Have you ever been nervous before a big race? Of course you have. Ever talked yourself into thinking you might fail? Have you ever felt that unwanted negative thoughts and emotions influenced how you performed in a race? There’s a good chance that’s happened, since it will occasionally happen even to the best athletes in the world.
But it doesn’t have to. This episode is entirely about helping you to manage unwanted thoughts, with two experts who have literally written the book on it. Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, owners of Braveheart Coaching and authors of The Brave Athlete: Calm the F***k Down and Rise to the Occasion, have written and lectured extensively about mental preparation in athletes.
Their philosophy of practice stems largely from the concept of stoicism, and their goal is to help athletes overcome destructive emotions and act only on what can be acted upon.
Marshall brings his years of clinical and neuroscience practice to bear on the discussion, while former XTERRA world champion Paterson brings the athlete perspective. Together, they offer what they see as a fundamentally educational, humanistic, and holistic approach to training the brain.
Today, we’ll discuss the underlying principles of an athlete’s psychological welfare, and why our thoughts and feelings are simply emergent properties of brain and nervous-system physiology. On the practical side, we’ll discuss how controlling those thoughts and feelings requires that you manage your autonomic nervous system the best you can.
Besides Simon and Lesley, we also hear from sports psychologist Julie Emmerman, who works with athletes across many disciplines and at various ability levels, and Ted King, who now races long, painful, and emotionally challenging gravel and bikepacking races. They both provide helpful tips on how to manage unwanted thoughts.
Now, whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant. (Don’t worry, this will make sense soon.) Let’s make you fast!
Everyone, welcome to Fast Talk, your source for the science of endurance performance.
Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson Introduction
Chris Case 00:16
I’m your host, Chris Case. Have you ever been nervous for a big race? Of course, you have. Ever talked yourself into thinking you might fail? Have you ever felt that unwanted negative thoughts and emotions influenced how you performed in a race? There’s a good chance that has happened, since it will occasionally happen even to the best athletes in the world, but it doesn’t have to.
This episode is entirely about helping you to control unwanted thoughts with two experts who’ve literally written the book on it. Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson, owners of Braveheart Coaching and authors of The Brave Athlete: Calm the F Down and Rise to the Occasion, have written and lectured extensively about mental preparation in athletes. Their philosophy of practice stems largely from the concept of stoicism, and their goal is to help athletes overcome destructive emotions and act only on what can be acted upon. Marshall brings his years of clinical and neuroscience practice to bear on the discussion, while former XTERRA World Champion Paterson brings the athlete perspective. Together, they offer what they see as a fundamentally educational, humanistic, and holistic approach to training the brain.
Today, we’ll discuss the underlying principles of an athlete’s psychological welfare, and why our thoughts and feelings are simply emergent properties of brain and nervous-system physiology. On the practical side, we’ll discuss how controlling those thoughts and feelings requires that you manage your autonomic nervous system the best you can.
Besides Simon and Lesley, we also hear today from sports psychologist Julie Emmerman, who works with athletes across many disciplines and at various ability levels, and you’ve heard her on Fast Talk before. And we’ll also hear from Ted King, who now races long, painful, emotionally challenging gravel and bikepacking races. They both provide helpful tips on handling unwanted thoughts. Now, whatever you do, don’t think about a pink elephant. Let’s make you fast.
Trevor Connor 02:19
So Ryan, how are things going with our new solutions and services?
Ryan Kohler 02:23
It’s going great, I’ve been testing and consulting with a lot of athletes. We had a member tell us he just had a breakthrough ride on Zwift’s Über Pretzel route; he ended up dropping his riding buddy and holding 200 watts on Zwift.
Trevor Connor 02:35
That’s fantastic. So tell our listeners a little more about our virtual performance center.
Ryan Kohler 02:40
So we just launched a whole suite of solutions and services, these include coaching consultations, inside lab testing, sports nutrition baselines, and race day plans. We’re also offering skills coaching, guided workouts, and for those in Colorado, in-person metabolic cart testing.
Trevor Connor 02:57
That’s a lot of options. So if you’re interested in learning more, check out our new solutions and services at fasttalklabs.com.
Chris Case 03:04
Welcome to Fast Talk, Simon Marshall, Lesley Paterson, the authors of The Brave Athlete. It’s great to have you on the show today.
Lesley Paterson 03:12
Hi, it’s great to be here.
Simon Marshall 03:14
Thanks for having us. We’re excited.
Trevor Connor 03:15
I’m really excited to have you.
Chris Case 03:17
Trevor, specifically, has seen you speak at the Endurance Sports Conference. We’ve read your book, this discussion today is not going to cover the entire book, but it’s going to cover some very fascinating components of sports psychology generally, how to manage unwanted thoughts.
Trevor Connor 03:38
Because of my job here, because as a coach, I have read many books on sports psychology. Your book, more than any others that I have read, really resonated.
Chris Case 03:48
Trevor, I know that you often like to start episodes with a bit of a story, and I know that you have a story for us today. Would you like to kick things off?
Stoicism: Not Allowing Your Life to be Controlled by Desires and Fear
Trevor Connor 03:57
I can’t say whether it’s right or wrong, but certainly what I have learned through my work with athletes, through my work at the centers, there are things that you read about all the time and go, “You know what, that that’s great, but it really just doesn’t work.” And then there are things that really do work, and that’s what I read in your book. So I have to give you the two thumbs up for the approach that you take. So you sent us an email to get ready for this, and you said in it, “based on stoicism,” and that really kind of hit me and so here’s my little story.
I’ll start with I remember. When I was in college, in my dorm, there was a woman in my dorm who I may or may not have been attracted to, but regardless, as I was showing my complete lack of game, she commented that I was very stoic, and I was horribly offended. Later on, when I was trying to make a career as a cyclist, I was researching everything I could that I felt would help me with my cycling and I actually studied stoicism and the more I read about stoicism, the more I went, “Actually, I’m not sure she intended it that way, but that was kind of a compliment, thank you.”
I loved hearing you say that, that a lot of this is based on stoicism, and that’s something that a lot of people misinterpret. I think stoicism is about not being emotional, but the two principles I’ve learned about stoicism are not allowing your life to be controlled by desires and fear, and it’s also very much about focusing on what you can control and letting go of what you can’t control.
So the analogy I heard is, picture you are in a boat, in the ocean, and you’re being battered by waves and wind. A lot of people would get upset and focus on those waves and focus on the wind and why it’s making this journey so troubling for them, and the point that a stoic would make is, “Well, then you’re letting the waves control you and they’re going to direct you,” where a stoic would say, “You can’t do anything about the waves in the wind, so all I’m going to do is hold on to the wheel, and I have my compass pointing me in the right direction, and regardless of what the waves do, I’m just going to keep that boat pointed in the direction that I need to go in.”
I thought that was a really apt analogy for your book, which is saying, all these other sports psychology books tell you about trying to control your emotions, well, you really can’t. But is that what you’re trying to do?
Emotions and Situations We Can’t Control Get the Best of Us
Simon Marshall 06:25
Yeah, and you know, I love that you told that story, being stoic. Yeah, so I think that the first thing is, when you’re trained as a psychologist, or actually any sort of therapeutic helping profession, having a philosophy of practice is quite important. And a lot of coaches or other folks who are in sort of allied helping professions, they often sort of roll their eyes at the thought of philosophy, because they think of it as this sort of antiquated, sort of largely academic, not very actionable, a sort of set of, I don’t know, principles or so on.
And really it’s, for me, I think of it as sort of how we ground what we do and why we do, so when we’re asked—and as we’re coaches as well, obviously, we get asked, “So why am I doing this session?” So that question is not really uncommon for a coach or an athlete. Of course, you always have to defend and justify and talk about the rationale for doing things, and the same is true in psychology as well. And you gave a beautiful description there of stoicism. And so we fit—to sort of paraphrase that for us is that we think about it as ultimately about developing self-control, and then obviously having some sort of fortitude and using that self-control to overcome destructive emotion.
And sometimes emotions—like we often talk about desire and fear—and sometimes those emotions are warranted. They’re adaptive. In certain situations, it’s good to have desire, and in certain situations, it’s good to have fear. But it’s when they become disruptive, or maladaptive in psych terms, it’s when we respond in a certain way that kind of sends us astray, that gets us into trouble.
Our philosophy, really, is that a good portion of the mental anguish that we have in life—not just as athletes, but as humans—is because our emotions and things that we aren’t largely in control of, or at least we’re not trained to be in control of, get the better of us and end up ruining experiences that could otherwise be sort of, you know, both positive for you, but also could change the way you think about what you can achieve and do. So that’s really where we start from.
Of course, this is all a little bit like, I suppose, you know, the engine of a cruise ship, right? The passengers don’t know that where the engine or they can even hear it, but it’s powering what you’re doing and why. And occasionally, we do talk to athletes about that, but rarely does it sort of come up on a day-to-day basis.
Races are Won by Those Who Can Cope with Challenges
Lesley Paterson 08:56
Yeah. I think that largely, we’ve developed this philosophy out of both, you know, Simon’s understanding of both the neuroscience and psychology piece, but really my practical experiences as an athlete, and what I’ve been through in my career through chronic Lyme disease, and injury, and a lot of adversity. And I think there’s probably no better story than—you know, stoicism—than for me winning my fifth world title in XTERRA 2018, when the conditions were absolutely awful. I mean so muddy people couldn’t even stay in their bikes, their chain rings were getting filled up with mud, there was a lot of mechanicals, you had to walk a lot of portions—really unlike anything we’d ever experienced at World Championship.
And Simon was like, “Hey, Les, this is perfect for you because your ability to deal with any circumstance that comes along, turn it around, and find that self-control and find that fortitude, is better than anyone else’s out here because you’ve practiced it over and over and over again.” And he was right, and really I ended up, you know, winning that race by 10 minutes. Not because I think I was 10 minutes quicker in terms of my fitness abilities, but because I maintained that self-control throughout the race when everyone else was getting frustrated.
Simon Marshall 09:03
Tantruming and throwing their toys out the pram or having to walk with their bike for a mile or so on, you know, it reminds me of, you know, races in the metaphorical sense are not won or lost on tailwinds, on the downhill, right? They’re won when the proverbial, yeah, I was gonna say when shit hits the fan then. But you know, in moments of adversity, that’s usually when races are won. Who can cope better with it? So it makes sense, right? To train our ability to do that better.
Trevor Connor 10:52
That’s very similar to a conversation I have with a lot of athletes when they’re getting ready for races, and they’re very nervous before the race, because they’re asking all the questions about, “What if I win? What if I lose?” And all the scenarios. And the talk I give them is you actually have zero control over whether you win or lose this race. That’s going to be determined when somebody crosses the finish line. You could do everything right and there could just be somebody stronger than you, you could do everything right and get a flat tire in the last five miles, and that’s that.
And [I] try to explain to them all you control is what you do there on the start line, and then when the race starts, what you do next. Those are the things that are in your power, and you just want to make sure those moments are making the best choices, and not worrying about something that hasn’t been determined yet.
Focus on Process-Focused Goals, Not Outcomes
Lesley Paterson 11:38
And I think that’s when you really have to drill down on your “why” behind the sport. If everything about your why is purely outcome driven, i.e., will I reach this time, will I beat this person, will I win the race, and so on, you know, you’re fighting a losing battle. Because, as you see, you can’t control any of those elements.
So, you know, a huge shift in my attitude towards my racing, personally, was actually process-focused goals, not outcome ones. And as soon as I shifted this whole attitude, everything changed, and there was kind of a beauty in really mastering every little thing that I could, and knowing that, you know, if I could get to race day feeling like I had done that, then it was very liberating to just go out there and let it all go, because I had done everything I could already. And so instead of fear, there was excitement, and yeah, it really has changed my outlook on everything.
Trevor Connor 12:36
Former World Tour Pro turned gravel racer Ted King deals with race anxiety by controlling the aspects of the race and performance that he has control over, all the way down to timing and logistics. Here’s what he had to say.
Ted King: Control the Controllable
Ted King 12:48
An expression that I like to use often is “control the controllable,” and another one is “the suspension of disbelief.” So to the former, you know, control everything you can control. Like, you can be worried about bonking, or you can do everything in your power to control that you have done the right training, that you have the right nutrition setup, so that you likely won’t bonk. Bike handling is something that you always want to be working on. I mean, no one is perfect. Peter Sagan crashes from time to time, despite having, you know, world-class bike-handling skills, so continually working on something like that, even down to, you know, if you’re nervous about getting to the start line in time, well then show up early. Control that sort of controllable.
And then there is the—we’re competing out in the real world, and on roads, and on gravel roads, and in places that you really, obviously there are a lot of things that you cannot control. And so there’s the disbelief that you’re going to take a corner and there’s going to be a rock in the road, or a dog chasing you, or that, you know, you’ll pop a tire at 35 miles an hour in a dangerous place.
So, you know, inherently the sport is dangerous, but accepting those dangers and clearly doing everything in your power you can to control them, I think is something that’s worked out really well for me.
Chris Case 14:11
Is it worth backing up at this point, and talking a little bit more about the broader context here of what athletes get wrong about sports psychology? What psychologists get wrong about athletes? That context.
Trevor Connor 14:24
You did mention that in the book, really wanted to hear this.
What Athletes Get Wrong About Sports Psychology
Lesley Paterson 14:28
Yeah, so certainly from my perspective as an athlete, I think you hire a sports psychologist when you think there’s something wrong, and as a consequence, there’s kind of a certain label against it, a certain stigma of weakness or “I’m not quite good enough, and so therefore I’m going to go and seek out some help.” Right?
But, you know, the converse of that is, “Let’s maximize every ounce of potential that I have.” And the brain is one piece of that. So certainly, from an athlete, that’s how athletes arraign me and how I viewed it in the past.
Simon Marshall 15:06
Yeah, and I think that, you know, it’s funny because I was an athlete first, and then became a sports psychologist. It’s funny because the training that you get as a psychologist, it depends on what discipline in psychology you’re in, but the training you get, it starts first and foremost, it’s sort of academic training, right? Theories on theory, and books and books, and research papers, and then you get sort of let loose on real humans, and you learn pretty quickly. Sometimes you learn that in supervised experiences, sometimes you’re out in the world on, you know, a kind of free range on your own now, and you learn pretty quickly that you get those responses from athletes that they look at you and you can tell that they don’t believe you will buy into it, or they’ve got no intention of doing what you’re asking them.
And then it took really, for me, marrying a professional athlete and truly peeking behind the curtain of all the things and those conversations that you get outside of the consulting environment, right? So outside of the room, when the athlete’s left, you get to hear that, and so it caused quite a fundamental shift in how I approached them, and that’s really where we’ve settled on. So all of the techniques and the work that we’ve done since reflect the combination, the intersection of sort of the applied world of Lesley and the sort of the academic world of me, and then we end up with some tools that really are quite athlete-centered, and they resonate a little bit more than, “Oh my God, I’m going to be told to set goals.” And then, you know, put Endure on and listen and visualize and, “Oh my God, please shoot me if that’s what sport psychology is.” You know?
Trevor Connor 16:47
So what would you say were the biggest things that that shifted in your approach and your mindset about it?
Simon Marshall 16:52
So before I met Lesley, I was doing sport psychology, and it was the techniques that we are trained in, many of them either weren’t very effective—and there’s lots of discussions why they may not be effective—or athletes, we’re not telling you the whole story. And so the ability to be able to glean, what is the whole story? Reading—and it’s not just reading subtext and body language, it’s also knowing what it’s like to have a front row seat in an athlete world, and so you really, to be an athlete yourself helps, right?
So you know, the things that you say, but you really think differently—you might think differently about. And then when meeting Lesley—and if you are not too familiar with the stereotypical Scot, they wear their hearts on their sleeve, they tell you like it is, they don’t suffer fools gladly—and so I was lucky to have a partner as an athlete who also just told me exactly what she thought about her experiences. She’d been to the British system, the British National system, about the psychologists that she’d interacted with some good, some not so good, coaches as well, and then that sort of awakened a few little deep-seated things that I secretly kind of knew or had the hint at, but didn’t really pay attention to.
So if you pick up many books about mental training, or sports psychology, you know, you’ve got the goal-setting part, the visualization, and somehow stress management. And that’s all well and good, but in my practice now for over 20 years, and obviously being married to Lesley, those things that are often prioritized are the least thing or the other, the least sort of prioritized things from an athlete’s perspective, right? Athletes don’t come to you and say, “You know, I need to develop more emotional resilience for a half marathon.” They say, “I need to harden the F up,” or “I just keep quitting and I don’t know why.” You know, they talk to you in normal person’s language. And so you have to try and match what it is they’re saying and why they’re saying it with an approach that is both holistic, because they’re person first athlete second, and then also to, you know, knowing the rules to break the rules.
This is one of our other advantages in coaching and in psychology, is that some of the techniques have to be sort of bent a little bit or just modified or tailored and there might not be a clinical trial, or there might not be a whole body of research evidence to say this version of the technique should work, but it feels right. And then you soon—you know, it’s a very quick evaluation system because it either works or it doesn’t, and ethics will often tell you that.
Lesley Paterson 19:30
And for me personally, as an athlete, what really resonated with me in terms of what I was coming up with and reading and buying into, from a philosophical standpoint, was how the brain actually functions from a neurological perspective. And knowing that as an athlete changed—again, it changed everything. Because I think you really think that your thoughts and your feelings, you either can’t change them, it’s kind of abstract, but as soon as there is some physiology to that … I don’t know it just—light bulbs went on about why I was having thoughts and feelings that I didn’t want, the fight between different parts of your brain, and just having some metaphors to work with.
Similarly, I think me coming from—I actually come from an acting background and an art background. And creating these techniques, whether it’s the alter ego, or other things that I was doing innately that then Simon could put some science to it and say, “Well, this is probably why you’re doing it,” and I’d be like, “Wow, that’s super interesting. Okay. So let’s leave it on with this as well.”
And so, I think it was a combination that led to a lot of the techniques that we came about in the book.
Chris Case 20:44
So let’s take maybe even a bigger step back here from where we just were and talk about the evolution of the brain, where all of this stuff is taking place, this brain that in some ways is in conflict with itself. Simon, do you want to take us into that realm of it?
Evolution of the Brain
Simon Marshall 21:04
Yeah, I mean it’s a juicy topic, and it’s interesting as once you get behind the awkward Latin names of sort of brain anatomy, you actually find, you know, one of the world’s best thriller novels, right?
So it’s really fascinating how our brain has evolved. The metaphor that we use of this chimp and professor and, or just thinking about, you’re having multiple kinds of personalities in your in your brain is not certainly new, it’s been around for many, many years, you might have heard, you know, the lizard brain or the elephant, and the rider and so on, and, and it really stems back to some fairly strong evolutionary biology about, if you think about how humans when we have evolved over millions of years, to cope with our increasingly complex environment, and obviously, before we were human, we were in water, we were water based.
So the environment there was very simple, we used to really have a brain that was a stimulus response organ, you know, I see things I sense things and I react, and there’s really not much sort of emotional processing, and then as we started to come on land and forage for food and, and we had a different set of predators, different parts of our brain developed, but the part that’s really been with us the longest, well, there’s one part that’s been with us even longer than that, called the cerebellum, but the main part that’s been with us the longest as in terms of that more closely resembles and is functional today is called the limbic system, it’s about the size of an avocado, depending on how big your brain is, or head is, but sits right in the center of your head, and the human brain is built like a tree, if you cut it open laterally, and you count the rings, you can hold how old a tree is, it’s the human brain is very similar, the part in the middle is the oldest and the part on the outside is the newest.
The limbic system is really where all of our emotions are formed and created, and emotions are fairly sort of like Fisher Price tools that our human brain has, blunt instruments to nudge us in the ribs, to tell us to take action, and that’s really what the purpose of human emotion is, I think, come on human, you need to do something, move away, or approach are the two kind of basic things. Then it was given a whole bunch of chemical weapons to ensure that we listen to those messages, even though they were kind of crude messages, and so a number of things that happen with the limbic system and one of those, sort of endowed powers it’s been given, to make sure we always listen to it, because its first primary goal, is to keep us alive. That’s a noble goal, and we never want to get rid of that. So and the kind of the powers that it has been given neurochemical powers, to make sure that we listen to it are really to keep us alive, and even some of the things that causes distress or destructive emotion in contemporary life are still at their heart survival mechanisms.
So one example is, okay, we have a fight or flight response, as we all know that if you’re being chased by a woolly mammoth, or a tiger or whatever, a hunter, predator back in the day to run as fast as you can, or fight, that’s obviously the most simple version of it, But there are other now more subtle mechanisms that still relate to survival. So, for example, the human brain really is terrified, and will crap the bed if it thinks it might either be humiliated, embarrassed, or shown to be inadequate, especially in front of other people. And we can all relate to those things, we, you know, the thought of getting up and doing karaoke, or you know, having to do a presentation or something. Those are very modern, but in in ancient times, being ostracized, if you if you weren’t able to be provided a worth to a group or a tribe or a scale, you couldn’t hunt and gather and so on, you were often ostracized, and so you were really probably doomed to have a life, a solitary life, that would end in probably a pretty grim death. And so some of these mechanisms are still in place.
The two main ones that the limbic system still has that it’s five times quicker, it processes sensory information five times quicker than the rest of our brain. So what does that actually mean? Well, we all know of our main senses, right? Our touch, and our sight, and hearing and so on. We’ve got internal senses as well, they called interoceptive senses, like hunger pains, and so on. But those senses are processed by our limbic system at lightning speed, far quicker than you’re able to realize what’s happening.
A good example of this is the startle reflex, if you’ve ever been swimming in something—in the ocean, and something brushes up against your leg, you haven’t had a chance you’ll have this like getaway or your recoil, you have another chance, like, “Oh, there could be something dangerous here, I think that’s what it could be, I better get out of the way,” this is happening in milliseconds.
So, this is an example of this lightning speed, your limbic system has to process, and then sends a whole set of signals chemical, and electrical signals to fear centers, like almost like satellite dishes that sit that scan the skies or environment for incoming threats, and that sets off a cascade of hormonal responses and neurotransmitter responses to get us ready, right? We know heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, you might have butterflies and so on, and there are some physical and psychological sensations as well, like worry and rumination and self-doubt, and so they happen fairly quickly. So, by the time our frontal cortex, our wrinkly smart brain, at the front has had a chance to catch up and think about it rationally, that train has already left the station, right? We’ve got adrenal glands are firing, and so on, we’ve got adrenaline, and noradrenaline firing. And so those are the things that happen very quickly, and then to add sort of insult to injury about this.
The second thing that this limbic system has is in doubt, chemical power, is that the moment there is threat detection centers lit up, it also throws a chemical brick at the part of our brain, the frontal cortex, what we call the professor brain, so that it can rationalize its way out of a life and death situation, about the 13 neurotransmitters are, are released, and they go into our frontal cortex is a gross simplification of the science, of course, but and then sort of not paralyzed, but kind of slow down the processing.
Chimp Brain vs. Professor Brain
Simon Marshall 27:37
So the Jedi skills that we do have, facts and logic, which is the Jedi skills of our professor brain, are rendered largely ineffective, or they’re just not very good. It’s very, and we all know this, if when you’re really nervous or tense, it’s hard to sort of think clearly or to make good decisions under pressure, so you’re the victim of that, that brain physiology. And again, we often get annoyed and angry at this process: “Why can I think this? And why am I so biased? And why do I choke? Or make mess up? Or why I just need to pee and poop five times the morning of a race?”
But all of those mechanisms are designed to keep you alive, so they’re good, and so one of the strategies is a reframing of what that stuff means. And then if we if we now look to the wrinkly part, the frontal cortex in particular, and I will say that the human brain, the reason it’s all wrinkled on the outside, when we look at it, it’s simply because, the if you had it all stretched out like on a tennis court or something it wouldn’t fit in the in the tiny human skulls. We have to smoosh it all together, it’s so big, and the processing power of it is so big, so that that’s why it appears that way.
So our frontal cortex only deals in facts and logic. So unlike our limbic system only deals in emotion, and only deals—is paranoid and thinks that everything is out to hurt us and get us and make us miserable and embarrass, our frontal cortex is only facts and logic, there’s no emotion involved at all. And on the face of it, you think well, wouldn’t it be great to just be able to only have a brain that is only always logical, and, you know, that always kind of considers all the options and makes the right decision. But of course, that also means that you can’t have any emotion at all, you can’t have desire, you can’t feel angry or frustrated or in love, and so we don’t want that, we want these two brains to really coexist together in harmony.
In an ideal world, it would be there’d be a third sort of controller that these, think of it like a court in a jury or a court case, you know that the evidence is presented, your Honor, the chimp brain makes its case, the professor brain makes his case, and then the big all knowing, sort of adjudicator, says “Okay, this is what we’re going to do, human.” But unfortunately, that isn’t the case where these two brains are constantly fighting for supremacy, and sometimes, one wins over the other one we don’t want it to, and other times it wins when we do want it to.
So, our limbic system, for example, when we fall in love for the first time or lust for the first time, we start acting a bit irrationally, and we do crazy stuff, but we want to feel that way. We don’t want to necessarily just always be logical about things matters of the heart and so on. So there are times where we need both to kind of step up to the plate and take charge. The issue, of course, is knowing which one of your brains is in charge at any one moment, because that tells you the sorts of things that you’re likely to be scared of, or nervous or the sorts of decisions that you make.
So, if you’re never sure, what the question that we ask athletes, in fact, this isn’t really an athlete questions, is anybody, that right at this moment, “Do you want to think and feel like this? The way that you’re thinking and feeling now? Do you want to feel like this?” And if the answer’s no, I’d rather feel X when I feel Y in an athlete world, that might be the morning of a race. I want to feel excited about this race, I don’t want to feel as though this sense of dread. And why do I do this to myself? I don’t want to feel like that, right?
So, when you when you say “No, I don’t want to think and feel like this,” you’re you’ve been hijacked by your chimp brain, your limbic system that’s really running the show for you at the moment, and so the challenge, and this is where the stoicism comes in, is how do I wrestle control back to my, my rational thinking brain when it’s appropriate? Or vice versa? I’m overthinking this, and where do I just need to get some, you know, grow a pair and get my chimp out and just go through it?
Chris Case 31:35
Get my chimp out.
Simon Marshall 31:37
That’s right. And so, you know, that becomes the sort of eternal battle, and this isn’t unique to sport. This is of all, you know, all of us have these struggles, whether it’s, you know, asking for a pay raise, or having difficult conversations at work or, or emotional conversations or dealing with issues in relationships, these core elements of chimp brain and Professor brain fighting about what’s right, and what’s the best reaction is the defining feature.
Lesley Paterson 32:05
I think that’s why so many people have reached out to us about our book, and said that hey listen, this isn’t just for sport, you know, I’ve applied it in business and family issues, and, you know, just so many other arenas of life.
Chris Case 32:18
Yeah, and I’m sure that the listeners out there are dying to sort of hear your answers as to how they can manage this chimp brain, or how they can quell the conflict within them and figure out a solution. Bring the adjudicator into the mix, and make better decisions and make better and in the athletic context, make for better performances because of the control that they can bring to these situations.
Simon Marshall 32:48
And not just performances, but just general enjoyment, right? Having, you know, if we’re in a world of, of, we’re doing sport for fun, I will take the Lesley’s and the pros out of it for a moment, if we’re doing it, it’s of our own volition, and it’s recreational, and it serves multiple purposes, and we want that experience to be as enjoyable as possible and not just enjoy, we want to learn some life lessons along the way, as well, and so it’s making the case that managing your head, so that you can cope and don’t shy away from challenge or discomfort or difficult situations, it’s just good life flossing, right? It’s good things to do for your own mental health, so that’s really where we take it from.
Thrifty Gene Hypothesis
Trevor Connor 33:34
So one thing I want to throw in here before we go into some more specifics. And again, I really enjoyed this part of your book, because I love evolutionary biology, and you did dive into that when you’re describing how the brain works. Something you didn’t mention the book, but I’m sure you know all about is the whole thrifty gene hypothesis, this notion that we evolved in a time of caloric scarcity. So, we basically evolved in as many ways as possible to minimize caloric use, because you couldn’t just eat a Big Mac at the time and get an extra 1,000 calories.
When you look at the brain, the limbic system, the chimp brain, is not calorically demanding, the frontal cortex, that Professor brain actually demands a lot of calories, one of the most calorie demanding tissues in our body. So, we evolved, literally, to think as infrequently as possible, basically, for the brain to say, only going to get that Professor brain involved when I really need to, because it requires a lot of calories, most of the time, let’s just let that limbic system do its thing. So, you talk about these being in conflict, but it’s really, almost as I was reading your book, I was picturing the chimp brain as being kind of a bully, that can really take control most of the time.
Simon Marshall 34:57
You’re absolutely right, and that was a really great description, I mean your frontal cortex, your, what we call your professor brain is a glucose monster, right? It uses a far disproportionate amount of energy compared to the rest of our brains and our limbic system. And our chimp brains is where, you know, we often talk about being lazy, but it’s very efficient, right? So, it wants to, it wants the path of least resistance, right? With the least amount of discomfort, the least amount of emotions that make us feel agitated. It wants an easy life, and so of course, anything to try and tell you, “Don’t do this race. Look at you, you’re nervous, you’re terrified. Why bother? You can do this another time, or pick something else, do something you’re good at.”
All of those little blunt messages that we get from our chimp brain, are really trying to tell us to avoid things that kind of potentially put us in danger, and of course, the problem is, is that when our lives are rarely in danger, now, our real lives are rarely in danger. But we don’t know that, because the one interesting feature about coming back to some evolutionary biology here is that our, our environment has outpaced our sort of genes, right?
Social Media and the Chimp Brain
Simon Marshall 36:12
Our ability or our physiology, so we’re in environments that our brain hasn’t evolved nearly quick enough to cope with the environments that we’re now finding ourselves in. And that and the acceleration in how much our environment has changed over the last 100 years, especially in probably in the last 20, in particular, is monumental, and if you just take, we can talk about this down the line, if you wish, but just looking at the role of social media, and what that does to a scared, nervous, paranoid chimp brain, is really we’re woefully unprepared, physiologically and genetically, for those sorts of environments.
Now, 1,000 years-time, or tens of thousands years-time, that may be different, but at the moment, we’re struggling, and the sort of that outpacing of genes and environment really, really reflects that as what causes, that’s probably one of the reasons why we see so many of the big mental health issues of today, like going through the roof, it isn’t just that we’re better at diagnosing is that we are the human brain is struggling, and the human mind is struggling more than it’s probably ever done.
Trevor Connor 37:22
Couldn’t agree more, and actually, so I’ve read this great book called, The Shallows, that that addressed a lot of this and what social media is doing, because if you tried to address the quantity of social media that you get bombarded with using that Professor brain, you’d be exhausted by the end of every day. So social media is almost more tailored towards that limbic system, just quick emphasize why we like more and more social media than short, it’s got a character limit, read it quickly. It’s why people tend to move towards social media that agrees with their worldview, because as long as agrees with them, as you said, then the chimp is happy, and the professor doesn’t have to come in and reconcile all of this. So, it’s, it’s interesting that even though we’re getting very good at processing a ton of information quickly, we’re almost favoring dealing with that with those more basic systems and not troubling the frontal cortex.
Lesley Paterson 38:18
As well, it’s a dopamine hit isn’t, it’s just that that manipulation of dopamine in our system, and as a consequence, it’s incredibly addictive.
Simon Marshall 38:29
Yeah, most of these modern technologies, social media is no exception, they’re really designed to talk to your limbic system but think and trick us into thinking we’re talking to our frontal cortex, right? So just the way that social media I guess is a bit of a catchall here but the way notifications work, and how they tease us with it is interesting information about you behind this little red little pop-up, so we can’t help but look, right?
The human brain is also wired for novelty and, and so and that and unfortunately we’re in a position now, is that our brain chemistry is probably becoming forever altered, these dopaminergic pathways. The pathways in our brain through which these some of these neurotransmitters that control pleasure, and motivation, and happiness, and mood, are all being sort of jacked on a on a daily basis, and we’re paying the price for that, at least the younger generations are paying the price for that, especially them, because they growing up with a world that they don’t know any different. They’re born into the world with a piece of kit that their woefully and unable to cope with it. I’m just glad I didn’t grow up as a child with Facebook, I can’t I’m being a teenager now in a social media world is you know, breaks my heart.
Chris Case 39:46
Let’s go back to something you said in there Simon, which was the anytime you say I don’t want to feel like this, you say you’ve been hijacked by the chimp brain, so Why don’t we discuss that all important fact of managing the chimp brain? Can it be done? And if so, how?
Managing the Chimp Brain, and Figuring Out a Solution
Simon Marshall 40:08
Yeah, I mean, the first thing is to be aware of what a chimp brain talks like, and what your chimp brain, what kind of brown and nuts your chimp brain speak, because many of us aren’t even don’t even think of our own heads. In fact, we’re not even taught that much. How to think about our own thinking, which is what we call metacognition. Think about how you think, it’s a bit of a mind bender, I know. Lesley, maybe she you guys talk about your chimp, and the kind of things it says to you, and how, so you can kind of recognize.
Chris Case 40:45
Just have to jump in, I say I love that the terminology, Lesley, talk about your chimp.
Lesley Paterson 40:53
My chimp is particularly crazy.
Listening and Being Aware of your Chimp Talk
Simon Marshall 40:55
Simon Marshall 40:55
That’s probably why I’m so good, right? No, it’s—you know, I think, again, sort of being an artist, you can kind of dig a little bit more. I’m more prepared, maybe, to let things out that other people might be fearful of talking about or expressing. So, you know, my chimp talk is very much around expectation of others and fulfilling my potential. It’s imposter syndrome, for sure, I’m not really as good as you think I am. Or, you know, “I can’t do this,” or, you know, “Oh, my God, what if they really find out who I am? They’re looking at me, they don’t think I’m as lean as I was last time, maybe they don’t think I’m as good as I really am,” and on and on and on and on.
So yeah, I think getting really familiar with your chimp talk is, is been critical to my performance, because how can you manage what you don’t know. But also getting familiar with it makes it less scary, because you know, it’s going to come up, and so if you know what’s going to come up, you’re familiar with how it talks to you, then you can build your own strategies around it. That’s something that we teach our athletes in fact, we get them to, you know, write out their chimp talk, you know, certainly on some of the platforms, we use, like TrainingPeaks, they have a little chimp box on TrainingPeaks.
Simon Marshall 42:18
So, listening and becoming aware of your chimp talk is sort of an often a difficult thing for athletes, the first part and this is the sort of the stealth psychology piece, is that thinking of your chimp in the third person. So it’s not the real you talking now, but if I had a front row seat, what do you think that little, you know, brat or whatever, we get to even name it, right? What would you think Kevin would be saying to you right now? He’d be saying this and this and so by kind of outsourcing it or thinking about in the third person, it gives people permission to let their guard down a bit. It really becomes the alliance, it’s, okay, me and you being the athlete, or you’re really your professor brain, how can we control this taunting little thing to stop ruining experiences for you?
So, first thing we need to know the kind of crap that it’s throwing at you, right? So, write it down, or say out loud, and so we have a little exercise, it’s actually called a chimp purge, and we say that we want you to give yourself the worst self-talk you could possibly imagine. In psychology, you might think, “Well, this is a ludicrous idea. It’s counterintuitive, we need to get rid of negativity, you know? Look in front of a mirror the self-help books have told us: ‘I’m strong and confident, I know I can, I know I can.'”
That is nonsense. That doesn’t work. Anybody who has tried to do or tell you, it might last about a minute, but it soon wears off. So one of the things we do, we need to listen to this bag of crazy, this little nugget of crazy—an avocado, I should say, of crazy—in our head.
So, you write it down, you say it out loud and what actually you find happens is that the themes in a person’s chimp talk become, because if you say just give yourself a negative self-talk, people don’t just all say the same thing, it’s spoken with a particular theme or brand. So, mine is all about social approval. Lesley’s is about feeling, feeling a bit of an imposter, right? And though all of those things you could trace back to the evolutionary roots, right? About us being ostracized from a troop, or being an outsider, or not being accepted. Some people it’s about body image, and competitiveness, a whole bunch of other things, but trying to get at the core theme of what’s at the heart of some of this talk, because now we know the animal that we’re dealing with.
So, there are some the tactics that work for me, may not work for Lesley or may not work for someone who even for them, everything is a competition. And so, you have to know what particular brand of chimp you have, and the kinds of things they’re saying to you. So we ask people to write it down, or say it.
Trevor Connor 45:02
One of the things I really like is that you just said, and you brought up in the book is, it’s just a failed notion to try to shut down these, these thoughts coming from the chimp brain. That’s why I brought up that metaphor, that stoicism metaphor of the boat being hit by waves, to me, all these thoughts coming from the chimp all these fears and feelings, those are the waves, and you can’t control, you can’t stop them.
Simon Marshall 45:30
That’s exactly right. In fact, the neuroscience now, this is, you know, neuroscience has made such huge leaps in the last sort of even the last five to seven years, both the technology that we can study the brain, as well as sort of what areas of the brain are responsible for, primarily responsible for. And one of the big take-home lessons from some of this research, of course, we should know, because the Buddhists have been telling us this for thousands of years, now we have scientific evidence of it, is that you don’t have as much control over your emotional life as you think you do. In fact, you have very little control over it. I can put a thought in your head right now, by saying something and you are almost powerless to not start thinking about it. This is the silly adage of, okay, don’t think of pink elephants or, or you know, don’t think of green dildos, which is our example in athletes, and it gets a chuckle, but you can’t—the moment someone has said something, you start thinking about it.
So, we don’t have as much control, and we’ve learned that, because we’ve studied about how sensations, perceptions, thoughts and feelings, are interwoven and then how they filter into behaviors. And so when you start off with, “It’s okay, and it’s not your fault,” it gives us a little bit of permission to say, “Okay, but how do we now start to rein this little thing in and start to shape it so that it starts to work for me instead of against me?”
And that’s quite an important lesson, because many people think that, “I can’t be successful,” or “I can’t be fully happy until I’ve managed or conquered this. Surely, you know, the Flora Duffys of the world, or the Jan Frodenos of this world don’t think negatively, they are all super confident.” That’s just nonsense. We’re all given, born with the same kit, the same soup, right? The same neurological soup, and so it’s how we use those to our advantage, has become important.
So, we often give, I give the metaphor, this metaphor is borrowed from a strong psychotherapeutic conditional therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy act. The metaphor is, imagine you’re standing on a hillside looking down at a battle raging beneath you. Think sort of a medieval Braveheart-type battle, big swords, broadswords, big shields, blood and gore. And you’re watching them, on one side is the side of you, the good ones, you know? The people, the kind of life that you want to live, the kind of thoughts you want, the life you want. On the other side always live your demons. This is your kind of the chimp, the negativity, the bias.
And we’ve been sold a turd really, particularly by the self-help world is that to be happy, we have to win the fight, the good side has to beat the bad side, and finally, I can get on and be peaceful and calm about life. Unfortunately, we now know that that’s a battle that is not winnable. In fact, don’t even waste your time trying to win it, you won’t, we’ve never met anyone who has been able to win it, and certainly the psychological neuroscience tells us it’s probably un-winnable.
But what is winnable? Instead, is to say what we’re going to do is teach you not to get a necessarily a sharper sword or a bigger shield so that one side can win, we’re going to teach you to turn away from the battle. Don’t worry, it’ll still be there when you get back. In fact, you can still hear it raging behind you, but we’re going to learn some turning away from the battle skills, we’re going to give you an hour break from the fight, and that hour might turn into a day turns into weeks, months, and hopefully eventually a mindset, so that you can know when to just tune it out.
This really is the heart of this big paradigm shift in psychotherapy as well, moving from a control model and some of the cognitive behavior therapy work is a control model, and moving to an acceptance model. And so, we often talk about jump—the learning to jump hand in hand with your fear. I’m on the morning of a race, and oh my god, I’m trying all this stuff to try and feel better. But guess what? You’re probably just genetics and a whole bunch of other things, how you grew up, and parented, and taught, you’re probably going to feel some element of this for the rest of your life. I hate to break it to you. But what we can do is that you say, “Come on fear, we’re going to go in anyway. I hear you, I know you have my best interests at heart, but we’re going to do this anyway.”
You jump in, and guess what happens? You find out usually, not usually almost all the time, is that the worst fears never come true, it wasn’t as bad as you thought, but you have to jump, right? Just trust that there’s going to be a big crash matt at the bottom of the cliff. But most of us don’t do that, we stay in our comfort zones and never get to the point where we’re jumping hand in hand with our fears.
Chris Case 50:29
To go back a little bit, Trevor, I know you once wrote an article for VeloNews magazine, and I believe the title might have been “The Pink Elephant.”
Fear Is a Good Thing
Trevor Connor 50:39
That was literally the title, that is one of my favorite sport psychology ideas, when you are talking about the battle, and then talking about this is a war trying to stop these things, it’s just a war, you’re never going to win, and you just have to accept the fear, I’ll actually take it a step further, I’ve had an opportunity to talk with somebody who had been in wars and talked to him about that. He said, the worst person to have in your unit is somebody who’s fearless, because a), there’s something wrong with them, b) they make really bad choices that can get them killed and get you killed, and there was much more of this recognition of no, we’re not trying to eliminate the fear, but we need to act in spite of the fear, but the fear is a good thing.
Lesley Paterson 51:24
Yeah, it definitely gives you a different sort of quality of emotion and energy and awareness of what’s going on when you have that kind of fear. And, and I just don’t think that you can learn and grow without that fear, because it forces you to look deeper inside of yourself to listen to, to your chimp, and so on and really understand how you operate as a person. And it’s through that awareness that you build the skills and the fortitude to be even better and stronger and more resilient the next time.
Simon Marshall 52:01
What was interesting is some of the research, certainly in neuroscience and physiology, is that there’s an area in our chimp brain, in our limbic system called the amygdala, alarming shape structures in our brain that these are the sort of the satellite dishes that we talked about, the fear centers that these perceptions and our senses are feeding into, and that’s setting off this cascade of emotion. Some people are born with very under sensitive or insensitive, unsensitized amygdala, right?
So, it’s like, if you can imagine, you know, the base jumpers and free climbers or the people who are kind of sensation seekers, they have an amygdala that is not triggered their threshold for activating this fight or flight response is a lot higher. We now know, actually, there’s some evidence to so why that is, and some of it is related to what happens in utero, what happens to your mother when she’s pregnant with you? There are some other genetic influences, as well as obviously if you have a history of trauma or drug abuse or so on, but you’re kind of your amygdala, once you’re sort of now you get to adulthood is not you can train it a little bit to be less sensitive or more or more sensitive, but it’s kind of is what it is, right? So, the people who are those throwing themselves headfirst, regardless of the fear, you’re absolutely right, their sort of amygdala is almost like fighting against this survival mechanism, because eventually you might make a mistake that might put them into jeopardy, it might put them in jeopardy or get their life at risk.
On the other extreme, you’ve got people with very, very sensitive amygdala so a little unlike this sensation seekers their amygdala is like in a full neoprene wetsuit, though, the other the sensitized set very sensitive amygdala folks, like you know, in a speedo, like a little puff of wind, and they’re like startled or shocked or nervous. In fact, that’s partly what posttraumatic stress is, it’s an amygdala hypersensitivity syndrome. So, we were all have experiences, and we all have what we have, but it’s knowing when your amygdala and this cascade of sort of hormonal and neurotransmitter reactions as a consequence of is sort of making your life a bit miserable or sort of not daring enough or too daring, and then what you can do about it.
Trevor Connor 54:28
Sports psychologist, Julie Emmerman defined some common unwanted thoughts that athletes can have and then she explains how to reframe those fears. Here’s Julie.
Julie Emmerman: Common Unwanted Thoughts
Julie Emmerman 54:36
The first thing that I would do is probably look for other signs that this person might be starting to experience some anxiety related to their upcoming event, because if they’re facing, anytime we’re facing a stressor, you know, typically we’re going to just kind of peruse in our minds, what are the various outcomes that are possible here. And we all want the positive outcomes, and the outcomes that we’re aiming for, but of course, it’s only natural to think about the “what ifs.” That’s where the unwanted thoughts usually come in.
So, I would understand that it’s typically a sign of anxiety, and I would first try to just normalize that, as I just described. I mean, it’s a normal experience. But then also try to remind this person that when they made the commitment to this event, however many months ago, they accepted at that point in time that they were going to be certain unknowns, and the part of this whole process, the part of like, it’s a commitment and acceptance of the whole process, and so you can’t commit to this challenge, knowing that it’s going to be something that’s testing you without also accepting that not only are you going to have to do the physical training and the preparation, but there’s going to be some mental challenges along the way, and interacting with your own inner dialogue is one of those challenges. So whenever that person accepted that they’re going to do this event, they’ve also accepted that they’re going to kind of battle these demons, if you will.
And then the next thing I would do is go through the various ways that this person is experiencing these threats. So, we could experience unwanted thoughts in the form of, you know, “To what extent am I really at risk here? Am I physically at risk?” In a self-preservation way, “Is my life in danger? What kind of risks am I exposing myself to?” The thoughts around, like, “What if I die? What about this?” You know, things like that, “What if I fall off the cliff?” Or are the unwanted thoughts things more on the emotional side? Such as, “Well, what if I fail? What if I don’t achieve what I had hoped to, you know, set out for in this event?” Are they more of a mechanical or tactical nature? “We know what happens if I’m at level 100, and I break a chain, I don’t know how to fix my chain? What happens if I can’t keep the pace of these other people? What if? What if? What if?” These are typically, you know, characteristic of unwanted thoughts.
Lastly, there’s the physical realm: “What if my stomach—” for example, “—can’t handle the demands of, you know, ingesting all this race food over the next four or five hours?” For example, “What if I get cramps? What if I, you know, just simply can’t endure this?” And so, I would address the unwanted thoughts by trying to categorize them, and look at where is the source of what are the sources of the biggest stressors? Where are they coming from?
How to Reframe Unwanted Thoughts
Julie Emmerman 57:34
From there, I would help this person look at the factual information that they have around them. What events have they done similarly? What factual information do they know about themselves? For example, have they fixed the chain in the past? Have they been in situations where they’ve had to be self-sufficient? Have they overcome other situations where they’ve dealt with cramps or stomach issues? Have they put themselves in other situations where they feel somewhat fearful, you know, for their physical safety? How have those outcomes then what did they learn from them? So really trying to use factual information, and the past as a reference for kind of riding the ship, you know, there’s, it’s okay to have these unwanted thoughts, as long as you can also look factually around you to self-correct them, kind of ride the ship.
Then, I think lastly, I would point to well, you know, we kind of need to make friends with the unwanted thoughts, I don’t really think that the focus should be on blocking them, but more accepting them as this is part of the challenge I’ve accepted, and this is part of what’s involved in what I’m doing. So if you’re befriending, I know that sounds kind of I don’t know how it sounds, but if you’re befriending these thoughts, then you can make room for them, which also can allow some space where you can think, “Okay, so those are there, but I don’t really need to focus on them. What do I want to focus on in order to give myself the best opportunity to succeed in this event? So rather than focusing on what I don’t want, what can I do to focus on what I do want?”
From there, the conversation would lead to really what are some things you need to do in order to give yourself the best chance to succeed?
Chris Case 59:32
Tis’ the season for spring knee. As warm weather inspires us to ramp up our riding mileage, our knees don’t always keep up. If you’ve got knee pain, we have the solution for you. Check out our new knee health pathway, featuring our new director of Sports Medicine, Dr. Andy Pruitt.
Dr. Andy Pruitt 59:50
Hello, I’m Dr. Andy Pruitt, sports medicine consultant. I’m pleased to announce the Fast Talk Labs Knee Health Pathway. Our pathways guide you step-by-step through training science, sports medicine, nutrition, physiology, data analysis, techniques and much more. Each Pathway has a goal. This Knee Health Pathway will help you learn about the knee anatomy, pain symptoms, prevent injury through strength training, and learn key exercises to support long-term knee health.
The knee is often considered to be the victim caught between the hip and the foot, your individual biomechanics and movement patterns along with your bike fit, influence how the knee responds to the forces being generated at that joint. This Pathway will bring you further understanding of why that is, and ways to protect the knee. This Pathway contains articles, videos and other content from many of our experts, including me, Trevor Connor, Menachem Brodie, and Jess Elliot, just to name a few.
Chris Case 1:00:50
Find our new Knee Health Pathway at fasttalklabs.com.
How to Navigate Negative Feelings on Race Day
Trevor Connor 1:00:58
What do you do? So you’ve arrived at a race or a key event, and that chimp brain has completely hijacked you, and all those negative feelings, Why am I here? I can’t handle this? They are just dominating your thoughts to the point that you’re ready to not step up onto that start line, what are things that you can do?
Simon Marshall 1:01:24
Yeah, so there’s quite a few actually. So, the toolbox, we have a little toolbox of things that you can do. And the first thing to recognize is this might seem I’m not directly answering your question, but this is important, sort of background information is that our brain and our mind are sort of what we call emergent properties of our physiology, right? So, we don’t make a distinction, neuroscientist don’t either, different between sort of, not just brain and body, but mind and body. So, what you think and how you feel is a property of your physiology, right? So, we know this, right?
Controlling the Level of Autonomic Arousal
Simon Marshall 1:01:58
So, you’re in a tense situation, or your heart’s racing, you’re going to feel a certain set of emotions over others, compared to when you’re relaxed and calm, and so on. So, sort of the ground zero for this is controlling the level of autonomic nervous, autonomic arousal.
So, this part of our nervous system that’s largely automatic, it’s not completely automatic, but that govern these fight or flight responses, that govern these agitation responses that are fed into our limbic system and our amygdala.
So, if we can calm the physiology, it gives us a fighting chance of using some of these other strategies more than conventional, think about it this way, not that way. So, we start often with strategies to calm the autonomic nervous system, right? So, we focus on breath work, we focus on relaxation techniques, or meditation like techniques, we often don’t use the word meditation with athletes, because their eyes are all in the back of their head. But we often use passive attention training or something like that.
Physiologic Sigh Breath
Simon Marshall 1:03:02
So controlling your physiology, so we use some breathwork, and one of the ones in particular that’s really excellent, is called a physiologic sigh breath, and it’s a very awkward way of hacking into our, probably not the hack isn’t the right word, it’s using so they’re a little weird function of our, our physiology that Mother Nature has endowed with us to calm us down, and it’s there already, and it’s called a physiologic sigh, because when you sigh, you know, when something big is over with, or you got through something, when you do that you actually set it sets off a little series of about 200 neurons get activated on the top of our brainstem, that sends messages to among other things, “Okay, things are over, we can calm down now.”
Those neurons have a direct connection with our diaphragm, which is the muscle obviously, at the base of your thoracic cavity that often is a big factor in your breathing, so we can control our breath. So, if you can manage your breath, you can send the pathways back up to the brainstem to trick it into thinking, “I’m calm,” which then tells the chimp brain and the amygdala, “Okay, we’ve got this.”
And so, the physiologic sigh breath, and there’s now some great studies coming out of Stanford, and the Schumann Lab is one doing these, is when you have two—it sounds complicated to explain, but it’s very easy to do—two stacked nasal inhales, so basically, you’re breathing from your nose, one on top of the other. So, you’re going, [inhales sharply, exhales slowly].
If you can hear that, and then I’m holding that breath for around the same time as it took to do the breathing in and then I’m exhaling through my mouth for double the length of the inhale, so you can’t see this because we’re not on video, but in audio, this is what it sounds like if you can if you can picture me breathing.
Simon Marshall 1:05:07
And that simple breath even once, sets off, or I should say calms, our threat detection centers down immediately, you feel better immediately. And if you do it two or three times, there seems to be a bit of a law of diminishing returns, more than three times it doesn’t have a much stronger effect. If you do that, so this is a great tip, we should be teaching this in elementary school, for any time that you’re about to walk into a situation where you’re worried that your emotions are going to get the better of you, or you just need to be the best version of yourself, right? In that moment, and I’ve only got a minute to go, what do I do? That’s the best technique that you can actually use, it just calms your autonomic nervous system down, adrenalin drops, and a few other like cortisol drops, and so on.
And so it really gives us a fighting chance, we talk about this parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous, the gas pedal and the brake pedal of our agitation system in our brain, and so it really is a way to take your foot off the gas, foot on the brake pedal to calm down. And then if you do nothing else, you’ll feel better. And so that’s one technique that you can do, we can all do that right on the pontoon, or the beach, or the start line, or just before you’re about to go on stage.
Forcing Yourself to Warmup
Lesley Paterson 1:06:19
Yeah, probably one of my most favorite ones that actually calms me down is forcing myself to get out and go on my warm-up, because when I’m very nervous, and I arrive at a race, you know, sort of, I might feel tired or overwhelmed, I don’t want to talk to anyone. You know, generally, I’ll try and control my eyes and my ears, where we get so much sensory input. I’ll be listening to music, I’ll have sunglasses on, or have a hoody up, just so I don’t, I’m not overwhelmed by all of that. But I really forced myself out in a warm-up. And the reason that’s important is to do with a mechanism that occurs when we move through space, and so I can kind of talk to the science of this, but I find it fascinating, and I use it not just before races, but ideally, you know, everyday basis almost.
Simon Marshall 1:07:06
Right. We feel better, we feel more calm when we exercise. This is not news, right? We’ve known this, but we’ve never really known exactly why. And we still don’t actually know exactly why, but one of the newer theories is about connects to your eyes, and how your eyes move, and your eyes are—actually your eyes a part of brain, right? There’s a layer on the back of your eyes, called a neural retina, it’s the width of a credit card, about three cell layers thick, that is indistinguishable from brain tissue, right? Your eyes are pushed out of your skull in the first trimester, so it’s really a part of your brain that sits outside of your skull, and it originally was designed to detect light, and light and dark cycles, and all of the physiology behind that. But one of the things that it does, is obviously detecting and looking for potential threats.
And so what happens is that when you move, your eyes detect that you’re moving through time and space, so you’re—we call it self-generated optic flow. Again, an awkward phrase of saying, when you move through time and space, your gaze or your vision shifts from portrait to landscape view. So, when we’re alert or where we’re feeling agitated, we get—we all know that sort of narrowing of attentional feel—we get a narrow focus, we’re concentrating and alert for good reason, you know? But when we get nervous, that narrows even more, and so one of the things to broaden that Mother Nature has given us is that you tend to focus on literally like a portrait on your phone, is that your attention is very, very narrow.
So when you walk outside, and you’re moving through time and space, if I was to put an eye tracker on you, a little device that helps you know what you’re looking at, you’re not even aware of this, your eyes start to move left to right. They’re scanning the horizon. And again, so things are coming, and we’re going to step out into the road and so on. But when your eyes start to move left or right, it sends a message to this neural epithelial layer of cells to the fear centers to calm down, and so one, obviously, what do we do when we often get stressed? We look at our phones. We try and distract. We’re not helping matters, because it’s encouraging us to what we call phobias, that narrowing of attention.
So we need to broaden our attentional filter; being outside is a great way of doing this. Being on a treadmill or on a Peloton bike and staring at a screen isn’t the solution here, might help for other reasons why exercise helps calm us down, but walking, even just walking out and staring and glaring at the horizon is going to help you. So, that breath technique and walking and scanning the horizon are really helpful. In fact, that technique of eye movement is now an evidence-based therapy for PTSD, right? Because it’s called EMDR, eye movement desensitization reprocessing. It’s a great—one of the new therapies to help people deal with trauma. And that mechanism is exactly the same, so we can all do that quite easily and quickly. So, there’s just two techniques.
No Instruction Manual on How to Use Your Brain
Chris Case 1:10:15
The difficult thing, I think, is that you’ve got this very, very, very powerful tool inside your head, but there’s no instruction manual on how to best use it. You’re asking that tool to also be the device you use to try and manage it, and people don’t have the understanding, the expertise, the knowledge, the experience, to sometimes take advantage of all that they have, at their, at their, you know, they have control over it, they just don’t realize it. It’s great to hear these two examples, and so many more that are in the book about how people can, it is a bit of an instruction manual on how to take advantage of some of these, the power that you have at your fingertips that you’re somewhat unaware of.
Simon Marshall 1:11:04
The paradox is that we’re trying to use the problem to fix the problem, right? So, this is why those metacognition strategies, thinking about how you think, learning about how the brain works, and thinking in the third person. That part of my brain is going to try that, I’m going to run interference on it by doing this or by doing that. And that’s really behind the chimp purge as well, right?
So when you give yourself a negative self-talk, or you just let your chimp run wild, you don’t interrupt it with your professor brain, and by that, I mean, I know it’s silly to think this, but that’s all rationalizing the professor brain. Pure chimp is, “You don’t deserve a coach. Look at your fat. You don’t even deserve to be out here, everyone’s a real athlete, you’re not a real athlete.”
That’s the nonsense, right? The chimp talk. So, when you let that run to exhaustion or when it runs dry—so in other words, I’ve now said these things until I’ve now started to say the same things over and over again, or I can’t think of anything else my chimp is throwing at me—and when you do that, and it’s important that you do that to exhaustion, versus just 30 seconds, because you’ve just given yourself the world’s worst self-talk, and you’ll just feel worse when you do it to exhaustion, and for most people, it’s three to 15 minutes. I know that’s a weird range, but that’s generally how we have experienced it. What you find is that it runs out of things to say, you haven’t interrupted it, and guess what? The threat hasn’t materialized. So blood flow to the limbic system drops, cortisol drops, serotonin and dopamine go up, and you feel better, you feel unburdened a little bit.
So when you arrive at a race site, for example, what we have athletes do before you get out the car, you just go through your little chimp purge, and so you don’t look as though you’ve got a dissociative personality disorder, you do it in private, right? We’ve got some funny stories of Tour de France riders on the tour bus, and it’s just like a zoo. But when you do this in private, preferably, you can do under your breath, you feel better, I guarantee you feel lighter.
Lesley Paterson 1:13:09
It’s almost like when you cry your way out the other side, right? When you’ve had an argument with your partner or a friend, and you know, something’s happened dramatically, and you’re crying and crying and crying, and you’re so exhausted by the end of it, there’s almost like an elation, you know, because everything’s been quiet and down in that limbic system. So, it’s the same phenomenon.
Simon Marshall 1:13:29
It’s exactly the same mechanism. Were just speeding up and using it proactively.
Chris Case 1:13:35
So, Lesley, I know you wanted to address the sort of the faking it concept here. What is that all about?
The Concept of Faking It
Lesley Paterson 1:13:42
Yeah, so it’s kind of interesting, right? As I’ve mentioned before, I come from this acting background. But one thing that I really struggled with, certainly as a junior, was that I just didn’t, you know, feel like I belonged. I had a low self-confidence, there was a lot of traits about the way that I did things that I felt I didn’t encompass. And so yeah, you can go through years of psychotherapy, but, you know, at some point, I was like, “Well, why don’t I just start faking it?”
And I think coming from Scotland, where everything is about being very humble, and putting people down, to then California where everyone talks about how amazing they are all the time, you know, it was like this weird intersection. So, I was like, “Wow, I wonder if I start actually talking about sort of what I’ve done in the past, and I wonder if I actually start calling myself a professional athlete?”
And it kind of started from there, and assuming that identity, and then I built and built in it and I was like, “Well, what are all these athletes that I look out there and I sort of envy about the way they are?” I was like, “Oh, their posture, their stance, you know, their ability to just keep going no matter what, and not really care what people think.” And then I was like, “Well, wow, why don’t I create my own character that I race under?”
I started to chat to Simon more about it, and obviously, there’s some great science behind that too, there’s loads of other top performances too. In fact, Beyonce does it. And so my alter ego, I’ve always been a huge kind of MMA fighting fan, and I watch a lot of, you know, MMA fights and films about it. And I was like, “Wow, I just—there’s something about Conor McGregor specifically, that I just totally dig. He just doesn’t give a crap what anyone thinks about him.”
So, I started to look at a bunch of his videos, I started to mirror how he stood and how he swaggered, and, you know, I started to practice it in sessions, and, you know, around different people. And, you know, even if it was just like a simple thing, like the clench of a fist, or what I wore, or any one of these things, almost like putting a costume on before you go out and perform, and all of a sudden, it just, I started to build and build and build into this, and I was truly faking it till I made it.
Simon Marshall 1:16:00
But I don’t really want to be married to Conor McGregor, if I’m honest.
Chris Case 1:16:03
That’d be weird.
Simon Marshall 1:16:07
Yeah, and what’s really interesting is you’ll see no evidence of this in sports psychology, there’s no mention of this really. There is a tradition in psychology in one of the therapies that uses alter egos, or thinking of yourself in the third person, as a therapeutic tool, and, and again, neuroscience has helped us understand this, the model of psychologists has always been thinking trickles down to feeling, trickles down to action, cognition affect behavior is a trickle-down model. That’s why most psychology starts with changing the way that you think, because it will then impact how you feel and behave.
But we now know neuroscience, you can reverse engineer this, if you act a certain way, you’ll start to feel differently. And when I say feel, I don’t mean touchy feely way, I mean, your brain chemistry will change, and there have been some studies on things like the Superman pose and standing, you know, shoulder width apart, chin up, chest out, and your testosterone, cortisol, all these other things changed within minutes. And that’s going to change how you think, and there’s a whole area of psychology now called embodied cognition that really kind of digs into some of this. It’s so powerful, in fact, an entire industry is built around, it is called professional acting, right? When you’re really grossed in a film, in a movie, you believe that they are the person. Faking it till you make it is now an evidence-based statement, and I mean, not as a professional athlete, when I got my first faculty position—and I’m fairly introverted by nature—and I had to stand in front of 500 undergraduates on an academic stadium, I felt like, terrified. “Oh, my God, I can’t do this.”
And I just said, “Okay, who are the great orators and who the great teachers were, how do they walk across the stage?” I went in as a character; that wasn’t the real me. And you know what? You come out thinking, “Oh, my God, it works.”
Ultimately, you start to believe it, and guess what catches up? The beliefs, the thinking, and the feeling starts to catch up, and you can build confidence this way too. And so again, rich traditional psychology athletes are starting to do it and, and there’s nothing worse than finding, seeing an athlete come to you, and I’ve had many of these and they’re already sort of a broken spirit, and they’re—all they think of is that, “Oh, god, it’s gonna take me a full-frontal lobotomy, right? I need a personality transplant or I’m not that kind of person. How am I ever going to be?” Well, why don’t you just make it up, pretend?
And so, we go through an exercise, and it might sound really silly and juvenile, but we ask them to invent, just as you would do, a backstory. One example of this is one of the gals I have worked with, and this is not breaching confidentiality, because she’s spoken about this in the past. Amy Dixon, a Paralympic triathlete, and hers is Gino, an old—I think he was an old boss in a pizza shop—an old short Italian man. He was just, he didn’t care. And so she writes on a wrist in fact, a little Gino, and it reminds her to get into that character.
So it can be a real person that you know, it can be an athlete that you look up to. In fact, Lesley, I think is alter egos for some of our athletes. It can be a cartoon character, anything, but get to know them and then start to take on some of these traits. You don’t have to, like, talk in a silly voice or anything, but you can try to embody it and it absolutely work. Your mind comes around to the behaviors, and so it’s a really powerful technique that we love.
Chris Case 1:19:39
And I think you see a lot of amateur and recreational athletes do this without even knowing that they’re doing it or putting a name to it, by the way that they dress the way that they carry themselves. They just try to embody one of their role models in this, and usually I would think it’s someone in the sport, whether it’s Eddie Merckx or a current professional and they tried to embody that athlete.
Simon Marshall 1:20:04
Exactly. And even the athletes even the Conor McGregor’s, that’s what you see is not the real Conor McGregor, of course, right? It’s not like he does the swagger when he’s at home with his wife, and so on. So, when you speak to athletes, you’re right. And they won’t think of it in those terms, but you say, “Do you, do you feel a bit different of how you think of yourself when you race?” They’re finding that process organically, but you can, you know, do it, engineer it, be a bit more proactive about it and learn it.
Trevor Connor 1:20:36
So the place I’ve seen this in the research, and this shows you how powerful it is, is in cult brainwashing. One of the most powerful tools they have, is they don’t sit there and try to convince you, they just make you repeat their beliefs. They make you live the lifestyle, and eventually your brain just can’t handle the psychological dissonance, and says, “Well, I keep saying I believe this, so I must believe it.”
Lesley Paterson 1:20:59
Simon Marshall 1:21:00
That’s right. The reason is, is that there’s a little confounder in that, slight tangent about what we call suggestibility. So there’s a notion that for some people, they’re more prone to taking on these sorts of beliefs, they’re more malleable to take on the beliefs of others. But the alter ego in sport is you kind of know and you always know that that’s not the real you, okay, you might feel a bit more confident, and you build up to it, but you kind of have these two personas, versus there’s a much more than a merging of those in for folks who kind of end up following a belief system that was not theirs, or very antithetical to theirs to begin with.
Chris Case 1:21:38
Did we want to close out now with, you know, we’ve got so much that we could talk about, there is a books worth of research, there’s a body of literature as well, that we could talk about, that’s fascinating just to speak to and could inform our listeners, but we do have to close out at some point, we like to close out with one minute take homes. Trevor, what’s your take home message today?
Trevor Connor Takeaway Message
Trevor Connor 1:22:05
First of all, I’m gonna say part of the reason why you’re struggling to finish there is we’ve got this list of over a dozen things in this toolbox of how to effectively work with the biology of your brain, and we only covered about three of them. So, there’s a lot more, and there’s some really great ideas here. But you know, as I kind of implied from the beginning, what I really love about your approach is you’re starting with the biology of the brain, and saying here is the way the brain works, and then working, then figuring out how to work with that biology and getting away from this self-help—I hate to use that word, but I’ll use that word—approach of, if you just try and believe hard enough, then everything’s gonna be great, and you’ll never have fear and never have self-doubt again. That’s part of the way we’re wired, you’re always going to have that, learn to work with it. That’s what I really liked about your approach.
Chris Case Takeaway Message
Chris Case 1:23:00
Going back to my notion that there is a toolbox available to you, if only you knew how to tap into it. Things like your book, and there are many other resources out there that will help you utilize what you already have, sometimes they’re obvious, why didn’t I think of that myself? Sometimes they’re not obvious at all, sometimes they’re tricks, but yeah, you can really tap into a very powerful tool that most of us probably don’t utilize, much of its capabilities that all the time.
The second point I’d make, you’ll often hear people say, you know, maybe it’s a windy day, and I don’t want to go out for a ride today, and another person will come along and just say, you have to embrace this. I think that’s a very simplistic way of saying what we’ve talked about in depth a little bit here today, which is to don’t beat your head against the wall, don’t go up against this foe that you can’t defeat, but wrap your arms around it, accept it for what it is, and then use it. Maybe if you’re you know, getting somewhat new agey, use its energy for your own benefit and take that with you, as a as another tool to use psychology to your benefit. Simon and Lesley, let’s give you each a minute to summarize all the things we’ve spoken about here today.
Simon Marshall Takeaway Message
Simon Marshall 1:24:37
Yeah, where to put me on the spot there. Yeah, so my take home would be, how you think and feel, warts and all, you’re not alone. You have a human brain, everyone else feels the same way they just have convinced you, or you can’t see it, right? So, you’re not alone. Don’t try and win the fight, learn to manage it and turn away from the battle. So, and that really starts with controlling your physiology, and once you’re able to get your autonomic nervous system in check, all the other strategies and all the other techniques have a much better chance of working.
Lesley Paterson Takeaway Message
Lesley Paterson 1:25:14
And for me, I would say it is being aware of how your brain works, digging into the weeds of some of that, and that awareness will help you have the strategies to cope moving forward.
Simon Marshall 1:25:29
Yeah, in fact, it’s so not new agey, because they were almost, if you could paraphrase from ancient Greece, the words of Marcus Aurelius, one of the great stoics, warriors of the time, and we’ve known him through Gladiator and some of these other big movies. Exactly. It’s managing what you have and getting them to point in a direction that you want to go, you can learn some of these skills.
Most critically, when it comes to some of the stuff, the hardship, or the adversity, is you have to earn them, you can’t just, you know, educate yourself about them, read about them, and expect to be this magically transformed athlete, you have to get out there in the weeds and earn them. So, the role of suffering and discomfort are lessons, and they’re important lessons, and it speaks to how we become less fragile, as athletes physically and emotionally, how we become more robust. The keys are often, particularly endurance sport, are in getting stuck in warts and all, and enduring and, and persisting and having some skills to be able to do that, that’s where you get the breakthroughs.
Chris Case 1:26:35
Well, thank you, Simon and Lesley, it’s been a pleasure. I hope we can get you back on the show, again, to talk about more of this stuff. I know you’ve got another fledgling career, or maybe it’s beyond that at this point, but always a pleasure. Thank you.
Simon Marshall 1:26:49
Thanks for having us. It’s been fun.
Chris Case 1:26:53
That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcasts and be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual, as always, we love your feedback. Join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com, to discuss each and every episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalklabs.com/join and become a part of our education and coaching community. For Dr. Simon Marshall, Lesley Paterson, Julie Emmerman, Ted King, and Trevor Connor, I’m Chris Case. Thanks for listening.