On the blog today, we’re going all sport psychology with Dr Josephine Perry of Performance in Mind, an age group Ironman triathlete turned sport psychologist who works with everyone from endurance athletes to tennis players in order to give them the mental tools for a winning performance.
Dr Perry chats through some of her own techniques for improving performance during races and training, and reveals how a start line comment during an Ironman triathlon led her to pursue a new career as a sport psychologist.
When Josephine Perry lined up on the beach start for the start of Ironman Melbourne in 2013, a change of career was the least of her worries. “I was looking out at the enormous waves and wondering what on earth I was doing. The waves were so big even the Aussie athletes were looking a little scared.” But then a choice sentence from the commentator kick-started an interest that would eventually lead to a new career choice.
“He said: ‘You can’t control the waves. But you can control how you feel about them.’ Cheesy as it sounds, that was a real light bulb moment for me when I realised how much power my mind could have in my sporting performances. I definitely didn’t enjoy the swim but I was proud that I did it and got a PB Ironman time that day.”
It kicked off a head full of thoughts about the importance of psychology in sport and, six months later, Josephine applied for an MSc in Psychology and left her job. Fast-forward several years and her job as a sport psychologist sees her work with athletes from all sports backgrounds – plus she’s utilising what she’s learned in her own triathlon racing and training. “I have definitely found I enjoy my sport more because of sport psychology. Weirdly, I enjoy the harder sessions much more. I understand the benefits of them better, both mentally and physically, and so I get a bigger buzz from finishing them,” she explains.
So what works? Here are Dr Perry’s favourite strategies for better sport performance:
#1. Smiling helps you run better
I’ve picked up some really neat simple tricks from sport psychology which I use all the time. One of my favourite is simply to smile. Recent research from Ulster University found that when runners smiled their running economy improved by two per cent. Separate research from Kent University found that if you subconsciously see smiling faces rather than frowning ones while cycling you’re able to cycle faster. So I know if I smile at the crowds in a race, some will smile back, and I’ll get double the benefit. Simple to do but a really positive impact.
#2. Distraction works (but top athletes don’t use it)
Another one I used to use a lot was distraction – more formally known as Dissociative Attentional Strategy – where you try to ignore the fact you are running or cycling hard by distracting yourself with other thoughts; such as what you are having for tea, or how many red cars do you spot. This works well for me but I’ve learnt in sport psychology research that while this can be helpful on occasion and in training, it is not what the faster athletes do. The faster athletes use Associative Thinking – trying to become hyper-aware of their bodily actions and functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, technique or breathing rate, so they can continually adapt and keep them at optimal levels. So I’m trying to do this much more in races now.
#3. Pre-race routines reduce anxiety
I follow a really strict pre-race routine which is something I advocate with every athlete I work with. For Ironman this would start about 24-hours before the race. For shorter distances, the night before. It will include making my kit list, packing it all up, what I eat, which mental skills I practice, how I will get to the race, any music I will listen to, who I will speak to, the warm-up I will do, when I will do my walk through of transition and the mantra I will use. Doing all of this is brilliant for helping you feel calmer because you know that everything you can control is in hand. That takes a lot of anxiety away.
#4. Goal setting is key
I am an avid goal setter! I set three big ones a year (one sport, one business, one family) and set them up just as I do with the athletes I work with. There is a sheet you can download on my website which shows what to do.
#5. Music and podcasts can help training
Research has found that music is very good at helping us get the right levels of arousal for sport. There are a couple of caveats, though. The music has to be something that you like and gets you going. If there is no emotional attachment to it for you it won’t be particularly effective. It’s also good to remember that music can get you too psyched up – if you’re supposed to be doing an easy session then banging out your favourite dance tracks may make you go too fast. For those sessions I listen to podcasts. Marathon Talk and the Tough Girl Podcast are my favourites.
#6. Positive mantras work
When stuff gets tough in a race I use my mantra. This is a short, positive phrase that you repeat over and over again to keep you on track. It can either be something motivational (i.e. I can- I will), something about your goal (i.e. this will get help me qualify) or something technical (‘long and smooth’ perhaps for a swimmer). Some brilliant research on this technique with ultra-runners doing a 60-mile race found those who were taught and practiced this self-talk finished their race 25 minutes quicker than those who didn’t. That is 10 minutes difference in a marathon. The important thing with a mantra is that it is easy to remember and means something to you. So you can’t just steal someone else’s!