As I finished the UMUK Ultra Triathlon to discover I had won, I was pleased. But that was it. I wasn’t ecstatic, thrilled or ‘over the moon’, just pleased that I had finished and that I could now rest for a while. I was really looking forward to putting my feet up for a month or two and not having to get up at silly o’clock in the morning to get in a 4 hour bike ride before work or spend my work lunch times trying to find a pool at whatever location I was in that day to train in.
The 4 months following the Ultra have been more difficult than I ever thought and probably in many ways tougher than the event itself. To be honest I didn’t really think about ‘recovery; much at all and that was probably then biggest mistake I made. I just wasn’t prepared for the physical and mental toll that had been exacted. Over these 4 months I have had to re-evaluate a part of me that that I had always considered to be rock solid – my resilience and mental toughness – and this blog begins to explore this experience.
A few years ago I went on a course on the 4C framework for Mental Toughness. As I got ever more frustrated with having to rest and not being able to train properly I re-visited my notes and started to re-ignite my interest in what makes some mentally tougher than others.
According to Professor Peter Clough of Manchester Metropolitan University Mental Toughness is a personality trait that improves performance and wellbeing meaning that you are more likely to be successful in your personal and professional life.
Mental Toughness is defined as Resilience – the ability to bounce back from setbacks and failures- aligned with Challenge and Confidence -the ability to spot and seize opportunities. Mentally Tough people are more outcomes focused and better at making things happen without being distracted by their own or other peoples’ emotions. Mental Toughness can be measured using the MTQ48 psychometric tool, a scientifically valid and reliable test based which measures the key components of mental toughness
I am currently write this bit of the blog in a coffee shop in Tower Hamlets, London, where I am due to talk to a group of senior managers today on the topic of Control. Control is the extent to which you feel you are in control of your life and that you can make a difference and change things.
When training I have loads of things I need to control. My training plan, my training venues, my kit, my nutrition etc. After the Ultra I felt I had little to control beyond making sure I wasn’t doing very much. This sounds great but in reality it became a bit of a nightmare as my need for control took over in areas where it wasn’t needed and definitely not wanted. I began to seize control of what we had for dinner, what we watched on T.V. and even how the Christmas Tree was to be decorated. Things that weren’t on my radar a few months ago became important to me and I needed to stamp my mark on them. As you can imagine this didn’t make me overly popular at home where things were just fine before I decided to get involved. I even got into trouble at work after trying to tell the training course administrator how to lay out a training room when only 3 months before I had made it quite clear I had other things I needed to focus on rather than how the training room was laid out and that I was more than happy for the administrator to do what she felt was right .
It wasn’t until I recently started fully back on a structured training plan that I realised what I had been doing and have had to go round apologising for my behaviour. I had never realised how deep my need for control lay. I knew my passion for endurance sport came not just from the physical and physiological but also the psychological. Beginning to understand my relationship with control has been a big eye opener for me.
I remember thinking as I hobbled away from the finishers area at UMUK to go and take a shower, that I now had 8 months before Ironman Lanzarote, 10 months before Long Course Weekend in Wales and 12 months before the World Long Course Championships in Almere Holland. I don’t know if that’s normal but its how I work. As soon as something is done I have no real interest in looking back on it, I select the next big thing on my radar and focus on that.
My wife calls my level of effort and focus to particular things obsessive. I just call it committed. Commitment is about focus and reliability. It means that you are able to effectively set goals and reliably and consistently achieve them without being distracted. Part of that means you become strong at establishing routines and habits that enable you to achieve what you set out to.
I hear a lot of talk about non commitment, people who can’t or won’t commit to this that or the other which is often attributed to not wanting to be tied down or to lose freedom and choice or risk failure. For me though the common problem is not so much about lack of commitment as over commitment, the desire (or perceived need) to commit to a wide range of things professionally, domestically and socially that is the real issue.
One of the most common conversations I have with Managers that I Coach is their sense of being swamped. They feel unfocused and unable to state with any clarity what they are trying to achieve. They are committed to more things than they can manage which puts them in a survive rather than thrive mentality in everything they do.
When it comes to Triathlon and training being able to commit and to only commit to a few key things its something that I am good at, however this key commitment principle is both blessing and curse.
Blessing for the reasons outlined above but curse insofar if your key commitment areas do not include your family, friends or work you need to be prepared for that to have consequences.
The hardest thing about commitment is sometimes not where to commit but where your not
I don’t know why but for as long as I can remember I have tried to make things a little bit harder than they should be. I remember I used to walk to primary school as a 9 or 10 year old seeing how far I could walk backwards or with my eyes closed. The school was about a mile away and my goal was to make it all the way there. This might sound daft enough but considering I lived and went to school in central London its a wonder I am still here now. I clearly remember my biggest challenge was crossing High street Kensington which even then was a busy main road. I knew how to get to the traffic lights and know that I was ok as long as I could here the beacon beeps to tell me to cross but it took a long time to get the confidence to actually cross with my eyes closed and finish the journey to school. The day I did that I never tried it again. Challenge was over, job done and move on to something else.
One of the toughest parts of the recovery period from UMUK has been not being able to take up the challenge to push myself. Whilst my Logical brain has trying to be sensible and give my body the rest it needed my Emotional brain is always looking for the next challenge to excite and challenge it. (More about the Logical and Emotional Brains shortly).
A recurring conversation I still have with myself before training is along the lines of.
Emotional Brain: Ok, we need to do hill session tonight, if we don’t go we’ll get left behind. The others are training hard and getting faster
Logical Brain: Look we’re knackered and we know that rest is good for the body. We don’t need to do this.
Emotional Brain: No we don’t need to do this so let’s rest and just be lazy. But remember we’ll suffer even more when we eventually do get off our arse and run. You always moan at the start of a session and then love it once we get going.
Logical Brain: Ok we’ll go but just take it easy.
Emotional Brain: Of course we’ll take it easy!
Once training started the conversation is also very predictable.
Logical Brain: Ok, nice and easy
Emotional Brain: Yeah but not too easy otherwise we’ll never warm up
Logical Brain: So lets just sit behind Steve
Emotional Brain: Ok that’s fine as long as you’re happy for Jen and Trevor to leave us for dead.
Logical Brain: Its not a race
Emotional Brain: You always say that when others go past
Logical Brain: Ok we’ll make sure we stay ahead of Jena and Trevor – but no chasing Dan!
And so the merry go round continued with me unable to resist the self made challenge.
Whether its Dave & Phil on the Swim, Dan and Jen up the Hill and Trevor and Martin on the bike the self dialogue is always the same. Whats interesting is if they challenged directly I would happily turn it down. I have no problem resisting a challenge from others, seems I just can’t resist a challenge from myself. This is all well and good when your looking to build strength and speed but when you’re trying to recover from by far the most exhausting thing you have ever done its really not the best trait
The willingness to seek out and embrace a challenge is a great mental strength. Seeing challenges, change, adversity and variety as opportunities rather than threats makes you adaptable, agile and able to respond to whatever life throws at you. My one word of warning is that just be careful that challenge doesn’t become an addiction that you overdose on to the point where you lose control and everything becomes a struggle.
The difference between a challenge and a struggle? Plenty. The energy of challenge is totally different from the energy of struggle:
- Struggle makes you feel weak. Challenge makes you feel strong.
- Struggle makes you want to shrink back. Challenge helps you want to grow.
- Struggle wants to give up or give in. Challenge encourages you to press in.
- Struggle breaks your strength. Challenge develops your strength.
- Struggle expose what’s lacking. Challenge unveils abundance.
- Struggle says, “You can’t do this.” Challenge says, “You have what it takes.”
A constant inventory of what you see as a struggle and a what is a challenge is an important habit for those interested in gaining and maintaining personal well-being.
I’ve never been short of self-confidence, to have belief that I can face day to challenges successfully. Maybe its because I am not particularly detail orientated and thus don’t tend to dig too deep for reasons why something can’t be done or perhaps just because I’ve never been worried about failing. I always remember my Water-Skiing Coach from way back when telling me to learn to love my mistakes because they are the things that will make you better. I loved that concept (still do), and thus still spend a lot of my time pushing myself to make mistakes so I can learn.
It is worth noting that the period of recovery following the Ultra challenged my self confidence more than I can remember and I am lucky that I have built a deep well of it to be able to draw from when doubt around my health, fitness and future capability to perform to the same level threatened to take hold.
What Is Self-Confidence?
Two main things contribute to self-confidence: self-efficacy and self-esteem.
We gain a sense of self-efficacy when we see ourselves (and others similar to ourselves) mastering skills and achieving goals that matter in those skill areas. This is the confidence that, if we learn and work hard in a particular area, we’ll succeed; and it’s this type of confidence that leads people to accept difficult challenges, and persist in the face of setbacks.
This overlaps with the idea of self-esteem, which is a more general sense that we can cope with what’s going on in our lives, and that we have a right to be happy. Partly, this comes from a feeling that the people around us approve of us, which we may or may not be able to control. However, it also comes from the sense that we are behaving virtuously, that we’re competent at what we do, and that we can compete successfully when we put our minds to it.
The 4C Model of Mental Toughness says there are 2 components of Confidence:
- Confidence in Abilities
- Interpersonal Confidence
I had been struggling to keep up in training with people I would normally have been able to stay with and it had been 3 months since the Ultra. I started to lose confidence in my abilities and even questioned whether I had peaked and that I should accept I was now on a downward slope in terms of physical ability and that I should perhaps start acting my age and take up the invitation to the West Mersea Lawn Bowls New Member Open Day that had appeared on my door mat a few weeks before.
Whilst self confidence is deep rooted, it can be learnt and developed. It can also be both lost and found. As I sought to re-find mine I found myself, looking at familiar tools I use in work such as:
- Self Talk
- Positive Thinking
In particular I went back to a 3 step process I often use when training Managers
- Stop and Take Stock
Taking time out to step back, stop and think about where you are right now is really important. I am normally pretty good at this but had fallen out of the habit. I tend to get to where I am working that day pretty early and find a Costa Coffee where I can sit quietly and gather my thoughts. I returned to the habit at a Costa in Billaricay and as I sipped my extra hot grande Mocha asked myself a few questions
- What exactly was affecting my confidence?
- Was my lack of confidence based on logic or emotion?
- Was I still confident in general?
- What was I still doing well?
- What was I enjoying doing?
- What was I trying to achieve in each training session
- What was my plan for the next month / next year
- What were the things within my control that I should focus on to move myself in the right direction
2 – Take Responsibility and Control of your Thinking
In his brilliant book ‘The Chimp Paradox’, Dr Steve Peters talks about managing your inner Chimp, an independent thinking brain that is not under your control. It works with feelings and impressions and then puts the ‘information’ together using emotional thinking. If we allow our Emotional Chimp to take charge of our thinking (which we often do), confidence can easily be threatened.
My Chimp was definitely in control and I was finishing training. frustrated, angry and disappointed that I was not able to perform at a level I thought I should. As I was training every day (yes I know, I shouldn’t have been!), I was allowing my Chimp thoughts to roll forward unchecked to the next session where they simply increased.
It was time to give my Chimp a stiff talking to and force my ‘Human’ brain which is analytical, logical and rational to take charge. This is easier said than done but achievable through techniques such as:
- Allowing the Chimp to Vent (Exercising your Chimp)
- Teaching the Chimp the value of reasoning (Boxing your Chimp)
- Rewarding the Chimp for good behaviour (Feeding your Chimp)
- Focusing on process (Distracting the Chimp)
I am lucky in that I have a fairly well trained Chimp who just needed to be reminded rather than taught his role and once that had been done he did what he does best – sleeps.
3. Take Action
As the saying goes ‘Talk is Cheap’ and I subscribe to that insofar as without action to follow it talk is often worthless. It has always been one of my greatest challenges to ensure training and coaching at work does not end up being a talking shop but a practical opportunity to do something different.
The most important important thing is to have something to aim for, a practical plan for achieving it and most importantly a clear first step that is absolutely in your control to initiate. I started to follow a 4 step process for training
- Turn Up
- Know exactly what I am trying to achieve in each session
- Do whats required to the best of my ability and not concern myself with what others are doing
- Enjoy being able to do the above
- Take time to reflect on what I have done and balance up the things that I did well wi the things I would like to improve.
I am currently involved with a project with British Triathlon called the Genome Project where I have an app that allows me to record my thoughts and feelings following each training session which then maps against my training data creating a highly personalised view of the effect of cognitive state on my performance.
This relationship has progressively been of interest to me not just in Sport but also in work and most recently in the development of my children at school. On a daily basis I see highly capable and competent people struggling to demonstrate that capability and competence at work and blaming anyone and anything they can for it. at training I see people far more talented (and younger) than I holding themselves back with their limiting self beliefs and I see my kids at school thriving not because they are any smarter or able than others but because they have built (and continue to build), mental strength through their academic, social and particularly sporting endeavours.
Now sitting in another Costa Coffee, Hemel Hempstead on a dark and miserable Tuesday evening I realise that it is the mental much more than the physical side that has made the past 4 months a real challenge. The biggest realisation has been the most simple. Physically I am where I am. I can choose to like it or not but that doesn’t change it. What I can choose is whether I do something about it and if I do I can choose to enjoy doing it. That’s enough for me and when I think about it, it always was. It was just that something changed for a while and I lost perspective.
Now where is that application form for the Brutal Quin?