Hacking the mind for extreme performance
Athletes looking for the winning edge must master the space between the ears. Richard A. Lovett investigates where the real field experiments in sports psychology are happening.
Projected to take as many as 11 gold medals in Rio, the Australian swim team managed just three and was reduced to watching the Americans win 16 of the 32 events, many without an Australian even in the top three.
It was the second Olympiad in a row in which a highly touted Australian team had come up short – a terrible fate for a nation that invests heavily in swimming success and where, as John Bertrand, president of Swimming Australia, puts it, swimming “is part of our DNA”.
There are several possible reasons. Perhaps some swimmers underestimated the 11-hour jetlag. Perhaps training errors caused them to peak too soon. “They performed very well a month prior,” says Andy Walshe, an Australian-born sports scientist and consultant now based in Southern California. Perhaps many of them just happened to have bad days at the same time.
Whatever the cause, Bertrand’s mission is to make sure the Rio disaster doesn’t happen again at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. To do this, he is focusing on what he sees as sport science’s final frontier: the mind. “We think the biggest gains are between the ears,” he says.
Science has become an integral player in improving sports performance over the past century. It began with German physiologist August Krogh’s pioneering work on respiration and circulation, which contributed hugely to the development of exercise physiology (he won the Nobel prize in 1920). It continued with Danish exercise physiologist Erik Hohwü Christensen’s studies of carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the late 1930s, which laid the foundation for sports nutrition.
Since then, science has contributed to knowing what to eat and drink before, during and after exertion; how to get the biggest bang for the buck from training; and how to refine the minutiae of technique – in swimming that goes all the way down to the positioning of your fingers to get the most out of every stroke.
It has contributed to the evolution of better sporting equipment and clothes, such as the suits elite swimmers wear to reduce water resistance. On the darker side, it has equipped athletes with a pharmacopeia of illegal performance-enhancing drugs that increase oxygen in the blood for more endurance or boost muscle strength for superhuman performance.
But when it comes to optimising mental performance, sports science still has a long way to go, especially in a sport where the difference between winning and losing is measured in millimetres and milliseconds. “We think we potentially use 9-10% of the potential of the human brain,” says Bertrand. “If we can move that to 100%, it’s a breakthrough.”
Elite-level sports psychology doesn’t advance via lab tests. The real science, often by trial and error, is happening out in the field – in the pool or on the track. Much is simply one-on-one experimentation by athletes and coaches, often drawing on life lessons learned elsewhere.
A lot of what is needed isn’t that arcane. Whether they fully understood the science of what they were doing in Rio or not, the Americans did something right. The Australians didn’t, and Campbell’s word “choke” is still on everyone’s mind.
When it comes to sports psychology, Bertrand knows what he is talking about. He sailed in two Olympics and several unsuccessful attempts to win the America’s Cup before he became a national hero in 1983 as skipper of Australia II, which broke the Americans’ 132-year stranglehold on the prestigious yachting event. While nautical engineering was widely hailed as Australia’s secret weapon in that victory – with the winged keel of Australia II kept zealously shrouded – Bertrand says it was his psychology that delivered the winning edge.
“Having competed in two Olympic Games and five America’s Cups, it’s obvious to me the psychology of performing when it really counts is the major area of opportunity,” he says. “We are in the business of endeavouring to understand what a super-high performance team will look like for the Tokyo Olympics – and to getting there faster than anyone else.”
Needless to say, Bertrand is not willing to spill the details of how he plans to choke-proof his athletes. But he is leaving no stone unturned in his quest for elite mental training techniques for the Australian swim team. He is tapping into traditional ‘mindfulness’ techniques. In signature Bertrand style he is also pushing the boundaries to discover the secrets of other elite performers. How do SAS commandos train their mental toughness for life-and-death missions? How do ballet dancers maintain their focus on technique while trying to please an audience?
That he has also brought aboard Walshe, whose methods in other sports have proven both exciting and unconventional, is another sign of pushing the sports-psychology envelope.
Walshe is something of a phenomenon in the realm of high-performance sports psychology. He has a PhD in applied biomechanics from Southern Cross University, New South Wales, but has since specialised in optimising human performance. Now a full-time consultant, he spent eight years (from 2009 to 2017) as director of high performance at Red Bull, a major marketing player in extreme sports.
Among other things, Walshe helped Felix Baumgartner prepare for his 2012 dive from a helium balloon at the edge of space – a feat that made the Austrian skydiver the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle. In his 22 years in the field, Walshe has worked with big-wave surfers, mountaineers, corporate executives and surgeons – anyone trying to expand the boundaries of their abilities. “We just took the number one cardiac surgery team in the world through a program,” Walshe says by way of example.
His approach is grounded in the rite-of-passage rituals of ancient cultures, where young people face challenges designed to induce self-reflection and understanding. “It’s a very old tool to which we are applying cutting-edge technology,” he says, “to understand more completely what actually happens.”
Choking happens when an athlete focuses too much on things that should be automatic, says Mackenzie Havey, a Minnesota-based running coach and author of Mindful Running.
“Cognitive resources go into worrying about doing the task, rather than performing it,” says Havey, who holds a masters degree in kinesiology and sports psychology. The goal is for athletes to learn simply to do what they have spent years training themselves to do, without too much self-scrutiny.
“Do or do not; there is no try,” is how Faulder Colby, a clinical psychologist and marathoner who died in 2017, liked to put it. The phrase comes from the Star Wars Jedi master Yoda. ‘Trying’ is hard work that robs athletes of energy better spent in the simple act of racing, said Colby. ‘Doing’, on the other hand, is a state of mind in which focused action replaces fear and frazzle. A ‘hollow mind’ is how Bertrand describes the ideal mental state: “It all comes together in a rhythm.”
He recalls talking to Cathy Freeman after she won one of the most high-pressure races of all time: the 400-metre final at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, in which she carried the hopes of an entire nation. Bertrand asked her what had gone through her mind. Freeman told him about coming out of the starting blocks perfectly, about her breathing being in harmony with her running as she entered the back straight, and about feeling no pain as she ran to the finish line.
“She did not talk to me once about winning the medal,” Bertrand says. “She talked about the wonderment of the process.”
This is a fundamental aspect to performing at your best, Bertrand says, “where you’re loving what you’re doing and freeing the mind from the consequences of winning or losing”. It is why sports psychologists often urge athletes to let go of the ‘need’ to achieve a goal.
Freeman’s focus on the details of her running race, and not on what the race meant, he says, epitomised that idea of ‘do’, not ‘try’.
It is a peculiar type of focus. Normally in flight-or-fight situations, evolution has conditioned us so that “the focus goes down to tunnel vision and you’re aware of nothing other than the oncoming bear or the decision to run like hell”, Bertrand says. But in competition more is needed. “We also need to have peripheral vision way beyond the tunnel.”
Jeff Simons, a professor of sports psychology at California State University, cites Davis Phinney, the second American cyclist to ever win a stage of the Tour de France. “If there was a train wreck next to me on the course,” Phinney told him, “I would know there was a train wreck but I wouldn’t notice it, because I just wouldn’t care.”
When an athlete gets this right, Bertrand says, “everything starts to become slow motion, even though decisions and situations are happening within microseconds”.
He experienced this during his history-making final race in the 1983 America’s Cup, where he estimates he had to make 1,000 decisions – about one decision every nine seconds during the course of the 2½ hour race.
The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to achieve this elusive state of mind. Thousands of hours of practice play a role, but the pressure of competition is different to practice. Which is where someone like Walshe comes in.
Walshe’s methods vary with the needs and time commitments of his clients, but putting people in unfamiliar, stressful situations is at the core of his practice. “Everyone gets stressed by whatever they fear or don’t understand,” he says. “You identify these things and use them as training.”
At the opening reception for a conference, for example, he had participants wear masks and prohibited them from talking about themselves. It was probably the most awkward cocktail hour in history, until people adjusted and got into it – providing fodder for subsequent, more serious, discussions about handling stress. What this little exercise revealed is that the precise situation doesn’t matter: what counts is that people are pushed far enough out of their normal comfort zones. Public speaking, for example, is one of many people’s greatest fears, so Walshe might challenge a client to perform stand-up comedy or improv. Someone without that specific fear might instead have to confront a box of snakes.
Though controlled, such experiences can be powerful lessons. “Stress inoculation is the military term,” Walshe says. The key is for the challenge to be scary but not so terrifying that one totally freezes up.
There are more intense programs. In 2013, for example, Walshe collaborated with US Navy SEALs to take Australian ironman champion Matt Poole and three other elite athletes – more at home in surf or white water – on a nine-day mountaineering expedition in Chilean Patagonia. There, they leaped across glacial crevasses, climbed treacherously unstable slopes and bivouacked in a snowstorm to ultimately summit a never-before-climbed Andean peak.
The Red Bull-sponsored trip – named ‘Project Acheron’, after the first of the three rivers of hell in Dante’s Inferno – was documented in a one-hour film. In it, Poole echoes Bertrand’s belief that the great undiscovered territory for athletes remains “the thing between your ears”.
“Everybody does the work,” the triathlete says. “They’re super-fit, they train super-hard.” What makes the difference is “mental strength, the ability to push even harder when you’ve got nothing else to give”.
Poole and his fellow adventurers all went on, without any other psychological coaching, to massive triumphs in their chosen sports. Will Walshe send the Australian swim team off on some similar adventure? No one knows, but it’s the type of thing he does, so anyone on the swim team who doesn’t like snakes or glaciers or possibly an extended trek into the Outback might be in for a surprise.
There is a story Simons likes to tell about Australian marathon-runner Steve Moneghetti before the 1997 world championships in Athens, which the sports psychologist got first-hand from the runner.
Moneghetti was one of the great marathoners of his time but had never earned a medal in the world championships. Nor did he run well in heat. As the final drew near, it became clear the day would be hot. Worse, a motor scooter clipped him and bruised his Achilles tendon a week before the race.
But there he was at the final, so he began his warm-up routine, all the while feeling “like crap”. The race started and he was promptly left behind by the lead pack. So he figured he would aim for a top-20 finish, and got into his rhythm.
At about a third of the way through the 42 km race, someone told him he was catching up. He kept going. With about 5 km to go, he found himself fifth. He finished third. The bronze medal was the only one he ever won at a world championship in a long, illustrious career – and he won it on “a crap day”.
To Simons, this epitomises hanging tough: “But he would say it was more like: ‘I was just going to do it.’”
Which is exactly what Bertrand hopes his swimmers will do off the blocks in Tokyo in 2020. If success flows, the acclaim and medals will deservedly go to the athletes. But Bertrand, Walshe and a host of others will have been behind the scenes, working together to push the envelope of psychology and help each athlete, in those few defining moments, to master the “space between the ears”.