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Alistair Brownlee: Relentless; Secrets of The Sporting Elite

I’ve never shared the British appreciation for the underdog. Anyone can run hot, lightning can strike, rogue caps can get awarded. But what of those who do it week in, week out? To stay at the top for 10, 15, sometimes even 20 years – that takes a special caliber of person.

What it takes to grip your event by the throat and make it your own?

There are a couple of common misconceptions regarding motivation. People tend to think that it’s a binary force for sportspeople and that it comes from a single, unwavering, inexhaustible source.

Sometimes for athlete sport is life and therefore failure is death. Cognitive dissonance, I believe they call it.

While hard work is the foundation of success, in and of itself it’s largely pointless. The boast of 2021 is who trains the cleverest. It is not enough for the practice to be purposeful; it also needs to be creative.

Pressure is a privilege.

Sportspeople like to believe that practice makes you lucky, and practicing more makes you luckier.

Hard work; decision making; focus; pressure management; motivation; versatility; teachability. Weave all these together into the optimum mix and have you actually got what’s misleadingly known as talent?

Risk taking, self-sabotage and the myth of genius

Geniuses see things differently from the rest of the world.

Snooker is a game of absolutes. There may be a million permutations, but all are governed by physics, by angels.

Dominance can – and author emphasize can – be self-perpetuating. Momentum’s the key. For Ronnie O’Sullivan, that is his strongest asset. Once he gets momentum, he takes his opponent to a place where he doesn’t feel comfortable, and once he isn’t comfortable, he is picking up on it and that’s when he goes for the throat.

The Science of Suffering

Chris Froome is the model of the quiet assassin. On a bike, he’s an animal: a warrior, a remorseless bully and a sadist.

He tends to do well under pressure. He enjoys it. He finds pressure to puts him in the zone.

Tim Noakes introduced a function of central governor. He argues that this governor acts like an off-switch, triggered by the brain on a subconscious level when the body encroaches too far into the red zone. This was in Noakes’s mind, pre-emptive.

If you do something, that you’re not invested in, your motivation will be reduced, and your perception of effort will be higher.

The main determinants of perception of effort at a given output – power and speed – are current fitness level and state of fatigue. Perception of effort is one of the main determinants of self-efficacy.

Marcora called the way of ignoring all physiological pain and focus on a point in front of you – “a response inhibition”.

Morgan and Pollock in 1977 defined that the approach “to focus on anything but pain” is used by lower-level runners. Faster athletes were more likely to use associative thought processes to focus on the task.

The underlying mechanism of muscle fatigue and mental fatigue are totally different, but the final effect – that exertion feels harder, and your performance is therefore impaired – is exactly the same. The holy grail for an athlete is to be able to operate at a high intensity automatically, effortlessly – not in a physiological sense but mentally.

The Pawn, The Goal King and The Power of Consistency

You must have some talent to get to a level, and then you’ve got to develop this and keep pushing yourself. The best ones are the ones who can do it all the time, find a way of doing it – because in a 10- or 15-year career in any sport, you’re gone have dips.

The relationship between talent and success in an interesting one.

Michael Owen says: “I think that when you’ve the best, and when you continue to be the best for a long period of time, the fun of being the best is not really fun anymore. And then you go through the other side of the cycle: you’re getting worse, and now it becomes a fear that drives you on.”[1]

There is a sport-specific intelligence, of course. This is about having the mental facilities to moderate your own psychology. Metacognition, essentially – thinking about thinking.

It is a fascinating dynamic, the individual side in a team sport. You’re in the trenches and everyone is in there with you. We’re a team and we’re going to live and die as a team.

There are certain people you can set your clock by.

The postman, the taliswoman and the potency of teamwork

Alex Danson. The captain of the Great Britain women’s hockey team.

In 2016 at Rio, GB team won Gold. This was a victory for player-led, value-driven, ego-free, ultra-fastidious teamwork.

“I don’t know anyone who can fake confidence, if they can, someone let me know how they do it because I’d love to know.”[2]

I feel there’s no reason why someone else could be successful and not me. No one’s born with the gift of being the perfect golfer, on one’s born with the gift of having the perfect mindset. It doesn’t give anyone else the right to be successful and you not to be.”[3]

You can always work harder than you think; always put yourself one step ahead of the next person. Set your heart on something, and make decision that move you towards getting there. Break it down and, you know, anything is possible.


Composure is a huge word in sport – having belief in yourself at key times, when it’s hotting up.

To what degree being surrounded by such spectacular strength, week in, week out, and having to measure yourself against a ludicrously high bar, elevates your performance. It’s like an extension of the Kohler effect – the phenomenon identified by groundbreaking psychologist Otto Kohler – in which weaker competitor attain higher levels of performance when paired with stronger ones.

Different parts of the world have different style. In formula 1 both Michael and Sebastian, the Germans, sort of had that component of just going about is, right or wrong.

As a Formula One top-flight racing driver, you have to continue to reinvent yourself all the time. If you’re a one-trick pony, you’re fucked.

We’re back to those “non-sexy” factors, as Mark Webber might put it, that keep coming up in relation to sporting achievement: structure, discipline, consistency, logistic,…

The Maverick, The Choirboy and ridding The Torpedo

The Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, October 2015. In the first Test against Pakistan England’s opener Alstair Cook top scored with 263 runs, a colossal haul for any international batsman. It was the time he spent accruing it: 836 minutes.

Accepting that there are days you are going to lose is ok. The aim is to win more days than you lose. If you do that, you’ll be half-decent.

In sport there are no guarantees.

An athlete’s job can easily become 24 hours a day, seven days a week; there is always more stretching to be done, ore exercises from physio, or course maps to be studied, or kit to be readied. For all this to be sustainable, you need to step outside the bubble of intensity.

The pressure and the pain

Eliud Kipchoge was the first person to run marathon in less than two hours. Paula Radcliffe record was 2:15:25.

To me, sporting superstition has always seemed like a natural extension of the obsessive attention to detail all top sportspeople must deploy. It’s a question of correlation or causation.

Top athletes’ relationship with pain is something that Dr. Michael Joyner knows all about. How do you manage your suffering? How is training preparing you to manage your suffering?

You definitely got to have a screw loose to run the 400m. The 400m sits somewhere between an all-out sprint and a feat of endurance. Its demands are both aerobic and anaerobic.

The only pressure you have is the pressure you put on yourself.

Professor Samuele Marcora, has done studies to try to find out why athletes have good and bad days. Athletes, in all their imperfect, rationalizing, sometimes superstitious ways, aren’t great at offering objective analysis.

Bluffing the triathlon is a lot harder than say snooker or tennis match.

Ridding with the punches, idol talk and going all in

Self-control can be defined as the ability to regulate behavior, emotions and thoughts in the face of temptations and impulses.

I think in sport, as in any walk of life, you have to have someone who you look up to, who sets the benchmark.

Great athletes are able to neglect social conventions. They are extremely self-absorbed. They have that tunnel vision. It is not attractive trait at all, that selfishness, but you need to have it. It needs to be all about you.

David Lavallee, of Abertay University in Dundee. He is talking about Faustian bargain’ that athletes make: the more someone focuses and develops a strong identity around what they do, the more likely they are to perform. In short, you can’t just pretend it’s the most important thing in the world to you. But the problem comes when that thing – whether it’s competing or winning – is taken away.

The man-beater, the missile and the power of obsession

Beryl Burton – the Yorkshirewoman won seven world titles and 96 national titles. In 1967 Beryl set a women’s 12-hour time trial record that was to stand for 50 years. The distance – 277.25 miles, was a mile longer than man’s record.

I think there are two types of people, and this doesn’t necessarily just apply to sport: racers and non-racers. Author was a racer. Even if it looks impossible for him to do something physically, he is like a pit bull – he just grabs on.

Once you start looking back at what you’ve done without picking the faults in it, you’re going to stop moving forward. Even if you win, you still have to find out how you could better it for next time.

Stress-buffering, affiliation and feeling the love

The Bob Graham Round is one of the most testing endurance events in the world – a 66-mile run around the English Lake District incorporating 42 mountains and 26,900ft of ascent. Killian has master it. We talk about how he trains for so many diverse disciplines and the benefits of this for mental freshness and sharing the physical load on muscle groups.

He said that the reason why he hates racing is because before the race he must rest, which is not fun.

He knows that if you want to do something great, you can’t do a lot of other things. This ownership of the process is so important.

The effective concentration of oxygen at 8,000m is around 7.7 per cent, about one-third of that at sea level.

Decision-making in sport is an enthralling topic in itself, irrespective of whether it’s a matter of life or death. The longer I speak to Killian, the more I realize that he’s a total one-off. He never stops innovating.

I think what separates those who are really at the top is knowledge of yourself and having the vision of where you want to go.

Anna Hemmings is one of the world’s leading thinkers on the transferable benefits of high-performance sporting mentalities and methodologies in business.

A lot of times companies focus on the extrinsic stuff, like the pay and the bonuses and celebration of achievement. But a manager or a leader has to recognize that motivations are different for different people.

When people hear about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) among sportspeople, they tend to conflate fatigue and tired-ness, and assume that it is a question of overtraining.

The performance gains in world-class systems over the next 20 years will not come from technology or facilities but by providing support in areas such as mental health and career-transition planning.

Self-identity is a really malleable construct and it changes from week to week. We are at the dawn of recognizing love as the new transformational intelligence. Creating the coherent state allows us to be aligned, mentally, emotionally or physically.

Killian has extraordinary physiology. But, for me, his real strengths lie in his mastery of the optimized environment, the management of anxiety, and his knowledge and control of self. When you’re involved in life-and-death decision-making in the Himalayan death zone, you wouldn’t want it in any other way.

The luck of the bounce and being too small to fail

The parable of the Chinese farmer goes about a string of different situations. They are bad and good, but for all of them farmer’s reply was, when people define situations either bad or good – it is hard to say. And that is true for a lot of life’s situations.

In his book Leading, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson said they key to excellence was in “eliminating as many surprises as possible because life is full of the unexpected. That’s what our innumerable training sessions were all about”.

Nelson Mandela and Jose Mourinho both said: “You never lose – you win or you learn.”[4]

Failures in our careers is not an “if”, it’s a “when”. So, if you can deploy it to your advantage, then that’s exactly what you’ll have.


Michael Johnson – I want to win more than I’m afraid of the consequences of losing.

Johnson strategy of coping with pressure was about recognizing and understanding distractions and knowing what to do.

It is about, number one, recognizing those thoughts when they come into your mind; and then being able to respond immediately by replacing them with things you can control, like visualizing yourself running the race and focusing on the execution.

Adam Perry was replying on a question how to keep yourself motivating when you achieved almost everything. For him it was about winning and dominating. It’s about mindset. As an athlete, you train your body pretty much every single hour, because when we’re not training, we’re resting. There’s something about human instinct of fighting and in manipulating that into a performance. That’s where he gets the edge.

Any short-timeframe event is about execution; tying together all the strands of performance that have been honed in training over the years.


Winning has much to do with failures. Living with failure. Fear of failure.

Selfishness is a recurring element.

Innovation is also important.

To challenge accepted wisdom and convention you need big reserves of something else that features prominently in these pages: self-belief.

If you want to do something great, you can’t do a lot of other things.

A lot of great athletes are driven by imposter syndrome, that they are not worthy of being in that spot.

You need to be prepared to work your arse off.

Suffering, so as not to suffer.

Sustained success cannot be achieved alone, even if you think so.

There is sport-specific intelligence. So many dominant characters seem to think – and awful lot – about thinking.

You’ve got to love what you do.

It is about being process-orientated rather than goal orientated, and having a growth mentality rather than a set one.

We are nowhere near the limits of human capability.

[1] In the book on page 80

[2] Poulter in the book on page 96

[3] Poulter in the book on page 98

[4] In the book on page 241

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