I’m in Waterloo station today sitting down for coffee with Annie Vernon. Now retired from competition, Annie is an Olympic silver medallist and two-time World Champion rower.
She’s also just written a book called “Mind Games”, which is all about the psychology of elite athletes.
We talk about everything from drive and competitive instinct to finding purpose and athlete transition. She also has some interesting comments on building specific types of confidence to ensure success.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 25.1.20 – Ep 52. Annie Vernon – on the psychology of elite athletes
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
T: Welcome to a Question of Performance. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
I’m in Waterloo Station today sitting down for coffee with Annie Vernon. Now retired from competition, Annie is an Olympic silver medallist and two time world champion rower. She’s also just written a book called Mind Games which is all about the psychology of elite athletes. We talk about everything from drive and competitive instinct to finding purpose and athlete transition. She also some interesting comments on building specific types of confidence to ensure success.
I think identity is an interesting concept particularly elite athletes they are transitioning or retired, so I started the interview with asking her how she responds when people ask her who she is.
AV: When I was an athlete I used to hate that question. I think when you’re living it it’s such a massive overwhelming identity and it almost blanks out everything else about you, but I would do all I could to avoid answering it truthfully. I got into a pickle once in the hairdresser’s when I told them I was a teacher then they started saying, “Oh, but its Wednesday morning in term time, how come you’re at the hairdresser’s?” “Oh,” says I, “Erm, yeah, we’re on inset today.” “Oh, so which school do you teach at?” And then before I knew it I was in a web of lies. I think now I’m retired I’m much happier because I’ve got lots of different things in my life and being form athlete is just part of that. But, certainly when I was rowing I hated saying I was an athlete because it would blow people’s minds, they didn’t know what to ask you next and it would completely dominate the conversation and I hated that, I liked to being seen as just a normal person who happened to be doing something a bit unique but I didn’t want ever to be seen as doing something or believing that I did something that was more important or more exciting than other people, so I would always shy away from it.
I don’t know if that’s a real female thing to say but I hated saying I was an athlete. [Laugh].
TP: Do you see your time rowing as part of your career or a different career?
AV: I guess it’s a bit like anything in life isn’t it, things we do in our 20’s I imagine most of them get to 30, look back at their 20’s and say, ‘Gosh, why did I do all those things? Why did I make all those mistakes?’ I guess everything we do forms who we are as a person. I mean, certainly, right now, it’s just part of who I am and it’s part of what I used to do. Right now, I’m juggling parenthood so I would say being a mum is the most overwhelming [laughs] thing that I’ve ever done and certainly the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
But no, I look back at it partly as something I used to do and a different life happened to a different person, and then part of me sometimes I see my old rowing friends or I see a photo or something and I’m right back there and I’m living it and I can visualise right now what it’s like to sit on a rowing machine halfway through a 24k ergo wishing you were dead [laughs] and I don’t miss those days!
TP: Was it hard to find purpose after you retired?
AV: It was, yes. And I knew that having really struggled, so I was luckily enough to go to two Olympic Games and do two complete Olympic cycles, so I was eight years a professional. And after my first Games I found that three month period after Games just so low and so hard to just understand how you live: what do you eat? How much food do you eat if you’re not training? How much do you drink, how much alcohol is right to drink, because when you’re training you don’t really drink alcohol much. So I thought is one glass one a night too much? Is a bottle too much? I just didn’t know and this sounds really stupid but you’re almost learning from scratch: how much do I need to sleep, how many hours a night do I need? Because when I’m an athlete I know I need to sleep this much, if I’m not training I don’t need that much but what’s the right answer? So it’s almost like you’ve been plucked out a laboratory and stuck back into life and you have to learn all of these basics for the first time.
TP: How did that go for you?
AV: It was hard, it was really hard, because not only are you dealing with that side of it and also the body changing your body shape changing and your energy levels changing, how you just day-to-day routine changes, but also you’ve got this massive hole in your life which is that, well I’m not training for the Olympics so what’s the point of living? If I don’t have this goal of the Olympic Games in my life, how do I define anything? How do I make any decision? How do I get up in the morning, what’s the point if I haven’t got the Olympic Games to focus on? And I think when I came back to rowing for another four years, I knew I didn’t want to feel like that again, so I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to take control,’ so in the run-up to the London 2020 Games, after which I knew I was 75% certain that that would be my last, my last act as a rower, I put in place loads of strategies for the three to four months afterwards: job interviews, work experience, holidays; time doing things I’d never done before; I started a new relationship as well which really helped with that identity, and so I proactively took control.
But certainly that period after my first Games was really dark, and I knew that after London I knew it was right for me to walk away I knew I didn’t want to go back, but I also knew that there would be times over the next few year that I’d question that decision and I’d say, “But I have to go back to rowing I don’t know anything else, what’s the point in life?” And there are times you wake up in the middle of the night and think what am I doing, what am I doing to myself, I should be training? And I guess I’d always have those rational thoughts that would then kick-in afterwards and say, “No, it’s right for you to retire, it’s right for you to do other things. It’s going to be hard in the short term, stick at it.” And I guess that’s my training as an athlete, as an athlete you train to override your emotional side and replace it with what you know is the right thing to do, in the same way that when you’re doing a race that’s really painful your body is telling you, ‘Stop, stop, stop it really hurts’ and you have to override that and say, ‘No, keep focussing on your technique, focussing on your tactics,’ so you learn how to control your thoughts and control your emotions and that really came into its own once I’d finished [laughs].
TP: Last year, you published a book Mind Games – why?
AV: Well I also had my first child just before publishing it, so I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone [laughs] don’t write a book and have a child at the same time it’s really stressful.
Why did I publish a book? Well, there’s not straightforward answer to that, I guess the book is all about the psychology of elite athletes so I really did put elite athletes, myself and my peers under a microscope and studied their brains and studied their minds and said, “Why do they do things? How do they do things?” And I suppose my main reason was that I felt there was such a misconception between what the general public thought about elite athletes and how they did things mentally and what actually happened. I felt that the public see someone like Serena Williams and ‘Gosh, she’s been training since she was four, she’s been playing tennis since she could walk. She’s spent her 10,000 hours in the gym, all those kind of things. But I thought my view as that the general public didn’t realise is that the same process went into the mental side, they think, ‘Well, she’s just born with rock solid confidence, she’s just born completely motivated to training every day, she’s born with the ability to be coached and to get it right on the day,’ and all those other hundreds of mental traits you need to develop. And the reality is that’s not just true, the reality is people to develop all those abilities in the same way they develop their physical side. Serena Williams wasn’t born able to do the physical stuff she can now, and she wasn’t born with the ability to wind grand slam finals mentally and deal with that pressure or come back from an injury, she learnt how to do those things. So I wanted to show that side of it, I wanted to show that mental skills are learnt traits that are psychology is a muscle and we train it to do the things we want to train it. And I also wanted to show how that process happens, so what the steps people take in order to get to the point where they can run out at Twickenham in front of 80,000 people and perform to the best of their ability.
TP: In your opinion, what creates drive?
AV: Well that’s an interesting one because having said that all mental skills are developed and are learned, I kind of think drive and ambition it’s just one of those things for some people it’s there and for some people it’s not, and I don’t really think we necessarily know why. And I don’t just mean in sport, I think people who rise to the top in industry and business and finance and politics, I think, for some, reason they are just wired to always want to be the best. And, in fact, one of the women I interviewed for my book, because I interviewed between 60 and 70 elite coaches, athletes and psychologies: Michelle Griffiths-Robinson, she said to me, I looked around my primary school a little primary school in Wembley and I thought to myself, ‘You’re all going to be ordinary, I’m going to be extraordinary.” And for a kid at primary school to say that that’s huge and I think that really demonstrates the fact that drive is just there and there’s a few reasons we can point at – there’s childhood, there’s parenting, there’s sibling rivalry which is huge, but, ultimately, you either have that desire to go all the way and always strive for the best.
TP: What about competitiveness, is that the same?
AV: You see, I would say they’re two different things. I think drive is that desire to always go one further – okay, I got 99% of the test, how can I get 100%? Okay, I came second at this race, how can I come first? And I think that’s just in you. Whereas competitiveness to me is the ability to channel that drive in the right direction so that you’re not always just beating yourself, you’re not always trying to tear yourself apart to win every little race, but, actually, you can manage it and you can direct it and you can learn how to temper it so that it’s a positive force for good, because I think you meet a lot of really competitive people who are very good at beating themselves up and they’re not very good at winning the things that matter.
TP: You’ve obviously learnt a great deal from research and from writing your book. Looking at your own performance, do you now think, ‘Gosh, I could have done that differently?’
AV: Well I think this is one of the reasons that I wanted to write the book and I enjoyed writing the book, because I think the mental side of sport I was never that good at. And I think it’s exactly the same as some people who they say that the worst athletes make the best coaches. So if you’ve struggled at something you then become much better at explaining it to other people. I realise I’m talking to a coach so I’m sure [laughs] you were a great athlete as well. And I think that’s probably why I’ve enjoyed writing the book so much because I really found the psychology side quite hard it’s something I hard to learn from first principles. I think my approach when I first got into rowing was, ‘Well if just train hard and I am hard that’s all I need to do.” And after a while you realise that’s just not true, you can’t approach every training session with 200%; you can’t ignore everyone around you and just lock yourself in bubble; you can’t, I don’t know, not communicate with your coach; you can’t have days you’re on fire and days you’re just terrible, you need to learn those consistent mental skills that will be there for you every day and you need to train them and develop. But I think because I had to learn that for myself I was then better able to unpick to put it in a book.
TP: There’s a quote in your book that stood out for me: “I developed an innate confidence that wasn’t based on evidence because I knew the evidence could be fickle.”
TP: How can you create belief when doubt is so strong?
AV: Well this is really interesting and I think everyone when it comes to confidence, which is one of the mental skills that I look at Mind Games, when it comes to confidence everyone is somewhere different on that spectrum of how much it needs to be backed up by evidence and how much is just innate. And also how that confidence is manifested, some people are strutting around like peacocks, some people are pretty quiet and pretty low key but, actually, their levels of confidence internally will be exactly the same. And I was able to base my confidence just on that more innate belief, that’s how I organised it. How can you do that? Well there’s a lot, there are messages from childhood, there’s what your parents have said to along the way; there’s how you performed as a youth as a teenager, so ultimately when you become an adult it’s kind of there? Whereas people perhaps who always struggled against the tide a bit more, maybe they need more evidence, they need more external verification because the internal stuff is lacking. But I think, for me, it wasn’t necessarily that the confidence was there it was that I needed to have a specific confidence, I needed to be able to say to myself on my best day, I can win the Olympic Games. And that’s not something you believe overnight, you can be a naturally confident person but in sport it needs to be specific it needs to have a number on it for a 100 meter runner, ‘I believe I can break 10 seconds,’ and it needs to be a very specific kind of confidence relative to what you’re doing. If you’re a javelin thrower not only, ‘I believe I can throw this distance,’ but also, ‘And I can throw it under conditions of great pressure once every four years.’
So your confidence does become very specific and very measurable, so I was able to have that innate, ‘Do you know what, I think can do it if I put my mind to it,’ but I then had to make that very specific relative to what I know about rowing, the races I’ve done, the people I trained with, the results I have and the scores that I’ve got, I think I can be the best in the world, not necessarily day but it’s possible. And that was the mantra I always said to myself, ‘It is possible,’ it’s not that on the big race if I performed my best I would be found wanting. If I get everything right I can win the Olympics. Whether or not I will is a different matter.
TP: I suppose that feeling of its possible also ends up motivating you in training as well.
AV: Of course, yeah, because then, for me, it was all about my best performance. Okay, so if my best performance is good enough to win the Olympics, I’m not looking at anyone else to produce to that that’s about my best performance, so what is my best performance and how do I achieve it? What does it look like and what does it feel like? So that then becomes a process of self-discovery, which is quite refreshing rather than constantly thinking, ‘Oh, well, I’ll feel confident once I reach this score, or if I win GB trials then I’ll feel confident, or if my coach tells I’m looking good then I’ll feel confident.’ For me it was just this constant questioning of, ‘Okay, so if that’s my best performance, if that’s all I need my best performance I’ve got to grow another leg. What is that and what does it look and what does it feel like?
TP: What surprised you in your research?
AV: It surprised me how different people were, how different we all are in how we go about organising our brains. And I think, that sounds really obvious, but I guess even things like, I don’t know, take competitiveness which we’ve already talked about, I assumed that everyone was like me, I want to win everything I do if it’s Trivial Pursuit at Christmas, if it’s building a sand castle on the beach I want my sandcastle to be bigger than everyone else’s, and I assumed all elite athletes were the same, it turns out they’re not. Some people are really focussed on what they do but outside of their sport they don’t care. They’re running for the bus and someone else beats them to the last seat on the bus that’s fine, they’re not bothered about it, whereas that would eat me up inside for days. But just generally the way that people reflected on their successes and their failures, the way they dealt with injury, the way they became resilient, there are a thousand different ways to reach the top and that was the biggest revelation.
TP: Do you think the athlete mind-set translates into the workplace or to daily life at all?
AV: I think it definitely does, and I think that’s why a lot of athletes who then go into regular workplaces are really successful. There are obviously lots of things that translate across, but I think the biggest thing is just the ability to never get phased by the big picture, because let’s look at the picture you’re used to – gosh, you’ve been training to race for the Olympic Games or compete in a football World Cup or whatever is, that’s huge. But I guess as an athlete you almost don’t think about that, you focus on the day-to-day. Okay, so in four years’ time there’s going to be this really big event, what can I do today? Okay, today I’m going to focus 1% harder when I’m lifting my weights to try and get an extra half a kilo on Power Clean, these tiny, tiny, tiny goals.
So, I think people talk a lot about goal setting in sport something that non-athletes can learn from, but I think it’s just a little bit more basic than that, it’s just having the ability to accept that every journey is composed of a thousand tiny, tiny, tiny steps – and don’t even think about the goal, don’t think about a big goal, think about the tiny goal: can I stretch for 30 seconds longer than I stretched yesterday before I did my session because that extra bit of flexibility will help me? And actually once you start breaking down your performance there are so many ways you can improve, and I think athletes are really good at saying, ‘Okay, cool, so there’s really big intimidating thing happening but let’s just put that on the shelf, what’s my day-to-day? What can I do today? What one conversation can I have with somebody today that will slightly change my thinking which in the long term will add up? So I guess that’s preparedness to think small.
TP: Was there any sort of common themes or areas of challenge of difficulty?
AV: Throughout the book?
AV: I think it’s when it’s all over and you have to reconcile yourself with the fact that you can’t get another bit of the apple it’s gone. You’re left with your cabinet full of medals or cabinet not full of medals at all, or your recurrent back injury that will be with you for life [laughs] or whatever it is. And I think because in sport you never look backward you always look forwards. The second you cross the line or the second you get the medal, get it around your neck and you have 30 seconds of enjoying you’ve won a medal then take the medal off. Right, let’s review that performance, what can we do differently next time? So I think you never really pause to think about, and it’s only after it’s all over and you open the drawer and get your medals out and dust them off and think, ‘Look at all the things I did,’ but I think it’s really hard to reconcile the fact that it’s over you can’t go back – some people do come back, of course they do and respect to them, but for most people once it’s over you know it’s over and you know the time has come for you to retire, and I think accepting that you can never go back and get better. People don’t struggle with it but I got the feeling that everyone dealt with in different ways.
TP: You retired after 2012, which from a lay person’s perspective felt like a massive time for women’s rowing. What sort of state do you think it’s in at the moment?
AV: Women’s rowing nationally is in a really good place. It does seem to be a sport that – and I hear this about women’s rugby as well, the rowing clubs and the rugby clubs are seeing fewer and fewer men come through the doors and more and more women, so they’re over 50% in a lot of rowing clubs which is great. But the international level, I think the results aren’t quite as strong since London as they were in those kinds of 8/12 years in the run-up to London those three Olympiads. But if the foundations are there if the base of the pyramid is there it will filter through. And I guess it’s like a lot of sports, I think a lot of women are realising that rowing it’s a really physical sport, it’s quite an aggressive sport; it’s a sport where you train really hard but it’s also a real team based sport, so I think women like that element of you have to work in a team, you’re not on own at all, so that has to be a positive thing.
TP: And to focus back on yourself for a moment, this podcast is about success and people’s different ideas of what that means. What’s success to you right now?
AV: Well obviously that my children become Olympians that’s the only thing I care about.[Laughter]
No, I couldn’t deal with not being the most successful athlete in my family.
What’s success right now? You see, that’s a really interesting question because as an athlete that answer is so easy. I want to be a World Champion, I want to be an Olympic champion or whatever it in your sport. And that’s the thing is when you retire it’s so hard to answer that question, but in some ways that’s why retiring from sport is also very refreshing because rather than having that one overwhelming goal in your life you’ve got 10 different goals: work, life, hobbies, family, there’s so much more going on. So I think success to me now is keeping all those things in balance: enjoying my work, enjoying my amateur very slow running that I do; enjoying my family and not letting any one of those one things overwhelm me.
TP: Are you being successful then?
AV: I think my [laughs] family and friends will probably have to answer that for you. I mean, yeah, gosh, writing a book was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, but very cathartic it was some ways it was as much therapy for me as it was for anyone who’s contributed to it. But yeah, success once you retire from sport is much harder to define. I’ve dodged that answer haven’t I?
TP: I’m just going to round up with some quick fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
TP: Favourite piece of kit.
AV: Oh, when I was training everything in a rowing kit is made from Lycra, you haven’t experienced comfort until you’ve worn Lycra head to toe, there is nothing more comfortable than a rowing kit, it looks very unflattering and I certainly wouldn’t wear it now, but until you’ve lived your life in Lycra you don’t know comfortable clothes.
TP: Sporting hero?
AV: When I was a kid, Sally Gunnel, she was my hero.
AV: I was that era early 90’s, and she was a farmer’s kid, I was a farmer’s kid, and I remember Barcelona 92 was one of my earliest sporting memories and she was one of our top female athletes, so. Yeah, I remember somebody gave me a little book about her it was just ten facts about Sally Gunnel and I remember reading that several times and I was, ‘I want to be one day.’ I’ve never met her sadly; I’d love to meet her.
TP: A useless piece of advice you have been given or given to somebody else?
AV: You see, I don’t know, do the useless bits stick in your mind? I think the useful bits stay but useless, I don’t know.
TP: What’s a useful bit then?
AV: This was when I was a student and I was really starting to take my rowing seriously and someone said to me they said, “In high level sport the highs are incredible high and the lows are incredible low,” and I think that was the best thing that anyone has ever said to me about sport, I was probably 18 at the time.
TP: Why is it the best thing someone said?
AV: Because it just prepared me for the fact there’s going to be a rollercoaster and the rollercoaster will go higher than it will ever go in real life and it will go lower than it will ever go in real life, and you just have to ride it out sometimes and accept that you’re going to have some amazing times and you’re going to have some really dark times and it’s just that’s the package.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
AV: Probably reading. I know it sounds boring but I’m a real bookworm I always have been, it’s just such escapism. And obviously I’m saying that as an author, so go and buy my book, go and read it today.
AV: But yeah, and also now as a mum I don’t get any time to myself, so the times I get sat on a train or sat at home with a good book and I’m totally lost in it – it’s brilliant.
TP: And last one, best performance enhancer?
AV: I could say Cornish pasties seeing as I am from Cornwall [laughs]. Best performance enhancer? I think sometimes you just know, sometimes you’re just in that space and you could do anything and it doesn’t matter nothing’s going to affect you, you could have a dreadful night’s sleep, you could have eaten nothing for breakfast, you could have done a dreadful warm-up, but sometimes you just know, ‘Today I’m going to race and it’s going to be awesome’ and I don’t really know why those performances sometimes come along and sometimes it’s the reverse, but. Yeah, best performance enhancer is I don’t know what causes it, but sometimes you just have those days when you think I’m going to dominate today.
TP: The planets aligning perhaps?
AV: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know what it is somebody is smiling on you from up there.
TP Well it’s been great talking to you this morning. Thank you very much.
AV: Thanks, Tammy.[Music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]