Podcast, Psychology

Sports psychology and applied neuroscience with Simon Marshall, PhD and Lesley Paterson | EP#282

 April 19, 2021

By  Mikael Eriksson


Simon Marshall, PhD, and his wife Lesley Paterson (XTERRA and ITU Cross-Triathlon World Champion) are the authors of the book "The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion". In this episode, we discuss several of the most important messages covered in this book for triathletes, including getting an understanding of the inner workings of your brain, as well as common and specific psychological challenges that triathletes face on a regular basis in racing, training, and in the day to day.

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Applied neuroscience: understanding how your brain works and how to (as well as how not to) work with your brain rather than against it.
  • How to build confidence (even if you are not a confident person)
  • How to use social media and avoid the comparison trap
  • How to get out of your comfort zone and learn to embrace the suck
  • Tips for how athletes can go about improving their psychological and mental skills

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Background (Simon)

04:50 -

  • My name is Simon Marshall and I’m husband to Lesley.

    I’m a PhD in sports psychology and has also worked a lot with applying my knowledge in a variety of real world settings.
  • Four years ago, Lesley and I wrote the bestselling book ”The Brave Athlete: Calm the F Down and Rise to the Occasion”, which is very much about giving the readers and understanding of our brain and psychological mechanism so that themselves can develop successful mental strategies in races and other real world situations.

The Brain

13:15 -

  • One can simply divide the brain into two major parts, the ”primitive” part and the ”developed” part.

    The primitive part is extremely reactive, quick and strong but doesn’t hold the capacity to process things as carefully as the developed part.

    The developed part is on the other hand slower but possess a great ability to analyze and process information in a much more delicate way.

    These two parts of the brain is constantly ”fighting each other”, impulses from the one system is counteracted with impulses from the other and it is the mix between these impulses that determines the actions/outcome.

    It is important to understand the role of the two systems in order to be able to make the right decisions in situations where you are under a lot of pressure (such as in a race).
  • For the majority of the time you should listen to the developed part of the brain as it tends to lead to the best decisions.

    However, in some situations it can be a very powerful tool to just ”go with the impulses of the primitive parts of the brain”, as these are strong.
  • Also, the primitive part is very often associated with negative thoughts and self doubts, which you need to be aware of that these thoughts are coming from less developed parts of the brain and hence often lacks relevance.

    You must be able to distinguish the ”bullshit” from the truth.


41:25 -

  • (Lesley) A very powerful way to build confidence and self esteem is to be very process oriented instead of results oriented.

    This drives away focus from things such as ”not being good enough” etc. and instead one focuses on executing the best sort of performance that one is capable of on the day.

    Example of process oriented goals could be nailing the nutrition aspect of a race, holding a certain pace or power etc.

Comparison and social media

53:45 -

  • The human brain is wired to compare yourself to others, and this is ”a fight” that you cannot win.

    Previously, this wasn’t a big problem since we hadn’t the practical abilities to compare ourselves with others as we didn’t have social media and the Internet that offer millions of opportunities for comparison.
  • My advice for coping with social media is to: 1. Realize that stuff on social media are not true. 2. Dare to show your weaknesses on social media, this will lead to surprisingly nice reactions and you’re also contributing to more ”truth” on social media (your doing your part).

Embracing adversity

01:03:00 -

  • This is something that is a leading star in everything that we do.

    It is extremely essential to put yourself in situations where you are challenged mentally, i.e. you’re feeling mentally uncomfortable in regards to it.

    For instance, this could be a training session that you’re not fully certain of that you will be able to manage, but afterwards (independent of how it went), you will have gained essential mental skills on how to cope with uncertainties.

Improving psychological skills (besides reading Simon and Lesley’s book!)

01:15:45 -

  • (Simon) Psychological skills aren’t something you learn, it’s something you develop over time by challenging yourself by putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, in time this will lead to a resilience against a broad variety of different situations that may be thrown at you.
  • (Lesley) My biggest advice in this matter would be to really try and get to know your mind as good as possible and be observant at all times to what it does and what parts (primitive vs developed) that are dominant at the moment.

Rapid fire questions (Simon)

01:19:30 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports? ”Endure” by Alex Hutchinson.
  • Who is somebody that has inspired you? In addition to my wife… I love athletes who push and persist through mental barriers and really are taking the fight against all the negative thoughts that are inevitable during a race (in a race, one can see in the eyes of the people, which athletes who are really embracing this fight during the final stages).
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? For a couple of years ago I started to read one book a week.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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