Mind Games, an insider's guide to the psychology of elite athletes
Annie Vernon, GB Rower and Olympic Silver Medallist, and close friend of Sport and Beyond, has just released Mind Games, an insider's guide to the psychology of elite athletes. We wanted to find out what drove Annie to write this book, and whose the lucky socks are.....
Q1 What drove you to write this book?
It was a fascination with the mental side of sport. My experience is that physical improvement in sport is generally linear: if you train harder, you get better. The mental side is so much harder to get right, but when you do find that ‘sweet spot’, it unlocks performances you never knew you were capable of.
The general public is comfortable with the idea that elite athletes have to train for years, out on the sports field or in the gym, in order to perfect their physical performance. But there seems less understanding that exactly the same process goes into perfecting mental skills. Nobody is born with the ability to run out at Twickenham in front of 80 000 people, or bounce back after a devastating defeat, or have robust confidence. All these skills are acquired.
From confidence to commitment, motivation to performing under pressure, where drive comes from and coaching, I wanted to explore how the psychology of elite athletes is learned, trained, refined, honed and delivered.
The book is partly based on my own experiences, as a two-time Olympian, Olympic silver medallist and double World Champion; and partly on the experiences of the 60+ coaches, athletes and psychologists I interviewed for the book.
Q2 We work with a lot of businesses delivering programmes based around the mindset, attitudes and behaviours that drive success. What key messages does the book contain?
That there is no one way of doing things. Every elite athlete will have trained the way their mind works so it is bespoke to them, and maximises them as an individual. There was such a huge diversity of, for example, how to build and maintain confidence, that really blew me away. There was a far wider range of approaches than I ever imagined when I started writing the book.
Is it a stronger motivation to be the underdog, or the favourite going into an event? Are elite athletes driven by wanting to be the best, or by a love for their sport? How do we control and channel our nerves on the eve of a big race? How do we reconcile ourselves with winning and losing? There are a hundred different answers to every one of these questions.
Take my sport, of rowing. All the athletes have to physically row together, in exactly the same way, in perfect symmetry. That how boats go fast – when every rower is merely a cog in a machine. But mentally, every athlete will do things very differently, which we don’t see from the outside because it’s inside their heads. It makes our view of elite sport more deliciously exciting!
Q3 In your experience how easy is it to make elite sport relatable and applicable to the business elite?
Sport is a microcosm of society. It compresses all the range of human experiences into an intense environment, which is why it’s a petri-dish where we can study the human experience. From management, to gender, to competitiveness, to nerves, teamwork, focus and goal-setting: every experience in sport is simply a compressed and more extreme version of what goes on in work and in life.
My experience working on the Sport & Beyond High Performing Mindset programme reinforced this. The delegates, from the risk and compliance team at a global bank, were able to get inside those mindsets relevant to sport and take away elements to maximise their own performances. From the outside, the two professions seem poles apart; when we break it down, there are huge areas of common ground.
Sport is an intensely human pursuit which is why it mirrors so much of what goes on in life. I’ve recently become a mum so I’ve had to learn the immense responsibility of caring for a small human being. I’ve drawn heavily on my time as an elite athlete during my year of motherhood. For example, the way I’ve broken the process down to achievable steps, concentrated on what I’m doing well rather than doing badly, stayed focussed on the important parts, and tried to enjoy every day rather than looking forward to the next step – these are all mental skills that I developed when I was an elite athlete. The only part which isn’t so relatable is sleep. It’s a critical part of being a professional athlete, but my little boy doesn’t seem to think my quality of sleep is particularly valuable…
Q4 - Tell us more about the lucky socks....
I never had lucky socks, or indeed any superstitions, when I was competing. But the ‘lucky socks’ in the book’s title tries to encapsulate the fact that a lot of the time, the way that elite athletes will approach a particular element of their psychology won’t make sense to anyone but themselves. They’ve found a method that works, for example a particular vibe in their relationship with their coach, and although from the outside it might seem bizarre – it works for them.
A topic I discuss in the book is delusion. One of my contributors argued that it is a key skill for any elite athlete, so we examine how and why athletes can insist that black is white and white is black and why they are definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, going to win that race that day, even though all evidence would predict otherwise. How and why is delusion a valuable and desirable mindset?
All humans are unpredictable and unique, and elite athletes are on the more extreme end of the spectrum. What goes on inside their heads won’t make sense to anyone else but themselves. And that’s the way it should be.