The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion
Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson Velopress
This book has an unusual dedication: “To all the confident, motivated, well-balanced and happy athletes...this book isn’t for you.” Delivered with cheeky humour and sarcasm, authors Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson outline legitimate scientific research and hands-on advice to help avoid mental speed bumps that compromise athletic goals.
The explanations of neuroscience and psychology are probably unlike any you’ve read before and, yes, the f-word is used generously. Describing the roles of different brain areas, it becomes clear that there is a power struggle going on between emotion and logic. This conflict can create destructive thoughts that limit your performance even when your body is well-prepared.
“Your Professor brain deals with facts, truth, and logic. Your Chimp brain deals with feelings, impression, and emotions, based on instincts and drives,” writes Marshall. Taking orders from both is the “Computer brain,” which runs its programs and makes decisions based on past experiences.
The Professor is the only part that can actually think and it helps with lots of practical things. The Chimp, however, is an emotional bully that makes its needs more urgent by pushing aside or tricking the Professor with powerful neurotransmitters.
“Why else would you plow through a half-pound bag of Red Vines after 8 p.m., have orange skinny jeans in your closet, or buy yet another training kit that costs more than some families spend on groceries in a month?”
The Computer brain runs the fastest, drawing on painful, fearful or embarrassing memories so quickly that emotional reactions happen before you’re even consciously aware of them. Using preprogrammed thoughts and actions saves time during the 35,000 decisions you make every day, but anything associated with strong emotions gets special treatment and this puts logic in the back seat.
Having more emotion than logic is a problem and yet it is difficult to break these thought patterns. To help you, the book has practical suggestions and assignments for 12 common mental dilemmas that athletes face. It comes down to recognizing which brain is in charge at the moment “and then doing some brain wrangling to get the right brain for the job back in control.”
The 12 dilemmas include “I don’t handle pressure well,” “Setting goals is not your problem” and “I don’t think I can.” There is also “I need to harden the f*ck up” and “Other athletes seem tougher, happier, and more badass than me.”
The last one is “I keep screwing up,” which comes down to a lack of concentration on the things that matter. Good focus combined with selectively reviewing input gives you the attention to decide what is relevant to your performance. Without these skills, important things are missed or messed up. Attention can have a narrow or broad dimension, it can be internal or external and it can be thrown off by stress and anxiety. There are exercises to identify predominant attention channels, their pros and cons, along with how to take control over the struggle between different parts of your brain to improve attention.
As the book says, “Part of sports psychology is identifying the Chimp needs that must be met so you can train and race with a happy Chimp.” There might be outbursts to manage but remember the Chimp needs your permission to lead you astray. “Getting your Professor brain back in charge is akin to getting a drunk CEO out from under the desk, sobered up, and back to running the company.”—helen