Impossible? Getting in a good mental zone for performance

impossible-karen-darke

 

A sports psychologist asked our team what percentage of our performance we would assign to mental attitude versus physical form. “80% physical, 20% mental” someone called out, and for a while I wondered what the ‘answer’ was. Apparently Ranulph Fiennes attributes his success in climbing Mount Everest at age 65 to being 90% positive mental attitude and 10% physical ability. There is of course no right answer – it must be different for each of us and vary from day to day. There is no doubt though, that if we go into any situation thinking we’re the ‘underdog’, we probably will be. Maintaining a positive mental attitude at all times is a vital ingredient of success. Here is a short story from one of my races in 2011, the year I was hoping to qualify to represent GB at the Paralympics in London 2012.

 

 

“Come on. Lap one over. Two to go!!” My coach shouted from the side of the road. When I hit the long hill for the second time around, I cranked into it with everything I had. Spectators rang cowbells and cheered loudly on the first corner up the hill. I thought how nice it was of them to cheer so enthusiastically for a Brit…but then a wheel nudged alongside me, quickly gaining ground. My Swiss competitor powered on by. Ah, the cheers are for her I realised.

As I watched her advance up the road towards the Italian, I felt some of my strength disappear into the road…into the tarmac that she seemed to accelerate over so quickly. How can she be so strong? I thought, which soon distorted into How am I so weak? , my negative thoughts stealing yet more power from my arms. I kept pedaling hard, or so I thought, but I just couldn’t gain any ground.

The race result? I was way off – the Swiss and Italian riders were up on the podium that day. The moment my mind switched into focusing on my own weakness, the race was lost for me.

“You’re just tired from racing last weekend” my coach coached me. “Don’t worry about it. You know you’re strong.” I appreciated his positivity but despite his encouragement, I was already slipping back into ‘last year’s attitude’. The World Champion was a Goddess (she always looked immaculate in white lyrca, no specks of oil, not like me with grease stains everywhere). She was stronger than I could ever be. I was just a tourist, trying to break into this game that I was never really going to be any good at. I’d trained hard and I still couldn’t pull out the results. Who was I to think I could be a Paralympian?!

My big learning from that race…

 

Your thoughts create your attitude. Pay attention to them.

To keep a positive mental attitude I find it helpful to notice any repeating thoughts and consider ‘Is this a useful thought to have or not?’ and ‘How much control do I have over this?’. I try only to hold onto thoughts that are
Useful – the thought is helping in some way (many negative thoughts are helpful too if turned on their head!).
Controllable – I drop the thoughts about things I have no influence over and focus on what I can do to improve or help a situation.

 

 

No matter the cause of our success or failure in any given situation, we generally have a strong need to understand and explain what is going on in our world. We attribute reasons for the outcome, and how we attribute our success or failure has a strong influence over how we behave next. If we believe the result is out of our control, or due to some ‘external’ factor, then it’s harder mentally to do anything about it. We disempower ourselves thinking like this.

 

 

In 2014 I met an inspirational Spanish guy, Jose Manuel Lopez who had just completed a race called ‘Impossible’ (an ironman challenge everyday for a month! That is 4.8km swim, 180km cycle and 42km run every day!!!!). He’d then decided to carry on and see how many he could do in a year, creating ‘Impossible365’ ! He was aiming for 100, a World Record by a long way! Not only that but he seemed quite normal and nice, had a family and a full time job as a psychiatric nurse, squeezing some charitable work helping homeless people into his spare time. I felt so inspired, that I agreed to join him for the last ironman challenge of his year (In my ‘negative’ moments I wondered…What was I thinking? I rely on my shoulders. Could they take such abuse?!) It turned out to be his 90th challenge. I was intrigued to learn from him about what mental strategies he used to get through such an incredible feat.

 

 

Somehow the idea grew arms and legs, and led to the making of ‘IMPOSSIBLE’, a documentary about overcoming challenges that seem ‘impossible’. The film examines how we psychologically tackle apparently insurmountable challenges, through the eyes of some renowned adventurers and athletes. The backdrop to the film is the ironman challenge I undertook alongside Jose Manuel’s Guinness record-breaking effort. This is punctuated with interviews and insights about motivation and resilience to keep going towards far-reaching goals, with the World’s Greatest Living Explorer Ranulph Fiennes, multiple World Ironman Champion Chrissie Wellington, founder of Climbers Against Cancer, John Ellison and respected sports psychiatrist Prof. Steve Peters. What a team to learn from!

 

 

Click here to see the trailer. The film will be launched at the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival on Friday 20th March 2015, and we’re looking into ways to make it more widely available. I’m sure it will hopefully give many more useful insights into getting into a good mental zone for making the ‘impossible possible’. Meanwhile, here are a few quick tips that helped me through the ironman challenge (and other challenges in life!).

– Try to be in the ‘moment’ (not anxious about what lies ahead, or thinking about what you should have done before).
– Stay curious! If it gets painful, or you think you can’t carry on, say to yourself “This is interesting. I’ve never felt like this before….I wonder what will happen next”…because something always does, and it’s rarely as bad as you would every imagine!
– Surround yourself with positive people (and be positive yourself).
– Believe in yourself and the hidden power you have within.
– Let go of the outcome…just aim to be the best that you can, enjoy it and see what happens.

GOOD LUCK (not that luck has anything to do with it, it’s all in your head!)