Going For ‘Non’ Olympic Gold

Watching the Olympics pricks a motivational itch to do something active. After Wimbledon it’s inevitable that tennis courts up and down the country are booked up, the Tour de France encourages the Mamils (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) to crowd country roads and the New Year sees a spat of people out running. But it generally doesn’t last. The Fitness Industry Association report that 22% of people who join the gym in January will have stopped going at all after 24 weeks and 50% after 6 months.

We know we need to exercise but it can be incredibly hard to get going without some big inspirational push and harder still to keep going. Why is that? Why aren’t we all like Olympians?

Aside from the obvious (e.g. natural capability and extreme drive), practical factors get in the way: a late night at work, a last minute call to go out with a friend, a weekend filled with kids activities and well, just life in general – jam packed with things that have to get done. All of this dramatically interferes with habit formation in the brain, which is something that Olympians don’t have to contend with.

Habit Forming And Exercise

When we first perform a behaviour, say restart a gym routine, it takes considerable conscious effort. Once we have repeated the behaviour over and over it’s triggered and performed in a subconscious area of the brain called the basal ganglia making it automatic, it takes far less mental effort. The problem when we stop and start our exercise all the time is that it rarely becomes a deeply engrained habit. And it’s habit that we need to keep it going regardless of how busy life gets.

Habit Forming Obstacles

  1. Our Ancient Brain

From an evolutionary perspective we are driven to conserve energy until we really need it (e.g. running away from an enemy), so while exercise gives us a buzz, the initial thought of doing any is overlaid by the survival driven part of our brain telling us to sit down for a bit longer. When exercise isn’t a habit, this leads to the internal dialogue between our rational and survival driven brain:

‘I should go to the gym but it’s getting late now, maybe I’ll go tomorrow, I did a good work out yesterday, I should really get on with my ‘to do list’, I’m tired, I don’t feel too well, it’s too cold outside, etc.’

For Olympians, activity is such a strongly engrained habit that the debate doesn’t happen. For us mere mortals, not allowing ourselves to even question whether or not to do exercise is a really helpful approach. I put exercise in the diary then do it before I can start debating the pros and cons.

  1. Lack of Identification

Olympians ‘are’ the sport they do (there’s no question over whether Mo Farah is a runner). While for non-Olympians hours of daily physical activity is not a practicality, incorporating exercise into how we see ourselves removes another barrier. This is why athletes tend to so effortless switch from one sport to another, they have an implicit belief that sport is who they are e.g. Victoria Pendleton from cyclist to jockey, Chris Hoy from cyclist to racing car driver.

I’ve always been physically active so see myself as sporty, but I’ve always hated running. For the past year I’ve been running at least 3 times a week, which has taken a huge mental effort and has definitely not felt like a habit. But, recently I was in a sports shop looking at the running stuff and this sudden realization came over me – I am a runner (obviously not like Mo Farah, but as far as a local running group is concerned). I’ve shifted my mindset from running being something other people do, to something I do. This mental shift makes forming a habit much easier.

  1. Working Against Our Preferences

Although the media made a big thing about Gold Medalist Adam Peaty not liking water when he was tiny, ultimately it was him who decided he wanted to train as a swimmer. You can’t force a child to dedicate hours of practice to something they really don’t want to do, and the same principle is true of adults.

Starting a running regime if you hate running is going to be far harder than finding something you really enjoy and making that your exercise of choice (I realise I’m contradicting myself, but I’m extremely stubborn so not a great example.)

  1. Feeling Like a Failure

 It may sound obvious but taking small steps to reach a goal is much more effective than aiming to be as fast a runner as Jessica Ennis in your first 4 weeks then giving up because you can’t do it. Setting realistic sub-goals, stretching but not beyond our reach is critical.

This also links to Emotional Resilience because even taking smaller steps it’s inevitable that we’ll fail: we’ll do a slower run, we’ll have a busy week where we don’t manage to exercise, we may get injured, all putting a spanner in the works for habit formation. This is when we need to get back up and try again.

Murray had so many near misses at Wimbledon in the years leading up to his success. If he hadn’t believed that ultimately he would make it he could of retired, but he didn’t, he kept going.

  1. Doing it Alone

Although an introvert may prefer a solitary exercise schedule, we are all in some way social by our very make-up, and even if we are introverts we need encouragement and feedback from other people. Trying to do something alone creates obstacles because it works against our natural make-up. Olympic athletes are surrounded by teams of coaches which plays to a need to belong. They are also consistently competing, which not only provides feedback on their own performance but plays to another deeply embedded driver to compare ourselves to other group members. Being with someone else also provides a distraction which is incredibly helpful in getting on with something we may otherwise give up.

Overall it’s about finding what works best for you and what your personal derailers are, the things that prevent you from getting into good exercise habits. Do it and you too could be winning Non Olympic Gold.


Links and References:


The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg

Yin, H.H., Knowlton, B.J. (2006)The role of the basal ganglia in habit formation, Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7, 464-476

‘Bounce-Back-Ability’ aka Emotional Resilience

Bounce 1

Part of my job is carrying out in-depth psychological profiling to ‘check out’ the fit of leaders for roles. One client requested that I include an assessment of Emotional Resilience for every leader I saw, and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ll explain why later, but for now….

What does Emotional Resilience mean?

The word resilience comes from the Latin ‘resilio’, which means to jump (or bounce). Adding emotional refers to our ability to bounce back from stressful life events. It’s our ‘bounce-back-ability’.

We can’t avoid stress, it’s there everyday, for everyone. While the spectrum ranges from minor hiccups, like being stuck in traffic to major events, such as loss of a loved one, we all experience it. Leaders arguably encounter higher levels of stress than ‘Your Average Joe’, but it’s critical for everyone’s emotional health to manage stress.

Are some people born with more Emotional Resilience than others?

‘Yes’ there are some people who are ‘naturally’ more resilient. We all know people who glide through life without a care in the world and those who are pulled down by every minor glitch. BUT there’s also a major environmental component. So we can learn to be more resilient, and it’s definitely worth doing.

 Does our environment support us?

Unfortunately not, the International Resilience Project, which sought to understand how ‘youth’ from around the world cope with adversities found that “Only about 38 per cent of the thousands of responses….indicate that resilience is being promoted.” Sadly we’re just not set up to understand let alone promote positive psychological constructs.

Taking a personal example, a good friend died a few weeks ago, followed by my Granny. With the best intentions I was told to ‘be strong’, ‘don’t be sad’, ‘keep your chin up’. These are the typical phrases we offer to help. But what these comments unintentionally infer (and therefore what runs as an undercurrent across society) is that we shouldn’t experience the feelings, we should suppress them or avoid them. What’s more if we can’t or don’t, we’re doing something wrong or we’re weak. But this isn’t what emotional resilience is. In fact it’s a very unhealthy way to approach things.

So what does Emotional Resilience look like?

As I opened on the theme of leadership, I’ll use Nelson Mandela to illustrate the factors involved, a man who encountered extreme adversity yet came out stronger the other side.

  • Positive Self Concept & Outlook – a belief that whatever is going on, you’re still in control of the situation rather than it being something that is ‘done to you’.

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years, without a strong belief that things were going to ultimately turn out OK it is unlikely he would have emerged the man who then became President e.g. “I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon.”

  • Growth Mindset – a flexibility and openness, adjusting personal expectations depending on what is thrown your way and constantly being willing to learn and develop.

Throughout his life Mandela questioned, observed, reflected, learnt and adjusted his mindset. Rather than leave prison a bitter person, he emerged a wiser and more rounded individual e.g. “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

  • Persistence – the ability to keep on going whatever is thrown at you.

Mandela kept focused on his mission throughout his life. He had an utter belief in his vision of creating a better South Africa e.g. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

  • Strong Social Network – having strong interpersonal relationships and being willing to ask for help.

Mandela formed deep bonds with a range of people, even one of his prison guards from Robben Island, Christo Brand. Such was the depth of their friendship that Brand describes feeling like “He’d lost a father” when Mandela died.

  • Emotional Awareness – an ability to understand and accept emotions, to manage rather than deny, suppress or give in to them. This may mean being sad, but not letting the sadness linger.

Mandela faced negative emotions but he didn’t let them overcome him e.g. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

A leader who has Emotional Resilience can perform even when the going gets tough, they can shoulder the responsibilities that they take on with the role. But we all need it, and in my next blog I’ll talk about how we can get more ‘bounce-back-ability’.

N.B. It’s important to understand that someone who is mentally ill won’t simply be able to ‘snap out of’ his or her condition by thinking differently. There may be a genetic or chemical component to their illness that needs to be addressed, alongside learning to approach their thoughts in an alternative way. This does not make them weak. e.g. successful people from every walk of life may be emotionally resilient yet still suffer from bouts of depression.


Links and References



Conversations with Myself, Nelson Mandela

Stein MB, Campbell-Sills L, Gelernter J (2009) Genetic Variation in 5HTTLPR is Associated with Emotional Resilience. American Journal of Medical Genetics, Oct 5; 150B(7): 900–906.