The Brave Athlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion

Have you ever stood on the shore of a lake and stared into the calm water in absolute terror because you are getting ready to start your swim workout in open water? I’m not even talking about a race scenario; I’m talking about a training swim. Do you tend to screw up your nutrition in races due to overthinking? Do you start freaking out race morning and wish you never entered the race? Well, I can answer honestly to all those questions with a resounding, “Yes!!!” and add “What the heck is wrong is with me?”

Well, Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson have the answer in their book, The Brave Athlete: Calm The F*ck Down and Rise to The Occasion. According the them, it’s my “chimp” side of my brain bullying and taking over my “professor” side. Love it. It’s a great book that not only helps the crazy athlete first understand what is happening but also provides ways to coerce both “chimp” and “professor” to live in harmony. Please note that this book not only applies to athletes but to anyone who is putting off huge goals, unrelated to sports, in their lives—that would be me, too.

The book begins with a warning, “To all the confident, motivated, well-balanced, and happy athletes . . . This book isn’t for you.” Do those people really exists? I think not.

The main breakdown of the book is in the first chapter with an explanation of the chimp vs. professor brain. A brief explanation in my own terms is that the “chimp” side is the flight or fight mode and acts on instinct and also is the loudest, especially when you are pushing your body. It’s the bully, and it will take over the “professor” side of your brain, the logic side. One of the best pieces of advice in the book is to not fight the chimp side because the chimp will win every time. It’s true. Totally true.

The book is divided into four sections: The Basics, Heart, Wings, and Fight. Each section, such as Fight, which is about leaving your comfort zone and learning new battles skills, is filled with chapters that offer solutions to distract the chimp side so that the professor side can step in and say something logical like, “Ellen, you will not be eaten by a shark because you are swimming in a lake.”

Well, I’m still standing on the edge of the lake, and the chimp side is talking to me, “Ellen, you know bull sharks live in lakes, and what about the snakes and the alligators?” Here’s where the solutions come in to balance out the chimp and the professor, and these solutions really work if you apply them.

For example, in the Heart section, which is about finding your motivation, your “why,” I used an exercise that helped me get out the door. In this section, the authors acknowledge that as athletes, we usually don’t have a problem setting goals; the problem is actually doing them. Yep. Here’s my chimp, who is saying, “Are you really going to swim the entire course?” or “Are you really going run 10 miles? Seriously, there’s not way.”  Marshall and Paterson suggest to bring in that professor side to distract the chimp, who is in pure nasty mode because you are planning to push your body out of your comfort zone. The professor side says, “I’m only going to swim to the buoy and turn around.” or “I’m only going to run to the two-mile rest stop and turn around.”  The chimp is distracted, and you walk out the door.  Well, we all know what happens. Once you’re at the workout, you usually complete it, but you keep telling your chimp, “Hmm. Just one more buoy.” or “Just one more rest stop.” It works. I did this exercise for a 10 mile run, and I kept telling my chimp that I was running to a rest stop. Total distraction.

The last section, which is called Fight, offers some golden distractions for that chimp in chapters like, “I Don’t Like Leaving my Comfort Zone,” and “I Need to Harden the F*ck up: Learning to Embrace the Suck.” Solutions range from thumb tapping and counting during a run to mantras during a swim. Yes, these solutions do work. Remember, you are distracting that chimp when the chimp yells, “Your calf is about to explode and separate from your leg. You need to stop on this hill. Just walk up it.” Yes, my calf did cramp up on a hill on mile nine of ten, so I tried a visualization exercise with an app that the authors suggest to use for breathing, and I found myself laughing, and I ran up the hill.

That breathing app is one of about five apps that Marshall and Paterson suggest using for distracting the chimp. Most of the apps are free, and they work with visualization or, really, let’s call it what it is, “meditation.” There is one app that I bought for $3.99, and it the app that made me laugh when I was running up that hill. It’s called Breathe, and it looks like some psychedelic light show to help your breathing, but it works. I thought is was stupid until I used it on that hill to quiet the chimp, who was begging me to stop.

Some of the best chapters are about prerace day and race day.  I tend to have the best freak-outs the night before a race. In fact, it’s just part of the planning. That’s the chimp inside me taking over and doing a head game. The authors have great solutions for distracting that chimp,  including giving the chimp a voice for 15 minutes the day before the race to just go berserk with crazy thoughts. Only 15 minutes. Then, you allow the professor to step in and answer the chimp. It’s all about balance and distraction. I can get used to watching a movie the night before a race instead of freaking out, and my family staying far, far away from me.

So this book is a great read, and you can skip around and read parts that pertain to you. It’s different from other self-help books because instead of saying, “Just do it,” which Marshall and Paterson emphasize does not work, as well as those other motivational mantras on Facebook, it gives you tips to help you actually chip away at your goal and not let that chimp rule your mind. Overall, you can’t fight the chimp because it’s part of you, but you can distract it.

So, I’ll still be standing at the edge of the lake and thinking about the swim, but at least I will have some solutions. They are working for running, so it’s time to try them out on the swim and the phantom sharks, who live in the lake and in my chimp brain.


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