Athletes update, Viewpoint

The fragile brain & its effect on your physical abilities

Many of you will have been training hard through the winter,  seen some great gains in many areas and be prepared and ready for a great season.  But, what if, in race 1, or on a pre race training session, things start to not go to plan?  Does your inner ‘chimp’ come out to play, nagging you that maybe you are not as good as you hoped or thought, or casting doubt on what you can achieve?

We have all been there.  Believe me I have any any times!  So what can we do to ‘manage our chimp?’  How do we manage our fragile brain & its effect on our physical abilities?


Steve Peters the emininent psychologist who has been credited as one of the key factors behind the renaisiance in British Cycling is probably one of the first to bring into the conciousness of the masses our Chimp.  He did this, through his book, ‘The Chimp Paradox’ .

I am no psychologist, but I am an avid reader and proponent to the importance of the psychological side of our minds to our success (or not) in our sporting endeavours.

As many of you will know, and I won’t labour it, ‘The Chimp paradox’ focuses on how the primordial ’emotional’ side of our brain can over take the more rationale ‘human side’ and lead us to having negative thoughts.  Not only that these can manifest in physical ways.  How many times have we talked ourselves out of that hard training session?  Or said ‘I cant do that’.  And you know what?  You were right.  Starting with that attitude or approach, failure is almost inevitable.  TheHuman brain is truly remarkable, as good as our reserachers are they are a long way from truly understanding HOW it works to impact much of what we do.

Convesrations with a number of my athletes this past weeks has brought this even more to the forefront of my mind than normal.

Personally I have struggled many times with this.  Many, many seasons I have had a great winter training, hit the seaosn with high hopes, then effectively seen the wheels fall off!  I’m getting too old now to let this go on too much longer!!

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Self analysis of this, as well as some professional support has helped me both, understand, manage and see the signs.  For me the triggers would be either a bad race, be it result versus what I expected, be that a placing or power output.  Or a poor training session (or three!), or sometimes at these times, I could simply look at start list and already talk myself out of a decent result due to the strength of my competition.

This has lead me to a few points of self understanding that I hope are beneficial to my coached and other athletes.  Here’s a few below:

  1. Have some one impartial to talk to and bounce off and be the pragmatic foil to your emotional chimp
    1. I see my role as coach as being multi faceted.   One of THE most important parts is being there for my athletes when the ‘chimp’ comes out to play!
    2. I have often been in situations that my athletes will be going through, be it pressure of work or family impacting either training time, or more often its sleep and recovery time that is the problem.  It may be stressing or worrying about a race or competitiors.  Or racing and not quite hitting the numbers or timmes we expect from training. Or simply race day nerves.
    3. I have been there.  In virtually all situations.  My role is to step back
      1. Remind the athlete what they are capable of
      2. What they have done in training
      3. Talk through processes to manage these anxieties,
        1. Be it race day planning and organisation
        2. Race analysis and forecasting using some of the excellent and available tools
        3. Reminding the athlete we are all human – even those who appear undefeatable – they can have an off day

As the race season kicks off these tensions and concerns rise.  I have athletes who have been working through massively stressful work environments and trying (and often failing) to still hit the numbers.  My role here is to listen, adapat and advise.  Tweak the plans. Reassure the athlete. Take away the stress.

I have athletes moving house, just 6 weeks from a key IronMan distance event, workinga nd still trying to hit everything.  WOW!  That’s a massive ask!  Here we look to tweak, analyse and respond.  Balance what is commonly refered to as one of the most stressful ‘life events’, with what CAN be done. NOT what ‘ideally should be done for a perfect race’.  We have to adapt.  Very, Very few have the luxury of a ‘perfect run in’ and what is ‘ideal’ on paper, needs adapting to balance life V sport.

I have known athletes experience major life changing events, be it a death in the family, a major career change or other such event.  Yet they still expect to operating at 100%.  It aint gonna happen!  Understand the effect these (non physical) events can have on your performance.  Make allowances and be sure to read the signs, both internal and external.

A key point for us amateurs is to recognise the effect emotional stress (be it life factors, work or other) can have on physical performance.


Many of us use our sport as a release from day to day life stresses, and often, getting out on the bike or hitting the trails running can be the perfect foil to a tough day / week.  But, there are times that the balance shifts, the ‘stresses’ spill over and affect phyisical performance.  What do we do?


Here’s a few pointers to think about, and I’d be happy to discuss, or share my experiences if that will help.

  1. Be realistic – both in goals and expectations – Don’t expect to win the Tour de France in year one cycling, or your First Ironman, but build SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achieveable, Realistic, Timely)
  2. Review – be pragmatic – an independent , experienced supporter here can be really helpful, be it a coach, experieneced athlete friend or other.  Butbeing HONEST is key
    1. When working in the corporate world an old boss used the phrase ‘Look in the mirror’ – I really like it – be honest about that reflection, what is good , bad and what needs to change.
  3. Follow the process – be it a coach set one, or your own.  Don’t try and skip phases . It won’t work.  There are no short cuts to hard work.  There is smart work, but no short cuts.
  4. Be flexible.  If things aren’y going to plan, then don’t be scared to change it.  As Einstein said, “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
  5. Stretch yourself – find your limits.  In training embrace failure!  NOT hitting that final set isnt failure, its learning.  I want to push my athletesto know where the ‘top is’, then walk back from the edge and aim to hold that fine line.
  6. Don’t get caught up in the moment, one bad race, two bad training sessions DO NOT define who you are.  This is where the pragmatic foil to your ‘chimp’ is critical.
  7. When you read a race start list, do it when you are fresh, strong and mentally ‘up for it’.  DON’T read it when you have had a crap session, you are tired or stressed or just not ‘feeling it’.  WHY?
    1. Do the latter and all you will do is plant that negative seed of impending failure before the race has even begun.  You are defeted before the clock even starts.
  8. Remember – you have got to be in it to win it!
    1. You need to sign up!
    2. Turn up!
    3. Race!
      1. Anything can happen on race day,  the odds on favourite could be ill, not turn up or have an off day.  Its yours to lose. Don’t let others dictate to you. DON’T talk yourself out of it before the race has begun.
  9. Be the best you can be – Don’t let the old adage ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ be your undoing.  Be on top of the below, give yourself the BEST chance you can.
    1. Mental approachand indset
    2. Race preparation and lead up
    3. Kit and organisation
  10. Remember the ‘Big Picture’.  Its easy to get lost in the day to day.  I had an athlete this week tell me, ‘I just hate indoor training, I can’t do it anymore’.  We have all been there.  Its an evil means to an end for many.  The key here is remember, Why am I dont it?  How do I want to feel on my keey evvents race day?  What are my targets?
    1. Have these front of mind
    2. Pin them on a piece of paper right above your indoor training kit!
    3. See them every day.  You then rememeber WHY!  Its so important!

I could go on and on! Hopefully I have identifed a few key things that will help you manage the fragile brain and its effect on your physical abailities, and manage your inner ‘chimp’.

Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss more.


Personal cycling training plans for time crunched athletes
Personal cycling training plans for time crunched athletes



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