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Q&A with Charlie Unwin - Round 2

Your questions answered. Check it out 👇


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's Q&A - check out the video transcript below 👇

Amy Williams:

Hi everyone. It's Amy Williams here for the U Perform channel and we have Charlie Unwin, our mental performance coach with us here today. I have a piece of paper in the hand with some questions for you, Charlie, which our viewers and subscribers have written into us. So thank you very much for that. Now I'm going to go straight in with our first question. It's from Vanessa Ruck, who is AKA @thegirlonabike, who you may have noticed is one of our U Perform ambassadors. And she's got a really good question. Her question is, how would you overcome the fear of not being strong enough, worried whether the body can make it? So I guess if you've had an injury, a weakness that's playing on your mind, how do you get over that?

Charlie Unwin:

Yes. Thanks Vanessa. It's a good question. I'm sure a lot of people can relate to it. It's a really challenging one. Okay. Where I'm going to go to with this is... I remember there was a time where I was working with a sprint athlete who had a bad Achilles injury. And they were worried that they wouldn't be able to push themselves to the limit that they could before, because they'd had this pretty bad injury. And they were worried of re redoing it and as a result they weren't pushing themselves to the limits that their coaches were trying to get them to. Now, the doctor, the physios, everyone said, no, no, no, no, this has healed stronger than it was before. You will be absolutely fine, promise you. You have to trust us, you can push yourself.

But you know what, that's not always enough. And this guy was just really cautious. Interestingly, it was largely unconscious. He thought he was pushing himself as hard as he could, but he wasn't, he was unconsciously saving himself. And that's more challenging because you can't rationalize it. You can't just sit down with him and say, look, you're fine.

You know, go on, and have a go push yourself as hard as you can see how strong you are. Because he thought he was, so we had to come about it a very different way. So the way that we came up with, and I think this would absolutely work in Vanessa's case as well, is, there is a danger that when it comes to things like strength and sports or activities that push us to the limits; part of our training session is to kind of push as far as we can, until we hit those limits.

And at that point, something happens. We either fall on the floor, exhausted, or we get injured or something like that. The problem with that way of training is that as we move towards what we think our limits are, we're starting to think about what might happen and anticipate. And as long as we're anticipating what could go wrong, we're not focused on the very commitment and form that we need to stay true to that exercise, the execution of what it is that we're doing.

You know? So, this could be for example, on a motorbike, this could be dangerous, right? Because actually what we need to do more than anything is focus. So there are problems in that approach of simply just pushing yourself to the limits, just to see how far you can go.

So what's the alternative? Well we came up with this training protocol, which I think works really well, which is whereby you go up to a certain point and you don't go beyond that point. So for this particular athlete that we worked with, we had to come up with kind of 60, 70, 80, 90% efforts. And the idea was that on this particular training session, he would do the training session up to 60% effort. Now the goal was to be as close to 60% as possible. So he knew roughly that 60% equated to getting from a to B at that speed. So his goal wasn't to push himself as far as he could, his goal was to see how accurately you can internalize 60% effort and it became a bit of a game.

Now inevitably what happened and this was the point, was that he gets to the end of that training session saying I could do more, at which point we would say, well, you're not going to do anymore. You have achieved the goal of this exercise, you focused on quality, not on quantity or not on sheer intensity. You've got the quality, right? You've maintained your form at 60%. Stop there. Next session, move up to 70%, get that internalized, get it right.

And again, he spent probably three weeks’ worth of sessions finishing every single one saying I want to do more. And therein lies the whole point is that now he's kind of overcome this sort of unconscious idea of getting to the point of breaking, I suppose, which was unhelpful to him. Now he's internalized the sort of different narrative in inside his head. It's exactly the same way as if we're in the gym. If we want someone to get stronger in the gym, we don't just say, Hey, see how much you can lift to the point of breaking, make a note of it. And then next week, come in and see if you can lift anymore.

So why would we do that mentally for strength? So I think, I guess this is probably just one answer, but I think it works, is to be able to be much more discreet in your chunks and being able to define success by the quality of what you were doing and finishing it saying, you know what? I could do more and being able to start layering in that more and more into your training.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. And I guess for her then her whole fear was that she's not strong enough, if she can daily tick off well I was strong enough to do this skill. And I've done that over and over and now moving on and almost tick box, the fact that she can do it. And she has been able to do it, giving her the confidence that her body is able to cope.

Charlie Unwin:

And that's a narrative inside our own head, right? I'm not strong enough. It's not true, necessarily. It's just a narrative. And when that narrative gets repeated, because the types of sessions we're doing end with that narrative every single time, you kind of go until you don't want to go any further, you're finishing with the narrative of I'm not strong enough to do anymore. So if you're finishing with that narrative every single day, it's no wonder that it becomes, yeah, it just becomes the way you think habitually. So, it's a nice way of putting it Amy, but we're switching the narrative by changing the session, finishing the narrative with, I could do more. I could do more and wanting to do more and it does, it does work.

Amy Williams:

Brilliant. Well, Vanessa, give that a go and hopefully Charlie's given you a good tip there. Okay. So on to our next question, which is from John, who's a triathlon coach. How can you get past or over the fear of failure? I have athletes that was skipped particular training sessions and sets. Fear of failure. That's a big thing, you know and it can be a complete, all consuming feeling.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. Which of course is going to stop you from whatever you're trying to focus on or do well. There's a link here, isn't there I think, to the previous question in some ways. it's that kind of fear of my limits, and understanding what that fear is. Is it failure? Is it pain? Is it, you know, what is it? So I guess I would start with a similar philosophy to what we just discussed in the previous question, which was kind of understanding, or being able to finish enough sessions through quality and wanting to do more. And again, to highlight that in this case where it's about fear of failure, I remember working with some downhill skiers, so downhill skiers are crazy because they go, well, who am I talking to?

Amy Williams:

Yeah. They are crazy. I do think they are!

Charlie Unwin:

I remember having this conversation whereby they go to the limits every single time of what they're doing and their legs are burning as they're going around the turns and they get to the bottom of the mountain. And I remember one of them said the most dangerous time is when it starts to flatten off at the bottom of the mountain and you can see the finishing line.

Because they said often that's when you kind of stand up or take the pressure off your legs because they're burning so much and you kind of lose speed, you lose form. And we came to the conclusion that the most important time are those last two turns, and we came up with this notion of make the last two turns the best turns of the race, so that you finish on quality, so that you don't go through the finishing line and think about how much it hurts and you know, and how challenging that was. Rather actually you finish on quality, which means that as you're going up the lift back up to the top of the mountain, your brain is internalizing quality.

It's called the recency effect. It's the last thing that you remember. When you think about the cycle of training sessions, how we finish our training session is really important. We mentioned it for Vanessa's question on strength, but it's kind of the same principle. If the only sessions we do are designed to kind of push us to the physical limits. We start almost becoming fearful of pushing ourselves to those limits and we start to either hold back on them. But if we can't hold back because we're being pushed by a coach, we just don't turn up. And that's when we start to sort of need, need to ask questions.

I think there are a few things we can do here. It's firstly, it'd be really clear how we define success of the session. Not every session should be about pushing ourselves to the limits. And therefore, if fear is about the pain, if it's about not being able to push myself, as far as the person next to me, and it's about comparison with other athletes, there should be sessions that have very different goals and different outcomes. And there should be enough sessions that have goals focused on the quality of what we're doing and maintain form.

Pacing sessions are really good for triathletes whereby the goal is to get as close as you can, to those particular timing. So every 400 meters, you've got to come in within a second of that time, every single time, so that they learn how to pace. You could do that off the bike, for example, kind of having fun with the sessions and finding different ways of defining success, which I think certainly kids, but certainly adults as well will respond to a lot better. Does that make sense?

Amy Williams:

Yeah. Do you think John should ask these athletes that are skipping? Do you think he should ask them, you know, why are you skipping, I guess, to get that response, but is that going to make them even more fearful that they won't want to give an honest answer? And then because of that, or like you just said then, should John keep that same training session if he can manage to get them to turn it up, keep it the same. Or like you say, it is the same training session, but you've switched it. You've, put in some fun element to kind of switch their brain into not realizing actually they are doing exactly the same training session, but somehow you've added in to get them thinking about it differently.

Charlie Unwin:

Exactly, exactly. So I think the answer to your first point there around do we talk about it? Yeah, absolutely. Let's talk about it. You know, what's going on for you? What are you enjoying at the moment? What are you enjoying less of? What do you feel, you know, that you need?

You know what, a lot of people don't ask younger kids these questions because they think somehow that either they're not capable of answering them or they don't know what they need or what they want. I actually know young teenagers who it's incredible when you ask them these questions, they give the most amazing responses. They have so much self-awareness, we don't often give them credit for their own self-awareness and it's that, that we want to engage them with because at the end of the day, we're developing them mentally as well as physically.

Charlie Unwin:

And when they're on that start line, they only have one person and that's themselves and they need to feel confident in themselves. They need to be confident about their race plan. And we spoke about motivation last week, but an athlete whose confident in their race plan and why they're doing it is going to be much better at executing that race plan than someone who's been given a race plan by somebody else and told that they have to do this.

And that's been reinforced through countless amounts of research. So yeah, I think you're absolutely right on that. And then in terms of making the sessions fun. What we've spoken about, mixing up the goals of the session, so you can still make sessions quite hardcore, quite intense, but shift the goal. It's not just about getting over the finishing line, you know, having gone to your limits, it's about the quality of what you've done, you know, video them in the final kind of one kilometer. And it's all about who can maintain the quality of form whilst they're doing that.

A fun one I like to do is if you're doing any kind of interval training, for example, is maybe you're doing intervals say 90%, but you're not allowed to start your next interval until your heart rate has got to within say, you know, 60% of your resting heart rate. So in other words, the challenge is about how well and quickly you recover by breathing and relaxing. So the athletes have something different and productive to focus on. So all of this stuff I think can change your whole perception rather than kind of anticipate in pain or anticipate in failure all the time.

Amy Williams:

Well, hopefully that's really helped John. Our last question, which I think really ties in, so it might be similar answers, from Andy, is that mistakes are part and parcel of learning, but how can we stop dwelling on mistakes and turn them into positive learning opportunities? So sort of similar, but maybe it's got a little bit of a different angle.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. The thing I like about this, so it is, it is very much similar. What we've been talking about to this point is how we prepare ourselves mentally and set ourselves up. How we define success and that's that I would call feed forward.

What we're talking about here is how we give ourselves feedback. And so similar principles, different points in time, which is great. So thank you, Andy for that. One really simple methodology I like to use here is called left page right page. And what it does is it allows us to focus objectively on the quality of what we were trying to do, rather than simply hone into the things that went wrong.

I think we've spoken about this before a little bit, because in skeleton you have what, you know, say you had 14 corners on a track. If you got to the bottom and I asked you, how did that go? Chances are, you would tell me about the mistake you made in corner seven and the impact that then had in corner nine, and how that slowed you down and forced you to hit the wall and you go off on one. I think that's probably Andy's point here, isn't it?

Amy Williams:

Yeah, stop dwelling on mistakes?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. We dwell on them. And to Andy's point, we have to learn from them. So how do we kind of reconcile this idea that we can't pretend they didn't happen and just ignore mistakes, but at the same time, when we dwell on them, that they can undermine our confidence, they can make us feel bad about ourselves, our abilities. So what is that sort of golden in between?

Well, the left-hand page right-hand page rule keeps us in check I think with this. There is no golden rule about, you know, finish your race, finish your day, finish your competition, finish your match. And tell me, you know, tell me what you did well. I like the idea of that, but the problem is it doesn't always work because they might be able to tell you something they did well, but in their minds, they're feeling rubbish about the goal that they let in or the mistake that they made and stuff like that.

So on the left-hand page of our training book, we have two or three things that define what we wanted to do going into that training session, competition, match, whatever it is. And it could be something as simple as stay relaxed from beginning to end by focusing on my breathing every now and again and staying focused on, you know, whatever it is taking one kilometer at a time or something like that, that then gives you a strategy for how you're going to do that. You get to the end of the race, you draw a line across to the right hand side of the page. And rather than just ask yourself the general question, what happened? You have to first ask, what was I trying to do? What was my focus and how did I do against that focus? What that does is it ensures that we give ourselves feedback objectively based on what we were trying to do in the first place.

And I guarantee that if you paid attention to the things you said, you were going to pay attention to, you probably would have done alright on them. Therefore, the brain is able to do what the brain does, which is make a connection. A connection can only exist between two points. It can't exist between one point. So what we've done is we've said that was my focus of attention. That was the impact that that had on my race. And it works. And if you didn't do that well, that gives you the question. Well, why didn't I pay attention to it? When I said I was going to pay attention to it if that was a goal. If my goal was to, you know, go into corner two, you know, try and get more height, why wasn't high focusing on that at corner two.

And that starts to conjure up more important questions in what happened, which is what do I need to do to stay true to my race plan. I often say that an athlete can only be guilty of not doing what they said they were going to do. That's the only thing enough that it can be guilty. They can't be guilty of making mistakes because they are, as Andy says, part and parcel of learning, the only thing we can be guilty of is not doing what we said we were going to do.

So I think that left page, right page rule, the sort of feed forward on the left-hand side of the page and the feedback on the right and the two being connected; forces us to make much more objective links in the brain. It's not about positive or negative. It is simply about what was I trying to do? What happened? And then we become experts at that left-hand side of the page. And we start to realize that 95% of performance is how we set ourselves up.

Amy Williams:

Can you execute those goals that you set yourself? And if you can't execute it for whatever reason, that's maybe why you were five seconds slower, or, you know, you didn't manage that tumble turn very well or whatever it might be just looking backwards.

Charlie Unwin:

Exactly. That's good.

Amy Williams:

Well, it's really nice how those questions really linked, hopefully listening through from Vanessa, John and Andy, actually, all of those answers could really help you with all of your issues. So thank you very much for sending them in.

Please do keep them coming please send them in. We like to keep Charlie on his feet and answering your questions. So thank you again. It was great to have you with us. Please subscribe, hit that bell and we will see you next time on the U Perform channel.

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