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'Matthew Pinsent remembers being on the mini-bus for an Olympic final and praying it would crash'

Olympic medallist Annie Vernon chats about her new book ‘Mind Games’.

THE MENTAL SIDE of sport is one of the most crucial and oft-overlooked aspects of competing at an elite level.

Former rower Annie Vernon, who won gold medals at the 2007 and 2010 World Championships, in addition to a silver at the Beijing Olympics, looks in detail at the psychological aspects of sport in her new book ‘Mind Games’.

Vernon chats to a number of athletes and sports personalities about the various mental challenges that competing at a high level presents, in addition to recounting some of her own experiences with these issues.

Vernon retired from rowing in 2012 and now works as a sports journalist and corporate speaker, and The42 recently caught up with her for a chat about ‘Mind Games’.

What inspired you to write the book?

It was really after I finished rowing and started working in various different organisations alongside lots of other athletes. I chatted to these other athletes and we were fascinated with each other’s experiences.

Getting to know people from other sports, it made me realise there was this massive diversity of how people did their sport. Not only because every sport is completely different. The way people approached their sport really was so individual, but equally, there was so much common ground.

Rowing — it’s endurance, it’s in a squad and a team, lots of low intensity training, completely different to a golfer or tennis player. Although there were some things we did that were completely different, there were so many things we did that were almost identical. It was that diversity of experience that made me think: ‘The general public understand that physically, we all do things differently.’ As a rower, I can’t train in the same way as a swimmer or tennis player. What I don’t think the general public understood is that mentally, we also did things in a hundred different ways to somebody who is a boxer where it’s that one-off combat sport where you’re fighting and being punched in the face and the mental skills required of you are two different sports completely different.

Once I got to know people from different sports and different backgrounds and peel back the lid and understand how they did things, it really made me think — let’s see if I can take it one step further and get under the skin here.

Would every athlete benefit from using a sports psychologist, or do you think some people are just immune to it?

All sports psychology does is that it wraps a strategy around what’s going on and it helps you understand what’s going on. For some people to have that real empathetic feeling for themselves and other people, they perhaps don’t need as much someone to give them a steer on their mental skills.

I certainly needed someone to give me a steer on my mental skills and help me to develop them and understand them. I would say it’s no different to physical skills. Some people are very self-reliant. Let’s say a golfer — some golfers or tennis players can go quite a long time without having coaches, whereas other people always need somebody else to bounce ideas off.

I would say that understanding the mental side of sport is absolutely critical. Is it any more critical than it used to be? I don’t think so. But it’s spoken about more now. In the same way that sports science didn’t exist 30 years ago, it enables athletes to quantify, understand and make progress on what’s going on in the mental side whereas previously, that was just left to chance.

Olympics - London 2012 Olympics - Team GB Kitting Out  - Rowing -Loughborough University Annie Vernan is a former rower who represented Britain at two Olympic Games. Source: Mike Egerton

How crucial is the influence of parents on athletes?

It’s so critical. They’re the two most important people in your life if you have one or two parents or however many there are, they are the most important people. I’m 36 and I still rely on my parents for all kinds of things. I’m sure they wish I didn’t.

That was another motivation for writing the book. I’d like to think every top athlete has had a mum and a dad behind them, pushing them along the way, driving them around the country [and can facilitate] a wealthy background because they can afford all the equipment. That’s just not true.

For a lot of young athletes, their parents don’t support them in their sport. They can be quite opposed to it and they have to work hard to convince them do they want to go on and compete.

In the book, I talk about an 800m runner, Marilyn Okoro. Her mum was really opposed to doing sport. She was at boarding school. She would train really hard in term time and outside term time, her mum wouldn’t let her run. She’d come back to school and her coach would say: ‘How come you always come back from school really unfit?’ She didn’t feel like she could say: ‘It’s because my mum won’t let me run.’ Eventually her coach and her mum had it out with each other.

This idea that there’s one pathway that every elite athlete travels down in order to represent their country [is false]. People explained to me their journey to get to the Olympic Games, or the World Cup, and there are a hundred ways of doing it.

To be a successful elite athlete, do you need to be slightly obsessive, or can you also be a really well-rounded individual?

With some exceptions, no. You expect elite athletes to be abnormal physically — the things they can do, the way they look. So mentally, why would you expect them to be normal? And they are abnormal because they trained that side of their personality.

I’m not saying people are born obsessive and are desperate to spend 12 hours a day at the golf course. They are that way because they train that side of themselves. But if you’re asking your mind to do abnormal things, you’re not going to be a normal balanced personality.

There is a dark side to being obsessive and driven and you do need to rein that in, because it can lead to self-destructiveness. If you ask what is the key ability to any high-achieving person in sport, it is the ability to turn it on and off, to recognise when you are driving yourself too hard and heading towards that self-destruction.

Athletics - 2013 IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day Seven - Luzhniki Stadium British athlete Marilyn Okoro's mother disapproved of her desire to be an elite athlete. Source: Adam Davy

On a somewhat related topic, do you think elite athletes are more prone than the average person to suffering mental health problems given the high pressure they’re under?

I think it’s the case with any very driven person in any profession. They will have that tendency to self-destruct if they don’t learn how to look after themselves.

One of the advantages of being an elite athlete and the mental skills that you train and develop is that you are incredibly self-aware. As an athlete, you develop the ability to recognise things in yourself. With the general public, that self-awareness isn’t as trained and as honed, and they don’t recognise as much.

From my own experience, I went to two Olympic Games. The first Olympic Games, afterwards, I really struggled with that period. Win, lose or draw, there’s that sense of: ‘Oh my God, I’ve spent all these years aiming for these Olympics and now they’re over. What the hell will I focus on now? I’ve had this one guiding star in my life. How do I live?’

So when I came round to my second Games, I thought: ‘I do not want to feel like that again.’ I prepared myself in lots of different ways with a lot of other things in my life, so when it came to it in that post-Olympics period, actually I was fine. That is something I was able to do, because I’d spent eight years learning how to train my emotional reaction to things.

So in some senses, athletes are under an enormous amount of pressure and in not many other professions do you have those one-off days of intensity, a World Cup final or Olympic final, where it is all on that day. You don’t have those chronic moments of stress and expectation, but at the same time, you train yourself to deal with it, so you can in a sense learn how to train yourself out of it.

In some sports, you get the crowd as well. If you’re used to thousands of people screaming your name at Old Trafford every Saturday, the comedown after that’s all over is going to be intense. In a sense, you can never quite prepare yourself for that.

It’s also tied up with whatever you’ve won or lost. If the event is over and you’ve got a nice shiny gold thing to show for it, you’re going to feel different than if you didn’t and you came last and you had to withdraw through injury.

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You also touch on the idea of some elite athletes not even liking their sport. It’s something they’ll rarely admit publicly. How common do you think it is?

I think it’s really common. One of my friends joking says: ‘High-achieving people confuse misery and pleasure.’ I think there is some truth in that. The success becomes a real driver and the sport is so intense and demands so much from you that you have that love-hate relationship with it.

Is it a bit like being in an abusive relationship? Probably. I think most athletes will have tangled feelings about their sport. I don’t think I can say: ‘I loved rowing,’ or ‘I hated rowing.’ At times, I loved it. At times, I resented it for being this vehicle that demanded so much from me. But I loved the feeling of rowing and the feeling of being in a really fast crew, but that’s quite a small part of the overall picture.

A key skill as an athlete is being able to maintain that freshness and that love and that passion when there’s so much riding on it.

Rugby Union - RBS 6 Nations Championship 2010 - England v Wales - Twickenham Johnny Wilkinson has learned to reflect on his career with a greater sense of pride. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It’s also often overlooked how boring it is to be an elite athlete most of the time when you’re not competing. How do you overcome this challenge?

One of my coaches says: ‘Being an elite athlete is like being a security guard. It’s 95% boredom, 5% excitement.’ I’m going to backtrack and say it’s not boredom, it’s boring, but it’s not boring because you make it not boring.

From the outside, if someone said to you you’re going to row thousands of times a day every single day for eight years for hours at a time, I’m going to think, there are better ways to spend the next eight years of my life. But something you train yourself to do is the ability to find excitement and progress in every training session.

There are times when you get out of bed and the rain smashes against the window, you’re not racing for months and months, and you think: ‘I’m not in the mood for it today.’ But there’s always another thought that comes into your head straight after: ‘Yeah, but today, you’re going to find out if you can achieve this or try to improve this.’ A key skill is accepting on the outside, it’s boring, but on the inside, you make it exciting.

I’ve got a one-year-old and looking after a baby is, in some senses, really boring. But you enjoy it, because you make it exciting, and every day is great fun. Even though, if someone said to me: ‘Oh, you’re just going spend the whole day reading Peppa Piga, I’d think ‘that sounds horrendous’. But I look forward to the next stage of him developing and changing, so I think it’s similar.

Another big challenge is retirement and the struggle many athletes have dealing with it. Why do you think that is and how did you find it yourself?

At the time, it really matters to you how you go out. I often hear from athletes: ‘I want to go out with a bang. I want to go out on a second world record at the Olympics.’ When I hear this, I shake my head and think it doesn’t matter.

At the time, that final chapter feels like the most important thing. But actually, from the second it’s all over, the circumstances in which it finishes are irrelevant. Johnny Wilkinson, the England fly-half at the 2003 World Cup, once said: ‘The older I get, the more proud I feel of my achievements and the more I love them. I look back and I enjoy what I achieved.’ I think he’s right and I feel the same way.

My career finished with a fifth place at the Olympic Games, which was a huge disappointment. I just wanted to get out of rowing and think about something else. But as time goes on, I do look back more and more, and feel incredible pride and excitement at what I did.

That word ‘retirement’ is quite final and is sometimes probably not the right word to use for athletes, because it’s not retirement, it’s just moving on to something else. But of course, nothing you do will ever be the same again.

Even if you go into the most demanding job in the world, something you love, with your best friends, you’re never again going to experience the physical, mental or emotional tests that you do in elite sport.

When you retire, you’re body shape changes, as well as how much you eat, drink and sleep. In a sport like rowing, you spend all day in a squad of 20 other people of your age, background and experience. You’ll never have that one massive goal in your life that you’re working towards and which will define your whole life. So of course, you’re never going to replace that. And at the time, it really matters how you retire. But as the years roll on, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how you reconcile yourself with what happened and how you look back.

Rowing - Athens Olympic Games 2004 - Great Britain Training Former rower Matthew Pinsent is one of the many athletes who has struggled with pre-event nerves. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

In the book, you also deal with pre-event nerves. How rare are athletes who really thrive under the pressure and what enables them to adopt that mentality?

Everyone’s different. Everyone has their own way of dealing with that pressure of that one-off moment. Matthew Pinsent [who won four consecutive Olympic gold medals in rowing for Britain] was really interesting on that. He remembers being on the mini-bus for one of his Olympic finals praying it would crash. He just wanted any way out of that race. You look at it from outside and think ‘this is a guy oozing confidence, he is super assured and super successful’. Whereas in that moment, he wanted to be anywhere else but there.

For some people, it is thriving on that pressure and expectation, but I think they are a rarer breed. I think people like to see themselves a bit as the underdog to take the pressure off their shoulders, which is what you sometimes hear coaches speaking about in press conferences. ‘There’s no pressure on us, the pressure is on the opposition.’

But if you’re one of those athletes that really loves the pressure, you’re probably going to be one of those athletes that goes on to be incredibly successful. I’m thinking of Katherine Grainger, a five-time Olympic medallist in rowing, who said: ‘I absolutely loved it. I wanted to have that pressure and tag of being the favourite, because I knew that’s what got the most out of me.’

Another interesting area you delve into is the difference between athletes and coaches. Do you think the qualities that make someone a successful elite athlete can almost be a hindrance towards them becoming a great coach?

This is the theory that good athletes make bad coaches and vice versa. The best coaches out there are often the ones that weren’t quite good enough and didn’t make it.

I can’t think of a top coach who was also a top athlete. The skill set is so different. Having that intuitive feel for a sport, the ability to go out and relish every occasion under any circumstances — as a coach, that’s not what you need.

You’re dealing with a team or individual who is probably completely different to you. You have to be able to explain to them this is how it is from the ground up and this is how you invent the wheel. If you have a natural feel for your sport, it would make you an extremely high-quality athlete, but probably a low-quality coach, because how do you go about working with people who aren’t like you?

I think the best coaches have something you can’t really put your finger on. I spoke to a boxing coach about Rob McCracken, the performance director of British boxing and the coach of Anthony Joshua. He said: ‘I can write down everything Rob says when he’s in the ring with one of his boxers. I can say exactly what he’s said and it won’t have the same effect. The reason is that he’s Rob McCracken and I’m not.’

So you cannot put your finger on what separates the great coaches and I was lucky in my career to know Jürgen Gröbler, the most successful Olympic coach of all time. He’s won a medal at every Olympics since 1972 [with the exception of 1984], so he knows what he’s talking about. Could I tell you he is so successful because of x? No. There’s just that little sprinkle of stardust that some coaches are able to get out of their athletes and others can’t, which is why sport is so exciting — sometimes you can’t put your finger on why it’s working.

‘Mind Games – Determination, Doubt and Lucky Socks: An Insider’s Guide to the Psychology of Elite Athletes’ by Annie Vernon is published by Bloomsbury Sport. More info here.

Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Andy Dunne to get stuck into last weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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