science university in Germany, and some of the students worked in the Toyota gym. Aligned with my own running and MTBing at the time, this fueled my passion for sport science and in particular sport psychology. I decided going back to university to study sport science and in particular sport psychology, was the way forward for me.
So I went back to being a full-time student, gained a Masters degree in sport psychology and then went on to gain professional accreditation with one of the two British Olympic recognized organisations in the UK.
Pez: Coming from such a numbers-driven sport like auto racing, how do you reconcile with the often subjective and пїЅsoftпїЅ art of sport psychology?
MG: You know, when I did all this extra full-time study, in particular the professional qualifications post Masters, I had to do all sorts of stuff I never imagined I would do. Counseling skills, motivational interviewing, active listening. The major thing I need to gain with clients is rapport, and specific skills such as these three listed really help me do that. Without rapport with a client IпїЅm stuffed. ThereпїЅs theory and data behind it but you have to practice it and get good feedback in order to develop. It is quite an art and is what I refer to as the пїЅsoft skillsпїЅ, as they are indeed far less objective, but they often provide the difference between getting the performance gain weпїЅre seeking in the athlete, or not. ItпїЅs not my primary job to help an athlete feel better, this is not life coaching. ItпїЅs my primary job to help an athlete perform better, and using these soft skills (which can make them feel better too) are a key toolset to help me do this, when appropriate.
Mike with pro racer Anne Guzman at our recent spring camp in Malibu.
Like any decent performer, I play to my strengths though. IпїЅll always have an engineering, analytical mindset and I use that to create a structure within which my clients can quantify where theyпїЅre at mentally.
Pez: Quantifying sport psychology пїЅ isnпїЅt that an oxymoron? And how do you do that?
MG: There are a whole suite of statistically valid self-report inventories out there and over time IпїЅve used a fair few of them. However, now I only use one. A lot of athletes get turned off when interacting with the written word. (Note I say пїЅa lotпїЅ, not пїЅallпїЅ!) This places less value on these inventories. I do have a lot of my own structures that allow athletes to put number to пїЅwhere their headпїЅs atпїЅ but again, this is coming from their own opinion. Their opinion, of course, may be way off. In addition thereпїЅs the problem, as your question suggests, that all things mental are subjective, and so cannot be objectively quantified. ThereпїЅs also the problem that weпїЅll answer self-report inventories with the conscious part of out brain but play our sport (when weпїЅre doing well) from the unconscious.
All I can say on this is watch this space. I have some top secret things in the pipeline that when released, will really answer your question!
Pez: Much of your background and work involves auto racing. What are the similarities and what are the differences between auto racing and cycling?
MG: Motor racing is typically the execution of a finer motor skill than cycling, so for most people you need to be less hyped, more relaxed, in order to bang out a performance. So much of performance in motor racing, even at the younger karting end such as KF3, comes from how well you deliver an ultimate lap on new tyres in qualifying. This means a time window of around 5 minutes on Saturday will contribute a majority to your race outcomes on Sunday. Reducing arousal and gaining a calm focus is often the way to achieve this. When too hyped, drivers canпїЅt feel the limit of the tyre so well and end up over-driving, which has the added effect of shortening the life of the tyre at peak grip, ie the problem has just been compounded!
Whilst you canпїЅt be highly hyped throughout most cycling events (unless itпїЅs a short hillclimb or tim-trial) there will be times when being so will help you пїЅdrill itпїЅ / пїЅride on the rivetпїЅ / etc and put yourself in the hurtbox. Drive a car like that and youпїЅre on for an appointment with the barriers.
Mike with French legend Rene Arnoux during the GP Masters (over-45 F1) series at Silverstone in 2006.
The biggest similarity is that as in any performance arena, performance is an emotional event at a biochemical level, with the athlete. Being in control of those emotions, so they can be tuned to face the competition demands as they develop, is fundamental to performance. This tuning is highly individual.
Pez: Tell us a bit about your own background in cycling please.
MG: I started riding MTB in Germany in 2002, getting into it quite a bit in 2003, doing some enduro events. At the same time, I filled my gardening leave with time on my newly purchased road bike, joining a triathlon club. However, I never did any events as I couldnпїЅt swim! Whilst doing my sport science study I overcame my fear of water and taught myself to swim, really getting into triathlon. In fact I went on to gain coaching qualifications to a pro level, earning some money on the side. I ran cross-country as a teen so running was always my best event but I started to enjoy cycling more and more. I stopped tri in 07, as I began my business and didnпїЅt get back into training again until 09, when I did a couple of duathlons, with running still my strong point. Then in July 09 I saw an article promoting the first ever Ride Across Britain (multi-stage sportive from one end of UK to the other) and I instinctively signed up. From October 09 I ditched the swim and run and prepared to ride this event in June 2010. I promised myself if I did well IпїЅd give racing a go. By then IпїЅd met a local pro who was keen to help me out so I did a series of four races in September 2010. With the help of this pro, I then got a full coaching program from him, got myself a Powertap and got on with it from the end of October 2010. ItпїЅs been a winter of watts, FTP and CTL ever since!
Working on his biker tan in Malibu. Mike is a talented and strong rider in his own right, regularly showing his interviewer a clean set of wheels.
Pez: How has your work in sport psychology benefited your own athletic pursuits?
MG: For a start itпїЅs helped me overcome my own deep fear of water – talk about controlling your emotions! ItпїЅs helped me understand my own motivations and when it comes to performance, ignorance is not bliss.
Mike enjoying a too-rare beautiful day of cycling in the UK.
Pez: WhatпїЅs this about battling your inner chimp we kept talking about at camp?
MG: The guy at British Cycling (Sky Pro Cycling / Sky Track Cycling) who does what I do, called Dr. Steve Peters, came up with this model he calls the Chimp model. Steve is actually a psychiatrist by training so has a medical background. His model is based on the fact that we have a brain wired-up for events over ten-thousand yearsпїЅ ago but we live in a modern world. i.e., Our evolutionary neurology hasnпїЅt yet caught up with our current social landscape. ItпїЅs the same philosophy as that used in the paleo diet. The outcome in sport is that you may react to a perceived threat (such as an Olympic final) with a primal inner drive (your пїЅchimpпїЅ) that causes you to think and act in a way that can hurt your performance. When your chimp is out of the cage, itпїЅs very difficult to be in control of your performance. The reason itпїЅs called your пїЅchimpпїЅ is it refers to the mammalian пїЅlimbicпїЅ system within your brain, which is what we share with chimpanzees. (Us humans have much more developed frontal lobes, allowing us also to reason, analyse, and read Pezcyclingnews.com.)
After a long day in the saddle in Malibu, Mike breaks out his inner chimp on Hunter Allen.
Pez: As Monty Python once noted, пїЅweпїЅre all individuals!пїЅ How do you start with a new client to assess them and their needs on an individual basis?
MG: Yes, the individual nature of this is massive. I start with a simple screening process which involves answering a few questions. Some people fail at this point and I choose not to go ahead. There has to be a good fit between what they want and what I can offer. I then have an online assessment system, which is the one inventory I referred to earlier. This accelerates my understanding of where theyпїЅre at. Then we spend half a day together, sometimes including a close, key team member and we arrive at up to three targeted performance gains. Depending on budget, some time may be spent at the track, to observe what is going on and what the limiters are. Only then will we start coaching.
Pez: Gross overgeneralization, but what is the one aspect of sport psychology that cyclists would benefit the most from? Why?
MG: Simple. Be aware of your state. Two examples of your state are your level of mental worry and your level of body nerves. If you want to manipulate these two things for better performance the first thing you have to do is be aware of what they are right now. The catch is that the more theyпїЅre off-track, the harder it is to be aware of them. Getting negative isnпїЅt the problem, failing to notice it and letting it build momentum is the problem.
Pez: YouпїЅve worked with a lot of junior auto racers. Are there any general differences between younger and older athletes?
MG: Below a certain age and maturity the junior racers are пїЅall chimpпїЅ. i.e., Their decisions and actions in the heat of battle will not be rational. The human side of their brains has not developed yet. ItпїЅs all normal and healthy but easy for us to forget. You have to get them to пїЅdo stuffпїЅ so that they develop by learning new responses to certain situations. You canпїЅt sit down and rationalize with someone whoпїЅs not wired up to be rational yet.
MikeпїЅs company, Sun1400, is all about upping the mental game.
Pez: HereпїЅs me this entire week in Malibu: IпїЅm climbing in the pack and yo-yo-ing off the back. My legs hurt and IпїЅm mad at myself for not hanging with the pack. Besides channeling Jens Voigt and saying пїЅShut up legs,пїЅ how do I go about getting out of this mental spiral?
MG: The first thing you have to do is some prep work before you get to this point! Waiting until you have the problem and then throwing a mental technique at it is like entering a crit without having done any VO2 / Level5 work. YouпїЅre going to get found out!
A really good thing to have is your own personal пїЅstop signalпїЅ to stop the negativity or your пїЅchimpпїЅ from getting out of its cage. This technique, called thought stopping, is really simple. So simple in fact, that most of us, including me, donпїЅt practice it enough so that when we need to use it, as in your climbing example, it doesnпїЅt have the effect we want. As and when you notice yourself becoming negative and/or distracted, you need to fire your stop signal trigger. When youпїЅve previously done this over and over, it will become a conditioned response that will stem the spiral with just one or two uses. The win is in having a stop signal that has real emotional meaning for you. It might even be пїЅshut up legsпїЅ for some! The point is that itпїЅs something that works for you, and youпїЅve got to do the work to test and develop that. Is it another phrase? Is it something you look at on your bike? Is it an action you do? Is it an image you bring to mind? Very individual, very specific, but there will be something, that with practice, will work for you in your moment of need.
As you can see, the best bike and the best engine is nothing without the best brain! Thanks to Mike for slowing down enough during our camp to chat and talk sport science! Check out www.sun1400.com for more information on MikeпїЅs work.