Coaching & Development, Human Performance | Jul 31, 2014
The Iron Lady

Chrissie Wellington is one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time. She left her job in 2007, aged 30, to become a professional triathlete and won her first Iron Man World Championship within a year. Here, she talks about just what it takes to make it to the top in something as tough as Ironman.

What do you think makes a great coach?

I put a tweet out a couple of weeks ago just expressing my gratitude to all the coaches out there because they really are the unsung heroes. A lot of them, especially at amateur level, are doing this voluntarily and the club structure is incredibly supportive.

I would never underestimate the importance of a coach at any level, whether you are starting out and you need a mentor or an adviser or whether you’re an elite athlete. I think at elite level, the talent of the coach can be the make-or-break factor. A coach is so much more than a qualification on a piece of paper.

The three coaches I’ve had have been in three different areas of my life: the late Frank Horwill, then Brett Sutton and Dave Scott all had something extra. It wasn’t their ability to create a programme that set them apart, it was their ability to read me better than I could read myself. They were my eyes when I couldn’t see myself, they knew my capabilities before I did. That intuition and the confidence of the coach is so important. I don’t think that skill is present in all coaches and it’s why the relationship between the coach and the athlete is absolutely vital. The coach may have those skills but if coach and athlete don’t gel, then it’s never going to work and that’s a matter of personality. Not everyone can be friends, not everyone can work together as an employee or supervisor. But when it does work and you have that mutually shared goal and that mutual trust, that’s absolutely vital.

And is it easy to place that trust in a coach?

For me, it was incredibly difficult to place absolute trust in my coaches and I don’t mind admitting that. I’m a very independent person, I can be very stubborn and those are traits that have got me far in life, but they are also not necessarily conducive to being subservient to someone else’s demands. Initially I resisted and questioned, and I think it was only when I gave myself over to my coach that I really soared – it liberated me.

Before, I would continually question myself, criticise myself, beat myself up over what I had or hadn’t done and over-analyse things. So when I finally placed my trust in Brett [Sutton] it meant I didn’t have to worry, to stress. If he had told me to push a peanut across the floor with my nose I would have done it, and that proved to be incredibly successful.

That said, I don’t think it was sustainable because it failed to empower me. It wasn’t a reciprocal relationship, it was a very authoritarian way of working and as an independent and critical thinker, I wanted to know the whys and wherefores of what I was doing. So while that type of relationship helped me initially, it eventually ran its course and I was ready for a new type of coach-athlete relationship, which Dave [Scott] provided.

Is that change typical of elite athletes?

I think as an athlete you evolve. You mature and your strengths can change, your weaknesses can become your strengths and as you develop, sometimes the coach-athlete relationship needs to change. That’s not to say it’s always the case and it can be very difficult to change. This may sound like I am contradicting myself because I said I’m open to change and I’m open to trying new things but it’s also quite hard, especially when you are successful and things are working, to change things.

So it’s a leap of faith really?

Sometimes. And it was definitely hard for me shifting from Brett [Sutton] to Dave [Scott], but ultimately I think everyone has an incredibly strong intuition and it’s really important in life to listen to that and to trust in that but also be prepared to evolve and adapt. There’s the old saying that if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got – true even if you’re at the top of your game.

When I changed from Brett to Dave I had won two World Championships already and I’d won every Ironman I had done and yet I was considering changing coach. That might have seemed strange to some people but it’s not just a change in training programme. Sometimes it’s a change in coaching philosophy that’s needed. I think if athletes evolve then there is a constant need to assess and to reflect, to make sure that you are doing everything that is right for you in achieving your goals.

How important is mind training and how does it work for you? When you’re doing an Ironman, what is it that enables you to have that extra edge?

I feel quite strongly that the psychological part of sport is incredibly important and we are now hearing more about it, especially with the likes of Team Sky and Liverpool FC working with Dr Steve Peters. I think sports psychologists are becoming a more important part of an athlete’s arsenal.

I know that in Triathlon the majority of professional athletes are doing more or less the same training. I lived in Boulder and I was surrounded by athletes, so there’s obviously something that set us apart. That something in part is the psychological side and I think some athletes, myself included, are born with this innate competitiveness, this drive, this ability to self-motivate. But there are also tools and strategies that you can develop and get to know through the course of your career. I didn’t work with a sport psychologist but my coaches enabled me to develop the mental strength that I needed to succeed and those tools and strategies are varied and can be deployed at different stages.

For example? Is it as simple as saying ‘If I’m really struggling towards the end of a race then I will do this or I’ll do that and I will think of this’?

Therein lies the issue. People think that it’s only in racing that you deploy these strategies, but it’s not. It’s in training that you do this because racing then becomes second nature. When you race, you already know what strategy you’re going to use when it hurts, because I know when I’m racing it’s going to hurt like hell – if it doesn’t hurt like hell at different stages in the race I’m not doing it hard enough, so I expect that, I anticipate that but it doesn’t scare me, it doesn’t scare me that I’m going to be uncomfortable, it doesn’t scare me that I’m going to have those demons because I know them, because I’ve had them in training.

I guess the most important thing to do is to learn to hurt in training. It’s quite subtle, it’s not gratuitous masochism where you just go out and torture yourself every day, it’s a subtle process whereby your coach sets you targets or goals that you don’t think you can achieve and yet you go through that process in training and you do achieve them. I mean I’ve gone into sessions and thought: ‘There’s no way in hell I can do that’ and I’ve gone through it, I’ve done it and I’ve hurt. Those are the sessions that you bank, and when it hurts in racing you think back to the session that you didn’t think you could do yet you did – and that’s really powerful.

I have a mantra, I visualise, I recite poetry in my head, I write Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ on my water bottles, I read it before a race, I have this kind of bank of memories in my mind. 

They can be family, plates of chips, images of winning, anything. When it’s tough in almost every race I’ve done, I have thought of quitting but I won all those races. So I remember that and when I think of quitting the next time, I think: ‘Wow, if you quit the last time you never would have won, so don’t you dare quit this time.’

Pushing yourself so hard, how do you avoid going too far in training and injuring yourself?

It’s a gradual progression and that’s why you trust your coach to have that overall insight into the process of development. I just did the session, but in the back of my coach’s mind he knew what I was going to be doing next week to build on the session.

It’s kind of an iterative process of development but you know it’s not just training, it’s your responsibility as an athlete. That ensures that you strengthen your body so that you become more resistant – so that’s nutrition, hydration, strength and conditioning and all the other pillars of training. If I went out and absolutely flogged myself then went to the pub and had five beers then I’m not going to benefit and I’m undermining what I’m doing.

One of the other tricks I had – and most people do this – is to break the session or the race down. For example you know you’ve got 10 times a mile, running repeats or whatever, you don’t go into that session thinking: ‘Oh God, I’ve got 10 times a mile,’ you go in there thinking: ‘I’ve got five blocks of two.’ So I’m doing two, then I’m doing another two and so on.

It’s the same in a race, I never think: ‘Oh my God I’m going to be racing for eight hours.’ I just think: ‘I’ve got to get to the first swim buoy, then I’ve got to get on my bike then I’m doing 40k and 40k and 40k,’ and you break it down. You play tricks with yourself and you have this subtle switch in the way in which you perceive things.

Your perception’s really important. If you’re halfway through you can either think – say you’re doing 40 times 100m in the pool – ‘Oh my God, I’ve only done 20, I’ve got another 20 to go’ or ‘Awesome, I’m halfway’. It sounds so simple but it’s that subtle way of thinking about things that’s really important.

You also need to stay in the moment. It’s all too easy to think: ‘I’ve only done two, how am I going to feel when I’m up to eight?’ And I know because experience tells me that the way I’m feeling after two is not how my body’s going to feel after eight. Sometimes it improves, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you have a high, sometimes you have a low. You should just stay in the moment and get the most out of yourself, then let the next moment take care of itself. 

And psychologically, when you are training or in a race, is failure or success the bigger spur?

I think any athlete is motivated by a range of different carrots and sticks. I’ve always been motivated to do the best that I could do. I just wanted to see how good I could get, be the best athlete that I could possibly be, I was motivated to utilize the platform that I had to raise awareness about different causes.I knew that the more I could achieve as an athlete, the more I could achieve in the political sphere that I wanted to penetrate.

But of course, as well as ‘carrots’, we’re also motivated by ‘sticks’ and fear of failure is one of those. My fear of failure became stronger as I became more successful. The weight of expectation that I put on myself was bigger and the weight of expectation that others had for me quite naturally was bigger. I think that there is a fear of failure internally – I’ve always had that, I’m quite a people-pleaser so, you know, I wasn’t surprised that I was scared to lose.

Sport psychology is fascinating. In Michael Johnson’s book Slaying the Dragon he talks about the winner’s mind-set. He says to be a champion you’ve got to want to win, you don’t take the win for granted but that’s your goal and you’ve got to have self-belief and self-confidence and you’ve got to target that win – that was not my experience. I had the goal of just being the best athlete I could be, I never had the goal of winning the World Age-Group Championship, I never had the goal of winning my first Ironman, I certainly never had the goal of winning Kona, but that happened to me, so I would question the suggestion that an athlete always has to be focused on winning to win.

I think it depends very much on the athlete. I’ve been trying to work it out in my own head – how can you win when you didn’t expect to win? You know it just didn’t even cross my own mind. I personally think it’s the weight of expectation, I didn’t have any expectation and that enabled me just to fly. For me there was no pressure at all – that was liberating. Latterly I actually had the goal of winning and it was the pressure to perform and achieve that goal that buoyed me up and elevated me, so I think that changes and I think that’s quite an interesting dynamic.

Unfortunately, I haven’t got the answers to it, but I do say to people ‘You’ve got to have a goal, you’ve got to have a goal set’, but then in my own mind I’m thinking ‘Well, actually you didn’t have a goal set in Kona and yet you won’. But I did have the goal to be the best athlete that I could be, to go out there and just give it everything and as it happened that was enough to win.

There’s not really an obvious answer to it is there?

Yeah, I think that it shows that while there are some traits common to athletes we’re all motivated by different things and we’re all very individual. A lot of us watched the Vicky Pendleton interview where she’s crying, saying: ‘I’m not good enough and I can’t win this’ and she’s a multiple champion! Compare her to someone like Michael Johnson or me, who do have that self-belief and self-confidence, we’re different people, yet we’ve all achieved great things. I think there are commonalities but I think there are differences too.

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