[00:00] Introduction/Kion Flex/Onnit
[05:08] Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson
[12:46] Athlete Identity
[25:33] Common Athlete Identity Problems
[29:39] Adjusting to Age
[36:15] Using Your Alter Ego
[42:36] Pre-Race Rituals
[51:07] Dealing With Injuries
[1:01:47] Getting Someone Out of Their Comfort Zone
[1:10:15] Thumb Tapping
[1:16:25] End of Podcast
Ben: Tere! At least that’s what they say over here in Estonia. This is Ben Greenfield. I’m in Estonia. I’m actually living in Estonia for the next several weeks. My children are going to a little international university over here called Mind Valley U, and I’m also speaking at this Mind Valley U event. So, Tallinn, Europe. I’m eating elk sausages, and drinking meat soup, and toasting folks with honey mead and spiced wine. I’m living like a knight, basically. Literally. I’m learning how to sword fight, and juggle puppets, and all sorts of things that they did back in the medieval days to make humans great. Anyways, speaking of making humans great, today’s podcast is with the authors of a fantastic book that I read last month about forming an identity for yourself as an athlete, or as a competitor, or as anyone who has a lot on the line when it comes to stress, physical stress, mental stress, etc. These folks are a great book. We will unveil the title of the book shortly. And you can check out the show notes for everything that we talk about today, and I will also give you the URL for the show notes during today’s episode. Decided it’ll be all mysterious.
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In this episode of the Ben Greenfield Fitness Show:
“Everyone here talks about it, how awesome they are even though they’re not, so I was like, you know, maybe there’s something in this, maybe if I actually start talking like I’m good. I can believe that I’m good and it really worked.” “You’ll then say, okay, if this does happen, you came up with a plan for every single one of them and that it doesn’t matter though that the life of these things happening might be quite small but the fact that no matter what happens, I’ve got this and that is such a huge call of having the mindset to give up to more performance.”
Hey, folks. It’s Ben Greenfield, and it is high time that we get to dig into yet another one of the relatively more dog-eared books that’s on my bookshelf right now. It’s one of those titles that I folded over, and I highlighted, and I scribbled in profusely because it spoke to me quite a bit as an athlete, as a guy who has been competing in everything from triathlons, to marathons, to Spartan Races, to all sorts of crazy competitions for the past couple of decades. I’ve been through a lot of these mental conundrums that athletes and active exercise enthusiasts face in training and in races, things like everything from, “Am I too fat and do I weigh too much,” which sounds dumb coming from me as a super lean guy, but I know athletes and even myself, we’ve struggled with thoughts such as that. The issue with injuries, like what do you do when you get injured and your entire identity is wrapped around being an athlete, and all of a sudden, you can’t scratch that itch. For me, kind of relevant just recently, just a couple of days ago, I got my ass handed to me in a bow hunting competition and I left the competition just questioning whether or not I was even in the right sport, or whether or not that was even something that I should be doing and how should I mentally deal with that.
Well, this book is called “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F Down and Rise to the Occasion” actually delves into a whole bunch of these mental conundrums, and it’s actually super practical, actionable advice. It’s not one of those woo-woo self-help books. It’s actually really good. And it was written by a guy named Dr. Simon Marshall and his wife Lesley Paterson. And Lesley, I think, I actually first became familiar with her back when I was competing in Ironman and she was kind of known as the foul-mouthed Scotswoman who came to these races, and just kicked ass, and took names. And it turns out that she went on to pull on her big girl pants and actually write a book. So, that’s Lesley. And then Dr. Simon Marshall, he is formerly a professor of medicine at UC San Diego and professor of exercise science at San Diego State University, and he has a whole bunch of scientific articles on the psychology of exercise and he is the performance psychologist for a bunch of professional, particularly in endurance athlete teams, like BMC Racing Team, and the World Tour Professional Cycling Team. And so, together, they make one pretty bad ass couple. So, Dr. Simon and Lesley, welcome to the podcast.
Lesley: Thanks for having us on. We’re stoked to have this conversation with you.
Simon: Thanks, Ben. I was just shocked when I heard “bow hunting contest”. I was, that [0:08:12] ______ me .
Ben: Yeah. Those exist, believe it or not. They’re actually pretty fun.
Lesley: Oh my gosh.
Simon: I bet they are.
Ben: It’s like obstacle course racing with a weapon. You run around the trees, and carry sand bags, and do burpees, and stand up, and shoot. It’s a hoot. It’s a lot of fun. But, unfortunately, I didn’t do so well in the last competition.
Lesley: That’s alright. We can help.
Ben: How’d it work, doing this book together as a husband-wife team? What made you guys want to do this?
Lesley: We argued profusely and it was awful. Actually, it was a really natural thing for us, to be honest. Because I’ve been in the sport now for 25 years and came up through the ranks as a junior and really struggled mentally with the sport and my identity in the sport. I had always wanted to go to the Olympics, didn’t make it, had a big fat failure, and it really struggled with the coaches and how they approached me on the British national team specifically. And everything was driven by datapoints. And they didn’t know how to talk to me, it was, “You’re too fat,” “You’re not good enough.” And I left the sport at the ripe old age of 20, just totally disillusioned. When I met Si, of course, a sports psychologist, that’s obviously when I gave the sport up ’cause that’s how good he is. When I met Simon, I think just having that sort of sports psychology background that he did, when I came back to the sport the second time, I was going through this rebirth as an athlete and was discovering all of these new ways to be and sort of realize that this had to be my journey. And so what would happen, I would come home every day from my training and expressed to Simon, “Hey, listen. This is what I’m going through. This is what I dealt with today.” And he would get into the nitty gritty of the science. And so, it was really kind of a fun journey that we both went on. And then when we started our own coaching business, we were going on all of these journeys with our athletes too and realizing that all of these people had similar thoughts and feelings that they didn’t want. And we need to come up with some kind of actionable thing to help them moving forward.
Simon: What’s interesting here as well, I think, that the story, I came as a cyclist, that’s how we met actually in the university, and then sort of moved into sports science going to figured I was too mediocre to have any life in the actual sport itself. But what’s interesting is that most coaches, we tend to sort of behead the athlete. It’s kind of a bit of a black box up there, that three-pound lump that we don’t, we know that there’s sort of awkward stuff going in there, a lot of it is, “Oh, I don’t really want to get into that. That’s not my role. I’m just a coach.” And when you look at coach education programs in particular, you see the role of psychology in the curricular. It’s usually relegated to a handful of Power Point slides about visualization and goal setting. They’re not really opening up the scope of how significant and how important it is, mindset, decisions that we make, thoughts and feelings that we have and how that really is a great entry point to talk about all the other aspects of your sport performance as well.
It’s funny, because sports scientists, I always remember this is not a graduate in my sports science degree. You look at the pie chart of the ingredients of successful performances, the nutritional, and tactical, and technical, and physical, and psychology is one of the slices of the pie. And I think that that’s unfortunate because that implies that it sort of, “Oh, it’s part of it. But it doesn’t really overlap any of the others. And if I don’t have the skills, or expertise, or comfort in talking about that sort of stuff, that aspect then I just kind of leave it well alone. And really, what we found on our journey it together, it’s the lens through with which you look through everything, from how you communicate, to how you get people out of slumps in and plateaus, to finding their own identity. So, it becomes a lot of a bigger piece than most people think.
Ben: Yeah. You’ve already used the word identity a few times, and that’s one of the things, that was one of the first pages I folded over in the book was you talked about what actually puts together a complete athlete identity, or what you call a mature athlete identity. And what I’m curious about is why you came up with this idea of having an athlete identity and what goes into actually having a mature athlete identity and what an immature athlete identity would be.
Simon: Yeah. Identity is a big topic in psychology in general, and not just about sport or the role that you play in an activity. So, there’s been a lot of work and research on identity, what it is and what constitutes a healthy identity, and when does an identity become problematic. And so, in the sport literature, in the sports psychology literature especially, identity we think of is, athletic identity is how you think and feel like an athlete. The extent to which not you just identify internally, but how other people see you as well. And there’s a little, almost like audit that you can do of your own identity, these little sort of series of questions that you can ask yourself about how mature your identity is. And we don’t use the word strong and weak for identity because, some people do, but we don’t like that because strongly implies that more is always better. And folks who have, that become sort of one dimensional bulls, that’s all they do, their friends their pastimes, everything they think and breathe about is that one thing, and there’s reasons why that’s quite dangerous to your sense of self, your self-concept.
And identity is really, for example, things about you, okay, you’re comfortable being called an athlete by other people, or you’re comfortable calling yourself an athlete. And it’s not just whether you also participate in sport, it’s independent of how fast you are, how much training that you do. But for example, you own your authentic ability, you’re not embarrassed by it, you don’t feel the need to prove it to others, you don’t sort of engage in an excessive self-criticism or telling other people how great you are, you have emotional reactions that most people would consider reasonable when stuff goes wrong, whether losing, or failing, or getting penalized, or so on. And you’ve got a balance in your life between that part and other aspects of it. So, all of these things form your athletic identity. And strong is when you can say, mature is when you can say, “Yes. That is me. That is how I operate or how I think about myself.” And when we talk to athletes, and one of the hallmarks of someone with identity issues going on is that they might say themselves, or to us, “Oh, I’m just a,” a case of the just-ers. So, they don’t really see themselves, or excusing their authentic identity off the bat. And so that is a little entry point to talk about how they see themselves. So, we get into this sort of more detailed work with recall self-schema. Only psychologists would come up with a name like that. So, that’s the essence of it.
Ben: Okay. So, in other words, and this is something that I’ve thought about a lot before. Like when I was a triathlete, I sucked as a runner. Like my first six years, ’cause I was a tennis player in college and my idea of a run was maybe 500 yards. And for me, to run a mile, I actually remember when I was first, back when I was training for tennis, Venus Williams was one of the players who I really respected. And I read a fitness interview with Venus, and she talked about how her coach had her avoid running any longer than a mile so that she didn’t develop too much slow-twitch muscle that she maintain a lot of that fast-twitch type two muscle fiber capacity that she needed for power and explosiveness. And so, I would read articles like that for tennis and really focus more on powerlifting, and weightlifting, and short explosive training activities, which seemed to really enhance my game more than, say, going out for a long run.
But then when I got into triathlon, I was fueled by this mindset that although I felt pretty strong swimming and I felt pretty strong cycling, I would go into races for the longest time thinking, “Well, I’m not really a runner. I’m going to hang on for that final discipline.” And what really spoke to me in this part of the book was that you must get to the point where you develop that athletic identity that says, “Whatever. I am a runner. I am a bowhunter. I am a Crossfit ahtlete.” Those things that, rather than make you question your skills because you’re not actually telling yourself that that’s your identity, you actually form your entire identity around defining yourself as being what you want to be. Is it kind of like a fake it ’til you make it type of approach?
Lesley: Well, to a certain extent. But there’s still strategy behind that. It’s not just pretending. So, for example, I was doing ITU racing, the format of triathlon where swimming is very, very important to get into the Olympics. And I was always told, “You’re not a swimmer. You’re not a swimmer. You’re not any good.” And I ended up doing a lot of things like surrounding myself by swimmers, going in and doing swimming events only, going to swim clubs only, not triathletes, and kind of building confidence through that. But also as well, interestingly enough, I had the same issues as you, Ben. When I first moved here to California from Scotland and I got competing again after some retirement, I didn’t feel I had the right to call myself a professional. I was so embarrassed to say, “I’m a pro athlete”, because I wasn’t really earning any money, I was concerned about what people thought of me. And interestingly, coming to California really really helped me because everyone here talks about how awesome they are even though they’re not.
So, I was like, “You know, maybe there’s something in this. Maybe if I actually start talking like I’m good, I can believe that I’m good.” And it really worked. I started to call myself a professional athlete. I would go along into groups of other professional athletes, and talk to them, and start to become part of that fold and really adopt behaviors. Instead of always saying, “No, no, no. I’m not really that,” or, “Oh, no. I’m not a good runner,” actually change that dialogue, that narrative that you’re playing in your head. I would start to look at things like photographs, look at videos to kind of inspire me. And this will come, and we’ll probably chat more about this later, about developing an alter ego. But looking at other professional athletes and how they would hold themselves, how they would talk about themselves. And bit by bit, I started to adopt those behaviors myself, and that translated into better performance ’cause I was connected and I wasn’t embarrassed anymore to give it a go. And I think a lot of that comes down to fear of failure. I mean, most people are scared to commit. Because if you truly commit to something, say for example, you really committing to, “You know what? I’m going to become a runner this year,” and you put all your cards on the table and it still doesn’t work out, what does that say about you? And that sort of then reflects back on your own sort of ego, and sense of self, and self-confidence, and self-worth, and all of those deeper, darker issues that we also delve into the book as well.
Ben: Yeah. That’s exactly what I did when I began to form my athlete identity as a runner. I actually became a really good runner in triathlon. Turned it into one of my much stronger skills was I used kind of the approach that you did to where I would go to 5Ks, and 10Ks, and trail races, and just jumped into and began to specialize, especially in the off season, at running and hang out with runners. It’s as much fun as that is. Let me tell you, it’s a blast hanging out with a bunch of runner. A bunch of spandex-clad type A orthorexic runners. But anyways, like that was one of the ways that I really formed my identity of being a runner. But you guys kind of systematized identities with this whole concept of a self-schema. Like on page 31 in the book, you have almost like this diagram of how to systematize this process of building your identity. And Simon, you even dropped that bomb earlier, this word “self-schema”. Can you go into what that is and how someone can form their identity using the self-schema process?
Simon: Exactly. And I’ll apologize on behalf of athletes everywhere here, on behalf of psychology, I would say. Self-schema, I mean what an awful name or word, phrase to describe something that’s actually quite simple. And what we’re really talking about are simply the thoughts and feelings that make up the identity. So, this is sort of the scaffolding, as it were, the cognitive and emotional scaffolding that makes an identity. So, these are the beliefs that you have about yourself in different aspects of your sport. It might be, like you said, “I suck as a runner,” or, “I don’t seem to getting much faster,” or “Everyone is faster than me.” So, what we try to do is we work on the underlying mechanics of these thoughts and feelings. So, one strategy is sort of an outside-in, as Lesley talked about, is you fake it. You just put on a cloak of, a metaphorical cloak of another identity and you kind of live through that, you act it.
But the other method is to change the underlying belief system, the thoughts and feelings that you have. And this is where sort of traditional sort of psychology comes in. It might be cognitive behavioral therapy, all those sorts of attributes. But what you can do, everyone can really do it ’cause you really dissecting the logic of what you’re saying about yourself and you can do things, like, for example, we know a big driver of the thoughts and feelings that you have about yourself is the environments that you’re in. So, if you’re always training with people who are kicking your ass, no wonder you’re getting a bit of, your identity’s getting a bit undermined. So, you need to periodize your training partners. You need to find opportunities where you’re not only just getting beaten up or you have an opportunity to dish it out as well. And I think strategies like that are really, really helpful.
What’s critical about self-schema and the way that you think about yourself is that it isn’t just sort of this internal experience of misery or happiness, that it shapes your expectations of what you think you can do. And when you have thoughts and feelings that change what you think you can do, guess what? It changes what you attempt or what you sign up for, what you persist at, or how you explain successes and failure. And those things can either make or break athletes. And there’s plenty of examples where athletes have really had the classic, you’ve got all the talent, I don’t know why they can’t put it together on race day. Many of those issues are connected to the thoughts and feelings that you have about yourself as an athlete.
So we ask people to say, “Listen. Describe yourself to me as an athlete,” when we have initial athlete interviews. We don’t give them any kind of leading information. We just say, “Okay. Tell us about your PRs and your training.” We just say, “Tell us by yourself as an athlete.” And then you listen to the words that they use. If there’s a lot of excusing, and overexplaining, and rationalizing why they’re not this, or that, or the other. Or, “Do you only coach fast people,” or, “I’m probably the kind of athlete who gets in the way of athletes like you,” they might be a bit intimidated by Lesley’s athletic identity, and so on. So, we listen to these words quite carefully ’cause they have meaning and then that gives us an opportunity to say, “Hey, listen. We notice that you talk about yourself like this and you don’t really see yourself as an athlete.” They say, “Well, I’m not really. That’s why I’m looking for a coach. I want to become an athlete.” But you can really compete, and you train, and so why is that you don’t see yourself as an athlete. And you find underlying that there’s usually some sort mismatch between how they think of themselves and what they actually are.
Lesley: Or we get the opposite where they talk about themselves as though they are like a world champion and they don’t actually need any help, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, why are you on the phone to me?” And you kind of dig and dig, and you actually, you kind of have to approach it in a different way as to how to almost break that athlete down a little bit to get to the root cause of where the issues lie.
Ben: Now, you talk about this idea of an identity mismatch and areas where people’s ability to form an identity kind of go wrong, whether it be problems with a volatile identity, or chasing a former identity, or identity foreclosure. Can you go into some of the more common issues that you see in athletes who are having trouble actually putting together an athlete identity? And I should clarify before we jump into this, lest those of you listening in think this is just for pro athletes. I mean, let’s say you want a better Crossfit WOD time, or let’s say you want to maybe qualify for Half Ironman, or Ironman World Championships as an age grouper, or maybe you want to go do, maybe just want to cross the finish line of a freaking Spartan Race, or you’ve got a goal that really hinges upon you having a better athlete identity, this is really good information for you. This is not just stuff for pro athletes who are trying to make a paycheck doing this stuff.
Simon: Absolutely. And in fact, I’ll say, this is more of the psychologist speak now, is that it’s not even just about your athleticism. We have identities. The hats we wear in life, as an employee, as a partner, as a parent, they’re all identities and they each carry the same underlying self-schema. And we know that these different identities are all related, right? So, if you get a nudge of one strengthening or maturity one identity, it can have a knock-on effect on another. So, there’s some really good reasons for why we should be sort of self-reflective about how we think of ourselves in these different roles. But one of the great examples I like for identity mismatching in your athletes, and this is really since we came to North America, would be that if you’re an endurance triathlete and you might be doing it for a year or so and you’ve done a sprint and Olympic, you’re not really considered a triathlete until you’ve done an Ironman. And this is not the same in Europe. The ITU and short course racing is much more popular. But here is the sense that, if you said, “Oh, I’m a triathlete.” “Have you done an Ironman?” And that’s the first question, no wonder that your identity can take a little bit of a blow. So, you think, “Well, I’m not obviously a successful triathlete. I’m not going to be seen as one until I do an Ironman.” So, we get all these people doing 70.3 and longer. So, they may not actually enjoy it, and there’s nothing wrong with sticking with Olympic or sprint distance triathlons. So, there’s a mismatch between how you think the world values that identity or sees it and how you see it as yourself. So, I think that’s one in particular.
Ben: Now what about this idea of identity foreclosure? What’s that mean?
Simon: Yeah. Basically, identity foreclosure is when all the thoughts and believe that you’re having that are building a new identity. So, our new identities are formed usually in critical life stages. As we’re growing out of our teen years into an adult, we’re developing our adult identity. And when we have kids, a parent identity, and so on. But if something happens to curtail that growth of natural thoughts and feelings about what it means to be this sort of person, and we see this, for example, for kids in school, if you do sport in physical education, you think, “I’m not the sporty type,” or you get picked last in PE, or you’re a bit nerdy and you weren’t that athletic, or you’re a bit uncoordinated, you kind of start seeing yourself, “Oh, that’s not me. That’s not who I am.” And so, before you even have a chance to do any of it, or even see and think of yourself as, “Am I athletic,” or, “Do I enjoy this,” you’re kind of automatically like, “Okay, I put that to bed. That’s not me.”
And you can go through life, in fact, I give an example in the book of my sister as a good example. Like at 15, she decided that she just wasn’t athletic. She didn’t feel very competitive, she hated sport, she was much more arts driven. And so, it wasn’t until her mid-40s that she said, “Well, actually after growing muffin top and all the other things, maybe I should do some exercise.” And she said, “Ah,” and she discovered running. And she loves running now. She said, “How did I not know this could be so great for me?” She went through an identity foreclosures. So, it’s opening that back up for her. That’s probably the most common that we see.
Ben: Now the other idea, and I thought this was really interesting when it came to the athlete identity, was this problem of chasing a former identity, like knowing how good you were at a certain point in your life and then having to kind of deal with the idea of basically getting yourself back to that level or developing a new identity based on where you’re at. I think one big thing that seems relevant to me regarding this is this idea of people who kind of rocked the circuit back when they were a really fast 20 to 30-year-old and now they’re approaching a Masters category and kind of stuck in no man’s land behind being kind of a slower age grouper and waiting to age up to the next category, or being a slower professional athlete and waiting to become a Masters. What do you do about the people who are kind of like coming of age and having to deal with just slowing down as they age?
Lesley: Yeah. I really think that you have to get to the core of their passion. Why did they start the sport in the first place? What drove them into this? What excited them? And you know that can sometimes be a complicated thing, especially if everything is about outcome goals in terms of performance-related. But if we get to the essence of why did they like to get out there on the road and run at 10 mile time trial or whatever it might be, then you can kind of stay true to the motivation behind it. And then, technically, it’s changing a bunch of those goals. So, taking different things to focus on. Whether that’s getting more into some trail races instead of some road stuff, or races in different places, or basically just having some different goals attached to your sport. Also training in different environments. So, having different groups that you train with, different people, different routes that you train on so that comparison isn’t always there all the time, all the time, all the time.
Simon: And that comparison, in fact, how we think, we’ve got this hindsight bias that the brain does that we look at the past through rose-tinted glasses. And so, often we find that the life that we had then, as we remember it, when we were lean, and fit, and strong, and young, and we never got injured, it wasn’t actually as great as it seemed at the time, sorry, as great as it seems now. And so, we often try and get athletes to think about developing, not just rekindling an old identity, but building a new identity. We often talk about building version 2.0 of yourself, what would that look like, and all the habits that you really didn’t have back then, and it might be that “I was terrible. I neglected the X, Y, Z,” or, “I didn’t really care much about stretching,” or, “My nutrition was terrible,” but you were a hammerhead, what have you. So, we try and get athletes to think about building a version of themselves, thoughts and beliefs about this identity, this self-schema that is actually far more improved, or a bit more rock solid than where they’ve come from. So, once you get athletes to see, “I’m not trying to get back to where I was. I’m actually trying to become a better person inside about how I think about my sport,” and that resonates with them, then it’s not just so much of a deficit model of their trying to kind of reconcile.
Lesley: And I’ve had to do that personally, myself. I mean, I struggled with Lyme disease, a lot of injuries from 2012 onwards. And here, I won three world titles back to back and then absolutely tanked to the point where I couldn’t get out of bed. So, coming back from that, time and time again, I’ve had to keep redeveloping myself and changing things. ‘Cause I’ll be on a start line and everyone expects me to win, and that’s like, “Hey, I’m a different athlete now. My body’s in a different place. I’ve got to find reasons as to why this is still important for me. So, previously, when I was doing very well and winning all those races, I took so much for granted. I didn’t enjoy those wins. I didn’t look around and enjoy the experience and talked to all the people there. And so, version 2.0 for me is really embracing the gratitude of what I’m able to do, get out there, speak to people, really be an advocate of the sport. So, I personally have had to do it myself
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Now what I really liked about the book, and I actually crack myself up when I got to this part, was one of your fixes for giving yourself just like this super strong athlete identity using this concept of your alter ego me. And to me, this was pretty cool because I grew up watching Rocky. I actually remember there was a period of time in my life when I was like 13, 14 years old to where I had this little gym in my home, and I let my parents, or my parents let me just fill this gym with any dumbbells and barbells, anything else I wanted, and I would put on every single night Rocky III and just watch Rocky III over, and over, and over again. So, Rocky Balboa is who I associated, and still associate with just working hard and sweating bullets in the gym. And I got to this part in the book where it was like, “Your alter ego. Who’s your alter ego?” And you write out the characteristics, and the inspiration, and what you wear, and how you do, and I actually have, I’m looking at it right now on page 15 of your book, I was able to give my alter ego a name that fit my personality with your alter ego development kit, and my entire alter ego was Rocky. My characteristics, right? Like gritty, tough, hard-working, underdog who smiles and loves life then kicks ass, and takes names, and never quits, trains smart but also trains really [censored] hard and leaves nothing on the battlefield. I go on and on, and I’ve got this entire, maybe I’ll even take a photo of this and put it in the show notes. For those of who you listening in, you can go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/braveathlete for the show notes. That’s bengreenfieldfitness.com/braveathlete. But what walk me through this alter ego thing. Is this something you guys came up with?
Lesley: Yeah. Interestingly enough, my background is actually in acting in theater. So, my undergraduate and master’s degree are in those fields. And so, I was very adept at having to build characters and what did that look like. Coming up with how they would move, how they would talk, a point of inspiration. And so, as I got back into the sport the second time for me in my 20’s, me as a personality, and I’m sort of, I’m humble, I like to help people, “No, no, no. You go first.” I don’t have that kind of aggression, and I realized that I needed it to be successful in the sport. I could be a nervous Nellie on the start line. I needed to adopt these different traits. And so, I started to, bit by bit, look at pictures, look for inspiration, look at other athletes, other characters that had this kind of unbridled confidence. I got really into MMA fighting and absolutely loved Conor McGregor just because of his total confidence. He just walks in a room, he doesn’t give a shit what people think. And I was like, “Wow. Imagine being like that.” And I’m like, “Well actually, maybe I should start to adopt some of his traits.” So, I created my own alter ego called Paddy McGinty.
Ben: You didn’t buy a million dollars sports car and a fully automatic machine gun for posing on Instagram, did you?
Lesley: Somehow, my Kia Sorrento doesn’t quite fit that model. But, yeah, I was starting to look at pictures of people like Conor. I’d be rocking up to races just with this death stare, and I’d like punch my fist. Basically created this whole ritual that I would do and then I started to do it in training. And interestingly enough, more and more people were like, “Wow. That Lesley Paterson. She’s a bit of a bitch, isn’t she?” If they met me when I was like in training, ’cause I’d be so focused and so intense, and I’d be my alter ego. And in fact when we did a talk in the East Coast, there’s another top triathlete called Angela Naeth who wins a bunch of races.
Ben: Yeah. I know Angela.
Lesley: Yeah! You know Angela? Yeah, she’s awesome! And she’s a badass. So, she came up to me…
Ben: Yeah. She was actually the first person who I ever interviewed for the Ben Greenfield Fitness Podcast ever.
Lesley: You’re kidding!
Ben: No. That was like nine years ago.
Lesley: Oh my gosh! On the bike, she’s just outrageously good. And so she came up to me after we did a talk about the book, and she came up, and she said, “Lesley,” she’s like, “I just always thought you were a bitch.” So, unfortunately, sometimes building that alter ego, yes, it can be very helpful for certain instances like being in a race situation or what not, but you have to learn to be able to come in and out of it. So, I definitely have strategies to come in and out of that character. ‘Cause when you spend five, six hours a day training, and I’m Paddy mode, that’s the last thing Simon wants to see when I get home. Paddy’s not so fun to go to bed with.
Simon: Yeah. I love you, dear, but I want you not to be a male, Irish psychopath.
Ben: You don’t want to snuggle with Paddy McGinty at the end of the night.
Simon: That’s right.
Ben: But it is kind of cool, how you can basically have this alter ego that you just tap into when it’s time to go to battle. And I think that not enough people kind of have that concept, and this was something that, I actually wanted to ask you this later on in the interview, but I’m just going to ask you right now though, this whole idea of rituals. Like I go to races now, and competitions, and the gym, and wherever else where back in the day, people would be getting kind of hyped up. They’d be tapping into that alter ego and they would even have rituals and specific sets of almost like these sacred, superstitious type of things that they do before a race, like the music you listen to, and the stretches that you do, and where you slip off to do your special breathwork patterns, everything. And now, in an era of you take out your smartphone and you’re doing selfies and Snapchats before a race, it seems like a lot fewer people are focusing on this whole idea of a ritual before a competition, especially before an athletic event. Why are rituals so important? What do you think about the, kind of when you take the temperature, what goes on now at, let’s say, an Ironman triathlon, or some other race, compared to the way that it maybe used to be?
Simon: The interesting thing about rituals is that they work for many different reasons. In fact, there’s lots of now good evidence we’ve got, pre-performance rituals helping lower pre-competition anxiety, help in in race decision making, and so on. So, one of the most obvious things is that it stops you making stupid decisions the night before or the morning of, forgetting stuff. So, if everything is so routinized, for another word, you’re doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same order that’s been planned, then there’s less chance of you driving off without your helmet, or rocking up to a race and forgetting your shoes. So, there is a big element of sort of a structure to it, to preparation. The other side is that it provides some sort of a mental comfort blanket as well. We know there’s what we call cognitive anxiety, sort of a fear and apprehension. It peaks in the few hours before an event. And so, if we can have an opportunity to distract or place them to some interference on that internal chatter so that we can control and direct it to things like controlling our physical response. So, it might be a breath exercise, or just sort of visualizing the course, or visualizing the walkthrough of a transition in triathlon so you know where you’re running in, running out, and biking in, and so on. There’s a whole host of reasons why that helps.
What’s amazing for the athletes that we’ve coached is that it’s not so much that they are taking selfies and Snapchatting before races is that when you ask them, “So, tell me what goes on the night before and right after the morning of.” There’s no real systematicness to it at all. “I just kind of roll up, and I do this. And then if I see so and so,” and then before you know it, you’re at the mercy of your eyes and your ears. And we know that the incoming information, your amygdala, this part deep in your limbic system is processing threat cues. You’re just asking for trouble, really. You’re asking for these thoughts, you’re only going to see someone or this opposition, “I didn’t think they were going to be there. They’re looking lean, and fit, and strong.” Or you’re noticing the weather and, “Oh my god. I hope it doesn’t rain.” Before you know it, any of these sort of intrusive thoughts are taking you off-task. Basically saying, “C’mon. Come with me! Let’s go down the rabbit hole.” And before you know it, you’ve whipped yourself up into some sort of frenzy of why this isn’t going to work well for you. So, the alter ego is one strategy for really making that cast iron, so you’ve actually got a playbook.
But if you don’t have one for that, then just sort of writing down, hour by hour, minute by minute, how am I spending my time. When am I getting up before a race, what am I going to eat, when am I going to eat, when do I need to load the car, when do I need to leave, when do I need my walkthrough, when do I start this warm up, when do I start that warm up. And you’re following it like you would do a lesson plan. And when you give athletes this, it helps them, it’s very comforting to them. I’ve got this sort of system in place. No matter how stressful, I’m always going to do the same thing over and over again. Whether it’s the world championships or the local turkey trot, it doesn’t really matter. So, they’re really important.
Lesley: I really do think that the reason a lot of people don’t do this is because they don’t want to commit. If they’re being seen to be to “serious” about their sport, then what does that say when they’re at the back of the pack, or just completing a 5K, or something that is externally seem to be, “Oh, why are you taking this so seriously? You’re not a professional.” And again, that then comes down to your sense of identity or your sense of worth, for example. We get into a lot of these sorts of issues. So, I really do think that that’s why people do less and less of this.
Ben: Yeah. One of the things that I like though is you’ve got these contingency plans. For example, if you check your phone in the morning and there’s something urgent that you need to respond to before you run, then you’ll do this, or you create a habit of putting the phone on airplane mode when you go to bed at night and not actually checking the phone in the morning until you’re done with your run. Or for me, like if you get to the race and the port-a-potty line is super long and you need to use the restroom before the race, you can feel like you’re not going to have time. Then rather than doing all your pre-race stretching and the warm up over by the start line, you’re going to do all your pre-race stretching and warm up right there while you’re standing in line at the port-a-potty. You have all these little things that you write down, so once you show up at the race, you can actually complete your ritual. The same can apply to training, of course, as well. You have these rituals set up, and I mean I have, even for my home workouts, the same set little stretch routine that I go through each time and the little rules, my little superstitious things. Like before whatever workout it is, I do 30 burpees. That’s just the way I start the workout is I do 30 burpees and that tells my body, it sends the message, “Hey, the workout is starting. Do your 30 burpees.” Whether I’m going for a run, or paddleboard, or whatever, 30 burpees. So, yeah. I love the idea that you guys have these rituals kind of woven into the book as something that’s important.
Simon: And I think the thing is about rituals as well is that it gives us the opportunity for what we call “feed forward”. We’re familiar with feedback, right? That you get information about something that you’ve just done. But feed forward is when you start thinking, you do some mental time travel and play out events happening that haven’t yet happened. It gives you opportunities, just like you said, to see where things might go wrong. And so step one is creating the ritual and practicing it. And step two, we then have our curve balls at them and say, “Okay,” like you said, “the line for the portaloo is too long to wait before you even start. What do you do?” And so, they have to have a little sub-routine of the ritual. They know exactly what to do. There’s nothing that’s too small for this. I worked with an ultra-runner who was going to do Western States or a very long run. And I asked him to come up with their little ritual, and then all the things that could go wrong. And then he sent me back a list of 127 things that could go wrong. And he said, “I didn’t realize that,” and actually got me a bit nerve wracked. All these things, whether it’s suddenly there’s lightning, or I might get a blister, and I have this, that, and on, and on, and on.
But then what we did is systematically, we were then saying, “Okay, if this does happen,” and a series of if-then statements for these 127 things. He came up with a plan for every single one of them. It doesn’t matter that the likelihood of these things happening might be quite small. It’s the fact that no matter what happens, I’ve got this. And that is such a huge part of having the mind set to give an optimal performance is knowing that you are, you can look alert on the start line, and Lesley often talks about this, she can look around and say, “Yes, I’ve out-trained you. I can out-suffer you and I will out-think you on this. No matter what happens I’ve got better skills to cope with it.” So, the more adversity that you face that’s going to affect other people, the better it is for you because you’ve already got contingency plans ahead. And it might be something, this doesn’t have to be a professional athlete. If you talk about the first-time triathlete and they’re worried about not making it through the swim. “What if I get a panic attack?” “What if I start to get so nervous during the swim I have to hang onto a kayak?” And you start giving people little contingencies about emergency strokes, or for propulsion, and looking up and finding and object in the sky that you focus on. So, knowing that you’ve got that often is enough to alleviate the onset of those symptoms. Manipulating expectation is such a critical weapon for athletes.
Ben: You have an entire chapter about dealing with injuries. Obviously, a lot of people get injured. It derails you. For me, it can be depressing because you’ve put all your time into getting ready for this race, this happened to me a few weeks ago, I got hit by a car, I wasn’t able to go do the race, and messed with me mentally and emotionally when you put that much time, and effort, and thought into going and throwing down at the start line, you can’t even show up at the start line. What kind of advice do you have? Like what’s the best of the best advice for coping with an injury when you’ve got all your identity wrapped into being an athlete and you’ve got all this time and money put into some competition or event that you’re going to do? What’s your advice for when you get injured?
Simon: I think the first thing is to think your way through the injury as you would do as an athlete. So, what’s amazing that we find with athletes is they become injured they suddenly turn into this passive, sort of lackadaisical, unmotivated but there’s no hustle to them getting treatment, there’s no hustle to getting second opinions, which they would do if they weren’t injured about some other aspect of their sport. So, it’s find the kind of patient that you are and learning ahead of time about where, what we call the gremlins, like things, the kind of maladaptive ways of thinking, again derail or at least reduce your likelihood of getting back to competing as quickly as possible. And Lesley can talk about this ad nauseam because she’s had so many injuries, she’s come up the side of so many.
Lesley: I’ve had chronic injuries that have last years and years, I’ve had acute injuries, being on the cusp of major world championships, and had fractures six weeks out, and sorts. And I think the important thing to remember, and you’ve kind of touched on this, Ben, is your identity at that point is very, very wrapped up in being an athlete. And let’s be honest, we’re all pretty A type personalities, obsessive compulsive, we’re kind of addicted to the sport, the adrenaline we get from it, the body image issues that we have with it. So, when that rug is pulled out from under your feet, you’re catatonic in some instances. Life is falling apart. So, I personally have to take all of that energy, all of that emotional charge, if you will, and put it into fixing myself and learning about myself for the future so I can build again that 2.0 athlete that’s better.
So, first port of call for me is always to figure out why did I get injured. So, many people right there all they do is they treat the symptoms. They go for a massage, they get ART, they take an extra supplement. And all that is doing is putting a Band-Aid on it. You need to figure out why did it happen. Now, of course, if you were hit by a truck or something like that, that’s slightly different. But a lot of people are going to be dealing with overuse injuries. So, you need to have a team of people around you that you need to have confidence in, that you’ve been referred to by other people. Maybe it’s a physical therapist, maybe it’s a biomechanist looking at how you move through space. So, getting to the real bottom of why did this happen so that you can start fixing it now. So that, yes, when you do treat the symptoms and you get back to the sport, you’re not going to re-injure yourself. Also what it does is it makes you, it empowers you. You’re learning more about your body and how you work. And sometimes, you can come I have an injury actually stronger, fitter, faster, more economical, and bulletproof for the future. So, it feels like you’re really doing something positive rather than wallowing in that negativity of the energy. And then of course treating the symptoms, really looking at all of the modalities out there that you have access to, that you can speak to friends about. Maybe it’s cold laser, maybe it’s injection therapy, maybe it’s ART, massage. There’s so many different things that you can try. And again, by trying these things, it’s kind of like a positive. You feel like you’re doing something to make a difference.
And then the other side of it is, “Okay, how can I still feel like I’m moving forward in the sport even though I’ve got this injury. What sport can I do to maintain some kind of aerobic fitness or strength that are not going to hamper my comeback from this injury?” So, for instance, for me, when I have a running injury, one thing I can often do is get on the StairMaster, that revolving staircase at the gym. And that thing kicks my ever-loving ass. I can get on there, I can support a bit of my weight, I can build some strength, it’s almost like [0:55:01] ______ running. And physically, it almost feels the same as running. So, I’m kind of getting a bit of those endorphins. Or maybe, for example, it’s getting in the pool and doing some more swimming, working on your technique, getting video analysis, always feeling like you’re progressing in some way so that all that negativity of the injury doesn’t weigh you down. And then, of course, you have the body image issues. A big thing for me, and I’ve dealt with kind of eating disorders myself in the past, is you’ve been the fittest and the leanest you’ve ever been. You’re on the cusp of doing this big race, then you get injured and you can’t do the sport. And all of those gremlins start coming in. So, it’s facing some of those things head on, dealing with the kind of tragedy of it all and working through it. Si can definitely talk about some examples of me and losing my…
Simon: Yeah. I’ve got personal and professional experience working with Lesley. Sometimes, I think I need to be a psychologist to be married to. You know, the ups and downs of the injury experience. But I think what’s really important is to recognize that some athletes, when they get injured, they have, and we’ve now got some scientific evidence for this, they often go through responses not too dissimilar to bereavement, right? It’s the five-stage grief response, for example, is a good example of this is to say that some athletes are in denial, they just kind of keep running through it or refuse to accept it. They go through sort of some angry phase or they go through some bargaining where you cut loose with yourself. “I won’t do this again. Just let me get through this, and I promise to change my ways,” and so on. And what we know is that it’s okay to be in these stages. If you start lingering in them, if you are frustrated with yourself, or angry, or if you’re feeling depressed about it, then that’s a normal part for many people, of coping with injury.
But most people don’t actually follow. In our estimation, and this is some of the literature as well, that 10 to 15% of athletes go through this sort of grief response. So, knowing whether you’re kind of a grief type respondent to injury. The other, the majority’s through what we call this cognitive appraisal. So, in other words, how we think about injury and what it means to us in our identity determines, in part, how we cope with it. And so, you can change how you appraise injury. We have this little worksheet to help you do that. And for, example one of the steps that you do is like not knowing what’s wrong with you, it’s an unforgivable thing that an athlete has if you don’t actually know what’s wrong. I’m sure there are some things are so difficult to diagnose and we don’t know, and the specialists don’t know, and so on. But out of laziness, or being motivated to find out what’s wrong with you is really unforgivable as an athlete. I’m not advocating necessarily Dr. Google all the time, but you can find out as much as possible about that injury and why you got it before you start confronting the other stuff. And then we know that we tend to catastrophize, and awful-ize, and all the other -izings that psychologists like to think about, everything’s ruined now, what’s the point anymore, and you end up eating unhealthily, or you stop doing all the other things that contribute to you performing even if they’re not related to your injury.
So, you have to confront kind of this [censored] that your head is telling you as well about it. So, having a systematic plan for when you get injured is really important. And it’s not just about how you get through the injury. For example, how you cope with your injury, how you appraise that injury actually predicts the risk of you getting injured again in the future. So, there’s some knock-on effect of you experiencing coping with it now that looks at your, that affects your susceptibility to getting re-injured later on. So, you’re doing yourself some preventive work as well, like getting through and coming unstuck from the crap that you’re in now.
Ben: That’s what I liked about training for a triathlon was if you got a running injury, you just go swimming. Or if you get a cycling injury, you just go swimming. Or you get a running injury, you go cycling. Yeah, I mean, I never get it when, I still coach folks, and I don’t want to throw ’em under the bus, but they’ll explain their ankle and they won’t tell me, and then they’ll get in touch with me a week later and be like, “Yeah, I didn’t do any workouts this week ’cause I sprained my ankle.” We could’ve done so many full-body strength training workouts, and swimming, and upper body training. That’s what keeps you sane when you’re injured a lot of the time, in addition to being able to go back and spend that time to be able to identify how you could never get that injury to happen again, by equipping your body to become a little bit more bulletproof to whatever happened to you. You figure out other ways to improve fitness. I mean, even if you freaking can’t even exercise at all, there’s so much research behind, for example, heat therapy and cold therapy is a great way to improve your cardiovascular blood flow, and nitric oxide production, and all of these fitness elements that can be had without even putting any stress on the joints. So, yeah, I thought the chapter on injury was really good. And there really is no excuse for not being able to get through an injury both mentally and physically and come out stronger on the other side.
Lesley: Go big time. I mean, I was just going to say one example, I ended up breaking my wrist and my hand and about a week before I was supposed to go to Europe and race in World Cup Night Bike Racing. And it was a huge, huge big travesty. I was super duper fit. So, I absolutely lost my WOD, cried, cried, cried, cried, cried for about maybe three, four hours as I was at the hospital. And I came out with everything bandaged up, and I said to my buddy, “Get me on a stationary trainer. I want to know that I can do something. I ended up, that same day, doing two hours on the stationary trainer, and I thought, “Okay. I can salvage this.” So, we ended up going to altitude, and just like your point, I figured I might as well go and have some other stress on the body, i.e. going up to altitude where I’m going to produce more red blood cells and have a greater stress on the body. And I did a month of altitude training on the stationary trainer and ended up coming out definitely fitter than I was going in. So, it’s all a question of kind of motivation and attitude.
Ben: Yeah. I’ve learned so much and gotten so much more fit through injury. It’s crazy. I should just injure myself more often, I think. It’s probably a good strategy. I don’t really have an issue pushing myself outside my comfort zone. I love to do it. I thrive on that. But then I run into people who will say, “Hey, come do a Spartan race with me.” And they’re like, “I’ve never done one. I’m not going to do that. I’m not a Spartan athlete. I don’t know how to climb a rope.” Or I’ll invite someone to go paddle boarding with me, and they’ll say, “I don’t like cold water. I’m afraid I might fall in, et cetera.” What are your best tips for getting somebody outside of their comfort zone?
Simon: Yeah. That’s a great question. It’s really one of the most common ones we get as well from our athletes, about either stepping up to a new category, or even a new sport, a new distance. And one of the things that really you have to confront is why people are having these thoughts and feelings that they don’t want. We start off in our book with teaching athletes a mental model based on some of the latest neuroscientific research, which is notoriously absent in sports psychology, I would say. So, we know much more now about the brain and why we’re fed these thoughts and feelings. But one of the concepts that we think is the part of your brain, the limbic system, is really terrified. Okay, it wants to keep you alive. It’s our emotion central, fight or flight response where all these other structures, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, and all these other Latin-named structures are.
But one of the things that it’s really terrified of, in air quotes here, assuming that it has an identity, is that it’s worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or shown to be inadequate. And those three things, your brain will literally shit the bed if it thinks that there’s an opportunity for those things to happen. And so most comfort zones stem from either genuine fear of physical harm, or, more likely, there’s going to be some embarrassment, humiliation, or shown to be adequate. So, am I doing the right thing? You don’t want to suck in front of other people, when other people are watching you suck, that’s even worse. What’s even worse than that is other people seeing you suck and everybody else around you clearly not sucking. So, the kind of trifecta sucking creates this climate for people shying away from situations that scare you.
So, what we try and have athletes do is to really think about this in the context of how you try and detach yourself from that experience, those thoughts that you’re having are kind of not real. They’re made up. They’re designed to kind of not, we have emotions, for example, to drive decision making and the decision making is, “Stay away. Do something you’re good at. Don’t put yourself in this environment,” because it doesn’t want you to feel those particular, to be vulnerable. And millions of years ago, being in those states, humiliated, vulnerable, inadequate, did actually probably mean death because you’re foraging for food on your own, you have to defend yourself. But now, in the relatively low stress suburbs, those things aren’t true. So, it’s confronting some of this logic. So we try and get people to think about sort of the facts and logic behind, “Okay. Well, if you’re worried about looking stupid, let’s talk about that. What does that look like? Do you think people are going to be ridiculing you, or laughing at you, or you feel ‘I’m so fat in my lycra. I don’t want to be seen. Or I see myself as sort of chunky monkey out there and everyone else, they’re all lean, and fit, and super strong athletes.”
So, what we try and do is we disarm sort of the logic, or the irrational logic, I should say, of some of the way that we construct these thoughts. And then, we try and get people to think that you’re not actually your thoughts and feelings. You’re the container for them. This is getting a little bit meta here, and we have a chapter in our book that really talks about this notion of detaching from the experience and how critical it is, the whole host of sort of psychological experiences and happiness in general, the ability, and this is what meditation, in part, is teaching us to do, to be able to stand back from the way that we experience the world and not to see that as being necessarily the truth. So, it’s quite important, firstly, that you recognize that people don’t fail. Actions can fail or behaviors can fail. And even we try and change the words failure because we talk about guidance a lot, and feedback, and really, you don’t think that there are other things that we do in life that we don’t anywhere near think about failure in the same way, like teaching yourself to juggle in the comfort of your own home, even though you know that you can’t do it, is far less intimidating, for example, than doing your first 5K. Why is that? It’s a skill. Other people can do it. Other people are so self-absorbed, they don’t really care about what you’re doing. So, we try and recognize that most of the time, you’re not being judged or evaluated the way that you think you are.
And then we try and have people reframe goals and reframing the way that you think about what constitutes failure is really critical. In fact, probably one of the most single important principles for mental conditioning, for all people who are in performance situations is to change, fundamentally change our relationship with failure, what it’s actually telling us and how we get around it. And this has been written about extensively, researched extensively. So, we’ve got some really good strategies now. And one of those is staying in the present, becoming obsessed with presentism, here and now thinking at the expense of thinking about what’s just gone on, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I did that. Why did I do that? I can’t get that outside of my head. I screwed up. I fluffed that.” Or thinking about the future. “Oh my god. Now, it’s already sucking and I’m going to be so far behind. People are going to be waiting for me. They’re going to be, hhy are they not so good,” and so on, and so on. And all these things detracting from what contributes to best possible performances given the cards you have in the day. And it’s all about staying in the here and now, being present.
So we have a little mantra that we teach athletes how to do this, and we call it the “effort and attitude”. So, the two things that are always in your control are your effort, how hard you push, how tactically or technically you prepare for the next minute that you’ve got given the skills that you have, and always focusing on that, and then your attitude, staying positive. And there’s a whole host of, again, good research to show why positive thinking and staying positive in the face of adversity is really critical. It changes perception of pain, it changes your perception of time, and all these other things that are really important. So, effort and attitude, and then staying in the moment are really critical. And this is a great segue into what we consider to be one of the most important stem cell skills for athletes, and this is the ability to stay in the moment, which is meditation or mindfulness training.
If there’s one skill that we could all benefit from not, just in sport, but being able to control with intrusive thoughts and feelings in that time and not let them get their hooks into us so that we stay in the present is meditation or mindfulness training. We don’t often use the word, the M word with athletes ’cause their eyes roll back in their heads and they’ll think, “Oh, god. Am I going to have to listen to Enya and join a drumming circle. That’s not me. I’m not spiritual.” But it’s not about that at all. Now, there’s such good research to show what mindfulness training is doing. Not just at the feel good attention level, like staying present. For example, it has a direct impact on the physical structure of the amygdala. It shrinks the amygdala, sort of the sensory radar of processing threat cues is having a direct impact. So, there are lots of reasons why this is important. And if you don’t develop that underlying skill and you just hope in the moment that you can sort of just stay present on effort and attitude, it’s hard. But we try and outline the steps to do that, and athletes are having quite incredible breakthroughs in their performance when they’re able to do that.
So, we’ve got some little easy techniques, whether it’s you learn to count to your leg turnover or arm turnover to six or eight in time, you segment the event that you’re doing so you only think about a little chunk in front of you, we’ve got a host of things, little techniques that you can latch onto that are changing your perception of effort, they’re changing your perception of time, you’re staying in the moment, you’re not thinking about what’s just gone on and what’s going on in the future. That’s really critical for doing that. And once you approach, you’re able to do this, all of these situations, inside and outside of our comfort zone, just become another experience that you then aren’t worried about so much what people thinking about you, or looking embarrassed, or humiliated. ‘Cause all I know is that when I do my little post-event autopsy and we say, “Did you give everything and did you stay positive,” if you say yes and yes to that, we can’t ask any more of you. You might have been the slowest shit on the day for whatever reason, but on the day, if you can say to us that you gave it everything and you kept that attitude positive, we cannot ask any more of you. And you can’t ask anymore of yourself when you do that. So, that’s why it becomes sort of the little Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket of having a great race.
Ben: What about this idea of thumb tapping? Is that related to the idea of getting outside your comfort zone, this exercise called thumb tapping?
Simon: Thumb tapping, and not to be confused with sort of the rather pseudoscientific finger tapping of meridian lines and so on, thumb tapping, actually, they use a version of this, actually midwives used to use it to help with birthing pain where the midwife would just either squeeze or tap on the forearm of the mom in labor to focus attention as a little distraction technique. And the brain seems to love and thing that has a metronomic quality to it, or rhythm. So, a sense of forward progress, a sense of sequence, and there are a whole host of reasons why that is different parts of our brain get activated, which sort of downregulate prefrontal cortex overanalysis and so on. So, any opportunity we can get to narrow in on a little cue.
So, there’s nothing really sort of who-do-voodoo about thumb tapping. All it means is simply when you, preferably it’s best when you’re running. So, your hands are free, you’re not trying to hold on to something that’s part of the activity you’re in. If you imagine you’ve got a pen, a clicker pen in each hand with a clenched fist, and with each thumb, you’re clicking down on the little nib to open or close the pen. So, as you’re running, your clipping your thumbs down on your curled index finger in time with the action that you’re doing. And what this seems to do is, one, it focuses our attention, it becomes just like when you meditate. It’s a cue. Like you focus on your breathing, it’s an internal thing, it’s distracting, and so on. It does that. You can also set your cadence to it, to speed up or slow down. It becomes this little distraction that helps athletes cope with short periods of things that are really starting to struggle.
So, it might be, there’s a minute, there’s this hill that I’m really struggling with, or it’s the last mile, or it’s just a short period of time that I really need to suck it, staying on that wheel or staying with that faster athlete. And what athletes tell us, when we’ve trained them to use it, is that it changes their perception of effort, their perception of pain reduces, their perception of time changes, and, again, there’s nothing sort of weird about it. It’s just the fact that you’re using a little physical cue to focus on. And it really helps. Most athletes tap both thumbs in time with their leg turnover when they’re running. Rather than like left thumb, left leg, right thumb, right leg, and so on. So, try it. It’s really quite great. I use it a lot when I’m racing. Lesley uses it as well. I mean, our athletes do to cope with little periods of sort of intense discomfort.
Lesley: Yeah. He uses it when he’s trying to keep up with me.
Ben: It sounds really similar to this concept of an anchor. I interviewed this guy named Andy Murphy on the show a couple of years ago and he’s an NLP, a neuro-linguistic programming expert. I think that’s what NLP stands for, if I remember properly. The idea was anytime you really want to go deep into the pain cave, you develop this anchor, and mine was, the only thing was that it kind of sucked for swimming, but you know press your index finger against your thumb really hard, and that was the anchor that we developed during that NLP programming session that he did with me. But your thumb tapping technique in this book really reminded me of that. You’re just like tapping in almost like these tiny little, I think you call ’em, it’s like a metronomic, like a cue in a way. I really dig that strategy. I mean, there’s all sorts of really cool strategies in the book, but that one seemed especially useful.
Simon: Yeah. It is. And this technique isn’t based on NLP foundations or any other aspects but activating different hemispheres of the brain. It’s simply a focus, a physical focus that has a metronomic quality to it, that controls our ears and our eyes, and channels effort. And it really seems to be effective, so we love it.
Ben: Well, for those of you listening in, this book is called “The Brave Athlete”. And I’m going to put the show notes for everything we talked about, a link to the book, to Simon and Lesley’s website, and also to some of those other podcasts I mentioned, like my one with Andy Murphy about developing this anchor to switch off pain during exercise and the one I did with Angela Naeth way back in the day. I’ll link to all of that stuff, just go to bengreenfieldfitness.com/braveathlete. And when you go there, be sure to grab the book too ’cause it really, it’s a fantastic read. If you’ve ever had to deal with psychological issues around exercising, pushing yourself, being an athlete, forming an athlete identity, everything’s in there. So, Simon and Lesley, thanks for writing this book and for coming on the show today.
Lesley: Great! Yeah! No, we’re super stoked. And just for those folks out there that like to listen to things as they train, it’s actually on audiobook as well, and we narrate it, in fact. So, if you want a laugh on that, yeah, you can listen to our audiobook as well. You can get it on Amazon too.
Ben: Wait. You said you do if you want to laugh at it?
Lesley: Oh, listen to it on audiobook if you want to laugh at our…
Simon: ‘Cause we narrate it.
Ben: Oh, you narrate it? Yeah, you narrate it. Cool. That’s a pain. I narrated my book. It took freaking forever.
Lesley: Oh, nice!
Simon: Plus we’ve got the Scottish and English accents going every other chapter. So, that might be a bit confusing.
Ben: I like it. Might be a good listen. Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on. Again, the show notes are at bengreenfieldfitness.com/braveathlete. And until next time, I’m Ben Greenfield along with Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson signing out from bengreenfieldfitness.com. Have an amazing week.
It’s high time to dig into another one of the dog-eared books on my shelf – one of those titles that I folded over, highlighted and scribbled in profusely.
The book, entitled, “The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion“, claims to solve the 13 most common mental conundrums athletes face in their everyday training and in races.
It’s based on the idea that you don’t have one brain – you have three; your ancient Chimp brain that keeps you alive, your modern Professor brain that navigates the civilized world, and your Computer brain that runs your habits (good and bad). They fight for control all the time and that’s when bad things happen; you get crazy nervous before a race, you choke under pressure, you quit when the going gets tough, you make dumb mistakes, you worry about how you look.
What if you could stop the thoughts and feelings you don’t want? What if you could feel confident, suffer like a hero, and handle any stress? According to today’s podcast guests and the authors of the book – Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson – you can indeed take control of your brain so you can train harder, race faster, and better enjoy your sport.
Dr. Simon Marshall trains the brains of endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts to become happier and more mentally tough. He is former Professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California, San Diego and Professor of Exercise Science at San Diego State University where he was Director of the Graduate Program in Sport & Exercise Psychology. He has published over 100 scientific articles on the psychology of exercise and has been cited in the scientific literature over 10,000 times. He has served as invited expert on exercise science for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Cancer Society. He is currently the Performance Psychologist for the BMC Racing team, an elite WorldTour professional cycling team. As the sherpa-husband of professional triathlete Lesley Paterson, he is the founding member of Team S.H.I.T. (Supportive Husbands in Training), and competes in triathlon or cycling events as the husband of Lesley Paterson.
Lesley Paterson is a professional mountain biker, 3-time world champion in off-road triathlon, an Ironman® triathlon champion, endurance coach, and foul-mouthed Scots lassie. Growing up in Scotland, Lesley was the only girl on an all-boys rugby team, which is where she nurtured her love of dirt and dirty words. Banned from the team when puberty struck, she took up cross-country running and triathlon and was soon winning national titles and competing internationally. Lesley founded Braveheart Coaching to train and inspire endurance athletes to compete with passion, toughness, and an unwavering “Braveheart” spirit in overcoming obstacles. Paterson is a trained actress, a screenwriter, and personal trainer to Hollywood actors.
During our discussion, you’ll discover:
-What made Simon and Lesley work on this book together as a dual process…8:45
-What an athletic identity is, and how to form a strong one…12:45
-How to use a self-schema process to build your identity and avoid a damaging “identity mismatch”…20:45
-Why an alter-ego for yourself is one of the most powerful things you can do to form an athletic identity…38:00
-Why rituals seem less and less common in an era of “holding your smartphone for a selfie” before the race…42:30
-Simon and Lesley’s best of the best advice for getting through an injury…50:45
-Simon and Lesley’s tips for getting outside your comfort zones…1:01:45
-A thumb tapping exercise for increasing your tolerance to pain and getting outside your comfort zone…1:10:15
-And much more!
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Resources from this episode: