Why We Self-Sabotage (And What to Do Instead) [transcript]

Written by Christopher Kelly

Feb. 8, 2018


Christopher:    Hello and welcome to the Nourish Balance Thrive podcast. My name is Christopher Kelly and today I'm joined once again by Dr. Simon Marshall. Hi, Simon.

Simon:    Hey, Chris, always a pleasure.

Christopher:    Thank you, thank you, I appreciate that.

Simon:    As you know, it's not always a pleasure, mostly it's a pleasure.

Christopher:    All right, we'll cut that out. Last time we spoke, Simon, I didn't properly introduce you, so I thought that this time, I would do the right thing and read your bio because it's quite impressive and quite funny also.

    Dr. Simon Marshall trains the brains of endurance athletes and fitness enthusiasts to become happier and more mentally tough. He is a former professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and professor of Exercise Science in San Diego State University where he was the Director of the Graduate Program in Sport and Exercise Psychology. He has published over 100 scientific articles on the psychology of exercise and has been cited in the scientific literature over 10,000 times. That's pretty amazing to be cited. There's so much work that gets published now that never gets cited even once, so that is quite incredible.

    I'll go on. He served as an invited expert on Exercise Science for the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Cancer Society. He is currently the performance psychologist for the BMC Racing Team and Elite World Tour professional cycling team. As the husband-sherpa of professional triathlete Lesley Paterson, he is the founding member of Team SHIT, Supportive Husbands in Training, and competes in triathlon or cycling events as the husband of Lesley Paterson.

    That's very impressive, Simon, congratulations.

Simon:    Yeah, well if you've been in academia, we could talk ad nauseum about the problems with scientific citations and that stuff, but where the rubber hits the road for me is certainly competing, coming across the line and not being told, "Simon Marshall is finishing," but, "the husband of Lesley Paterson is finishing." So I had my identity removed when I actually try and do this stuff myself.

Christopher:    It's your fault for marrying such an amazing woman.

Simon:    I have to tell stories occasionally.

Christopher:    Oh, yeah, absolutely, you must tell stories because that's the only way we remember things.

Simon:    All right, so I was in a local spin triathlon a few years ago. Lesley wasn't racing. She said, "When you get on the run, I'll get on my bike and I'll just pedal near you and just give you some technique cues and motivation," whatever, whatever, so, okay. So I'm on the run and I'm suitably fatigued, not exactly enjoying myself, but it was a good day. Anyway, I pass this runner and the runner pass me and he said, "Hey, do you know you've got Lesley Paterson following you on the bike? Did you know that?" I'm like, for God's sake, can you tell her to piss off? "But that's Lesley Paterson. Why is she following you?" I didn't tell him that she's my other half and she was just having a good moan at me. I get this frequently. It's just I'm suddenly rendered inert.

Christopher:    I'm sorry and quite pleased and amused at the same time.

Simon:    Actually, to be in Team SHIT, which is quite a growing organization now, we've got like 15 members, you have to have your partner, in this case, not only heterosexual partners. We just inducted our first lesbian husband into our group. For the most part, your wife has to be faster than you, objectively, not subjectively, and then you have to spend much of your time sherpaing. There's quite a lot of us in this little club, so it's quite a fun club. So, Team SHIT, we get our shit together.

Christopher:    Is Lesley really faster than you on the bikes, objectively? I'm actually quite surprised by that. If you were to go on a flat time trial, would she beat you?

Simon:    I love your doubt, Chris. Well, on a flat, short -- I'm narrowing down the ways I can beat her, but I can probably out-muscle -- when it's pure muscle and pure power, I can, but most riding is not like that. Those parts of the road do come up. The parts that led to that have been tortuous for me that I'm no longer around to be able to use that skill so, yeah, she's faster than me.

Christopher:    Okay. I bet she climbs like a monkey. I can only imagine how she goes on a trial.

Simon:    She does, she does. Her fat to weight ratio is quite phenomenal, and I love it. There are lots of guys who really don't like getting chicked, past life. I never understood that, not just from the obvious hilarity because the ego is so fragile, but partly because you're getting passed by someone who undoubtedly spends more time training, is fitter, more talented than you so fucking get used to it, love it. Enjoy the fact that you're having a chance to watch someone be better, faster than you. I love it.

Christopher:     You and Lesley are authors of The Brave Athlete which I've been very much enjoying the audible version of. You made the decision, very wisely I think to narrate the book for yourselves. Can you tell us a little bit about that process? Is it as fun as I'm having listening to it?

Simon:    Well it's interesting because generally, publishers, they caution against authors narrating their own work. We didn't know this of course. We just know we wanted to, and well you really need voice talent and there's a whole host of reasons why, from the obvious to that you're so connected to the material to the fact that you may not have a voice that's meant to be aired, as well as dysfunctions of the structure of your mouth that creates noise and so on. We decided to do it and we recorded one alternate chapters. It was really fun actually, went quite quick. It was nice to read the stuff that you've written.


    You realize that when you write a book, you never intend it to be spoken out loud because you're reading in your own head, especially the art of reading a book is quite awkward in the sense that, oh, my God, it's overwritten, all these weird compound sentences and run-on. When you actually read it in your head, it's fine but when you start to say it out loud, it does feel a bit weird occasionally but, yeah, we're glad we did it. When we first heard the first couple of chapters and we waited with abated breath to see what it sound like.

    Lesley was quite animated and had a lot more variations in her temper, but I just feel I sound so fucking boring which is I was a bit miffed about because when you're doing it, your think, oh, I'm putting emphasis on this because you remember the part of your writing and when you're reading, you're so concerned about f-ing mouth noise and all the other stuff the technician is whispering in your ear about what to do and what not to do that you end being a little bit too clinical, but it was a fun experience.

Christopher:    Did you actually have to go through studio to record it?

Simon:    Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, we're not some two bit outfit here, Chris. What are you talking about? Yeah, we recorded it in our basement on an iPhone. Yeah, we went to a recording studio in Los Angeles and recorded it. We're each in there. It takes about four days of recording all day, so we'd split the day. I'd do mornings and Lesley would do afternoons or something, but you're still going at it full time.

Christopher:    Wow, I'm grateful for it. I've been saying I've been walking on the beach listening to the book. It's like you're there, coaching me right there in person which is something that you can't get from a book, right?

Simon:    Well I wanted to put a few Easter eggs in there and just start ad libbing a little bit mid-sentence. They're so strict on how you stick to the text. I think the rules of the technician have, because you have contracted narrators, voice talent that you have to stay authentic to what was written, but we fucking wrote it so we were trying to say, "Yeah, but can't I just add this?" If you got to this place, you're doomed, well, because -- oh, no, you have to stick to the script.

Christopher:    That's amazing. I was hoping that you would help me debug some stuff that I've been having going on during cross-racing. Okay, so to give you a little bit of background, I'm hoping that by asking you these questions, this is going to help some people listening and that this is not just a free consultation and this is the first time you've ever heard of such a thing. I'm pretty sure it's not.

    Okay, so what has been going, this season, cross season, I said that I wasn't going to race cross because I was in no shape to race it. I was away for six or seven weeks without riding at all and so I basically didn't train at all. Then I turned up for the first race. I raced the age group not the Elite race. I wanted to bolster my confidence a little bit. I raced the age group and I won it easily, just right off the front never to be seen again, and that was partly to do with the course and the bike I was riding and all that. Anyway, I won it and I just thought, oh, actually this is kind of fun. Maybe I should do a few more cross races.

    I've done two more since then, and I've come third in both races, and I realize what's happening and has happened to me quite a lot in the past is I get to a point, maybe one or two laps to go, and then I settle for third somewhere in my head. It may not be the professor brain that you talk about in The Brave Athlete. It may be the chimp that's settling for third here. I don't feel like I'm making a conscious decision. A move will go, two laps to go, and I know if I don't go with the two guys in front, I'll never be seen again. The chances of me coming back are almost zero. I have to go and yet I let them go. Why do I let them go? That's so stupid. I've come this far, raced the entire race, and now it's going to settle for third. So I guess my first question should be has this ever come up before?

Simon:    It's actually surprisingly common, yeah. In fact, it's not just unique to you. I think it's probably an artifact of just the state we're in, most of us are in at that point in the race. Yeah, lots of athletes, they often talk about they throw in the towel and when we think of throwing in the towel [0:09:09] [Indiscernible] well I never stop racing or just pull out, I just soft pedal a bit, or I don't push as hard as I could do. You'd never know it if you're looking. You're just looking at someone who is not making any progress and moving backwards.

    The athlete knows this and afterwards, that's what causes -- if I could talk about all the top three things that give athletes the most angst in their post-race autopsy that would be in there because it isn't, oh, I missed the podium by five seconds or three seconds or I lost out in the sprint. It's the fact that they, at some point, they just wimped out a bit and gave up and settled and then just either coasted in or just didn't want to hurt anymore. It is surprisingly common, and I wish I had a nice silver bullet, succinct answer for why you do that. I can certainly talk to some of the observations that I've had or the commonality in athletes who describe that they do that and also some of the things that I think may be going on.


    The first part is that context matters, right? So if you're in third and the two guys have gone away, and it depends on what intensity you've been racing out or whether you're totally done or you're bonking or what your perceptions are of the ability of those two other athletes, so a lot of that stuff does matter because if you're feeling fresh and you know that you can beat them then it might be a completely different outcome. But if you've been bullied in your own head into thinking, well I probably wouldn't, A, be able to win this anyway and so there was a point in putting all that effort and to probably come third in a sprint or whatever.

    So talk to me maybe a little bit about the context of when that last happened.

Christopher:    Yeah, so it's exactly what you just said is that I don't think I'm going to win a sprint. I'm the most slow twitch guy you've ever met, and I don't think I've ever won a sprint ever. But having said that, I'm not really hurting so in particular, I've been riding a mountain bike and that's just because I like riding mountain bikes more than anything else. On the mountain bike, it has certain advantages and certain disadvantages, and it seems to be really important that you stick to the guy's wheel because once the speed goes above a certain threshold, say 15 miles an hour, I've got too much of my body in the wind that the wind resistance grows exponentially and so I'm at a huge disadvantage there. So it's important that I stick to wheels.

    I guess what's going through my mind is, I'm thinking, well this doesn't really make any difference, does it? Third, first, who really cares? I'm still going to get the podium picture. Ivy is going to get to go on the podium, and I'll get my money back. I'm going to get a little cash back, so pay for the cost of the entry fee. What difference does it really make anyway whether I come first or third? So maybe there's a little bit of that too.

Simon:    Okay, so here's the first observation about this is that we all start, well not all of us, most of us start, if you're going to pin on a number, meaning that you're competitive, most of us start a race with a competitive mindset. That competitive mindset is that you're out there, you're going to do as well as you can, you're going to duke it out, you're going to focus on your effort and be prepared to work hard, compete against other people and then what happens throughout a race is that we often drift into a participant mindset. A participant mindset is, oh, I just want to finish, I'm out here. You switch to this weird rationalization of finding gratitude. Oh, look around, I'm so happy to be out here. If I can't win, it doesn't matter. That, in fact, you may be telling yourself a lie as well because you are kind of pissed off. You wished you'd done something different.

    That shift during a race from being a competitor to a participant is one of those that plague many athletes, so the issue is why do we do that? Why do we switch to a participant mindset when we started off as a competitor? Now some athletes start only as a participant, so these people might self-describe themselves as not being competitive. In other words, they're on the line, I just want to have fun, I don't care how I do. I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about you start off with a competitive mindset and you shift.

    There are probably a couple of things that's going on. One is that undoubtedly is related to effort and fatigue and so as you get more and more tired -- and we've likened this now in our book as the chimp brain and our professor brain. We've got this emotional reacting machine in our brain that's also telling us that things are hurting and that you're in danger of potentially having some catastrophic heart failure or that your lungs are going to explode or that you're going to be embarrassed or humiliated and not deliver. You've got this voice inside your head that often starts as the competitor mindset.

    So this is really, I still believe, at the heart of a competitive mindset really stems from your chimp, prove yourself or competency and to enjoy this head-to-head competition. But as things go along, your chimp turns inward a little bit and starts to think, well I do like all these things, I do want to win, I do want to be a bit competitive, but now this is, at what cost is this coming? So you start to think about this is really hurting, and as your energy systems deplete, you're starting to question the pros and cons of actually trying to keep pushing.

    Then you start to rationalize this with your professor brain. So now your professor brain joins in the party and really the professor and the chimp gang up on you. They're really saying, well listen, you can do it another time. This is only a small race, just an evening series, and you don't have to worry. It wasn't one of you're A races anyway. You're rationalizing why it's good to throw the towel in, there and then. I think that fundamentally it represents an inability to stay in that competitive mindset despite it hurting. This is what we often talk about as resilience training or adversity training. When things hurt or feel sucky, how do I persist anyway and how do I focus on things that are going to keep me pushing?

    So it's really a shift in mindset that happens and for you, it might happen in the latter part of the race when there are other people around you, but I would urge or certainly recommend that we focus on what does it take to stay in that competitive mindset for you? If you think of when you're feeling your most competitive, with your racing hat on, you might describe emotions. Well I'm kind of, it's not anger but it's like ready for it, up for it, up for the challenge. I'm ready to hurt. I want to prove myself in relation to other people. How do I stay in that versus shrink back into, not today, it hurts, I'm happy with, the complacent self.


    In that competitive mindset, we often say, "Listen, there are two things you can control in a race, and the only two things you can control are your effort and your attitude." Your effort and your attitude are really going to be your go-to things to focus on when you feel that shift, coming back to being a participant. So for athletes, first off, you need to recognize when you're sliding into participant mode versus competitive mode.

    For some it might be just seeing -- I'll talk about a good example in triathlon is that if you're a consistent podium contender or a top five athlete and you see you consistently start to count, you're looking at people's cards because your age group is written on your card, so you can see where you're placing or how people are passing you. If it's a question about getting 1, 2, 3 people going by me, that might be my little cue or trigger to slip back into participant mindset.

    For other people it might be -- for you it might be, well I'm not going to beat them at this sprint and I don't want to hurt much more than I'm hurting now. Therefore, you've made this decision that there's probably no point anymore, and I'm going to shift back. So it's recognizing what your cues are that slip you back into participant mindset. So I would have athletes list down, okay, talk to me about the competitive you, the emotions that you have, the thoughts that are going through your head and then let's do the same for the participant view.

    Sometimes you have to draw on races where you designed to go in as a participant. If I run the Turkey Trot 5K to feed the homeless, my mental mindset going into that event is going to be quite different than if I'm in a competitive 10K or this is race series and I'm trying to stay in the top five overall and so on. So what characteristics do you have? You recognize those two identities that you have in yourself, and what you're trying to do is desensitize yourself to knowing when that slide is happening, when you're sliding back. We want to try and bring it back to things that keep us focused on attributes of the competitive you.

    I'll ask you now to talk about races where you felt as though that hasn't happened, where you have summoned the energy to get on those two riders or to find it in you to squeeze the sponge to that last bit. What does it feel like? What do you remember feeling and what are thoughts that go through your head at that time?

Christopher:    I feel like the only time that I really confidently feel like that is when I'm leading a race and I know that there's not a good chance that somebody is going to claw me back which, to be fair, has not happened many times in my cycling career. I think the rest of the time I do, do what you've just described. I slip into participant mode. I said that it's easier if I stick on the guy's wheel in front of me. Then I'm surprised at how easy it is. Shit, with three laps in here, and I'm sticking with this group, and it's actually not that much work. This is pretty good. I think that might be the trigger that's like, oh, okay, now we're on a Sunday afternoon group ride and I can just hang out here. Then the hammer goes down and I'm then in participant mode and the other two guys ride away, and I'm left doing a Sunday ride.

Simon:    Sometimes it's about your perception of effort, and that's often, a lot of times what drives the slide into participant mindset is that I'm already feeling like this and I don't want it to go much longer because it hurts. I'm not sure if we talked about this last time about the central governor model of exertion.

Christopher:    I am familiar with it. I listened to your books. I do take notes so I am familiar with it, but I don't think you mentioned it last time.

Simon:    It is a fairly contentious concept, scientifically it's contentious, but there are enough breadcrumbs around in the studies to suggest there's probably something in it. The general tenet is that the way that your brain interprets feelings of effort perception is not just simply interpreting direct feedback from blood chemistry, stretch receptors, muscle fibers and heart and so on and ventilation where there's some filtering that goes on in the brain. Before it emerges in your head as a thought or a feeling, it's about how a certain intensity feels. There are many studies to show why this may be happening or how this might be happening.

    One thing that we think the part of the brain called anterior cingulate cortex processes is effort perception. Well one of the functions of it is called anticipatory regulation, a really fancy way of saying, before I'm going to tell you, brain, how this feels, I need to know some information. One piece of information I need to know is how much longer do I have to endure this for? We can manipulate this in scientific studies by doing deceit studies, by telling, okay, you do this for this long or you actually make them do longer or vice versa.


    We look at how people's perception of effort changes, or pain, in the context of those sorts of studies. What we find is that when your brain is denied information about how long you've still got to go, curious things happen to your perception of effort. In other words, mostly, effort feels harder. Most athletes might know this as if you're going out on a ride or a run and you don't know where you're going or you're going with someone else or just trust me, it's -- or how long are we going? Where's the loo? I'll just run.

    Just running or just riding makes it hard to know how to mete out your effort. Likewise, when you're in a race and you know that you've got three laps still to go or six miles, whatever it is, your brain is using that information to tell you how the effort feels for you. If you knew that you had only one lap to go then you could tolerate it more and push it a bit more, if you've got three laps or five laps or seven laps and so on. We're not trying to overrule some basic biology here and saying you're going to deliberately lie to yourself by pretending you've only got one lap left to go, but what we can do is segment the effort that we've got so that it does feel a little bit easier.

    Segmenting is simply taking one lap at a time and then making that decision to throw in the towel or the decision that you go, no go, decision that you have to make in sport if you're hanging on for dear life or you're trying to say, how much longer can I hold this for, is that you don't think of the entire race that you've got to go. You just think, okay, I'm going to just hold this here now for the next lap and then after the next lap I'll make a decision about whether it's not just going to do it for me, or I'm going to hold it to the climb and then I'm going to make a decision.

    What you're trying to do is you're trying to segment that effort up into much smaller chunks and what you're really doing is you're manipulating that anticipatory regulation mechanism so that you're thinking, okay, the perception of effort will be more tolerable because I know that I'm going to make a decision after a shorter time versus a longer time and so on. So for you in that circumstance, it would be the starting point would be, okay, the next time you're in that situation and you're settling for third, what we want you to do, Chris, is actually to go as though you're on your last lap. It doesn't matter if you end up settling after with two laps to go, you can probably still hold your position, but let's go ride that third lap with three to go as though this is, for you, your last lap.

    An actual fact, when people have got the lap wrong -- we've always seen examples of people who bolt out and they think they've won it and they hear a bell and everyone has got a lap to go except you didn't know it -- that we know that we can summon that effort or energy when we need to. Even if you end up blowing, because rarely are we going to cross the line totally exhausted because that's the other finding of the central governor theory is that even though we've given it all, we've usually got something left to keep going. So you're not completely empty in the tank, but you are playing with the fact that your brain likes things in small, manageable chunks. It will be okay, ride the first lap, see how you feel, ride the second lap. We might completely decide after that third lap but you know what, I'm done, I'm just going to coast in for third. We're trying to increment your way into the point where you can eventually sustain it for the rest of the race.

Christopher:    That makes a lot of sense and is very helpful. When I looked at the lap times on Strava afterwards that my last lap was actually my second fastest lap, so it wasn't like I didn't have it in the tank. I think you're right. When that move goes, if I think about that as being the race for the finish line knowing they're going to settle down, this is just a move. In fact in the case where I did get spat off what happened is one of the guys fumbled, bobbled, nearly fell over and then he sprinted back onto the group and left me behind. That was how the break happened. So I need to think of that moment as being the sprint for the line, wouldn't you agree?

Simon:    Right, absolutely. That's one strategy. The other interesting thing here is that we get into the murky waters of self-sabotage. Self-sabotage is partly when we bail out. In our book, we call it a shit quit versus a legit quit when you soft pedal or throw in the towel, and the self-sabotage part is when you're not doing it in a way that you're describing it, meaning, I just don't know, I'm just happy for third. Self-sabotage is when you're actively doing something or finding a way out so you don't have to explain or you've got a reason for why you didn't stick with those two riders or why you didn't push through to the end.

    So the self-sabotage part is really interesting, psychologically. One of the things that might be at the root of it is this notion of proving competence and worth. I'll invent a fictitious rider. I don't want to make this about you. Say we've got a rider who is in a group and where we've got ten miles to go, whether it's lapped or not, and you're in a small group. It starts to get harder and harder, the pace is going up and then that decision, maybe a gap might open on the back of the group and you have to close it and then there's a point where you think, oh, fuck it, this is too much. But you know, because you're thinking this in the moment, that when I finish I'll be pissed at myself, the fact that I didn't just give it that extra effort.


    Because when we look back on our races, hindsight, we seem to forget how hard it feels at the time component because most people look back on their races and think they could have gone harder than they actually have gone because they forget. The saliency of how effort affects our brain is very short-lived so when the race is over, you forget how much it hurts. This is why people keep registering for races over and over again because that part soon -- we have effort amnesia.

    What happens when competency is at work is that, say you're self-sabotaging in a sense that you convince yourself that this really wasn't the race that you needed to go hard at and you come up with some fictitious or invented reason why it makes group sense to not go with the group other than I just couldn't. I didn't have it in me. For some athletes that might be as simple as saying, that might be as saying, "I started to feel a twinge or a cramping," and they may not have been cramping or whatever. Some people tell, "I was getting a flat," or, "I dropped my chain," and whatever. So you start to do this.

    Why do people do that? Well one thing, one theory anyway is that when you give it everything, when you lay everything on the line and it's still not enough, meaning that you push as hard as you can and you still came third, for some people, that threat to your sense of worth and competence is far too great. In other words, I don't want to have my ego, I don't want to have my ego be exposed to such a point that I've got no other reason other than I wasn't good enough, as the reason that happens, right? So I need some other way of explaining why it wasn't good enough. This isn't true of all people. This is mainly true of people who have a very strong need to demonstrate competence and worth, and highly competitive people can be like that and so on, so that may be another reason.

    If I lay everything on the line and it's still not enough, what does that say about me? I lack the talent, I lack the ability, I lack the whatever, whatever, whatever because that is far too traumatic for some people's ego who then concoct explanations about why it wasn't meant to be that day or why this happened. So you never let yourself, your competence be truly vulnerable to saying that it didn't happen. The cruelty of this is that when you do that, when you do lay everything on the line and it's still not enough, rarely does the world end and rarely, well rarely isn't the word, and the world never ends, but rarely do you get the humiliation, embarrassment or sense of inadequacy or ridicule that you're probably anticipating. Or the expectations that you've concocted in your head that people have for you and you have for yourself, they often don't materialize. In other words, people aren't saying, "Well I thought you're a lot better than that. You could only get third in the sprint." People are far too self-absorbed about their own races and stuff to worry about that.

    So the competency, worth challenge -- and this comes back to the Carol Dweck's issue of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset as well. The fixed mindset people where they see their competence and worth as being fixed. In other words, it can be identified. If I'm ever going to put myself in a position where it can truly be known and if that's in danger of it shown to be anything other than a winning, talented, attractive, smart person, I'm going to avoid those sorts of situations.

Christopher:    Okay. So this is still on my reading list, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. I need to read that.

Simon:    Exactly, yes.

Christopher:    This is why I love you, Simon. It's like you've given me an operating manual for my brain. It's very, very exciting to me. So you have The Brave Athlete. You've got to get the audible version. I've still got one more race at least. So I'll let you know, now that you know that, you've just given me a lot of good information there, so we'll see how that goes.

Simon:    Okay, right.

Christopher:    There are a couple of things that I found troubling during the book, and I don't know whether you agree with me or not. Okay, so go back five years for me, and I had -- the basic premise of your book is are you having feelings you don't want? If so then maybe you should read this book. You'd say that.

Simon:    Yeah, thoughts and feelings.

Christopher:    Thoughts and feelings. So five years ago, I was having all kinds of thoughts and feelings I didn't want. It was all the time. It was constant. Part of it was being really, really foggy and not being able to think clearly at all. I didn't really feel like the professor brain was working particularly well. Then what I did was I fixed my biology, and I would argue that biology defines behavior. So what I worry about when I listen to The Brave Athlete is that somebody may have something biologically wrong with them, an infection or some kind of undiagnosed explanation and that could be leading to the thoughts and feelings that they don't want and so you're kind of screwing around with them in a way that may be slightly helpful but really what they need to do is look inside and see what's going on with the biology.


Simon:    Is that a question or is that a statement? I agree with you. It's not just that behaviors are biologically based thoughts and feelings at the neuron level. They are essentially just synaptic connections and impulses, electrical activities, so, yes, that's absolutely true. I think that what we would take the stance is that for most people who are ostensibly healthy, meaning that there isn't some underlying pathology or some underlying issue that's driving these other sensations then sure, but for most athletes, that isn't the case, statistically speaking, but absolutely. I think this is a criticism leveled at psychology in general, right?

    One of the reasons that I'm a big advocate of sports psychologists having sports science training, meaning not just coming straight through Psychology and only ever having Psychology. Because if all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail, so if I'm going to start to say that an athlete who comes to us may always collapse midway through the run of a triathlon and we talk about resilience training and attitude and effort and mantras and the thumb-tapping and segmenting. Actual fact, they're just not eating and drinking enough. So it's a nutritional problem, or they've made such terrible tactical errors that they are leaving themselves woefully [0:31:21] [Indiscernible].

    You have to have a little bit of a holistic view about this sort of stuff. To be honest, when you talk to athletes, you often can get a sense -- athletes I think are pretty good at this as well, knowing when something is -- they detect that it's something a little bit deeper than just simply having thoughts and feelings related to how I want to perform or having expectations or competition anxiety and so on, not all the time because again, the issue of depression. Depression rears its ugly head in athletes or in many different ways of which no amount of mental training can actually help you remedy some of those things if there's a biological or biochemical imbalance, so, absolutely.

    But not wishing to say this is a one-size-fits-all and it works for everybody, but for the majority of athletes who are dealing, I should say, the majority are not dealing with these chronic pathological or biochemical imbalances. They're dealing with things that they just want to be the best that they can be on the day and they feel a little bit paralyzed by doubt, anxiety, fear or so on.

Christopher:    What do you think about psychiatry? I'm dancing around this issue here that you mentioned a couple of times in the book. If this is looking more serious and maybe it's something we could proper diagnosis on, maybe you go and see a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists terrify me because they're the only doctor that don't look inside their patient which seems to me -- I mean, of course there are exceptions, Daniel Amen, Kelly Brogan. There are exceptions to this particular rule. Back to me, sending somebody to a psychiatrist who has anorexia, for example, that's just terrifying. I think you need to look inside at that point, not just talk to someone about it.

Simon    When we talk about getting clinical help, we're not talking only about psychiatry. We're talking about clinical psychologists, there's a whole host of helping professions around how someone's head works, not just psychiatry but, yeah, psychiatry can be quite intimidating to many people but let's not forget that psychiatrists are also MDs. .

Christopher:    They could do a proper job. It's just that they tend not to, right?

Simon:    Well, but you could also argue that clinical psychologists are more likely to make those decisions because they've got the least training compared to psychiatry or less training than the psychiatrist in terms of underlying physiology and so on. Yeah, it's one of these things where all the tools of psychological health, therapeutic tools, are they sufficient or necessary to be able to help someone get out of what they're dealing with, and that ultimately comes down to the skills of a therapist and knowing how do you know the limits of your own knowledge, what you're looking for. Sports psychologists are trained in symptoms of referrals so they know they might not know how to help someone with an eating disorder but they know the symptoms and when to refer people, and all of the professions are like that in their training, whether it's a clinical psychologist, Master's level, counselors and psychiatrists.

Christopher:    When you talked about exercise addiction, which is a fascinating topic that you tackle in quite great depth in the book, I feel like I was also using exercise as symptom management. I felt terrible, apart from when I've been on the bike for an hour and was probably warmed up. Then I started feeling pretty decent. That was the one time when I actually felt pretty good, and I wonder how many athletes there are out there that are using exercise as a crutch. They're using it for symptom management. Again, so it comes back to that thing. You're seeing a lot of exercise addiction, but is it because of some underlying biological thing that needs to be addressed?

Simon:    That's also addressed in folks who study exercise dependency, for example. We talk about primary and secondary dependence. Primary dependency is when it's the actual activity itself that's giving you the feelings that you want. Secondary dependency is when it's really symptom management of some underlying thing. So this is what we often see for athletes who have eating disorders or disordered eating that we often see the secondary exercise dependence goes alongside that because it's a way to control and manage feelings about your own body.


    So secondary exercise dependence is probably more common, no, probably it is more common than primary dependence and underlining more than that just going on. So this comes back to this compartmental model I guess of how we think about this stuff versus holistic model, and I'm a big believer in holistic approaches that we're looking at the moment we start to reduce things to single emotions or single experiences without looking at the picture, we run the risk of either missing much of what's causing it or that we end up treating something that actually isn't the problem to begin with.

Christopher:    Yeah, and again with discussion of managing injury, you discuss all these things, all these problems that athletes have when they get injured, and you just described me to a T. Five years ago, I was the guy that completely lost my -- I can remember shouting at Julie, "Just go home and leave me here," when I had broken my leg or something. Now I've busted things since then. After I fixed my gut, I crashed on a trial. I look at my hand, and it's pointing in the wrong direction. Oh, shit, I've broken my wrist, best go and get that play. It was none of those things. It was completely different. I swear it must be something to do with fixing the underlying biology rather than having talked to someone and having them tell me why I feel in the way that I do.

Simon:    Yeah, but I think that's also a fairly deterministic model of why athletes think and feel the way they do. If we're reducing everything to biology, it's not denying that there are biological roots, these things, but it's on a practical level, what do you actually do about it? I don't think we would disagree on that, but I think that you are probably more in the minority than the majority in terms of the root causes of things being -- again, it might not just be when you have this stuff cleared up or you fixed your diet and suddenly your approach -- life took a hold to the left turn, but those moments are quite rare for people. Because you've already recognized that something wasn't right with your diet and you are suffering a whole host of other physical symptoms as well, it wasn't just that you were, why do I get so annoyed when I get injured?

Christopher:    Well here's what I think now. I think everything is important. It's not one single thing. It's not just the diet. It's not just your response to stress. Everything is important. This is why I think it's so important to include your services in our Elite Performance Program. So that's the announcement. Simon is now going to be working with every single athlete that joins our program. It's because I think that your going to be able to get the same or maybe even better results in less time because behavior change is the most important topic, and I think you're going to get it faster than I can as a computer scientist.

Simon:    It's not me versus you or the race to fix people. It's saying, "Listen, we need to have a multifaceted approach to this or the approach has to be multifaceted." We have to look at this thing from multiple angles of which one of which is understanding very much the experiential part of an athlete's journey through ill health and coming back to health, as well as how do I improve my performance through better use of my head. The same can go for, we've got dietary interventions, we have stuff addressing thoughts and feelings and we've also got stuff about having a better tactical knowledge of what you're doing and biomechanical insights and so on. I think all of these things are coming at it from multiple angles is going to make people better athletes.

Christopher:    Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I'm really hoping that you're going to help us all find our purpose because we all understand the importance of that now. But as a practical matter, it's extremely difficult, so do you think you're going to be able to help people with finding their purpose?

Simon:    That question is unfair to ask. Well let's go back 10,000 years of -- yeah, I know. This is also, not to be a negative Nora about it or Pollyanna, as I should say in America, is that this is also somewhat of a contentious issue as well about the role of purpose-finding in life and how we seek it and whether we can seek it and for whom is that important to do? This comes back to maybe this is a whole other debate about positive psychology movement in general about the sorts of activities and the sorts of things that we're doing and at what cost that comes. I know we've talked a little bit about that in the past. Yeah, I think that having a bigger sense of our purpose and meaning. For most people, it's not a batting issue. It's, if you're going to be frustrated and self-critical or guilty when you're struggling to find it and if it can be found. What does that mean? If we can all find purpose in life, all of our troubles will suddenly evaporate.

Christopher:    It goes back to the statement I made earlier which is that everything matters. It's not just about one single thing.

Simon:    Now that's true.


Christopher:    Maybe this is a good time to segue then into I really -- thank you so much, by the way. I'm just throwing turds at you here and you're being such a good sport. Maybe this is a good point to segue into talking about positive psychology because you made an off the cuff remark in some conversation that we had online somewhere that I won't read it to you. Anyway, it led to the recommendation that I read, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Am I pronouncing it correctly?

Simon:    Yes, Ehrenreich.

Christopher:    Yeah, and it was a fantastic book. It's so funny and well-written and her vocabulary is absolutely amazing. I highly recommend that book to anyone. Simon, tell me, why don't we start by saying what is good about positive psychology?

Simon:    Well the first thing is to say what is positive psychology?

Christopher:    Okay, that's a better question.

Simon:    Again, I don't know if I have the answer to this because a lot of the folks who use the word positive psychology also use it in very different context. General positive psychology is the lay understanding you see in the self-help literature has been focused on this notion that we should be looking for what is happiness and how do we find it? It seems to be extended to more existential stuff like finding meaning in life and that kind of stuff. But in essence, the criticisms of the psychological field of positive psychology which are trained psychologists doing psychological research in elements of positive psychology, Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the other two guys who are mainly doing a lot of this research, has actually received quite a lot of criticism and it's not so much because of what they're focusing on but -- well there are lots of criticisms, one of which is the context in which we are looking at things like purpose and meaning in life and for whom is that important and why and is this very much culturally bound that maybe for people who are struggling in socioeconomic circumstances, poverty, ill-health, all the other things that make these higher order things a luxury to pursue purpose.

    But what is it we're actually trying to get at? I think the criticism, like the Barbara Ehrenreich book that we talked about, to a certain extent is the straw man criticism, so it's the motivational speakers that are brought into businesses to say how do we focus on the positive, how do we stay optimistic, how do we not get dragged down by people's negativity? That sort of stuff is largely a theoretical pseudo-scientific, and I agree that many of those, there's a dark underbelly at that movement of motivational psychology in the workplace in general. Some of the criticisms have been, because it's been largely used to cover up, hide or generally distract the workforce from things like corporate layoffs and terrible working conditions and people having very little work-life balance. So there's that side.

    The other side of positive psychology is now it's a legitimate psychological discipline to study about optimism, for example, and its role on mental health or physical health outcomes. That is legitimate. It's not quite as straightforward as saying it's either good or bad, but I think there are debates on both sides. In general I would say there are elements that we should be looking and are excited by, studying how optimism and how positive attitudes and how positive mindset can actually contribute to our health but at the same time, not using it as this panacea. All we need to do is think positively because there are lots of people in circumstances that no amount of positive thinking really is going to help because they're in circumstances that are obviously the root cause of fundamental, structural problems with the conditions other people live and so on. That's my 10,000-foot view of it.

Christopher:    When I read Barbara's book, I started to think that maybe some of the problems with positive psychology were similar to -- it was almost like a religion. It's like this unquestioning belief in positivity even when there's none to be found. This can be very dangerous, and it reminded me of the radical candor concept, to a certain extent, which is, unless you're straight with me, how can I possibly improve? Maybe the same is true with positive psychology, unless you're able to see both sides of the coin and make a proper evaluation based on the available evidence, how can we ever get better if all we ever think is the glass is half full?

Simon:    Yeah, radical candor is slightly different because that model in general was proposed in a very specific context which was in leadership and management, and is devoted primarily to, how do you give feedback that is accurate but in a way that's compassionate? Positive psychology, one of the challenges of it is that we're almost made to feel guilty if we're unable to expunge or exorcise negativity from our lives.

Christopher:    Complaining is a better word.

Simon:    Yeah, or whining or complaining. There's some evidence that being pessimistic or complaining or whining or looking for the negatives can actually be very helpful to life. I wouldn't say that it's the same thing or the same context, but you're right. In the pop psychology, self-help world, it has this cult-like following. I do find it mildly humorous that its popularity, primarily in the US, because North American culture in general is very much about positivity and optimism, and living in the greatest country in the world and all the other hyperbole that gets thrown at our lives here. But at the same time you've got to look at the consumption of antidepressants and where we find ourselves in the world ranking of nation's happiness. US is nowhere near the top. There is some paradox going on. On the one hand we've got this positive drive to find meaning and grateful and joy, but the same time also, our lives are telling us and our consumption of these pharmaceuticals are telling us that clearly, that's not the case.


Christopher:    Yeah, one of those things is a British person living in the US. I can't say I was terribly aware of the cult, I would say, of positive psychology or positive thinking. Once you're aware of it, it's like Toyota Prius syndrome. You see it everywhere. It's in apps. It's in adverts. It's everywhere. I don't know, I find that, was I just not looking before or is it somehow subverted where I'm just like, being affected by it and not even noticing it because that's quite scary.

Simon:    Well I think it has certainly increased in the last five to ten years. Who knows, maybe that's in response to, if we feel as though we're inundated with negative news in whatever sphere of life that you want, whether it's health or politics or whatever, finances, then we're going to search for something to be positive about. That is an artifact of this human condition as well. I don't know. Maybe we're seeing it more recently partly because people have found that they can commodify it. They can sell programs, and now what is getting legitimate scientific scrutiny, and that maybe scientizes it a little bit which gives it more credibility. You've only got to spend time in industry to know that this is rife. Look at the rise in executive coaches, look at the rise in motivational speakers in corporations, so it's clearly on the rise but the issue is why and does that come at a cost?

Christopher:    Interesting. Well I think this is a great place to wrap up. Okay, to recap, the three books that we talked about in this interview were Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich; Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck; and finally, The Brave Athlete: Calm the Fuck Down and Rise to the Occasion by my guest today, Dr. Simon Marshall and his amazing wife, Lesley Paterson. I will link to all of these in the show notes for this episode. Of course Simon is now going to be part of our Elite Performance Program. I'm super excited about that.

    Simon, do you have any room in your coaching practice, because we don't create training programs for athletes, we just fix their biology for the most part.

Simon:    Yeah, we do. We coach mainly endurance athletes, so these are runners, cyclists, swimmers and triathletes and ultra distance athletes as well, both physical coaching and mental coaching. So, yes, the can find us at braveheartcoach.com. That's our coaching website. You can also contact me through NBT as well. So, yes, we do but like with all things, coaching is a relationship versus just a prescription so the fit is essential. When we talk to athletes for the first time, yes, we want to try and find a way to working together but often, that may not be the case simply because time or there's some other issue to do with, you feel as though the philosophy of training isn't a match and so on soon. We want to help athletes find the right coaches for them, whether it's us or not, but we are certainly happy to be part of that discussion.

Christopher:    That's a really great point. Julie was telling me -- Julie is my wife and she has been doing the free starter sessions. You can book those from the front page of our website. She was telling me just yesterday actually that she spoke to someone and said, "You're just not ready for our program. Here are some things that you might want to think about and come back and see, maybe a year before you're ready." I'm not sure that she said a whole year to the person on the phone, but that's what she said to me. So navigator is a good word. I'm just going to help you find the way rather than try to force you into something that maybe it's not right for you.

Simon:    Yeah, yeah.

Christopher:    Awesome. So is there anything else you want people to know about, Simon?

Simon:    No, other than enjoy our reading our book or listening to our book. I'm really excited to work with more NBT folks because it's lovely to get to know athletes, not just the ones that we speak to in our regular practice who are just struggling to cope and those sorts of things, but also those that are struggling with health issues and see how to make sense of their thinking as they navigate their way back to better health.

Christopher:    Awesome. Well thank you so much, Simon, I really appreciate you.

Simon:    No problem, Chris, thanks a lot buddy.

Christopher:    Cheers.

[0:49:52]    End of Audio

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