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Stress Inoculation - Charlie Unwin - Performance Psychology - Episode 15

Watch Episode 15 here 👇


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello everyone it's Amy Williams, here for the U Perform channel. And we have Charlie, our mental performance coach. First of all, Happy Christmas to you all. I am remembering to put on my Christmas jumper, unlike you Charlie.

Charlie Unwin:

No, I've got an apology to make. I completely forgot to bring it.

Amy Williams:

We'll let you off. Now with Charlie, over the last few weeks we've been covering visualisation, breathing and relaxation. And today we're going to talk about stress, which is quite a good subject seeing as it's Christmas. And we could be going through quite a stressful day with Christmas dinner and all the preparations and all the rest of it.

Charlie Unwin:

And the in laws as well.

Amy Williams:

And the in laws. Yeah this is true.

Charlie Unwin:

Although yeah, maybe not this year.

Amy Williams:

Maybe not this year. Well, anyway, the stress of Christmas, but also in competition. And when we're competing, you're going to help us know how we can invite that stress in and how actually we can use it to our benefit.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, it sounds weird. Doesn't it? And we've spoken about this before, the idea of actually inviting stress, like being good with stress rather than just sort of holding it at arm’s length.

So yeah, it'd be great to be able to have a chat about how we bring this all together. I call it stress inoculation, which actually comes from special forces who kind of use this term of stress inoculation because it's one thing, being able to do a skill. It's another thing, being able to do it consistently. And we spoke about that in some of the earlier vlogs. And now it's about being able to do it consistently under pressure. And in order to do that, we've got to be able to be really comfortable with stress. And I think part of that is about being able to kind of invite it more into our day to day.

Amy Williams:

And let's face it. None of us enjoy stress. We're not really comfortable with it. And when we are stressed, you know, you're kind of like, what do I do or what do I do? And you're anxious. And that can just kind of be a downward spiral.

Charlie Unwin:

That's interesting because I think you speak for many when you say that. Definitely. But I would almost start to challenge that and start to think about what would it take to be able to enjoy stress? Because actually I think we do to some degree, enjoy being a little bit wired and we enjoy kind of a busy life. Let's face it. Most of us invite a busy life all the time.

So what is it about that that we enjoy and when are we enjoying it and when is it becoming a hindrance? That's the key question in psychology? So, stress is inevitable. We know that much, it's there, we've spoken about that, but this is more about how we can bring it in sort of bite-sized chunks on a daily basis. What we know is that our mind and body does respond very effectively to small bouts of stress.

The technical term for it is called hardening. Although I don't think I like that term because it makes it sound like, you know, we get hardened to it. But if there is a very real cognitive physiological adaptation that occurs to stress just like in our body when we're lifting weights.

It was probably best for me. This was highlighted when I was an athlete. In pentathlon, the rules changed, to combine the running event and the shooting events. Which sort of turned it into a really exciting sport because rather than running and shooting separately, now, what you had to do is you have to, you have to run into the range, to shoot down a target five times, 800 metres, shoot the target five times, 800 metres, shoot the target five times, 800 metres, through the finishing line. That's a crazy sport. What I love about it is that you've got this 800 metres. It's a tough distance. Did you used to run before?

Amy Williams:

Yeah, the 800. I mean, when I was younger and whatnot, but no. I'd kinda made my running from like shorter, shorter, shorter, shorter.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, yeah. And it's brutal, isn't it? 800 metres is brutal. So it's a sport that combines the physicality of that horrible middle distance with the physical dexterity and focus of shooting when your heart rate is going at about 150 beats per minute. So it's a great sport for understanding and practicing this. Hence the reason I studied it for my thesis.

Now, what I noticed is that when these two sports were combined, there were people who are naturally quite good at it. And there were people who weren't and the people who were quite good at it seemed to be quite good with stress, not just cognitive stress, but somatic stress, which is physical stress, which kind of makes sense. Right. But I noticed that a slight mistake was made initially in how we train the athletes for it, which was the idea was that how can we put athletes under pressure and learn to deal with pressure?

So we started kind of putting in five pounds and, you know, whoever won the competition would win all the money and things like this are really good, right? They are a form of creating pressure where you wouldn't otherwise have it. But over time it became obvious that all this extra pressure, this artificial pressure was doing was exaggerating those who were good at it, and it was knocking the confidence of those who weren't. Why? Because what we weren't doing is focusing on a strategy for dealing with the pressure. It was literally just highlighting who was already good and who wasn't. So I think the first thing is, we have to believe that we can get good at stress. And by doing that, we've got to practice it like any other skill.

Amy Williams:

So for me, listening to you, I kind of feel like, well, how do I know how good I am at stress? You might feel personally as a person that you're not good at stress, and you are anxious. You don't like it. You want to run away from it. But actually in a room of 10 people, you might cope with it better than the others, but you don't realise how bad someone else is. How did you actually know how, how good you are on your own, you know, on this scale of being good at stress or not?

Charlie Unwin:

It's a really good point because we might measure ourselves. I feel, I feel stressed. I feel my heart rate going. I feel sort of blood pumping through my muscles. Therefore, maybe I'm not very good at this. You know, I should be completely Zen or relaxed. And it's just not the case.

Yes. It's a very good question. How do we know if we're good at it or not? Recent research has focused on our beliefs and attitudes towards stress and whether they are affecting our body's ability to sort of cope well with it. Let's be clear about this as an athlete, you should know you're good with it because ultimately it enhances your performance. At the very worst you don't perform any worse. If of course it's getting in the way. If it's stopping you from being able to perform at your best, if it's making you tense, if it's stopping you from being as accurate, as quick, as responsive, then clearly stress is having a negative effect.

So I guess there's that, that we would know, but, there is an amazing study done in the US. It was done with tens of thousands of people. It was a huge study. It was longitudinal, so it was done over a very long period of time. And they ask people how much stress do you experience in your life in general? And they got them to grade it. And they put people into a sort of high stress category, low stress category, based, purely on what they felt.

And then they asked them one other question, which was, to what extent do you feel stress is good for you or bad for you? And they put them again into a category, whereas I believe it's bad for me. And I believe it's good for me. After a number of years, quite a few years went by and they looked at health records, death records. It was a very large population and they wanted to know who had suffered from stress and who hadn't. It turned out there was zero correlation between those people who reported to experience high stress, and whether they suffered negatively from stress physically from stress. A zero correlation, which is crazy. That completely goes against so much.

Amy Williams:

Everything we kind of think, yeah.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, and what we are taught to believe about stress, stress = bad. What they found, however, was that there was a strong correlation between those people who believed stress that was bad for them and suffering the ill effects of stress and negative health; compared to those who believed that stress was good for them. And it turned out to manifest itself in things like our blood vessels, for example. So our major vessels coming out of the heart would, if we believe stress is bad for us, constrict and therefore increase our blood pressure. So people with the belief that stress is bad, and almost fighting the feelings of stress would actually experience the negative effects, which would cause then sort of buildup of fatty tissue and they would be more likely to suffer heart disease and things like that.

Now that's crazy. When you think about it, that we have this belief that stress is killing people left right and center, and it's, you know, the biggest sort of health hazard that we've seen, but actually it's our attitudes and beliefs about it that kill more people.

So how do we bring that back to sport? And what can we, what can we actually learn from that? I'm constantly trying to challenge people's belief on the experiences that they have and how they internalise this stuff. And I believe that there are lots of ways in which we can invite stress on our terms. So for me, the equivalent of that study and doing this properly with athletes is, let's identify, I don't know, 10 different ways that we can invite stress or pressure. Stressors, into your world. And I'd love to know if you did any of this as well as an athlete.

But it could be as simple as, if you're a triathlete for example, and you're going through transition. I like to use this because it's a simple example to use. If you're going to practice stress, not only do you have to be able to do your transition in there as quickly as you possibly can, but now you can physically exhaust yourself. Do shuttle runs, get your heart rate going at 150 beats per minute and then practice and do that five times as part of an interval training.

Well, that's just a simple example of where we've invited a very particular stressor, but it's on our terms. So we are now going into that situation with the belief that what I'm doing is good. It's helping me. So we start to develop internally a positive relationship with stress.

Amy Williams:

I'm trying to think of one if I was like a really evil coach, could you like slightly undo their laces? You know, pull them out of the little loop holes. So actually they came to do that and they were like quick. And then could they cope in that scenario of almost like having to properly do the laces up, or I don't know...

Charlie Unwin:

Maybe a safer one.

Amy Williams:

Obviously clearly a small practice, you know, not in a major competition, but you know, just in a, in a home competition. I'm trying to think of those real scenarios.

Charlie Unwin:

Working with skeleton, we had a number of things. We had a whole list, which was a great fun exercise as coaches coming up with potential stressors. And they would range from things like in a training session. You're given a very particular time to go. Because that's the other thing. People don't practice their full race routine much. And there's something about going through your full race routine from beginning to end, which is a stress in itself because you are dictated to by the very timings that you will in a competition, you can't simply say, yeah, I'm feeling ready now. So I'm going to practice my push. You wouldn't get that luxury in competition. Therefore I will be going at 1132 ready or not

Amy Williams:

It was so specific. You knew if you were number six off, it was almost two minutes per athlete. You know, you had a set time, you know, you could just about, unless there was a crash before you or something completely unusual happened, which would clearly knock back your time, which you had no control over. You're right. You kind of knew to the minute when it was your turn.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. So if you didn't feel you were ready for some reason - tough, you know, you've got to go. Yeah. So that in itself is a stressor, but of course we would do things like you say, suddenly press pause and say, right your start time has been delayed by five minutes. What are you going to do? And the athlete would have to respond in that moment. That's that should be one. I imagine that you're fairly familiar with and comfortable with what would I do in two minutes? What would I do in five minutes? What would I do if there a delay by half an hour and having these kinds of plans?

Caffeine is another one. I mean, I learned that you are allowed legally allowed to use 8 shots of caffeine, or give an athlete eight shots of caffeine before it comes illegal. Now imagine eight shots of caffeine. You're going to be wired.

Amy Williams:

I didn't actually think it was that high. I always told myself in our race, I wasn't allowed more than two strong coffees. And then if you had a red bull or something like, I shouldn't say that word, like some caffeinated drink. You had to then be careful because of the drugs testing.

Charlie Unwin:

Okay. Yeah, in competition. I think in training you wouldn't want that. Yeah. I know. I'm not suggesting that by the way. Yeah don't. But you know what? You've had a few strong coffees, you got to have that, and now you've got to go through your routine. You know, giving yourself half the amount of warmup, physical exhaustion, tiredness in the army. So we would learn certain standard operating procedures, which are like techniques for an athlete whether they're sort of transitions, whether they're, techniques that, you know, combat artists might have to go through. And now, you know, you've got to do it with very little sleep. We would always wish not to have no little sleep because it's obviously a very important part of our performance. However, the reality of it is that if we know we can do it with little sleep, we feel much more confident.

Amy Williams:

And you know what, before major competitions let's face it, most people don't sleep very well. I mean, I feel like I had hardly any sleep before the Olympics for numerous reasons either because they purposely pop extremely late training. The one night, I remember not coming back from the track until half past 11 at night, you still have to prep all your sled. You still had to get yourself ready. You probably weren't going to bed till like half past one.

You still have to get up crazy early. I remember the very last track walk I had to still get up at like half past four. So I literally had a few hours’ sleep before needing to get up to do that very early track work. Maybe they were being a bit sneaky knowing let's put a really late training session and a really early time slot that they could do. So you knew you did have to compete and maybe do that very last training day with real minimal sleep. So that's quite normal, isn't it?

Charlie Unwin:

And in that situation I think what's really important is that that's an explicit thing with the coaches. So we acknowledge you're going to be tired. We acknowledged that this is going to be a challenge for you. We have to work on the strategies that allow you to perform effectively despite that, because otherwise we go back to the very first example of the pentathletes, who were great at coming up with ways of increasing stress, but actually all it did was magnify those who could do it well. And those who couldn't.

Well, what we have to do is shine a light on the things that help you to perform well in those circumstances. So if you're very tired, you need mechanisms and often breathing techniques allow you to activate, to get your heart rate up. Using visualisation techniques, to be able to visualise what it is that you're going to do. Maybe under high pressure to again, sort of get you ready for it, to get you mentally and physically ready for it.

So I think those examples and normal, right, for an athlete, we hope that they don't come around, but they do. I think what's really important is that we're really explicit about what we're trying to do and how we're going to deal with this particular challenge. The other thing I would say about inviting stress is to layer it. We don't want to be doing all of this stuff at the same time because otherwise stress has this cumulative effect of building on top of each other. So part of the methodology of training stress and training ourselves to be good at it is by isolating one stress at a time.

So this is where I'd encourage everyone to use the stress ladder. What I call the stress ladder, which is basically, write down as many examples of things that could and might cause you stress in your sport as you possibly can. So, you know, using all the things that we've spoken about make them quite technical for your sport as well. So if you're in a combat sport or a sport where you're, you're directly against an opposition going down, you know, by a certain number of points really early on, you know, that is a stressor in itself. So come up with a load of different things that can cause you that can cause you stress that can make it more difficult to execute good technique and a race plan, whatever it might be, and then try to rank them in terms of which, which do you intuitively find it the most easy to deal with and which are the most difficult.

And that becomes your stress ladder with the easiest at the bottom rungs and the hardest at the top rungs. And what I'd encourage you to do is find ways of actually inviting those things, practicing those things one by one, just over time.

Now in order to do this, I think we've got to overcome this mindset of when we turn up to training, we have to beat other people. We've got to be, you know, we've got to be at our very best. Of course, if we're practicing, being physically exhausted before doing the certain technique, we have to recognise that it might mean doing it a bit slower. It might mean doing it slightly less well. We're trying to do it as well as we can, but it might mean that our time comes down a little bit. So we've got to overcome that in our mindsets and get beyond the result and focus on the process of getting better and stress inoculation is just one of those processes that gets us better.

Amy Williams:

So thank you Charlie, for another great week. It's been fascinating and thank you very much for tuning in everyone. Hit your bell. Subscribe, tell your friends and family if you've enjoyed this and share away. Have a very Merry Christmas!

Tune in next Thursday for Episode 16

See you then!

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