THE ATHLETE CHRISHOY THE LESSON CONTROL YOURE MOTIONS
React logically, rather than emotionally, to perform to your potential
Maybe the best example of learned resilience was Chris Hoy’s first ever gold, in the kilo at Athens 2004. The kilo is four solo laps of the 250m Olympic velodrome, against the clock. The riders are ranked and they ride in reverse order, the lowest-ranked riding first, the highest last. In theory, the times should improve throughout the competition, which means that the tension rises for the last of the riders, the favourites, as they endure the wait to perform, watching their rivals to see exactly how fast they need to be. As the pressure on the later riders builds, the drama can be excruciating.
To understand what happened in Athens you need to go back to the world track championships in Stuttgart in 2003. Hoy was the defending world champion, the favourite, the last to ride. With Hoy watching, Stefan Nimke of Germany posted a sea-level world record. In a rational frame of mind, Hoy would have concluded the following: this is a fast track and it is warm in the velodrome; that is why Nimke went so fast. Instead, under the pressure of the moment, Hoy decided the best response was to change the gameplan he’d worked on for weeks and months. Instead, he attacked hard from the start of the race to, in his words, “blow it to pieces”. He started fast but couldn’t sustain it and failed to get a medal.
Hoy had a year to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again at the Olympics. That’s when he started working with Steve Peters, the team psychiatrist. Peters wanted Hoy to learn to control the part of his brain that flooded his mind with emotional thoughts. Emotions are irrational. Peters trained Hoy to switch off that part of the brain and, instead, to engage the part that deals in logic. “In a nutshell,” Peters explained, “you’ve got to switch from using one part of your brain to another. You learn the skill of controlling that. That’s what Chris did.”
On 20th August 2004, two hours before the Olympic final, Peters went through a last mental dress rehearsal with Hoy. And Hoy would need it. The final could not have presented him with a greater test of his new skills and mental discipline. The final came down to a familiar group of five riders. Hoy would go last. He described himself as “a kitten trying to act like a lion”.
First of the five was Australia’s Shane Kelly – who went into first place by posting an Olympic record. Next was Nimke, who bettered Kelly’s time. Theo Bos, the Dutchman, then failed to beat Nimke’s time. The last rider before Hoy was France’s Arnaud Tournant, who had messed up in a similar way to Hoy at Sydney 2000 and was looking to set straight what he had done – and he did go faster than Nimke. So that was three world records in succession. Three rides to play with Hoy’s mind.
This time, Hoy stuck to the plan. He thought: it’s a fast track, we have perfect warm conditions and I have trained for a world record too.
He had trained himself to be resilient. So he did get his world record. He did win his gold.