Podcast, Psychology and Mental Skills

Systemic performance coaching with Fabian Urban, PhD | EP#348

 July 25, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


That Triathlon Show - Fabian Urban

Dr Fabian Urban is a systemic performance coach with a background in behavioural economics. He works with people in leadership and business roles as well as with athletes, to help them maximise their performance in sports or business. Fabian worked with pro triathlete Florian Angert in the lead-up to his fantastic 5th place finish at the Ironman World Championships in St George, which we discuss as a case study in the interview.        

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • What is systemic performance coaching
  • Finding your knots or barriers
  • Developing a mission
  • Using mental images
  • How Fabian worked with Florian Angert (for more than 100 hours) to help him perform to his potential in the Ironman World Championships in St George
  • How age-group athletes can use systemic coaching principles in triathlon and in their professional lives

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Fabian background

04:32 -

  • I am 45 years old and live in Frankfurt, Germany.
  • I am the co-founder and managing director of the House of Leadership and the initiator of the Project Breaking Barriers.
  • My job is to design and facilitate learning journeys for individuals focusing on leadership, self-leadership, and personal development. I work as a performance coach manager with pro athletes pursuing specific goals.
  • After school, in my time in the army, I studied economics, and I did not feel comfortable there because it was math-heavy.
  • What I liked was the behaviour aspects of economics. Why do people behave the way they do? What is the underlying motivation, and what keeps them from initiating a new pattern of behaviour?
  • I decided to write a dissertation after my master's degree.
  • I focused on the topic of emotional experience in the context of the performance area because I was convinced it influenced individuals' behaviour.
  • In my doctoral thesis on emotion and leadership, I found out what role emotions play, especially in the context of leadership and what effect they have on personal development and self-management.
  • After that, I worked for a few years with Deutsche Bank in the development department and was responsible for the executive education department at the university.
  • During that time, I completed a couple of courses in systemic consulting, mental coaching and bodywork, and I started integrating them step by step to enrich my work. I realised the number of excellent channels with my clients.
  • Concerning my sporting career, I started with triathlon in the 90s, when triathlon was still unknown to the general public.
  • I have completed nine Ironmans so far and 20 Half-Ironman races.
  • Since I have a solid connection to professional sports, particularly to the world of Ironman events, a significant part of my work takes place in this area.

Work with Florian Angert

08:03 -

  • Florian took part in the "Path to Pro Program". It was a program we set during the pandemic of the Challenge Roth event. 
  • It was for elite triathletes, and we wanted to give them a chance to find their path as professional athletes.
  • After the program, Florian contacted me, and we launched a project called Breaking Barriers, and I was the project in preparation for Saint George.

Systemic coaching

09:20 -

  • Systemic coaching includes everything around a person. 
  • The people we get are performance and result-orientated.
  • While they know their potential and what is possible for them, they somehow feel they cannot fulfil it. 
  • Some have the fuzzy feeling of not being in their position. People experienced in martial arts or yoga understand this concept.
  • If you are balanced and aware of your position, you can reach your resources (body and cognitive skills).
  • The opposite is often the case when you are not centred.
  • For example, you might experience the feeling of not sitting well on your TT bike. You wanted to put power on the pedals but cannot do it because of the wrong posture.
  • Therefore, you are blocked, and you are not in your position.
  • Athletes who are not in their "position" cannot transfer that success to the race. We call these athletes "training world champions", but sometimes something holds them back when they are in a race and have to perform.
  • My work is figuring out what barrier we are dealing with, and athletes try to solve this issue through training, but I think you cannot untie a knot by pulling the ends.
  • In my experience, the more athletes try, the more likely they will fail.

Barriers to performance

12:41 -

  • The first thing I do when I start working with athletes is look at the athlete's journey.
  • I believe we are all on a journey that starts the day we are born.
  • On that day, we started producing a movie about our lives, and the movie was titled "My solution to everything".
  • We have our individual lives and have grown up over the years.
  • From childhood, we had to learn new things (problems, decisions, challenges, tests, evaluations)
  • Teachers rewarded us by the way we behaved.
  • This movie shows the individual strategies we developed to cope with different situations.
  • The making of this movie influenced us because it led to different thinking philosophies and beliefs.
  • While some were useful at some time, many may have lost their purpose. If you looked at specific events when you were younger, you will be surprised by things you did, something you would not do regularly.
  • In the end, it does not matter the movie you produced, but it gives you a perfect understanding of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
  • You may have done things that led to good performances in the past but may not be optimal for your current situation.
  • The more you reflect on your movie, the more prominent will be the changes you will make for the future.
  • "Knowing yourself" sounds easy, but it is a never-ending process.
  • The problem is that we often wish for quick solutions if we have a long-lasting problem.
  • Then we like to reach out to a specific behaviour that we try to put on. 
  • My philosophy as a coach is to implement changes in a systemic way, where you include all the elements in your system around you.
  • I address the points my clients are unaware of because they do not pay much attention to them.

Examples of systemic coaching in triathlon

17:49 -

  • Returning to the movie, we found some "purposeful solutions" as a business person and triathlete.
  • Each of us has found a unique solution. For example, we might have faced times we had to pull out of a race because something happened in our lives. 
  • Typically, the most challenging events are the ones where we have to be creative. We find a mental and emotional solution to those events and develop a specific attitude.
  • For example, do not trust people if they cheat. If others appreciate you, we have to give 100 %. 
  • You could underperform if people around you did not support you in your childhood.
  • These barriers arise because things you find useful are no longer helpful. They pave the way for specific attitudes and mindsets.
  • Therefore, we focus not only on what you did but also on how you felt over time, and these feelings inform you about what is essential and what is not.

The process of working with Florian

20:21 -

  • Professional athletes regularly have the problem that they cannot perform on race day. They might lose 3-5 % in performance, but this difference is huge because it means placing 10th instead of a podium.
  • Therefore, we try to find the barriers and why they happen.
  • When Florian contacted me, we started working with Phillip Seipp, creating a project called Breaking Barriers as a team of three.
  • Phillip is an innovative trainer who understands the triathlon's mental and emotional skills as crucial resources. So, we could work with people like me.
  • Our first goal was to release Florian's full potential on race day.
  • We wanted to give the physical and mental abilities to perform in any situation during the race.
  • Phillip was responsible for the training control, and my role was to ensure Florian would use his total developed capacity on race day.
  • It was also crucial that how he raced would reflect his personality and his idea of being an athlete. When athletes look for excellence, they look for "ready-made schemes" or default templates where you only copy it, and you will be successful.
  • This idea regularly hurts performance because you cannot copy strategies, especially if you think an attitude results from an emotional process. Therefore, you cannot copy something from people that have spent years developing that craft.
  • What we establish with Florian is the mission of the movie.
  • The movie's mission is the interconnection between the past and the future. You have the past version of yourself from the movie and the present. We must harvest the present version to reformulate the patterns athletes used that might have been positive or negative.
  • We understand those practices' limitations in a way that the "sequel" for that movie becomes attractive for the athlete.
  • We have created a process where we created a new "Florian" to achieve the results he wants to achieve in his career.
  • This process took us around 100 hours to achieve.

How Florian changed over the process

26:14 -

  • First, we had to define a mission. Being the best in the world is not a mission. A good mission is becoming the best version of yourself.
  • Therefore, you first become aware of who you are, your desires, and all the things that happen inside you.
  • It is the essential ingredient for your mission, where you define what you want to do and the resources that come with it.
  • Many people get it wrong because they first define the mission and only know the needed resources.
  • Many athletes are in sports where the missions do not suit them.
  • These missions come from pieces of advice from coaches, friends or teammates, and the athletes accept all the advice and lose contact with themselves in the process. They lose the notion of who they are and what they could be in the future.
  • To answer the mission, we have to answer questions like: "Who am I?" Who am I about?" "Where do I want to go?"

Improving mental strength

28:45 -

  • If I am on a mission, it will improve my mental strength, which is crucial for race success but does not come with shortcuts.
  • They result from a long-term development process, where we exercise the mental side.
  • With Florian, we used "mental images" that reinforced Florian's mission outside of the race.
  • A "mental image" combines three perspectives: the mental, the emotional and the bodily. (What do I think? What do I feel? What do I experience with my body?)
  • For Florian, we tried to determine which "Florian" was going to each race. Will it be the Florian who will actively shape the race that can deal with critical situations?
  • A mental image looks at how a person thinks, feels and behaves in a specific scenario.
  • For example, consider a kid that dresses like Super Mario or Spiderman. The kid wants to be like them and emulate how the superhero feels, thinks and behaves.
  • Therefore, each of the icons in triathlon received some nicknames.
  • For example, Mark Allen was the "Grip", and Scott Hall was "the man".
  • Being the "grip" or the "man" is not only a nickname. He activates a mindset that you can embody on a deep level.
  • Some nicknames are not helpful. A German athlete in the 90s raced topless, so his nickname was the German Ramble.
  • Other nicknames damage the mental image when you have nicknames like the "Rabit": an athlete that would be the first out of the water, but the group would always catch the athlete.
  • Working with the mental image is powerful in both ways.

Examples of mental images

34:02 -

  • In the preparation phase, we gave Florian a lot of images so he could adapt to a racing situation.
  • Florian's goal was to embody how each person thinks, feels and behaves.
  • We would call one picture "the professional" who knows and understands everything he does. "The Professional" is always in contact with himself and knows his abilities.
  • Therefore, he has always been able to return to his position, and he is well-balanced and can manage his energy perfectly.
  • Florian tends to be quieter, so "the Professional" hardly makes a fuss. (harder to understand by his opponents)
  • We used another picture that we called the "Warrior".
  • It was a more complex picture for critical situations. (sudden attacks from competitors) This attack makes Florian change his strategy, leading to a mental imbalance.
  • We took quite a while to set up this picture and got help from a colleague to find methods of giving the picture of a warrior in a race.

Importance of this process

37:14 -

  • Most professional athletes use similar forms of coaching. Athletes do not talk about this subject, but if you want to reach the top level and stay there, there is no other coaching method to achieve these goals.
  • My work will not give a performance improvement over a short time, even though it impacts performance. With this approach, athletes become more sensitive and develop a complete picture of themselves.
  • They become mentally more robust because they feel good about what they do.

Relevance for age groupers

39:01 -

  • Professional work at a high level, but this is their job, and age groupers cannot seek to achieve something if this is not their full-time job.
  • However, an age grouper has goals, so they suffer from the barriers as a professional that wants to become a world champion.
  • In my opinion, you should always be balanced no matter what you do.
  • You should treat yourself well no matter what you are pursuing.
  • It is an analogy to a story: a man sees another person that is about to cut down a tree with a blunt axis. He stops him and tells him to use another tool so he can work faster. The other guy replies that he does not have time because I have to cut down trees.
  • Age groupers have coaches and focus on their training and goals. But if you ask them about themselves, their goals and expectations, they regularly do not have a clear answer.
  • Many age groupers are stressed and feel that the specific spot they find themselves in is a burden.

Tips for people to get started with this process

41:31 -

  • The primary part of my work with Florian was to find his mission. Therefore, everyone can start with that.
  • You can do this with some close to you, and a few questions you need to find an answer to are: "What am I about?" "Am I trying to impress others?" "Or do I want to do something for myself?" "Do I enjoy the process of training?" "Or do I have other external motivations?" 
  • We should answer this question with no judgements.
  • I remember a coach that told me that I should get a reward for everything I do. (put a medal on my head, and I would be happy)
  • I had a female executive who ran a marathon in 3h45min with little training and did not even pick up the medal at the finish line.
  • The medal was not essential for her. Therefore, who was right? My answer is that both are correct because the answer will depend on their motivation and why they pursue a triathlon journey.
  • I always say to people that knowing what makes you "tick" is good.
  • Therefore, start writing a daily journal on what you think; considerations that came into mind; your feelings, emotions and what you experienced in the body.
  • Florian has been doing this for an extended period, and he sends me the pages each day, and we talk about it in the following days.
  • We did it because it shows us what makes Florian "tick". We realised things Florian thinks often lead to specific feelings and experiences.

What Fabian does when working towards a triathlon goal

46:33 -

  • In my work, I only use approaches I experienced during training and racing. My motto is "you are what you practice".
  • I have my daily routines, and I have my journal. Most often, I write down things to clarify and write my mission.
  • I meditate and try to centre myself.
  • I try to balance my emotional experiences to avoid dysfunctional attitudes.
  • Sometimes, I am angry and frustrated, but I try not to stick to them over the long term.
  • I try to be in a good connection with myself and also do it in triathlon.
  • For most of my training career, I trained without gadgets; even today, I do not have a structured training plan.
  • I do not want to say this is good, but some people are under much pressure daily. A training plan adds additional pressure, so people do not understand why some values are off the charts.
  • I try to get in touch with myself and understand what I need and the solutions.

Examples of systemic coaching for people in leadership roles

49:01 -

  • Imagine that until yesterday, you thought you sat nicely on the bike.
  • Yesterday, you had your bike fit, and now you are in the perfect position on the bike.
  • There might be some pinches here and there, but you learn how you should feel when you sit on the bike.
  • And this is what happens with systemic coaching. Let's say you can express your mission and experience the clarity and energy you never thought would exist. 
  • You realise this is a goal I want to do and something I want to pursue.
  • You can take better care of yourself by paying attention to your needs, making things in business life more manageable.
  • If you understand your mission, you will work and deal with people and problems in different manners.

Takehome messages

50:39 -

  • When I talk with athletes after finishing an Ironman, they say they defeated themselves.
  • However, that means a loser is part of yourself, so I think this is not an appropriate approach to dealing with themselves.
  • I want people to be more appreciative of their goals and the methods to reach those goals.
  • There are many barriers to overcome, but you can overcome them smoothly when you accept the barrier has a background.
  • It means you took care and reflected on your past and overcame the obstacle by developing this attitude/mindset.

Rapid-fire questions

52:30 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion by Richard Strozzi-Heckler

Leadership by Personality: Von der emotionalen zur spirituellen Führung - Ein Dialog by Rolf Arnould

What is an important habit that benefited athletically, professionally or personally?

Being humble, especially in times of crisis. 

Who is someone you have looked up to or who has inspired you?

I always think you can be your idol in 10-15 years, which is part of my work with people and athletes.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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