The winter Olympics is upon us with all the glamour, glitter, expectation of success, and the painful failures that occur under its banner. People fight their own bodies and minds for that one moment when they can lay down the performance of their lives. Some achieve that moment and others fall at the last hurdle. Some know they are at their personal peak just by getting there and some rise to the occasion returning to their homelands as sporting superstars. I love it and lap it up in a way that is just as strong as when I was young myself. Being from a sporting background I appreciate the levels of commitment that go into daring to reach for the stars in terms of performance.
Behind every athlete is an extraordinary level of commitment, support, and guidance. Nobody achieves Olympic success alone anymore. Almost every country in the world wants to be represented and within those countries hundreds of athletes vie to become the ones chosen to participate for their country for years prior to each games. Finding the talent in the first place takes a high level of commitment, both in terms of coaches and finances and once found the young talent has to be guided, nurtured, and allowed to blossom within the limits of their bodies and minds in order to move towards that day when stand on the olympic stage.
The commitment of every individual is extraordinary as is that of every person in the jigsaw that makes up the sport that they are part of. In any other aspect of life these athletes would be possibly labelled as obsessive compulsive, but this is sport, and that is what it takes in order to get to be an Olympian, let alone a medalist. Athletes balance their lives around their desire to succeed. Every aspect of their lives is analysed helping the individual to find a point finely balanced between working as hard as they are able, resting enough, and avoiding injuries that can, and often do, ruin a career before it reaches fruition. Normal social lives are abandoned in order to train. Many openly admit that the thought that somebody might be training harder than them is a great motivator. In short, and as my physiologist lecturer used to say, “they are freaks.” Freaks of nature in their god-given physiology and freaks in terms of what they are prepared to give up in order to attain this moment in their lives.
Some say the motivation is money, but I disagree. When you commit to an Olympic dream at a young age you need much more than the promise of possible high earnings at some future point in order to train through the wind and rain, the cold and ice, the restricted diet, skewed social life, and the inevitable injuries that come with the territory. There is an obvious need for money in order to be able to train and without this athletes dreams can be stubbed out before the spark can really take effect but its the inner desire to fight as hard as you can for something you may or may not achieve that really interests me.
There are many who argue that it isn’t right to push our young children so hard. Theirs is a good point and one that most athletic bodies take extremely seriously in order to avoid the problems that it could bring for those who appear have what it takes. Today these organisations work hard to ensure that their future Olympians aren’t overwhelmed with pressure from media demands and expectations, that they have balance in their lives outside of performing, and that they are able to develop their academic side along with their athletic intentions.
In short, everything possible is done in order to promote health, development, and success. We have all heard of GB cycling and Team Sky’s use of marginal gains to find precious and often minute advantage over the opposition. No stone is left unturned in the search for ever higher performance. If it makes a difference, no matter how small, it’s a given that it will be done. Adding all these things up can lead to an advantage being gained and that is the whole aim of the game.
I was lucky enough to go to university where my lecturers included Olympians, GB coaches, and physiologists, as well as leading lights in the world of sport psychology. The course I undertook was intense to say the least and during my time their I learned a great deal about how to approach any challenge in life from a completely new perspective. At that time sport science was seen as a kind of snobby level of coaching. It was perceived as being not very real as it concentrated as much on academic knowledge as actual coaching of specific sport. What we didn’t know then was just how big a part it would play in the future development of all our athletes futures.
In that first year we each learned many new skills and a huge amount of knowledge was gained through the activities we were thrown into allied to the academic studies we undertook. At the end of the first year we were told that we had to produce a sports science plan for developing the GB Ice skating team (not the real one). This was a deliberate curved ball as Ice Skating was, at that time, dominated by ex-skaters who had great technical and artistic knowledge but no sport science background. As a group we had to create a professional document outlining the methods and practise of every aspect of ice skating, something none of us knew anything about, and how it could benefit by employing sports scientists alongside the professional skaters. We then had to present it in order to sell the idea to the Skating team (our lecturers in disguise)
This was 1988 and here we were already identifying marginal gains in our first year at university. By the third year of my course I was in my fourth year at the university. This had been caused by another collapse in my mental health that had seen me needing a year out in order to recover enough to continue. Doctors were baffled by my illness, labelling me as a sufferer of M.E (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). My lecturers encouraged me to use the sports science skills I had learned in order to manage my health better.
I stumbled and fell many times during that period, metaphorically speaking, but the lecturers were always there to support and listen. Part of the reason for the collapse was that for the duration of the course we were never in our comfort zones. For somebody whose anxiety levels were always in the red zone it proved a difficult path to be on. Every week we were stretched this way and that way in order to help us gain as much as we could from our time there. What I recognise now is that the staff had the skill to make the boundaries flexible enough to keep me within them and not to run away in fear. It was extremely stressful but I could remain in the course learning all the time. As the years passed it became evident that my chosen path had given me all the skills I needed to face anything that life could throw at me. What I didn’t know was that life was planning to throw something massive.
After my total collapse eight years ago I was left feeling as though my world had been hit by a meteorite. All around (as I wrote in my first book) lay the debris of a shattered life. Nothing solid, just fragments that it seemed impossible to glue back together to make it right. Asked to visualise my world and express it in words I spoke of a huge crater with me in the bottom and this apocalyptic landscape all around. As time passed I build a castle from the debris and stood on the battlements looking down on the crater. This was the safe place in my mind that I create to survive. There was no grass in sight for over four years. On the battlements my therapist stood beside me, the only person in the world I trusted and this became the place of retreat where I could view my new and painful world with some security. I was using the visualisation techniques I learned at college to make a better place to be.
As time passed by there were the shoots of recovery, as there are in any natural disaster. Grass began to grow a little and I saw myself as being on the edge of the crater and no longer in it. From the beginning I used my knowledge to guide me along. I knew that a daily walk was somehow worthwhile even though it didn’t seem that way as I often scurried home in panic and tears having broken down while out. I knew I needed to eat and take care of myself, even though this often felt immeasurably difficult to achieve and still does at times. I clung on desperately to the things I could do, moving house to gain more social contact and undergoing two operations to help mend my damaged knee cartilage. I asked to see the psychiatrist in order to gain the correct medication on two separate occasions and allowed myself to sleep in the daytime in order to gain some rest from the constant onslaught taking place in my mind at nighttime.
subconsciously I was using those skills that had been so hard to win at university. My final year dissertation had looked at using the time-management strategy of goal-setting in order to manage long-term illness and self-perception. Now I would turn these skills to good use in order to plan, organise, and execute my ride around the UK coastline.
After starting to cycle I began to look at every aspect of my life and in doing so have found some big gains from a myriad of small changes. Perhaps the biggest single change has been the way I see myself, much more able to say “no, I can’t do that today” than ever previously. Sometimes when I do that I find I can do whatever it was that was perplexing me later on in the day, or at least make a start on it. In that way I can achieve something that makes me smile on a regular basis and helps me to feel life is worthwhile once more.
Without the plethora of skills and knowledge that I gained from university I’m not so sure where I would be right now. Would I have coped with this illness in the way I have? I doubt it and give thanks daily for being in the right place at the right time to gain entry to that course. It started with a hand written letter to the head of the sports department and was followed by walking into the building without an invite in order to meet the people I needed to so I could stake a claim on a place. That moment took every bit of willpower I could muster as I didn’t believe I was good enough to study at that level. Nobody was more surprised than I was when I gained a place, one of 26 from 1600 applicants. Walking through the door on day one took everything I could muster. I had no expectation of success and no confidence in my own ability.
Next time you watch sporting excellence remember that it has a place in all our lives, not just for those who reach for the sky. The skills they are learning are as valuable to everyday life as they are to sporting performance. Some of these methods are finding their way into mainstream health education and policy but there is so much more that could be addressed by helping others to learn some of these basic skills like those of relaxation, good diet, time management, relevant exercise regimes, and perception of self through observable patterns. The NHS Expert Patient Programme is a starting point for this, a course where people can learn how to manage their own lives better and take some control back in the face of long-term and debilitating illness.
Sports science can be seen in the same way as many people saw our efforts to send people to the moon, an expensive project with little gain for the masses, but this just isn’t true. Our world has changed beyond recognition due to the efforts of NASA. In its own context sport science may appear limited and of little use outside of the performance arena but in reality it provides a huge number of skills that are entirely appropriate to life in the mainstream. It’s my opinion that the knowledge I gained from my experience at university provided me with the means to survive my breakdown. These are skills that each and every one of us could benefit from in our daily lives and that they should form the basis for all our physical education programmes in schools rather than the heavy emphasis on participation that governs current practise.
To my knowledge these types of skill are still only taught to those who are committed to sport. There is no place to learn them prior to beginning GCSE courses, the like of which that only attract the athletic. This happens despite the great range of work now available to support athletes. Sport has always been seen as the realms of those who are sporty. The notion of a classroom based Physical Education programme prior to GCSE would perhaps be laughed at, even in conjunction with normal physical education lessons. I believe that providing people with these skills would give most them more resilience to poor mental health, something most will experience at some point of their lives. At a time when we need to reduce funding in the NHS, and most other areas, we still don’t see the true value of physical education and what it could offer us in the longer-term.