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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of 'How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete'

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of 

How to Support a Champion

Performance Immersion

On first meeting with Sirs Matthew Pinsent (Four time Olympic Gold medallist) and Steve Redgrave (Five time Olympic Gold medallist)


It was some time in July 1998. It was probably Tuesday 7th July, but I can’t be sure. I know roughly when it was as I started my new job on 22nd June. I’d missed the first opportunity to meet Steve Redgrave the week before. He’d cancelled his appointment for physiological testing with us up at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow owing to a minor injury niggle. On that day I had the pleasure of meeting his other half, Matt Pinsent. I was 24 years old at the time and in utter awe of these totemic legends of British and Olympic sport. It would be an understatement to say that I had rehearsed the encounter at least a thousand times in my head, over and over, day and night, several times per hour. I did a lot of pacing up and down in the summer of 1998 to stave off the stomach-churning nerves.

The introduction with Matt went okay. The double doors to the laboratory crashed open, not because of an overly aggressive door opening attack from Matt, but the hinges having been called into rapid and unrelenting action under the pressure of the sheer mass of human entering the room. Matt has more than ‘enter the room presence’ he has ‘enter the room magnitude’ and it would give any half alert human a jolt. However, just as rehearsed, I strode over, held out my hand for a shake and rolled out my pre-prepared line, “Hi Matt. I’m Steve, your new physiologist” (Don’t knock it, it took me ages to come up with that). I received a cordially curt, response of, “Nice to meet you, Steve. Shall we do this then?” The intro’ now over and with no notable tongue-tangles or brain farts I jumped into the routine step-by-step process of taking him through the full rigours of their regular MOT – the physiological test.

My recollection of meeting Matt is stored clearly as a ‘flash-bulb’ memory. It was significant, pronounced and important enough for my brain connections to be super-charged into retaining the images, my feelings and the events in my version of high-definition.

Fast forward nine days later to Henley-on-Thames. I’d arrived and hour and a half early, just in case I needed to divert via Wales and parked up in my Citroen Saxo at the back of Leander Rowing Club car park. With my special Olympic-themed apparel suitably adorned, just so anyone going about their daily business would know I was ‘with the Olympics’ I made my way to the boat-house front to meet up with the team again.

Steve Redgrave undertaking a physiological test.

The rowers tended to arrive en-masse at 7.59am ready with plenty of time for the 8.00am session. Sure enough, the giants arrived. After several re-greetings of rowers from the week before, I spotted a moment to make my introduction. Steve Redgrave broke away from the chit chat, presumably to make his way to the boat and this seemed like the ideal moment to make the move. First, I did the walk-over (Excellent, no trips), then I put my hand out (All going well, I had managed to lift my hand out in front of me. Superb stuff!) and now here comes my tried and trusted introductory line (which I couldn’t manage to refine further from the Matt Pinsent intro’). “Hi Steve, (This is going really well, we have the same name, we are going to get along just fine), I’m Steve your new physiologist” (And relax this is basically over. All the words were said in the right order. Pat on the back time!).

If meeting Matt Pinsent was a flashbulb moment, then this was a simultaneously synchronised, paparazzi-style cacophony of strobe-lighting, police helicopter spotlights, heaven is calling, aliens are landing, New Year fireworks climax, bright-lighting extravaganza, all while the sun was eclipsed by Steve’s massive deltoid frame! His response, was plain and simple and should have been anticipated, but it wasn’t,

“Hi. Are you going to make me go faster?” he fired back.

In a singular instance Steve sent an exocet missile at point blank range to my brain, taking everything I had ever ‘learnt’ in science and either knocking it out or turning it upside down.

The flurry of thoughts going through my mind in that millisecond of neuro-processing was at storm level of confusion. Where should I start? Maybe I should mention my interest in breathing mechanics? No, this chap doesn’t look like he lacks for lungs! How about my interest in muscle soreness and growth? No, this man-mountain doesn’t look like he lacks hypertrophy skills. At the same time, I stand at 174cm and should probably not mention growth to this man 22cm in excess of my crown. What about my thesis on overtraining? Yes, that could be a good place to start, but it would be a bit negative and I don’t know if he has ever over-trained. Well it is better than any of the others, so you could start there… Oh hang on a minute, who was one of the most referenced experts in the area? Dr Richard Budgett! Redgrave won his first gold medal with him in 1984. Alright. Well if not this, that or the other, where to start?

Hang on a minute. What did I actually learn in my course? What did I learn that is going to be useful now in this moment under this spotlight, while the helicopters are still hovering overhead? What fact or nugget had I been taught that would enable me to kick start this relationship? I don’t remember the class on prioritisation! In fact, I don’t remember the class on recalling information while adrenaline is bathing my heart and driving me to flee!

My knee-jerk reaction, albeit privately in my head, was to start with knowledge, searching for something useful I could state. My mistake was to think that facts and knowledge can be traded for recognition and status and can act as a pass into their world. Somehow I had left my undergraduate studies in a state of knowing. All I could think in the summer of 1996 was, “I know stuff”. I also knew that I knew stuff which most certainly exuded as narcissism. “Look at me, people in the street. Look at me with my degree. Would you like to know some facts? Perhaps you would like to know my degree grades? I did especially well in my third year Environmental Physiology module, you know.”
I was almost certainly suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect where someone fails to assess their competence appropriately [1]. In the early years of experience, confidence is disproportionately high. The devilish irony being that it is one’s very own incompetence that steals away from their capability to make a fair and reasoned judgment of their competence!

The mismatch between confidence and experience from, “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.

For scientists the Dunning-Kruger effect is demonstrated by their tendency to turn to published work. To many this is sacrosanct, to some it is everything, i.e. if it is not published it does not exist. In the vast majority of cases scientists quote articles, as a symbol of their competence, handing them out like greeting cards at Christmas or food to the needy. I have worked with over a thousand athletes and I can think of only one who actively wanted to see the literature. Therefore, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to say in 99.99% of cases this does not work with athletes, not elite athletes, not club level athletes, nor anyone in the middle.

Standing there with Steve on that day in July 1998, I was certainly on the left-hand aspect of the Dunning-Kruger model. Fortunately, I was not ascending the confidence line, I was descending steeply into the pit of appreciating that I might actually have absolutely nothing to offer.


For more,  click here for 'How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete'

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Yann Le Meur infographic of 'How to Support a Champion'

How to Support a Champion - what's it all about?
Check out this infographic courtesy of the brilliant +Yann LE MEUR @ylmsportscience

Thursday, 12 May 2016

How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete. Preface part 2

Part 2 of my Preface includes the chapter outlines...

The first chapter describes my work with the legendary rower Sir Steve Redgrave in the final flurry of his career as he headed towards his tumultuous fifth and final Olympic gold medal at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Steve is one of the most intensely focused sports people of all time, completely intolerant of second place and second best. Chapter One describes how I had the challenge of making a connection with him and what he taught me along the way.

Chapter Two recounts the seemingly impossible challenge that Martin McElroy, the coach, threw down to me to help transform a group of rowers unable to make a final, through to becoming Olympic Men's 8+ Champions in 2000. The collective spirit of working to a team goal where everyone is pulling in the same direction, both literally and metaphorically, was a compelling objective but ultimately questioned what drove me.

Chapter Three documents my work with the coach Mark Rowland and middle distance runners Hayley Tullett and Mike East who were dissatisfied by the plateau they had hit. They laid down their expectations of the type of support they needed and how I needed to step up to establish an evidence base that they could use. Their torrent of critical thinking would forever change the way I worked.

Chapter Four details my support to the dynamic duo of coach Toni Minichello and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, as she rose from fledgling junior to 2012 Olympic Champion to the present day. The complexities of the heptathlon demanded the most versatile, flexible and imaginative applied practice for me to be able to make any practical recommendations. Some of the avenues of possibility we explored and pursued were completely unexpected, but if we hadn't followed our flow of reasoning and decision making, we would have still been stuck at square one.

Chapter Five describes my support work with a rival heptathlete Kelly Sotherton. Normal scientific support involves the outcome of advising others, but what if the athlete thinks you can do more than that? What if they want you to author their training? In this chapter I detail what comes with stepping across the Rubicon into coaching.

Chapter Six describes my work with monumental rowers Sir Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, in their goal of winning two World titles in as many hours. I retell the story of how an observation turned into a thought, which turned into a conversation precipitating more than I could have imagined.

Chapters Seven and Eight are slightly different. Drawing on an array of case experiences I highlight and explain two crucial concepts necessary to understand and grasp in order to succeed in high performance. In Chapter Seven I embroil and attempt to untangle the balancing act of progressing an athlete, along with the uplifting highs and deflating lows that come with pursuing a challenging goal. In chapter Eight I highlight a foundation philosophy of supporting others with altruistic behaviours. I address the dichotomous pull of satisfying your own ambitions whilst serving those of others and draw on the origins of human technology to illustrate that a variety of applied practice approaches are necessary to move forward the boundaries of endeavour.

In Chapter Nine I wrap all of the themes up into one place; three for each chapter, provide you with my top tips and suggested further reading or viewing for you to pursue.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete. Preface part 1

***Health warning! This book is not a textbook***

Part 1 of the Preface from 'How to support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete'...

“He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Francis of Assisi

I often hear myself and others saying, "There aren't any books telling you how to work with elite athletes." Well, this book is a contribution to invalidating that statement and sentiment. However, this book isn't a point by point guide of what you need to 'do' to be an effective practitioner. Applied practice is too complicated for a step by step manual. Instead, this book shares with you the intensity, the challenges, the complexities, the strains, the insecurities, the regrets, the mistakes and the lucky scrapes as well as the fierce ambitions, the hopes, the breakthroughs, the sense of purpose, the joys, the fun, the wonder and the grandeur of being an applied practitioner. I have written this book as a part of my 'call to arms' for us all to do more to develop and celebrate the art of applying knowledge.

If you are a scientist, maybe a sport scientist, botanist, chemist, oceanographer, meteorologist, or from a different field, an architect, military officer, web developer, graphic designer, air traffic controller, optometrist, speech therapist, audiologist, medic, actor, singer, clergy, teacher or even a writer, whatever your occupation you are a practitioner – ‘a person engaged in the practice of a profession’. I'll take it as a given that you have a good knowledge base. I expect you will have done the reading and researching and have the certificate to prove it.

Throughout my career I have been struck by the curiosity as to how some people are effective and others are not. Why is that some practitioners are brilliant, others mediocre and some awful? Why is it when you meet some practitioners they drain all your happiness away and others brighten up your life? Why is it when given an interesting project to work on, some practitioners just go off and do their own thing and others pull together in a team for a collective effort? Why is it when presented with a problem or a question, some practitioners become innovative, sparky and creative, whereas others just try to hit different problems with the same hammer? When presented with an outcome, why do some practitioners point the finger of blame and others reflect and accept responsibility? Why do some practitioners just mess with other people's business and others just make life easier? The difference might be explained by a practitioner's personality, but I think the major difference comes from whether or not someone has learnt and adapted from their experiences.

If you fail to learn from your experiences, you won't progress in your understanding. If you fail to adapt from your learning, your skills will remain static. If you fail to learn or adapt, your ability to effect change and influence the world around you will be limited. All too commonly the educational system is stuck in teach-recite or research-write up, two-dimensional methods of training - so how will practitioners of the future ever be suitably trained to work if there is so little ‘DO’ in their courses from which they can learn and adapt? Even out there in the big bad world practitioners are often afraid to confront the brutal facts of their own performance by self-reflecting or giving and receiving feedback from and to others - so how will existing practitioners ever learn and adapt higher level abilities?

I have made thousands of mistakes throughout my career, but I am lucky; I work in the unforgiving, unrelenting and performance focused world of elite high performance sport. In that world if you don't learn and adapt from every instance, encounter, experience, mistake or failure, there is every chance you will be spat out of the system. Pursuing an ambitious goal, such as a World or Olympic medal is an environment allergic to poor practitioner skills. On the other hand, if you take the opportunity and make the room to self-reflect, develop, hone, iterate, polish, cultivate, rehearse, nurture and refine your skills, words and behaviours, you will be on the road to being an artisanal practitioner.

This book shares with you the pivotal practitioner lessons I have learnt throughout my career working with some of the world's greatest athletes. The first six chapters describe moments where I was required to learn and adapt my practice quickly in order to survive let alone thrive. I have had the utter, utter privilege of working with over a thousand athletes and over a hundred different coaches. The first six chapters focus on six different cases, followed by a further two chapters which address two important concepts (Part 2 of the preface will include the chapter outlines... coming soon...)

I have chosen to use a mix of story telling (which I have devotedly reproduced from my note keeping) and reflective observation throughout the book with the hope they will amplify, illuminate and punctuate the circumstances encountered and lessons learnt throughout my career as a practitioner and leader.

The accounts contain a smattering of technical science, but owing to the dearth of material addressing the area, I make no apologies for focussing on the craft skills of supporting, working and developing others. I hope you can soak up the accounts and reflect on how you would have worked with the situations and visualise yourself developing in a similar way.

The book closes with some final thoughts from myself, the coaches and athletes, accentuating the need for us to cherish, care for and craft the application of knowledge.

I hope you enjoy the book. If you do not read any further, please just get out there, learn, adapt and bring your knowledge to life.