Top talent has a tenuous grip on top performance.

Graham Obree’s 2012 autobiography The Flying Scotsman is a painful read (1). It’s more a book about depression and dealing with it than a book about cycling. Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink is equally painful(2).. Obree fights bipolar disorder and in between times trains to the point of black out. McGrath drinks for 24 hours then turns in a man of the match performance for Aston Villa.

Obree broke the world hour record twice and did so using a bike he’d fashioned himself and rode in a flat out racing position.  McGrath had a sixteen year playing career with most of those years fuelled on alcohol. Top talent often has a tenuous grip on top performance.

His condition meant that like it or not, and he didn’t, Obree compartmentalised his life in cycling and his life other than cycling.  McGrath was unable to prevent his alcoholism seeping in to every area of his life. Early experiences had played their part in shaping their attitudes to sport. Obree was bullied viciously at school. Cycling literally offered an escape. McGrath grew up in Dublin, the only black kid in a succession of orphanages. Football was something which gave him friends and allowed him to shine.

Psychologists sell themselves short

The stories of elite performers like Graham Obree and .Paul McGrath and many, many others come to mind whenever coaches talk about the mental side of elite sporting performance.  I’m left pondering whether sports psychologists sell themselves short.

Every other aspect of elite performance – whether in individual or team sport – seems subject to detailed and specific analysis and is evidence –based.  In football for example we are familiar with periodization in training; use of heart rate monitors; GPS; urine sampling; post performance video analysis; position-specific coaching. At Liverpool they had their own research team employed to do practical research linked to then manager Brendan Rogers’ match strategies.  We cover the technical, tactical, physical and social sides to performance in some detail, individualising guidance as we go. Psychological guidance, on the other hand, seems to lapse into tired old clichés .

At some point in their career all footballers will have endured team sessions on mental rehearsal, visualisation, self-talk, affirming targets, relaxation techniques, energising techniques and variations on the theme of mental toughness. For a few it might work, for most it passes by.

Addressing the fundamentals

I think it will only ever make a real difference if it’s done over time, on a one to one basis and with the fundamental issues which determine the limits of performance for each player.

I was asked to work with a professional tennis player. He approached me. I’ll call him Mike. Mike is small for a tennis player. He’s very agile, has fantastic speed to the ball and plays with high energy. His technical, tactical and physical attributes combined great confidence with have taken him through the junior ranks. Now he’s hit the senior game where he’s discovered self-doubt.

The first time we met we went for a walk away from the courts and did several circuits of the nearby football pitches. He talked freely. He had begun to experience sudden and catastrophic losses of confidence late in matches. It hit him on ‘big’ points where he described  both the physical characteristics – a weakness in his arms, getting to shots late, snatching – and the behaviours which followed: impatience, feeling rushed and, crucially – a sense that everyone is watching him.  He also told that he feels helpless as his the opponent ‘looks bigger.’

So if you were his performance coach what would your advice be? At this stage some might say to change the self-talk, visualise your opponent being smaller, slow things down and rehearse pre-planned mental drills to take control of the moment. Assert yourself. Get back on top. All could be successful and some may have worked for Mike. However are these fixes addressing the more fundamental issue? Are they robust enough to see Mike through subsequent setbacks? Probably not.

A method of shifting self-doubt

For a psychological intervention to work I think something of significance has to change. Tinkering won’t shift the behaviour. So here’s what we did.

  • We met outdoors away from desks and chairs and doors
  • We walked and talked; he showed me how he moved and it helped him speak
  • We agreed to share the processes we used together so that he could understand how emotions shaped decisions
  • We talked about Blue head versus Red head and how to recognise the difference between being rational or being rash, knowing when you’re relaxed and when you’re rushed. (6) This was so we could both be clear about what being in a good winning state for Mike was like.
  • I asked him to write down what it was he wanted to achieve in tennis, how he proposed to do so and what he had given up and was willing to continue to give up in order to achieve. I asked him to bring it with him next time we met. Going ‘public’ with aspirations helps.
  • We then talked about his tennis journey and more particularly about what he had sacrificed already to be where he already was. He needs to landmark his journey and make recognisable sacrifices for it.
  • I wanted him to feel there was always something solid to fall back on so he agreed to up his gym work and the intensity of his court sessions by 10% There has to be enough – and more – deposited in the effort This was a change. When he was in the final points of a rally late in a match he knows he’s banked the effort needed.
  • I asked him to be more competitive in training and for his coach to exert pressure on him (3)
  • When he came back he would tell me exactly what he had done to get the10%. He was building an evidence bank in his head.
  • He needs to benchmark to the next level so we’d ask – who are your role models and what are they doing? What standards do you set in all you do? How do they compare with the others?
  • He needed to own the strategy going forward – so then eventually, and after all this extra work he had banked and was continuing to bank, we addressed the presenting problem of choking on some big points late in games
  • We re-framed choking into a temporary phenomenon experienced by all elite athletes and something to be learned from. By doing so we were making it (4)
  • It had taken us five meetings to get to the presenting problem so we then shared a quick and immediate solution that he could use without him becoming too self-conscious or needing unnecessary mental resources: I asked him to shrink his opponent and practise doing so beforehand
  • The mental technique was indeed to visualise his opponent being smaller, being clumsy and hitting more slowly. That was it!
  • I felt Mike needed to leave me feeling good about who he is and what he does. I really hoped he’d never need to shrink his opponent because so much else had been invested in building his belief so that the need no longer arose.


I worked with Mike on six occasions over a year ago. I haven’t seen him since.


As I write, new manager Tim Sherwood is talking of bringing in a psychologist, or ‘anyone else who might help’, to motivate his Aston Villa squad. I hope he can find the right solution. If his dressing room is a reflection on the sorts of unique personalities who typically make up the elite sporting squad then there may well be an Obree or a McGrath or a Mike sitting in there just waiting forte right sort of he[p.


  1. Obree, 2012, The Flying Scotsman
  2. McGrath, 2006, Back from the Brink
  3. Moss-Kantner, 2004, Confidence
  4. Beilock, 2010, Choke: the Secret to Performing under Pressure
  5. Ankerson, 2013, The Gold Mine Effect
  6. Peters, 2011, The Chimp Paradox
  7. Wilson and Branch, 2006, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies
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