I can be successful

An edited extract from Dr Josephine Perry’s book ‘I Can: The Teenage Athlete’s Guide to Mental Fitness’, with kind permission from the publisher Sequoia books.

There is a quote thrown around sport – painted on the walls of gyms, flagged up in sports books, printed onto t-shirts – that says “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” I disagree. Winning is fun. It is exciting. It is awesome. For a moment. But then it is gone. Success, whatever you choose your version of success to be, is far more important in sport. When you focus on success you can be proud of being an athlete.

When young kids are asked why they play their sport the number one answer is always ‘to have fun’. And yet we hit a certain age and the sport we once loved to play because we got to enjoy ourselves, be with our friends, learn new skills or feel fit and healthy gets taken over by something that previously hadn’t even made the top ten of reasons to play: To win.

When the fun starts to go and is replaced by this focus on winning a huge number (some studies suggest 85%) of young athletes drop out of sport. Yet where does this focus on winning come from? It doesn’t seem to be from teens themselves. As researchers found, teenagers would rather get to play on a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning one.

Winning isn’t why your parents want you to play either. They love that sports help you learn moral principles, team work and ways to bounce back from disappointments, that they help you make great friends and mix with a wide range of people and they feel comforted knowing they keep you fit and healthy and boost your confidence.

Coaches certainly want to feel they have taught their athletes well, and they want to coach successful, happy athletes. But most go into coaching because they love the sport they coach and want to bring that joy to more people. So why does everything feel focused on winning when what we actually want to feel is successful?

Winning versus success

The trouble is, winning is so easy to measure. It is black and white. Did you win or did you lose? Success is far more subtle. And it is personal. Success to me may feel like failure to you. And vice versa. But, while everything seems focused on winning or not, success matters far more because winning is judged by others. Success can be judged by ourselves. And if we want to be happy in life we need to focus on measuring our lives by what matters to us and whether we achieve it – not on what matters to others and measuring ourselves by them. That route only leads to misery.

Elite Insight: Joe Weatherly (cricket): I have a passion for Cricket but I think what is deeper routed is just a passion to get better to achieve my potential in something. Cricket is my medium but if I wasn’t a cricketer I think I would be relentlessly pursuing something else and just every day trying to get better at it. My motivation is to be the best I can be and to maximise my potential in cricket.

We will talk a lot about success in this book. And ways to achieve it. But it is important to remember that success doesn’t immediately mean winning. Success is whatever you choose it to be. It will be different for each of us. It might well look like a big shiny medal, or a trophy, or our name in the local paper talking about our achievements; all of those are great. But it might also be having a brilliant social life through our sport, lots of trips around the country to competitions or feeling fit and healthy enough to take on any sport that appeals. Whatever our version of success, we will only get it if we stop focusing on winning and instead develop our sporting mastery. And that is what we will do in every chapter.

Mastering mastery

When we focus on winning, our attention goes on outcomes and results and other people. Having a focus here is really unhelpful because it actually increases our chances of losing. Instead, when we focus on mastering our sport, skills, fitness and decision-making, we win more often. Mastering our sport requires us to work on developing excellence.

We develop excellence by purposefully working on it. We make it our goal, and we break down what excellence means to us. Now you know what you see success as you can split it up into all the elements of excellence we will need to work on to achieve it.

To achieve excellence we need to understand the barriers that are currently stopping us. Are we too busy with other things? Are we not focused enough in training? Would we rather be hanging out with friends? Is our rubbish diet causing lots of illness? Whatever the barriers are, they need to be acknowledged and turned into actionable, focused plans. One way to do this is through a performance profile.

Setting mastery-focused goals

We can focus on mastery by setting the right type of goals. Goals turn your intentions into actions and set a clear direction for where you want to go with your sport. Setting goals in a structured way can help you change any behaviours which are currently holding you back and help you to focus on all the ways that will improve your performance. They will influence your efforts, help you become more persistent and keep you focused in the right direction. You can use your goal setting to make sure you have thought about every element required to succeed. This could include training, practising mental strategies, travel, strength, conditioning and nutrition.

By creating your performance profile you have already started setting some goals. These will all be goals within your control that you get to work on to become excellent in your sport.

Elite Insight: Michael Phelps (swimming): Every year since I have been swimming competitively I have set goals for myself. In writing. The goal sheet was mandatory. I got used to it and it became a habit. … I didn’t look at the sheet every day. I pretty much memorized it, how fast I wanted to swim and what I had to do to get there.

We set three layers of goals. The first layer is an outcome goal. You can only have one (if we have two then we are less likely to achieve either) and it is often something around competition. It may involve a result, a place in the rankings or a qualification spot. It doesn’t have to though. They could involve competing in new places (qualifying for an overseas competition), using sport as a way of helping others (fundraising) or developing a really difficult skill. These outcome goals will often involve other people, so will be really motivating but not that controllable.

Next, we have performance goals. These are the things which show us if we are likely to reach our outcome. They are much more controllable because they just focus on us, no one else. It might be a personal best time, a distance to hit, a score to obtain or an ability to play a certain way. Our performances feed into the outcomes, so if we achieve our performance goals we would be likely to achieve our outcome goal too. But even if we don’t, we will still have mastered much more of our sport.

Finally, we have our process goals. These are drawn from our performance goals and specify the behaviours, actions, strategies and tactics we need to have in training or competition if we are to make our performance goal happen. For a fencer this might be practising staying patient on the piste, or for a runner it might be completing a long, slow run each week. Repeating these actions over and over again stops them from being choices and makes them habits. And when you see how often you are achieving your process goals you get lots of reasons to celebrate.

Staying goal driven

To be a really successful athlete you need to make goal setting a key part of your sport. You might already do it at the start of a season, but if you set mini goals for each practice session you should get much better at mastering individual skills or attitudes and finish every training session with a buzz of success. These small goals won’t be around outcomes but around ways you would like to perform.

Examples from a range of sports could be:

  • I want to feel relaxed when I play today
  • I want to behave like a professional
  • I will do my performance routine before every shot
  • I will focus on reframing unhelpful thoughts
  • I will spend time in the breaks reflecting on whether I am happy with each key decision
  • I will do my breathing exercise while walking to my ball
  • I will practise pushing harder when I feel tired
  • I will focus on showing amazing technique.

Don’t rush

If you are driven and determined and love your sport it is natural for you to want to be really good at it as soon as you can. But you do have time to slow down and enjoy your sport more. Studies have shown that many of those who do well as seniors weren’t on the radar when they were much younger and those who do really well as juniors don’t go on to make it so as seniors. In fact, the younger an athlete starts to take their sport seriously, the shorter their career in that sport is likely to be. Those who spend more of their childhood playing lots of different sports and wait until they are around 13 or 14 before specialising in just one tend to do best as seniors. This time to learn lots of different skills in lots of different sports gives them lots of advantages.

Researchers found that the average age athletes tend to win medals across the 57 Olympic events is 26. So if you are in your teens now you still have a long time to get there – and that time needs to be focused on learning to master the key skills, on showing gradual improvement and learning how to be successful in your sport. Focusing on the process now will pay you back many times over in the long term.

You don’t even need to specialise by 14. Data from elite athletes in the UK found that those who came into a sport through talent transfer programmes (where someone is considered athletically talented but unlikely to reach the top in their current sport) between the ages of 16 and 25 will be able to reach the same level as longer-term athletes in their sport within a year.

You don’t need to be in an academy or talent system either. In countries where they have elite sports schools (such as Germany and the Netherlands) there is no difference in success levels between those who attended one of these schools and those who didn’t. And those who didn’t attend the sports school got better academic outcomes in addition to being just as good in their sport.

A few athletes make their mark as teenagers and carry on to achieve great things. Usain Bolt was World Junior 200-metre champion when he was 16. He maintained that dominance. But many others never live up to the hype they received in their teens. Injury, illness, reduced motivation, poor coaching, rubbish facilities or being unable at access funding all impact how well someone is likely to do as a senior athlete. In fact, when researcher Karla Drew investigated the numbers she found that 63% of athletes who competed for Britain at the World Junior Champs never improved on their PB at senior level and 67% never represented their country as an adult either. She found that the ones who do make it are those who develop competition coping strategies, have lots of sport-specific knowledge, clearly define goals, learn from going to championships and are able to achieve a life-sport balance. These are all things you will develop in this book. The athletes who are too focused on being an athlete to the detriment of everything else tend not to make it.

There are a few sports, like gymnastics and swimming, that can be excluded from this as athletes become elites very young and specialise and focus on deliberate practice earlier. However, it is also good to know that the average age of Olympic medallists in these sports is rising, so athletes in these sports will soon get more time to grow into them too.

Finally, our abilities in some sports will be impacted by our body shape and size. In general, rugby players are muscular, gymnasts are flexible and powerful, basketball players are tall and swimmers often have big hands and feet. But size isn’t everything. And we all mature and develop at different stages, so although you might have been very good at certain sports when you were young you may not suit that sport after puberty. If you love playing sport and doing well against others, rather than enjoying a specific sport for the love of it, then keeping going with lots of different sports leaves the door open to find a sport which works for your body type, increasing your chances of success.

A way to help us see the long-term perspective needed to succeed in sport is to study how others have done it. Seeing other athletes work hard and succeed can be really motivational. It is especially motivational if we relate to them in some way. Once they achieve something then we realise perhaps we could too. Think about what happened when Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile in 1954 and Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon in 1967. For years everyone thought neither were possible and yet, as soon as Bannister broke the mile time, 12 other runners managed to break the same ‘impossible’ barrier that year. When Switzer showed that women were perfectly capable of running 26.2 miles it encouraged millions of others to do the same. We all have our own barriers, so finding people that have crossed similar hurdles and copying their behaviours can help us find our own version of success.

Following a win or learn approach

When we have a long-term plan for our sport and are focused on mastering it to the best of our abilities we won’t get so hung up about winning or losing. But we will get hung up about improving. Focusing on improving stops us from being so afraid to lose. And losing actually helps us improve because failure is a form of feedback. Losing becomes an important part of our journey to be a better athlete; as we end up learning far more from the competitions that go wrong than the ones we win, we can use them to develop a ‘win or learn approach’.

Elite Insight: Tanni Grey-Thompson (wheelchair racer): I learnt a lot from not winning. We used to spend lots of time evaluating races, looking at the good, the bad, the improvements and what I could have done differently. … You can’t go backwards. You have to learn from it and do something different next time.

To bring this approach to life you need to get into the habit of analysing competitions. This helps you understand how to improve future performances, develop better tactics and consider how you cope under pressure; it also ensures you don’t forget about the things you are really good at. The analysis makes you more self-aware so you learn what does and doesn’t work for you.

Practice makes progress

You have probably heard the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. It is usually repeated by people who want us to get so good at something that we can do it without thinking. The intention is good, and it can make us excellent in our sporting techniques. But it is a risky approach because it celebrates perfectionism, and perfectionism can make you totally and utterly miserable.

Perfectionism is a personality trait, something that is within us, and so drives the way we approach tasks or goals. Having it means we constantly strive to do everything flawlessly, to exceptionally high standards and when we don’t achieve them (because perfection is impossible to achieve) we feel like a failure.

So, what are the upsides? Perfectionists can be really motivated, very conscientious, follow processes and work really hard. They set themselves high targets and do whatever it takes to meet them. We would assume that would be a great way to ensure sporting success. But it also has down sides. Big ones. One of the big issues is that while it might make us work hard in training and practice, when we get into competition there are just too many uncontrollables for everything to ever go as well as a perfectionist would want. In competition, if we start overthinking, worrying about our technique or skills and overanalysing our performance uses up loads of our mental energy and we start berating ourselves over what we have just failed at rather than staying in the moment and focusing on what we need to do right now.

Elite Insight: Richard Kruse (fencer): I was a perfectionist so I was never exactly happy. When you are competing you are never really happy with what you have done. That is the irony of being an athlete. You always want more. You are greedy. You are always looking for that extra thing. I saw a slogan once in some gym saying ‘Elite level athletes, they chase perfection. They never get there but in the process they achieve excellence.’ I think that explains it well.

More importantly if you don’t want to be just an average athlete – but an exceptional one – you’ll need to take risks. As a perfectionist risk-taking can be tricky as you might feel worried about making mistakes as they will feel very personal – like you have a flaw. This can feel extra tricky when you are in a team sport as you might feel pressure to perform well and keen not to let anyone down. It means you might play more defensively and actually, unintentionally, perform worse.

When we are perfectionistic we often like to have numbers or measurable achievements to focus on. These can make us fixated on small elements and forget about the big picture. There will often be times that a competition can feel like it is going badly – a poor height in pole vault, a slow swim time in a triathlon or a missed shot in golf, but there are often really good reasons for this which we don’t realise at the time – a gust of wind in the pole vault, a very strong current in the triathlon or a broken club in golf. Beating ourselves up for not going perfectly only causes us harm and writes off a competition where we were actually going really well.

Beyond this, far more important than success in sport is our mental health in life. And perfectionists can struggle with their mental health as they are pursuing the unobtainable. A number of studies have found that perfectionists are more likely to suffer from illnesses like depression, anxiety and burnout. When we start out doing a sport one of the best things is that it gives us space away from stress, giving us a way to cope with things like schoolwork or troubles with friends or at home. If we get good at it then we start to expect certain levels of achievement from ourselves. This means instead of it being a brilliant stress reliever our sport becomes an additional pressure and can suck away lots of the joy.

Perfectionists are also at a higher risk of eating disorders. These aren’t just the disorders we know lots about, like anorexia, but also disordered eating which is thought to be more common like RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport) where we don’t purposely lose weight, but we are exercising a lot and don’t fuel that exercise well enough. It can cause harm to our hormones, make us exhausted and burnt out, and increases risks of bone fractures; girls may lose their periods now and may struggle with fertility problems when they get older.

There is also one final downside to being a perfectionist in sport – because perfection isn’t possible, we will continually feel like a failure. You may have worked really hard, achieved amazing results, mastered new skills and tactics and outmanoeuvred your rivals but you still won’t be satisfied. Your inner bully will be telling you that none of that was good enough. You’ll be picking over every single mistake and beating yourself up. That is no way to enjoy your sport – or your life.

Control just the controllables

There are lots of things that influence how successful we are likely to be in our sport. A lot of them we have absolutely no control over whatsoever. It is really frustrating. But if there is nothing we can influence it is better for our mental health and levels of happiness to put these things to one side, and instead just focus on the stuff we can change.

There are five things which influence our success that we have no control over:

  • Our parents. They have two huge influences on whether we are likely to be successful in our sport. Their genes are incredibly important. Genetic factors have been found to explain up to 80% of our key sporting elements like body mass, explosive strength, speed, reaction time, flexibility, balance and VO2max. Some genes even influence whether you are likely to participate in sport. How much money your parents have as you grow up is also important as some sports will feel inaccessible if you are on a low income or at a school where that sport is not played.
  • When in the year we are born. Researchers who looked at 58 studies covering the birthdays of athletes found those born earlier in their country’s school year do best. They will be stronger so do better early on and are then likely to get picked for teams so get more practice, increasing their development. Those who are not so strong early on might drop out or not take up that sport in the first place as they expect to be worse.
  • Our personality. Personality can have some impact with more successful athletes having higher levels of conscientiousness, optimism and hope, more use of adaptive perfectionism, being competitive and proactive.
  • Where we grow up. When researchers studied the backgrounds of elite athletes on the GB Olympic pathway programmes they found that they were most likely to have been born in a small town of between 50,000 and 100,000 people and attend primary and high school in a small village. This might well be because of the type and closeness to relevant sporting facilities that you would have in towns of this size.
  • Our experience of trauma. Studies have found that if we experience some kind of emotional trauma in childhood, such as our parents getting divorced, being injured, suffering a bereavement or having our schooling disrupted, it can help us develop key mental strengths like grit or resilience and teach us some good ways to cope with stress.

Elite Insight: Jason Kenny (cycling): There was luck involved. The country had just one Olympic-standard velodrome at that point, and it just happened to be fifteen miles from our house. Had I been bought up in Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham or Bristol there would have been no indoor cycling and no Olympic gold medals. 

As we can’t change our parents, our date of birth or where we grow up and we do not want trauma just to be better at sport we need to focus on the areas we all have the power to influence. These six areas are where we can put all our efforts.

  • Practice efforts. One of the most important elements is the practice and training we put in. The million-dollar question is, how much? Studies on chess players and violinists suggest that it took those performers 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice to achieve their ‘expert’ status. While this study is regularly quoted in sports books and magazines it isn’t right for athletes. Studies looking specifically at athletes suggests that to move from novice to elite (representing your country as a senior) can take around 7.5 years. A number of studies in team sports have found that you can reach international level in fewer than 5000 hours if the practice you do in those hours is very deliberate – more focused on the skills, moves and decisions you need to make in your sport. When you are really young though it is less about deliberate learning and more about having fun. The athletes who don’t take it too seriously too young are those who tend to excel.
  • Support. Another key element of success involves surrounding yourself with the right people. Your family, friends, coaches and support staff are really important to your success if you are to become an elite athlete. Of course they bring technical skills that help you physically perform better and logistical support to get you to training and competitions, but they can also help you develop psychological skills and mental flexibility and provide a supportive environment for you to develop.
  • Culture. The culture of the team or sport you are in is also important. Being able to make mistakes without negative consequences is vital. Being able to feel like yourself means you enjoy training much more so you are more likely to show up. If you turn up to training and there are no nerves about how you might be treated or whether a coach will yell at you or if the favourites will get all the focus again you are much more likely to thrive.
  • Recovery. How you prioritise recovery, rest and sleep are key. We don’t get stronger when we train. We get stronger when we recover from the training. Too little rest and recovery and we are likely to end up injured. Good quality rest, recovery and sleep and we will feel good and perform excellently.
  • Emotional control. Another key area of importance that you have lots of control over is how well you control your emotions. If you are throwing your racquet across a tennis court in frustration or sulking every time you miss a penalty you’ll be unpopular with your teammates and easier to beat. Get in control of these elements and your opportunities will increase. We’ll work on this in Chapter 5.
  • Mental skills. Successful athletes have higher levels of motivation, confidence, perceived control, mental toughness and resilience, are better at coping with adversity and high-pressure situations, use anxiety to enhance performance and use lots of mental skills. Helpfully, these are all characteristics and skills you can work on, and are exactly what we will cover in this book.

Controllable elements of success

For athletes:
Diligence about training
Surrounding ourselves with the right people
Our attitude
Our effort levels in training and competition
The physical and mental skills we focus on
The way we communicate

For teams:
A feeling of all being in it together
Specific roles for each member
Structured ways of communicating
A culture-giving (sometimes unofficial) rules about how to behave
A joint goal
Support for each other

Success story: Cath Bishop

Cath Bishop won two world championships in rowing (both on the water and indoors) and went to three Olympic Games. She didn’t rush her sporting career as she only started rowing when she was 18. She competed at the Atlanta Olympics only 6 years later. She raced again in the Sydney Olympics and won an Olympic silver medal in Athens when she raced in the pair with Katherine Grainger. Here she tells us all about what made her successful.

When we talk about winning verses success, I think success for me is a much bigger, broader concept. Winning is just one way you might be successful. Success will consist of lots of different criteria; the way you approach something, the way you connect, the way you work within a team and the way that you learn from it. Success has many prongs to it and you really build those up to make sure winning is just one of many things. Winning is a milestone but is not the endpoint. It is just a means to other things; to discovering, to exploring where you might be able to go with your potential. Crossing the finish line first doesn’t mean anything if you don’t connect it with anything afterwards. Getting a medal or crossing the line is just a moment in time but what is important is what you take from that.

Winning doesn’t need to be about someone else losing. Winning can also be about you doing your best, providing your best performance. That is when we master mastery. Success can be about exploring your potential, with other people. When you focus on beating someone else you put a limit on what is possible and you become defined by somebody else. How will hating my opponent make me go faster? It should be much more about exploring our own untapped potential.

I wasn’t very successful at sport at school. We didn’t have the big variety of sports we now have so I did some hockey and netball but didn’t make the teams. I loved the drama of the Olympics but I never expected to go there. At 18 when I went to university some friends started rowing but I didn’t plan to because you had to get up early and it looked like really hard work. They persuaded me to give it a go. I very nearly didn’t because in my head I had voices saying ‘you’ll look stupid, you won’t be very good, you’re not sporty, don’t do it’ but there was also another voice saying: what have you got to lose, why don’t you give it a go, you’d like to try it wouldn’t you.’ There was absolutely zero expectation of me doing anything so I purely fell in love with the sport and I am so grateful I had that opportunity.

I was with friends; laughing, collaborating and I loved the experience of being in the boat. After nine months people were saying you are quite good and I should try rowing at the next level. I always had a sense of how to improve to progress to that next level so I had a great improvement curve but I didn’t have a fixed sense of what was at the top. It was always about small steps rather than any massive leap, almost like a ladder that’s going up into the cloud. I didn’t know the rungs on that ladder were leading to the Olympics. After four years my coach said you have potential and if you train pretty much full time the next level is getting into the British team. The process was good so I never had to deal with expectation, the Olympics rung was just too far away, so I could focus on just what I needed to do at each level.

The more I focused on the moment the better I performed. In rowing, the 2,000 metre line feels so far away the less you think about it the better. I just need to focus on what is happening with the boat and the adjustments I need to make in the next stroke. I can’t think about the stroke in 50 strokes time because I’ll be in a completely different part of the lake. It is all about focusing on the stroke I am on and how do I build on that to make the next one better. Thinking about what happens if we win or if we lose was just wasted energy and that doesn’t make the boat go faster. In fact, every time I thought ‘I have got to win’ it did nothing to help and probably brought a tension that hindered me.

Our approach was ‘whether we win or lose we are going to look and see what we can learn and improve for next time’. This took off the shackles of expectation so we could do our best and then think about where we go next. This learning approach is part of your mindset and worked because our mindset is the element that we have most control over. The approach you bring, your attitude, the responses you choose to take. You need to invest in that and to use your mind not just to drive you on but to review, to reflect, to look after yourself.

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