Sports academy

Jacques Anquetil, legendary French cyclist of the 1950s and 1960s, powering his way to victory. Famously, at the bottom of climbs, Anquetil would take his water bottle off his bike and tuck it into the back of his cycling jersey. It didn't, of course, mean that he had to carry any less up the mountain, but he knew that it was important to tell himself that he was 'lightening' his bike so that it was easier to climb.

To ensure optimum performance in sport, athletes use their minds as well as their bodies. Thinking about how you think is a key part of winning. Might some of this work with students in the classroom as well?

Compare the table below of two mental patterns. What if, in the following, we replaced 'cyclist' with 'history student' and 'race' with 'essay'? Haven't we all encountered students with negative attitudes, or, more common, with no training in how to think positively about their educational experience.

I can't claim that I've ever been fully able to make the transition from Adrian Plodder to Joe Trier, but being aware of the difference and how to try to break the relevant thought patterns has mattered to me.  Or is this all a bit CBT and happy clappy?



Adrian Trier                                 Joe Plodder

Wants to race                     Passive and nervous, not sure

Strongly motivated                Tired, feels sluggish

Can concentrate totally             Indecisive

Happy with himself                 Insecure, not happy with himself

Feels ‘flowing’, at one with bike             Feels heavy and slow

Happy, good mood                             Feels low and down

No inner conflicts                                 I’ve got this problem…

Self-confident                                     Worried… doesn’t dare try

No anxieties about performance                     Scared

Aims high/goes for it                             Anxious, defensive, evasive

So what? If I don’t…                                I’m scared to try, in case…

Thinks/talks positive to self                 Thinks/talks negative to self

No 13 in positive thinking                     I’m achieving nothing,                                                                     everything’s wrong.



Positive Mental Attitude Checklist

  • Set your dream goal
  • Set specific goals
  • Plan specifically how you will achieve those goals
  • Imagine success: if you can’t imagine, you can’t do it
  • Always act as if you will achieve success
  • Prepare and train mentally
  • Train to race well, don’t train to train
  • Focus on your strengths
  • Work on your weaknesses
  • Assess your progress. Then re-assess, then re-assess again.
  • Learn from every race, every training session.
  • Don’t be afraid to refine and change your aims, objectives and goals
  • Be persistent: try, try and try again.
  • Liking yourself is the most important starting point
  • Enjoy your good luck at being a cyclist
  • Always remember that there is life outside cycling.

(Adapted from Steve Trew, Triathlon: A Training Manual (ramsbury, Crowood, 2001), 182.)


3 Responses to Sports academy

  1. esther says:

    Athletes have no anxiety about performance? Then why are you aggroing about doing gym reps? Also, isn’t it the case that anxiety about performance can to a certain degree help better performance…

    …yes sport is great, but don’t forget that many people have learned (usually from badly taught classes at school where they got used to not doing as well as they wanted – because sport is hard to do) that it is something they are ‘no good at’, and get very defensive over this. So mentining the S word can have a bad effect.

    Also, there is something to be said for plodding. I’m awful at kung fu, but after 8 years sticking it… I am less awful. Being a ‘success’ is always relative and students often confuse that with ‘winning’ or being ‘the best’, which is not the same by any chalk, putting the wrong sort of pressure on themselves.


  2. Dan says:

    Ah, now, that’s not quite what I meant, but does demonstrate how it needs to be introduced. I don’t think the point about the Trier/Plodder thing is about saying that your mindset has to fit Joe Trier. Mine definitely doesn’t. It’s about recognising the thought patterns behind the two, and maybe thinking about how that affects your performance. I suffer terribly from anxiety and over-intellectualising (career hazard) and that can be an inhibiting factor – I have to work very hard on converting the stress into being excited but relaxed.
    I should point out that I was rubbish at sport at school, and that I’m still no athlete.
    Perhaps the names put you off: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with plodding. Progress doesn’t have to be quick, and the aim doesn’t have to be sporting triumph. One is far more likely to make progress towards one’s goal, however, if one recognises what that goal is. You must have had a reasonably positive attitude (and be having some of your aims fulfilled) to keep going with kung fu.
    This year, I asked students on my WW2 course to write down their aims at the beginning of the year. There was an interesting blend between the laidback knowledge seekers (I want a better understanding of Britain in the Second World War) and the grade hunters (I want a First/2.1). But no-one really had any idea about how they were going to achieve those aims. All goals are fine by me – nobody wrote ‘I want to have a good time and coast’ but that would have been all right too.
    I don’t think that I’d teach this through sport because of the problems you identify. And I don’t think it would work with every student. But you wouldn’t coach a sport nowadays without thinking about the psychological aspect. Ironically, given that we’re in an intellectual business, I think that academics often tend to teach their subject without such references.
    We will both have encountered students, for example, who turn in poor pieces of work, get duff marks, and then switch off the course. This can happen despite our best practice as teachers in offering constructive criticism, ‘praise sandwiches’ and so on. Creating a frame of mind where you try to learn from every result, no matter whether it’s good or bad, and think about what you’ll do definitely next time has got to be a good thing.

  3. Jack says:

    I understand exactly what you are trying to achieve here, Dan. But I share with Esther a general horror of sporting analogies. Nothing would turn me off more – as you may have realised by now…

    However, I would respond well to some of the techniques used in performance psychology, ie by musicians and actors, which are not far removed from sporting techniques but are simply framed in different language and concepts. I’ll try to have a think about this as it may help at least some of your students (and myself). And on a life-experience level, many undergraduates may recently have spent some considerable time learning musical instruments, playing in school orchestras or Doing Drama at school (which has had a huge leap in popularity in recent years); although, like being ‘good or bad at games’, they may have either loved or loathed such experiences.

    The simple problem is, as with CBT, that one either ‘buys in’ to these models or rejects them utterly and can, in fact, come to resent the person who is offering them. For example, Simon Callow talks in ‘Being and Actor’ – the best, most accessible and more amusing book every written on the subject – about how nothing appeals more to him (and me, incidentally) than a director who talks in terms of musical composers: ‘You’re being a bit Bartok; can you play him more like Debussy?’. Whereas those who talk in colours (and some do) are a complete turn-off for him: ‘play him scarlet, not pale yellow’. Fortunately, Callow then happily admits that to anyone other than him, _both_ of these models could seem like the most pretentious pile of twaddle they have ever heard in their lives: which, if they don’t work for any given individual, they are. That’s the danger with any analogies, it seems to me – they require an imaginative leap, a suspension of disbelief, a quasi-religious blind faith. Everyone responds to a different type of shorthand. However, if you provide a wide enough menu of analogies you may well offer something for all tastes.

    Is it all a bit CBT and happy-clappy? Yes, frankly. But then, modern life is… I’m going to make a dreadful generalization and say that the younger generation who you teach will be far more comfortable with CBT concepts than anyone over the age of 30. Or 25. They know about ‘stress’, ‘being in the zone’, etc, etc. They are Thatcher’s (and Blair’s) children. And Richard and Judy’s. They are their very own goal-seeking, target-orientated entrepreneurs; but touchy-feely ones at that. So why not address them in those terms: _if_ it works for them? You should try it out on some of them. You’ll soon know if it works, I think.

    But is plodding necessarily bad? And if so, when did this become the case? Discuss. And what on earth is a ‘praise sandwich’??

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