This stuff works

Well, you would hope so!  And yes it really does.  I’ve been looking back at another year of my private triathlon and swim coaching (briefly retold in a blog post on the ZigZag Alive site) and am conscious of how the Confidence Centred Coaching ideas and approaches have helped many of those I coach achieve extraordinary performances.  This post shares some of what I’ve learnt through them.

Photo by Jess Rose, the Outdoor Swimming Society

Photo by Jess Rose, the Outdoor Swimming Society

At the end I’ll add a lesson from my own final big event of the year – the wonderfully named Hurly Burly – that proved to be a quite spectacular testing ground too.  I don’t just encourage others to try this stuff but also practise and test it out on myself.  And you’ll see there’s a natural fit and interchange between what works for those we coach and for our own coaching.

So what is “this stuff”?  Well it is not a list of top tips or things to do.  Instinctively I feel uneasy with the approach you find in many articles or posts on online that jump straight into solutions: “Feeling nervous before your big event?  Follow our top ten tricks for taming the terror.”

It seems to me that while these may contain lots of very useful advice, there is something missing in jumping to one size fits all solutions without really stopping to understand the nature of the problem.  If I’m feeling a mix of nerves and self-doubt before a big event, like the Hurly Burly, I don’t find it helpful to be told, in effect, what I should or shouldn’t be feeling – I’m already under enough pressure as it is without feeling more inadequate for not thinking positively.   This is where you can find people spiralling down into a self-critical “oh I’m just being stupid” and “why aren’t I any good?”

So the first step is an empathetic understanding.  As an example, which I hope will soon feature in her own words as a guest blog, a few weeks ago a former client, who I’d helped with swim technique, came to me for help with her swim preparation for an impending half ironman.  Each time she went to do open water training she struggled to get going, would feel physically sick and didn’t complete the distances she wanted.  She got in touch at a time of seriously doubting whether she could do the event.

Rather than jump straight into the sea and work on techniques that I know can help, we spent a good time sat on the beach, looking at the sea and talking through her experience and feelings.  From there we were able to start putting in place different elements – some matter of fact, others much more about emotions: what training she’d done, what she was hoping for (separating this from what others around her expected), what she felt looking at the waves breaking ahead of us, what would make the event a great experience.  From there we were able to start reshaping and reframing some of those elements in ways that allowed her to feel more in control – and more accepting of the elements beyond control.

On the day the sea was so rough the organisers shortened it to just under a kilometre.  Around half the field did not finish (though some of this was due to conditions on the bike).

I loved the swim! I now have no fear of sea swims whatever the conditions. Hooray!

Opposite is a snippet from the text she sent me afterwards.

A second key step is being present and in a state of relaxed alertness (to borrow a phrase from Erich Fromm).  One could think of this as taking yourself to an event rather than waiting for it to come to you.  For sure this includes all the practical preparation, the training for the specifics of an event and thinking through every detail that will be needed on the day.  It also has an all-important element of being totally focused on the challenge ahead – training yourself to take in and be aware of the impact of all that is around so as to be able to respond rather than react.  So instead of trying to block out or disregard the anxious or unnerving feelings (telling yourself you’re “being stupid” or “just get on with it”) we need to find a way to acknowledge them, look that bit deeper and then opt for a different path.

As an example, I worked with someone preparing for a full Ironman last month.  We talked through strategies for switching his mental focus such as when he would be feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of everything before him: the crowds and thousand other participants; the big, scary choppy sea; the long, long distances to be covered.  By switching to a more narrow focus – such as the space to the next buoy; the feet of the person just ahead; the water being caught with each hand and pocket of air to the side – he could gain a sense of control.  And again it worked.

You can read about the same ideas working in the super intense, precarious context of GB triathlete Beth on a time trial bike in her guest blog post a few months ago.

Brent preparing for the next radio interview

Brent preparing for the next radio interview

Back to our Ironman and a suggestion we talked through as part of the ‘being present’ idea was imagining it as a story he would be dining out on, or – in the brilliant phrase of top US Sports Psychologist Michael Gervais – the creation of his living masterpiece.

On the day he gave this an interesting twist on the long, gruelling seven hour bike.  Through each of those hours at the twenty minute mark he imagined someone from the local radio station getting in touch to forewarn him of an impending interview.  At the 40 minute mark he would imagine they had said what the subject would be to talk on.  And then on each hour he would play out in his mind giving the interview, all about the amazing experience of being there, how everything was coming together in that moment, his journey and what it was doing for him.

Which brings me to my own event two weekends ago and a final reflection and lesson for now: the extraordinary mystery of resilience.

This touches on another cause of my unease with those top tips and things to do lists – that they can give an impression that its all about a simple, formulaic application of effort.  Do this and you’ll overcome pretty much anything.  But things don’t always work out in such a mechanical, inputs and outputs way.  Sometimes even the most tried and tested techniques don’t work.  And there’s a precious wonder in those moments when we come through, going way beyond what we thought were our limits without really knowing how on earth we did it.  I think that mystery is worth holding on to rather than putting a label on as if that explains it all.

I recently met up with Dr Megan Hurst form the University of Sussex’s Psychology Department (more of which in a coming post) and we talked about the mistaken idea that resilience is somehow a fixed entity that someone has.  The lived-in reality is very different and more complex, shifting and influenced by many external and inner factors.

Photo by Jess Rose, Outdoor Swimming Society

Photo by Jess Rose, Outdoor Swimming Society

So – briefly – there I was.  In the wilds of beautiful Snowdonia.  The air temperature was very chilly first thing and the water no warmer.  I’d just completed an 11km run down the side of the river, going way faster than I’d intended and I’d been training for.  And now I’m around 4-5kms into a 10km swim back up the river, feeling the chill of water a good deal colder than I was used to (even with cold showers and swimming without a wetsuit at home on the South Coast).  My left leg goes into a sharp, unrelenting bighting cramp.  I try to dismiss it and press on, one stroke after another but can feel myself tensing up and know I’m swimming slower as someone I’d passed is now overtaking me.

First I tried an old trick of mine, imagining I was sending the cramping leg off to a warm sandy beach in Brazil (where I once lived) while the rest of me carried on swimming.

Nope, didn’t work.  This was hurting. Badly. I was tired and achy and still had a long way to go.

Then, when I looked up to check on the direction, I was struck by the spectacle of a line of flaying angular arms and orange swim caps some 100m ahead, and randomly thought “what an interesting nature programme this would make!”  I then started playing out in my head David Attenborough narrating this bizarre natural phenomenon in his gentle, eloquent tones.   After going with this curious flow of thought for some time I realised the cramp had gone – and settled back to the present of a steady, flowing rhythm: watching the hands enter, tip back, feel the stretch through the ribs and body roll, pressing the water back; reach and roll, tip, back; go Mike.

It would be nice to say I smoothly zipped on, reenergised and finished in record time, arms aloft in a victory wave and a smile as big as a Welsh teacake – but wow, was I at a limit and beyond!  Fatigue and cold seeped into every part of me and I felt disorientated, lost in an effort to keep going without much idea of where I was.  With just 100m to go and the end finally in sight I cramped up again with a vengeance, finally staggering in with the lower half of my body on strike, the top half flaying and pleading for an end.

Now, you could go looking for an explanation for this display of (in my case) inelegant resilience and end up with another set of alternative words to label it: determination, mental toughness, stubbornness….  However, I would not call what I experienced as resilience or any of those other terms.  What I actually felt was far more about what Brené Brown would describe as vulnerability – of being there, open to whatever might happen, immersed at first in the beauty all around and later the more inner experiences of pain and fatigue… and still getting through.

This brings us back to the approach for coaching – do we make an assumption that some people who come to us for support have a thing called resilience and we just encourage them to apply it when things get tough?  Or do we seek to understand resilience, spending time to explore their feelings – the source of vulnerabilities, the self-doubts and their actual experiences in the moment – and in this way help them surprise themselves with what they can do?

I’ve been reading and extraordinary book by Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay ‘Supernormal: Childhood Adversity and the Untold Story of Resilience’. In it she talks about how when we hear stories of remarkable resilience, of young people overcoming terrible trials and apparently succeeding in life we can focus too much on the “how do they do it?” and forget to ask “how does it feel?”  As comes through the sometimes harrowing but inspiring stories she recounts, it is here – in practising an empathetic understanding and being true to the experience of what is felt – that we can unlock the mysteries of resilience and have the biggest impact. It doesn’t make hard things easy, but it works and opens up such a richness of coaching practice.

So there we go – “this stuff works” is the message.  If you’re already a Member, get in touch if you’d like to know more about applying the model behind “this stuff”. Look out for workshops coming soon where we will explore its application in different sports and different challenges. And please help spread the word, encourage others with similar interests to sign up and extend our circle of like minded coaches learning together.

Meanwhile, somewhere deep in Welsh waters, David Attenborough is on air:

Photo by Jess Rose, Outdoor Swimming Society

Photo by Jess Rose, Outdoor Swimming Society

“And so we come to a new and puzzling phenomenon, another of nature’s wonders.  Last year, believed to be the first time, around a hundred or so swimmers were seen making their way up a river in the beautiful wilds of Snowdonia National Park.

This year their numbers swelled to around seven hundred.  Mostly dressed in black rubber body suits, a few in more colourful skimpy swimwear, they again followed the river’s course from the wide sea into the shallows some 10kms up river.

Scientists are puzzled by this new phenomenon.  Is it a form of collective fishing – like dolphin pods hunting down shoals of smaller fish by corralling them into the shallows for an easy catch?  Although there is a feeding frenzy at the end, this takes place out of the water and seems unconnected to the abundance of fish in the river.

Could it be a curious mating ritual, swimmers showing off their prowess and stamina to would-be suitors?  There’s plenty of hugging at the end and emotional bonds forged amongst strangers, but there is little evidence of courtship as they make their way up river, some in small packs others more isolated. None appear to have much interest beyond getting to the end.

It is (pause for effect) one of nature’s many remarkable mysteries.”

As always, comments welcomed below.