Podcast, Psychology and Mental Skills

Josephine Perry, PhD | EP#415

 November 6, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Josephine Perry - That Triathlon Show

Josephine Perry, PhD, is a chartered psychologist working across a wide range of sports to help athletes overcome their barriers to success. In addition to working directly with athletes, she is also the author of five books within the realm of psychology, and she is an age-group triathlete herself.

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Performance anxiety and how to deal with it
  • Motivation issues and how to deal with them
  • Common personality archetypes in triathlon: highly intelligent perfectionists and realists
  • Self-determination theory, acceptance and commitment therapy, and cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Tips for race day, the lead-up to a race, and for day-to-day training 

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Josephine's background

02:14 -

  • I'm a sports psychologist based in London with a background in corporate city work. I got into sports psychology because of my passion for triathlon, which I've been involved in for nearly 20 years, including several Ironman events. 
  • While I no longer participate in long-distance triathlons due to time constraints, I still enjoy working with triathletes and other athletes to enhance their mental performance.
  • My journey into sports psychology began during the 2013 Ironman Melbourne event, where I had a profound realization while standing on the beach, watching the turbulent waves. 
  • The event's announcer mentioned that while we can't control the waves, we can control how we feel about them. 
  • This moment sparked my interest in the power of the mind in sports performance.
  • To pursue a career in sports psychology, I earned two master's degrees and completed three years of practice. Now, I work with athletes from various sports, having engaged with approximately 28 different disciplines. 
  • While I have a particular affinity for triathletes, I find it valuable to work across different sports because each sport has its unique language and atmosphere. 
  • This cross-sport experience allows me to provide more comprehensive services to triathletes by integrating lessons learned from other athletic domains.
  • For instance, I've observed that patience is a common virtue that athletes often know they need but sometimes struggle to apply. 
  • This concept is particularly transferable from sports like fencing and tennis to triathlon. 
  • In triathlon, there's a temptation to push hard all the time, but taking a step back and being strategic can be highly beneficial.
  • Another area I specialize in is managing performance anxiety. Intelligent and perfectionistic athletes, like those in triathlon, tennis, and golf, tend to experience similar physiological responses when under pressure, such as muscle tension, particularly in the back and shoulder areas. 
  • While this might not be as obvious in triathlon, it can significantly impact performance, like in sports involving hitting balls or using equipment like tennis and golf. In triathlon, this tension can manifest in various ways and affect overall performance.
  • It's often noticeable when a triathlete's performance is affected by anxiety. For example, they might grip the handlebars tightly or struggle to replicate their pool times in open water due to increased tension. 
  • Encouraging triathletes to watch other sports can be insightful. They can observe how anxiety affects athletes in different disciplines and realize that it might be impacting their performance as well. 
  • This can be a sort of "light bulb moment" for them. Controlling anxiety is essential for better performance, as it helps them stay relaxed and perform at their best. 

Tension and economy

08:06 -

  • Muscle tension can have a significant impact on an athlete's performance, even if it doesn't lead to an immediate crash or apparent issues. 
  • The energy cost associated with muscle tension can reduce an athlete's overall economy, resulting in slower running and lower cycling power output. This reduced economy can make everything more challenging, increasing the perception of effort.
  • One of our goals is to help athletes reduce their perception of effort. When an athlete becomes tense, it's harder to achieve this goal, and everything indeed feels more difficult. 
  • As a result, the athlete may slow down, affecting their performance.
  • While the impact of muscle tension is more visible in sports like golf, where a mistimed swing can send the ball in the wrong direction, it's still a crucial factor in triathlon. 
  • The challenge in triathlon lies in measuring and addressing this tension, which is less overt than in some other sports. 

Common problems with triathletes

09:19 -

  • I work with individuals who have deep-seated issues or concerns, particularly those struggling with their mental game in sports. 
  • Unlike some sports psychologists who work with national teams on various aspects of performance, I specialize in working with athletes facing significant challenges.
  • My clients usually fall into one of two categories. The first group consists of highly intelligent perfectionists who grapple with substantial performance anxiety. This anxiety often leads to freezing and difficulty reaching their full potential during competitions. 
  • They describe it as "overthinking" and wish to switch off their brains during races. They excel in training, meeting their expected targets, but something impedes them during races. 
  • This is a substantial part of my work.
  • The second group comprises individuals who are struggling with motivation. 
  • These athletes tend to be highly intelligent realists who recognize that triathlons, logically speaking, may not be the most sensible pursuit. Triathlons demand a significant investment of time and energy, often surpassing what's considered healthy from a physical well-being perspective. 
  • Research suggests that for optimal health, one should engage in up to five hours of exercise per week, whereas many triathletes dedicate far more time. 
  • This activity also introduces stress and requires juggling additional commitments in daily life.
  • From a purely survival-oriented perspective, our brains are wired to prioritize safety and comfort. Engaging in intense triathlon training can appear irrational to the logical part of our brains, which seeks to maintain stability. 
  • However, there's another part of our brain that's driven by ambition and dreams, yearning to excel in triathlons, win races, travel, enjoy a thriving social life, and relish the satisfaction of performing well.
  • Highly intelligent realists often find themselves caught between these two aspects of their minds. 
  • They have a logical side telling them that their rigorous training may not be the best choice, yet a strong desire to succeed in the sport motivates them. 
  • They struggle with how to push themselves harder, mainly because the idea of willingly inflicting pain upon oneself isn't a rational or logical pursuit.

Solutions for these issues

13:04 -

  • I utilize self-determination theory, which identifies three types of motivation. 
  • There's amotivation, where you can't be bothered to engage in any physical activity. 
  • Then, there's extrinsic motivation, which stems from external rewards like prize money, medals, or seeking recognition as a triathlete. 
  • This type of motivation works well when starting out or for elite athletes whose livelihood depends on it. However, the ultimate long-term motivation we aim for is intrinsic. 
  • This is when we participate in triathlon because we genuinely love it. We find joy in going for a run, cycling, or mastering swimming skills. 
  • This theory outlines three essential pillars for cultivating intrinsic motivation: a sense of belonging, mastery, and autonomy.
    1. Belonging: It's crucial to foster a sense of belonging within the triathlon community. Triathlon is known for its friendly and supportive atmosphere, similar to ultra running. Building this community often involves joining a club, participating in group events, and engaging with forums or podcasts that reinforce your identity as a triathlete.
    2. Mastery: Mastery involves honing your skills and feeling competent in the sport. It's not about winning but becoming the best triathlete you can be. Creating a skill sheet with specific techniques, goals, or times to achieve can help. Marking off your accomplishments on this sheet provides physical evidence of your progress and capabilities.
    3. Autonomy: Maintaining a sense of autonomy can be challenging, especially as you advance in the sport. Autonomy means choosing races and training locations that genuinely excite you. It's about doing it for the love of the sport rather than external pressures. Feeling in control of your athletic journey is vital, but this aspect can be incredibly challenging for junior athletes or those in academies who may feel restricted by external influences.

The role of coaches in this area

17:53 -

  • I spend a significant amount of time working with athletes from various sports, helping them improve their communication with their coaches. 
  • In many cases, coaches may not have received specific training in effective communication or understanding different personality styles. However, each athlete may have unique requirements regarding their interactions with their coach.
  • One particular group I often encounter are highly intelligent perfectionists. 
  • For these athletes, it's crucial to understand why they're doing the training they are given. 
  • If they lack this understanding, they might not perform the training correctly or become disheartened. 
  • They need to say, "I know why I'm doing this; it's going to help me push my endurance to the limit in the final stretch of the race." 
  • These athletes require coaches who can provide detailed information without taking it as a personal affront. 
  • It's not that they don't trust their coach; they simply have a strong need for comprehensive information.
  • One common challenge is that coaches sometimes feel threatened when athletes ask for extensive information. 
  • However, these athletes need this level of detail because it empowers them and ultimately leads to better performance. It's their way of gaining autonomy in their training.
  • There are strategies to promote autonomy for athletes. Instead of prescribing every session, coaches can ask athletes when they prefer to do specific workouts or inquire about their favourite sessions.
  • Not every training session needs to be explicitly prescribed. For instance, if there's an easy hour-long bike ride, athletes can have more ownership over executing it.
  • As athletes approach the end of their careers, many become less reliant on coaching. After years of experience, they understand what works for them, how their bodies respond, and which sessions are most effective. 
  • At this stage, they often seek mentorship rather than hands-on coaching. They want someone to discuss ideas with, provide a big-picture perspective, and offer guidance when needed. We may start to see a shift where elite coaches transition into mentor roles for athletes in their early and late 30s, focusing on providing wisdom and perspective rather than detailed day-to-day guidance.

Performance anxiety

21:04 -

  • I have a particular process I use for athletes with performance anxiety. 
  • We start with psychoeducation about your brain, which we can chat through in a minute. We then look at outcomes versus processes. 
  • Then, I have a particular process called Brave that we work through. If I was working with someone with performance anxiety, I usually assume they're highly intelligent and perfectionistic. 
  • An increasing number of athletes in that group are also becoming diagnosed with ADHD, which can add a lot of anxiety into the mix. I talk about psychoeducation it that we have three functions in our brain that are important when we're racing:
    • Habit function: This is where we put the movements we need for races into automatic habits. It's why we do so many drills in training – to make actions like grabbing a water bottle during a bike ride second nature.
    • Decision logical function: When a decision needs to be made in a race, this part of the brain uses our stored memory and knowledge to help us make the right choice. For example, if a competitor overtakes you and slows down, your brain uses your past experiences to help you decide on the best response.
    • Brain's survival focus: Our brains are primarily wired for survival, and they love rules. They set internal rules we've adopted from our environment, such as heart rate goals or training hours. Additionally, our brains excel at predicting possible scenarios, even unlikely ones, to keep us safe.
  • The brain has a small structure called the amygdala, responsible for scanning our environment for potential threats. It's highly effective for detecting physical threats, such as those encountered in dangerous situations like a challenging triathlon race. 
  • For instance, when you're hurtling down a mountain in a race, and your amygdala senses danger, it triggers a response to protect you, like telling you to hit the brakes, which is beneficial in those situations.
  • However, the amygdala also responds to psychological threats, especially in perfectionistic individuals. Every race can be seen as a psychological threat to a perfectionist because they strive for an unattainable level of perfection. 
  • The amygdala responds to this by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, two stress hormones that can lead to physical and psychological responses.
  • Perfectionists may experience physical symptoms like nausea or an upset stomach, which some might interpret as excitement, but perfectionists may perceive as illness. 
  • Some may even vomit due to the stress. 
  • Additionally, many people need to use the restroom frequently before a race.
  • The surge of adrenaline and cortisol can also increase heart and breathing rates, which is not ideal when you're about to enter the water with a hundred other swimmers in a triathlon. 
  • These stress hormones can also cause tension in the back and shoulder muscles.
  • Furthermore, in fear or anxiety, our senses can narrow, focusing only on immediate threats and ignoring peripheral vision, touch, taste, and smell. 
  • This can be problematic in a triathlon race where maintaining situational awareness is crucial.
  • Understanding how the amygdala responds to psychological threats and the physical manifestations of this response can help athletes. By recognizing that these physical symptoms result from their brain's protective mechanisms, athletes can develop self-awareness. 
  • This self-awareness can enable them to manage their responses to stress and anxiety better and ultimately perform at their best in races.
  • I emphasize shifting the focus from solely aiming to win or achieve podium places, as these outcomes often lie beyond our control. 
  • Instead, I advocate for a mindset of mastery in which the goal is to become an excellent triathlete, not necessarily a victorious one. 
  • The problem with fixating on winning is that it triggers the amygdala, leading to stress and anxiety that can hinder performance. 
  • On the other hand, when you concentrate on becoming the best triathlete you can be, you direct your focus towards controllable tasks, such as a proper warm-up, nutrition, sleep, and body awareness during races. 
  • These factors are well within your control, and by focusing on them, you're more likely to perform at your best.
  • Furthermore, I believe in a long-term process I call "brave." 
  • This involves acknowledging and understanding the thoughts that arise rather than trying to suppress them, which often backfires. Instead, we should become aware of the messages our amygdala is sending and reframe these thoughts. 
  • Consider your amygdala as a separate entity providing you with information; you don't have to react to every thought it generates.
  • Self-advocacy is another crucial component. Athletes should remind themselves of their accomplishments and strengths during training and preparation. 
  • Understanding and aligning with your values can help you overcome fears and anxieties.
  • Lastly, we work on engagement strategies, which involve identifying small actions that can reduce the perception of effort, boost motivation, and enhance technique. 
  • This way, athletes can concentrate on tasks and avoid being overly outcome-focused. 
  • The focus shifts to the process and the controllable factors that lead to success, often resulting in better performance and a more fulfilling experience in sports.

Triathlete values and engagement

30:55 -

  •  It's essential to bring our authentic selves into the competition. 
  • While some athletes use alter egos to boost their performance, I believe it's more sustainable to align with our authentic values. 
  • Each athlete's values are unique and personal, often including concepts like achievement, validation, family, spirituality, authenticity, curiosity, and courage.
  • These values can serve as powerful motivators during a race. For instance, as a parent, one of my core values is teaching my child resilience and not giving up when things get tough. 
  • So, when faced with moments of difficulty in a race, I repeat mantras related to making my child proud, emphasizing the importance of pushing through challenges. 
  • This becomes a robust internal dialogue that propels me forward.
  • Additionally, having an instructional mantra specific to improving form and technique can be immensely beneficial. 
  • This personalized phrase, rooted in an athlete's training history, serves as a reminder of crucial techniques during moments of high pressure. 
  • For instance, "lift head" could be a mantra for maintaining optimal posture, which in turn enhances performance and reduces perceived effort.
  • It's fascinating how athletes often instinctively know what instructional mantras resonate with them. Coaches' repeated cues during training sessions can be powerful instructional mantras. 
  • These phrases can be written on surfaces, from hands to water bottles, or even as visual reminders on equipment. 
  • A visual anchor during high-pressure moments helps refocus the mind and maintain peak performance.

Acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy

35:45 -

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is widely used, especially in the UK, to address and resolve problems by taking an aggressive approach. 
  • However, a more modern version of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has emerged. ACT acknowledges that all humans experience worries and fears; it's a part of being human. 
  • Often, we try to suppress these thoughts, but the more we try not to think about something, the more it occupies our minds. 
  • ACT takes a different approach by accepting that these worries are a natural part of life and that they may carry valuable information. Instead of expending energy to suppress them, ACT encourages us to notice and be mindful of these thoughts. 
  • This approach derives from mindfulness principles, emphasizing noticing thoughts without resistance.
  • The idea is to sit with unhelpful thoughts rather than trying to suppress or argue with them. These thoughts often stem from the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for the threat response. 
  • The amygdala generates these unhelpful thoughts to keep us in our comfort zones. ACT suggests that we notice these thoughts without acting on them, understanding that they are just thoughts, not facts. 
  • This approach involves practising recognizing when we have specific thoughts. 
  • For instance, instead of saying, "I'm a useless triathlete," we say, "I'm noticing that I'm thinking I'm a useless triathlete." This perspective helps reduce the emotional impact of these thoughts.
  • Once we've established this awareness, ACT encourages us to focus on our values. 
  • This is the "commitment" aspect of ACT. By committing to living according to our values, we can change our internal dialogue. We acknowledge that we have these thoughts, but we also commit to being the person we want to be, whether that's a triathlete, a parent, or any other role that's important to us. 
  • This commitment enables us to handle various challenges differently and align our actions with what truly matters to us.
  • This versatile approach can be applied to various aspects of life, not just sports. 
  • Youth athletes can use ACT techniques to manage stress around exams, for example. The key is mastering the concept of ACT, which allows you to notice unhelpful thoughts and commit to your core values. 
  • Many sports psychologists and therapists are adopting this ACT approach due to its effectiveness in helping individuals navigate their mental and emotional challenges.

Mental skill examples

40:16 -

  • Goal setting involves defining a big outcome goal that is usually beyond one's control but is exciting and motivating, such as qualifying for a specific race.
  • To achieve the outcome goal, break it down into smaller, more controllable elements.
  • Create a performance profile for the desired outcome, detailing what a person who can achieve that goal is likely doing. This could include aspects like training frequency, intensity, and nutrition.
  • Prioritize each element in the performance profile by importance, rating them on a scale from 10 (most important) to 2 or 3 (good to have).
  • Evaluate where you currently stand concerning each element. If there's a gap between your current state and the desired state, calculate the gap size.
  • Multiply the gap by the importance rating to calculate a score for each element. This score helps identify which aspects have the most significant impact on your goal.
  • Focus on the top four or five elements with the highest scores, as these will likely have the most substantial impact on your performance.
  • Goal setting and performance profiling are valuable tools for physical and psychological development, helping you work on specific tasks and build confidence.

Youth sports

44:11 -

  • I've written a book for teenage athletes called "I Can: The Teenage Athlete's Guide to Mental Fitness." It's designed to address the various challenges young athletes face. The book comprises ten chapters, each focusing on critical areas of concern for teenage athletes. 
  • It contains numerous worksheets and activities to help young athletes not only understand important concepts but also put them into practice. 
  • It's designed for athletes, but even parents can find it helpful to grasp what their children are working on and dealing with. 
  • It's intended to help bridge the gap in understanding and support between athletes and their parents.
  • Many teenage athletes face numerous challenges. They often juggle multiple commitments, including school sports, academic responsibilities (A levels or GCSEs), and athletic training. 
  • Some are highly intelligent perfectionists who excel in various areas but still put immense pressure on themselves to be perfect. 
  • The struggle to balance all these commitments and cope with not being perfect in every aspect of life can be overwhelming for them.
  • Teenagers also undergo significant brain development during this period, with the brain's prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and emotional regulation, being the last to mature. 
  • Teenagers are also susceptible to oxytocin, the bonding chemical. They seek connection and belonging while trying to establish their independence from their parents.
  • Additionally, teenagers often experience changes in their circadian rhythms, making them night owls who struggle to fall asleep early, even when they have to wake up early for school or sports training. 
  • All these changes, pressures, and desires to belong and excel in different areas of life can be challenging for young athletes.
  • While my work with teenagers primarily focuses on these life issues, it's important to note that when we have happier athletes, we tend to have more successful athletes. 
  • The mental and emotional well-being of young athletes plays a crucial role in their overall performance.

Pieces of advice for race days and daily training

50:10 -

  • On race day, it's essential to set goals that you have control over. Focusing on winning or getting a top position can lead to unnecessary pressure, as you have no control over external factors like your competitors' performance. 
  • Instead, set goals within your control, such as executing your race plan effectively. 
  • This way, you can evaluate your performance based on whether you achieved your personal goals, a healthier approach that reduces undue stress about uncontrollable outcomes.
  • When it comes to pre-race anxiety about not sleeping well the night before, it's important to remember that many athletes experience this. 
  • Research indicates that a single night of poor sleep before a race doesn't significantly impact performance. So, while it's crucial to prioritize good sleep in the days leading up to the race, don't overly stress about one restless night. 
  • Instead, focus on your sleep patterns during training and the week before the race.
  • In training, avoid the urge to "win" every session. 
  • It's common for athletes to get competitive, even during drills and exercises meant for skill development. 
  • Racing your training partners during technique-focused drills can hinder your progress and detract from the purpose of the exercise. Before each training session, remind yourself of your specific objectives and stick to them. 
  • Avoid the temptation to turn every training session into a competition, and instead, concentrate on improving your skills and achieving your training goals.

Rapid-Fire Questions

52:15 -

What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?

 Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance - book by Alex Hutchinson

What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?

Exercising during my commute has been a crucial habit for me.

Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?

My daughter. She lives that. Every time she falls over, she gets back up, and I love seeing that.


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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