Toolbox Bookshelf: The Brave Athlete
Dig down deep (or often not very deep) into an endurance athlete and it becomes very obvious that the main thing limiting their success or even enjoyment of the sport is usually not physical ability, but what goes on “upstairs.” The Brave Athlete offers a refreshingly candid and practical approach to sports psychology.
Cycling is a sport where physical training and equipment are often seen as the two pillars of success. Flip through any magazine and you will find lots of articles and ads on gear that promise free speed or otherwise help you go faster. And most training articles focus on the physical aspects, for example about techniques that help you climb faster or intervals to improve your time trialing performance.
While physical ability and training (I’ll count the care and feeding of the body here too) is of course important, and while having good quality gear will certainly enhance your enjoyment, there is a third and arguably most important leg of the stool without which athletic performance would collapse. Of course, what I am referring to is your mental approach.
Ever find yourself wishing to join that first race, meet up for that fast group ride, or pushing yourself harder in training but always finding some way to talk yourself out of it? Then you’re stuck in your comfort zone and afraid of exploring the unknown.
Think through your own experiences and cycling and I think you will also agree that your mental approach to the sport might be holding you back in some way from breaking through to the next level or even just in actually enjoying the day-to-day training or competition regardless of actual performance outcome:
• Some riders trained incredibly well and are superbly fit. However, come race day they become a bundle of nerves and fall apart.
• Some cyclists are afraid to take the performance to the next level because they fear leaving their comfort zone and trying things that may cause them fear.
• Some riders lacked self-confidence and the belief that they can actually achieve what they want.
• EVERY cyclist, whether they will admit to it or not, compare themselves to others and often denigrate their own ability as a result of this comparison.
• And as the popular saying goes, we all need to “Harden the F*ck Up.”
The Brave Athlete
New from VeloPress is The Brave Athlete: How to Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion, written by Lesley Paterson and Simon Marshall, Ph.D. Paterson is a multi-time Xterra world champion triathlete, while her partner Marshall is a professor of sport and exercise psychology at San Diego State University along with being the Performance Psychologist for the BMC WorldTour team.
The Brave Athlete differs in approach from many sports psychology tomes in being geared directly towards the endurance athlete, including runners, triathletes, and cyclists. I rather enjoyed this direct focus because of the unique nature of most endurance sports being generally solo affairs rather than team dynamics taking centre stage.
Another nice aspect of The Brave Athlete is that the chapters are specifically geared towards addressing 12 of the biggest psychological hurdles faced by endurance athletes. Five of them I have already listed above in terms of things that may limit your performance. The other seven chapters address hurdles such as:
• “I wish I felt more like an athlete: tackling the flawed thinking around your athletic identity.”
• “Setting goals is not your problem: the secret of doing.”
• “I feel fat: dealing with body image in a world of athletes.”
• “I don’t cope well with injury: how to respond to setbacks, big and small.”
• “People are worried about me: exercise dependence and the incessant need to do more.”
• “When the going gets tough, the tough leave me behind: resisting the urge to quit.”
• “I keep screwing up: developing Jedi concentration skills to become a better athlete.”
The book provides practical methods to turn things you know you should be doing (e.g., core workouts) into habits
Ditching the Meme-Turds
Another thing that The Brave Athlete does very well is getting beyond the generic “meme-turds” clogging up the world of sports psychology. As the authors note, sayings that you will find on motivational posters, such as “You can do whatever you want if you try” and “I love me!” are often completely meaningless and counterproductive. The first is raised as a meme-turd stemming from the self-esteem movement and every kid getting a participation medal, while the second just leaves everyone else thinking that you’re a narcissistic idiot.
No psychological band-aids or kool-aids, in other words.
The Chimp, the Professor, and the Computer
Going beyond the superficial, Paterson & Marshall dive into the true underlying causes in your psyche behind each of these 12 issues. The basic conceptual framework that they employ is that your brain has three components:
• The Chimp is superfast acting and driven by primal urges to protect you from danger and harm, such as failure, humiliation or fear.
• The Professor that is more rational and analytical, but which is much slower to respond to any situation.
• The Computer, which is your programmed actions and reactions in response to different situations.
Together, these three components are always acting and fighting for control over your brain.
What Paterson & Marshall attempt to do in the book is to dissect what is happening in this three-way tug-of-war in response to each of these 12 different situations. For each chapter, they provide simple exercises to help you diagnose your own personal responses to these stressors, and also provide you with practical tools to improve your responses.
A sample worksheet to determine whether your quitting during hard training or racing is really a “legit-quit” (maybe 10% of the time in reality) or a “shit-quit.”
Overall, I found The Brave Athlete a very accessible and practical guide to sport psychology for endurance athletes. There’s minimal fluff, just lots of clear and relevant analysis along with practical exercises and tips for improvement.
In writing style, Paterson & Marshall go a bit overboard in their desire to be different from a typical sport psychology book, with the writing sometimes veering off into an overly jocular and arguable juvenile tone. But I read enough dry academic papers and texts as is, and most athletes would rather read something relevant and accessible.
If you don’t feel that any of the twelve performance limiters apply to you, then you’re just fooling yourself. The rest of us are sure to find something of value in The Brave Athlete.
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 90 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s new book “Cycling Science” with Dr. Mikel Zabala from the Movistar Pro Cycling Team has just hit the bookshelves this summer, following up Cutting-Edge Cycling written with Hunter Allen.
Stephen can be reached for comments at [email protected] .