Podcast, Psychology and Mental Skills

Psychology and triathlon performance with Stuart Holliday | EP#364

 November 14, 2022

By  Bernardo Gonçalves

LISTEN TO THE EPISODE HERE:

Stuart Holliday - That Triathlon Show

Stuart Holliday is a Chartered psychologist working primarily with endurance athletes. In the past, Stuart has been working with Olympic and Paralympic squads, as well as with the Liverpool FC Academy and the England Netball team. In this interview, we discuss sports psychology in a triathlon context.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Self-talk, and having an "inner coach" that is both instructional and motivational
  • Goal setting in your sport and in your mental performance
  • Visualisation
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Dealing with pre-race anxiety
  • Improving your self-confidence
  • Having the mental skills to perform through the tough moments in a race

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Shownotes

Stuart's background

02:33 -

  • I am a sports performance psychologist and have been doing this work for ten years.
  • I had a career out of the university in business for ten years.
  • When I started working as a psychologist, I worked with professor Steve Peters, who is famous for the "Chip-Paradox" book that athletes use to understand their minds and control their emotions.
  • I was lucky to work in Olympic sports, so I worked with the archery Olympic team until Rio 2016.
  • I also worked for the British Paralympic swimming and England net pool team for that cycle.
  • My last significant endeavour was working with the Liverpool FC Academy.
  • Therefore, I have much experience with different sports (individual and team).
  • I was also an endurance athlete. I love cycling and running, and in 2017, I became a practitioner and worked in the field of endurance sports, specialising in this area. I am writing a book on the psychology of running with a fellow professional.
  • I help triathletes, runners and other endurance athletes work on their mental fitness. (even if they do not work with me with the physical training)
  • I took an undergraduate psychology degree, and when I finished, many of my peers deeply understood where they wanted to work.
  • However, I was still determining which field I wanted to pursue. I was still young and did not want to go into a field for the sake of it.
  • I decided to do something completely different, work in business, and learn different skills.
  • I was lucky to enter a tech firm, so I specialise in this area.
  • I enjoy this career, and it gave me a solid foundation to work on in future years.
  • At the same time, I started to get involved in endurance sports and found a passion for it.
  • By doing it myself, I understood how integral psychology is in how someone performs.
  • I was helping out coaches in my athletic club and decided that sports would be the area to go, and I did my master's in 2008.
  • I got much exposure and experience working in those fields with Olympic teams.
  • However, that world requires a huge undertaking. You are away a lot of time with squats (time and energy intensive)
  • The opportunity to start my business came up, and it is what I wanted to do.
  • As I already had some private clients, I could start right away.
  • I still needed to finish the British process of becoming a sports psychologist because I had commitments with Olympic teams.
  • Therefore, I went away and studied to understand the theory behind my applied work.
  • I could get a start-up working and finished that process four years ago, which gave me a robust understanding of working with athletes and coaches.
  • This area in sports is still an under-appreciated part of the performance, even though people say it is crucial.
  • So, there is still a long way to go to incorporate this into endurance sports because only a few people do what I am doing.
  • If you do triathlon, you are seriously dedicated to your sport. If you are not swimming, you are running or cycling.
  • It is exhausting even for highly motivated athletes.
  • People ask me if I help motivate athletes. However, I do not need to because if you meet a triathlete, you do not need to put motivation in them because they already have it.

Tools to improve the athlete's mental fitness

10:33 -

  • Most people will meet with a psychologist to get specific help on a specific topic in competition.
  • I am more than happy to go down that route; my experience is essential in guiding athletes in this process.
  • My work involves understanding the athlete in front of me, their make-up and needs and giving them the tools in the toolbox that fit.
  • When you look at a specific sport, some athletes do not need to exert much mental energy.
  • Those athletes have high mental fitness because they do not even think about it and do a fantastic job.
  • In strength & conditioning, you might have someone naturally strong in their genetics and how they conditioned themselves.
  • So, they do not need to get to a strength & conditioning coach and get a lot done because they have their work lockdown.
  • Working with a psychologist is fine for some people, but most people could benefit from attending to what is happening inside their minds.
  • You might not need to work with a psychologist, but you need to take a step back first, build some self-awareness and take some time to work out your strengths and weaknesses in your mental game.
  • Some people struggle with how they feel before the competition, while other athletes struggle when they get tired.
  • Other athletes struggle with injury and how that mentally hits them.
  • So, you have to understand your best skills and the areas for development.
  • I believe everyone can access some great information focused on endurance sports.

Books Stuart recommends

13:58 -

  • Athletes might feel that in the most challenging parts of the race, athletes can push themselves only a little.
  • Therefore, a book like How Bad Do You Want It? by Matt Fitzgerald would be a good starting point.
  • The book almost tells you on the front cover what it is all about and methods to push yourself to a hard place.
  • The first thing before moving into the toolbox is more self-awareness.
  • You might think that is a given, but we do not train ourselves to think about what goes inside our minds, meta-thinking and how our emotions work. (a person can be relaxed and calm or someone with some temper)
  • You must understand how these character features help or hinder your performance.

What things can athletes get better at with that toolbox?

15:49 -

  • If you already have self-awareness, the starting point would be making the athlete imagine they would be in a race and tell me the feeling of being inside the athlete's head during that competition. (when it starts to get hard or there is fear or doubt)
  • Some athletes might start to be more pessimistic or unfair to themselves and not helpful. Others might have a "coach inside their heads, cheering them along the way.
  • When you compete for 12 hours, every athlete will not feel good the whole time. This concept is self-talk, and you want to avoid having a personal commentator inside your head for 12 hours.
  • It will exhaust you in an Ironman competition.
  • It is a tremendous pacing effort for 12 hours, where you must switch off and let your discipline take care of itself at times.
  • You sometimes need to switch on (e.g. in transitions) to shift your body movements. (transition from the swim, find your bike, have a process for the transition and switch "gears" mentally)
  • If you have a good swimming rhythm, I want to hear "low noise" inside your head. (you let the swim stroke happen naturally)
  • If you look ahead and you see that it is not far for transition, we might want self-talk to increase in that period. (having a personal coach within you)
  • In psychology, there is the concept of "talk-instruction therapy". When you have a stressful situation, one way of going along is by commenting on what you are doing.
  • It might sound robotic, but if you want to execute one part of your performance, maybe being neutral is better than being overhyped.
  • Therefore, you might want to have an "in-nature of tone self-talk", where you make it somewhat more instructional.
  • After the transition, your body is all over the place during the cycling split's first periods, and your mind controls your performance.
  • You should talk yourself through that period and get the instructional and motivational parts together, leading to better performance.
  • When we are under pressure and feeling stressed (positive or negative), we have a narrow channel through which we can give limited instruction amounts because it can be exhausting.
  • You want to keep your instruction language simple and positive.
  • The kit in triathlon is a crucial aspect of an athlete's performance that they put much value on.
  • However, you need to go from "A" to "B" as physically and mentally" gracefully as possible and give your best chance of a clean getaway.
  • In a triathlon, you have three "chunks", and you could shrink it more if we include the two transition zones.
  • Even in the different parts, you can chunk stuff down. Instead of thinking of the 180 km bike course, you can break it into more manageable pieces.
  • If things are going bad, you must chunk them into smaller pieces to get through a difficult phase of your competition.
  • That way, you can navigate a difficult part of your race.

Goal setting

26:02 -

  • Having goals for races and training is essential for athletes.
  • You might set yourself to do an Ironman in under 12 hours, but you will have to dedicate a lot of time to train for it.
  • Beginners might want to finish it and have a good experience.
  • More experienced athletes will want to improve from previous performances. Athletes might want to improve on specific points of the triathlon race.
  • Therefore, you should set realistic goals for the race to get you excited, but you could be at a fitness level that does not allow you to achieve that at the beginning of the preparation phase.
  • In training, knowing how to set goals is also crucial because building fitness takes time, and breaking that down and staying motivated over the long term is challenging.
  • You need a plan and take setbacks as opportunities to learn from them.
  • Treating injuries is like a competition because they will eventually happen if you push your body to the limits.
  • The way you deal with those setbacks will have a significant impact on how you cope with them. Some people can have a hard time when they are injured.
  • Also, being aware of psychological strengths is crucial to achieving your goals because you need to know which goals will excite you to do specific things.
  • You might be good in one area and get better at it. You could work on your weakness because of the area with the most room for development.

Purpose of setting a goal

29:54 -

  • "You would not enter in a cab and tell him to take you anywhere."
  • Your mind is like a child. We might have parts we like and others we do not.
  • When setting a goal, you talk to different parts of your mind.
  • Your inner mind is excited to start working towards a personal best, but how "much" of your mind will say it is fantastic?
  • There is the "mature" part of your mind that will tell you that it will take a lot of work, training and discipline.
  • You are holding these two parts of you and combining them, so you indulge them.

Examples of training goal setting

32:02 -

  • I love doing baseline measurements with people.
  • If you have a 5km run in your triathlon, you can do a 5km without training and see what time you do without getting injured.
  • Then, you can go to any online calculator to get the training speeds to get better at the 5km distance.
  • If I have eight weeks until the sprint triathlon, I know now the baseline of what I could do if I raced on that day.
  • Now, the goal will be to improve from that effort. If you felt that you started falling apart on the final stretch, you might also want to have a mental goal to get the skills to go through the more challenging periods during an effort. (e.g. self-talk or visualisation and chunk the 5km run to make it easier)
  • With beginner athletes, that mental work is also a goal in itself.
  • Then, you have to see where you are and what success in your mental goals will mean.
  • Even if your performance is not fantastic, you can break down things you can work on and feel optimistic about because you are making minor improvements.

Mental goal setting

34:51 -

  • Let's pretend you finished a triathlon. We have a brain that allows us to imagine a feature that has not happened yet.
  • When you finish the triathlon, do you want to feel it was a slug?
  • Or do you want to accept that you will put yourself in an endurance competition that will be challenging? How do you want that experience to be?
  • When you have that conversation with people, people will tell you that they want to get around, enjoy the experience, and look back that they completed all the training and ticked all sessions.
  • When their head started to drop, they had a tool that allowed them to use in the race I trained to avoid falling into a negative spiral.
  • We can control these things if we give ourselves time to think about them.
  • So, think about the experience before it has happened.

Visualisation

36:37 -

  • Sit down. You might not know the course you will do for your next triathlon.
  • However, you can look at that, and I often tell my athletes to go online and see courses and races.
  • You may live near your next event, so you can look at it and spend some time visualising what it will look like on race day.
  • Then, you can combine your visual experience when you check the course with how you want to think.
  • If you are tired, you must find ways to pull yourself through the tough times and push through until the end.
  • When we use all our sensors (imagination, how it feels, the sounds), we will be much better prepared for the race.
  • Sounds can be crucial because you might have a crowd cheering for you, and you must consider all elements.
  • For example, in each "threshold session", visualisation can be helpful to break down and go through difficult parts of your training because you are pushing your body to your physical limits.
  • We might feel fresher and more relaxed at the start of a session, but the session will get more demanding.
  • So, you should think before the session that the first couple of intervals might be straightforward. But then, you have to "switch on" as the session continues.
  • You can use visualisation to imagine running around the bends and the straights and looking at the whole landscape to make it easier to go through each set.
  • You could think about your running form and see yourself on the 4th or 5th set collapsing but telling yourself to keep going. (keep the chest up, the leg turnover and use arms)
  • In that way, it is where both the visualisation of how you should look with the verbalisation of how you want to put yourself comes together.
  • The more you do it in training, the easier and more accessible it is in the race situation.

Visualising obstacles and adversities

41:44 -

  • Most people only have time to do some self-talk, chunking and visualisation. So, I encourage people to think about it during training.
  • Instead of fitting mental training on top of training, we do it during training.
  • You could do a long run as part of your training, and you could be thinking about different visualisations for a specific race.
  • If this is your first time doing this, it might take some time to do it well.
  • During the taper, think about the "what ifs". I always encourage my athletes to do "what-if scenario planning".
  • If you have a flat, the first thing you would do would be freaking out.
  • Therefore, you might need to get yourself in a calm place because if you panic, you will not fix the fix quickly and slow down.
  • So, you need to visualise fixing a flat with a calm attitude and do it as quickly as possible.
  • If you invest time in scenarios like that, do not panic because you will deal with the situation as you had imagined. (mental rehearsal)

Mindfulness and meditation

45:19 -

  • People know they could do meditation, but they say they do not have time to do it. (or have tried it but could not do it)
  • Meditation is not for everyone. You can be mindful of your extended interval sessions.
  • Swimmers talking about following the black line exemplifies a mindful state.
  • It can give them a place to practice this while doing the sport.
  • They can enjoy the fact that they are swimming in a pool and doing a session that can be boring.
  • Tuning into the body can lead athletes to a relaxing state, especially if they are doing it outside.
  • We want athletes to do long sessions in a relaxed state because if you overthink, you will fatigue mentally and physically.
  • Therefore, switching off is helpful, especially during sleep, when you will assimilate all the training you have done.
  • Yoga Ninja is a fantastic tool for people that cannot meditate. It is a body scan; you can put it on your headphones to focus on different body parts. 
  • You will find that while your brain might be active, it will be relaxing.
  • You will not think about the problems and things you have to do.
  • If you want to do well in a triathlon, recovery is as critical as all the sessions you do in training.
  • Meditation can help in taper and different parts of your journey.

People that might benefit from meditation

49:05- 

  • I would say that all triathletes would benefit from meditation.
  • If you try some of the methodologies mentioned, one will stick, and you will use them in your following training block.
  • I hope you enjoy training with them and use them within your discipline.
  • When people implement these psychological skills successfully, they tend to have a better experience.
  •  Hopefully, that will translate into performance as well.
  • It is not that a "type-A" personality needs this, and a calmer person does not.
  • If recovery is crucial, this will improve it.

Athletes struggling with pre-race anxiety

50:35 -

  • Many people experience this no matter their background.
  • It is the natural way of your mind to say that something crucial is coming up.
  • There are many toilets at the start of a race for a reason.
  • When we get anxious, we get a quicker heart rate, sweaty palms and sometimes have the urge to poo more than regularly.
  • It is normal to feel like that. The problem is that you are hyped, but the interpretation of being hyped is problematic.
  • It is the way to perform at your best on the day and understand that this is a day that matters to you.
  • So, you should challenge the feeling rather than feel nervous and anxious.
  • If your body is full of adrenaline and ready to go, you need to pace yourself initially, but it is a good feeling. (it changes your relationship with it)
  • If you are training for the primary goal, putting yourself in smaller races can allow you to practice the management of adrenaline and what went well and not so well.
  • Moreover, you can check how quickly that disappeared because we often find that after being active in a race for a few minutes, your heart rate decreases and your hype is lower.

Advice for athletes struggling in crucial moments of the race

53:57 -

  • We have touched on it early in our conversation, but we should anticipate that that moment will happen, and you will feel that moment demanding to pass if you do things well.
  • The more you train and coach yourself, the better you will do. Think about what your inner coach would tell you to support you.
  • For example, positive thoughts to keep pushing to improve your moment experience is a method to go through that moment.
  • If you are fatigued on the bike, do a body scan of all your body parts and how they feel. If they are ok, what about your fueling and hydration? Think about your position.
  • If you get attached to the "bad feelings", you will have to train your mind to get out of those thoughts.

Advice for low-confident athletes

56:28 -

  • Different people have different confidence levels.
  • Athletes need to be fairer to themselves. 
  • Typically, athletes are training hard and a lot, so it can be that there is more in the way they talk about their races and triathlon as a whole. It could reflect them as a person not feeling as good as the competitors.
  • Think about what you are doing and doing well.
  • If you are doing the best you can, you should reward yourself. There are always things you can improve in triathlon. (just like any other triathlete)
  • Every triathlete would benefit from better training, strength or endurance.
  • Therefore, reward yourself for the work you put in.
  • "Confidence is currency" - if you add up all the little things you are doing well, that will be a good block of confidence you should have, and you could put that towards your triathlon journey.
  • When you look back in taper and see that you have done every session and got some excellent paces, you should actively add those things and pat yourself on the back.

Self-confidence and comparison with other athletes

59:48 -

  • I worked with a triathlete that had this issue, and he was reading a book that stated: "comparison is the thief of joy".
  • He had done triathlons and was heading into an Ironman in which he and his friends would participate. He knew he was the slowest.
  • Therefore, he focused on getting more training and self-focus, and he would get better.
  • When his brain would start to compare with others, he would have that mantra.
  • He would look at his data and tell himself how better he was becoming.
  • By nature, you are competing and want to outperform others. But you can only perform as best as you can. 
  • You cannot expect to go to "the top of the tree" if your body and mind do not have enough training to reach that point.
  • Be comfortable with what you have and maximise it on race day; that is a good start.
  • If you maximised your training leading to the race and did a good performance, you need to look at that success and use it as a platform for next time.

Helping athletes with a good mindset

1:02:47 -

  • If you do an analysis, you will find you can get better at the psychological level (training/racing mentality)
  • I have not met an athlete who does not acknowledge the power of the mind to improve their performance.
  • You can work with a professional, but there are areas where someone can work better.
  • I know that athletes have limited hours, and I try to work with athletes to do at least some work on this topic.

Measurable parameters in sports psychology

1:04:23 -

  • I believe we will struggle to find an objective parameter.
  • Athletes share their training schedule with me and add some psych elements to their training.
  • Triathletes tend to be data-driven and mechanical/physically focused.
  • If you are cynical and sceptical about my work, it is fine, but take what I say with a pinch of salt.
  • If you work on these psych skills, you can gain an edge over competitors.
  • Keep a performance rate for all the sessions you have done.
  • You can have a bad day, but you can still congratulate yourself for showing up and doing your best to do the best performance.
  • If you keep that training diary updated, it will give you a more objective analysis of the effect of this work.
  • Put more detail into your training diary: if you perform well in a session, you win the "mental battle" in that session. Check what help you do that.

Working with a psychologist

1:07:12 -

  • I work with athletes by meeting before the beginning of a training block, finding the athlete's strengths and weaknesses, and understanding the goals.
  • I try to schedule one session every 10-12 days during the training block, and I have athletes with all different backgrounds.
  • Athletes that do ultras already have a broad range of skills but need to learn them.
  • Having accountability is where people feel this adds value.
  • If they work with a psychologist, they can talk about other things in life that might affect sports performance.
  • I have some athletes that only have one particular problem, and we can review it in 1-2 sessions.
  • This athlete was fast and knew that if he wanted to achieve his target time, he would have to go to a mental place he had never gone to before. So, he wanted specific tools to help him at that moment.
  • He knew the rest was dialled in, so he only needed that extra skill to perform at his best on race day.
  • However, usually, it is a more extended engagement because people see the journey they need to take, and it builds confidence over the cycle.

Books and resources on psychology

Key takeaways

1:12:02 -

  • Self-aware athletes will be worth their weight in gold because they are willing to expose the weaknesses and limitations they need to improve.
  • People do not learn from the experiences of each race, but they still want to improve.
  • Therefore, look back at your races and check how you performed at all levels to understand where you can improve for the following race.
  • If you had limitations at the psychological level, check the things that limited you.
  • When you do these analyses, be fair with yourself because people tend to look only at the wrong things.
  • Working out the strengths and weaknesses would be the first thing.
  • The second is to question whether you have proper inner conversations with yourself in training and racing.
  • The most competitive athletes are the ones who tell the harshest things to themselves because they push themselves so hard. So tune down what you say to yourself.
  • The third thing is to accept that things will sometimes go wrong.
  • The difference between pro athletes and typical athletes is that they do not let minor things affect them.
  • So, accept and learn from the bad days and move on to the following session.
  • Put yourself in the best place possible leading into a race, and give yourself a chance to perform at the best level on race day.

Rapid-fire questions

1:15:40 -

What is your favourite book, blog or resource?

Run Like a Pro (Even If You're Slow): Elite Tools and Tips for Runners at Every Level by Matt Fitzgerald

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

Owning your performance, and learn from negative days.

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

An Australian psychologist Mark Anderson has psychologist books with fantastic writing and a whole range of topics.

LINKS AND RESOURCES:


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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