Dr. Steve Peters the super-shrink profiled in BBC blog story

M55 superstar Stephen Peters has a day job worth noting, as I’ve frequently noted before. He’s a psychologist for the British Olympic cycling team. Now the BBC’s Tom Fordyce has discovered Dr. Peters and featured him in great story on his blog. Sample: “Peters has a way with animal-based metaphor — he once said all elite athletes could be categorised as Labradors, Rottweilers, Alsatians or poodles — but it’s his depiction of the chimp as the irrational, emotional side of someone’s personality that is the most striking.” I think I’d be a tree sloth. But that’s off the topic. In any case, Steve would probably be embarrassed by all this attention. Fortunately for him, Fordyce doesn’t mention his sprint hobby. That would triple the length of the story.

“What I’m effectively doing is putting you in a zone where you want to be there.”

Here’s the story, in case the original link goes south:

The man behind the medals

Tom Fordyce | 10:52 UK time, Friday, 30 October 2009

When Chris Hoy
climbs onto his bike in Manchester for this weekend’s World Cup, he’ll
have a weapon on his side that is the envy of all his rivals.

It’s not his carbon fibre bike, or something he’s eaten, or some new
trick in training that has somehow produced even more power in those
famous quads.

The weapon is a mild-mannered 56-year-old chap from the north-east
of England who, by his own admission, knows “next to nothing” about
professional cycling and has never once cycled round a velodrome.

Steve Peters is the British team’s psychiatrist, the Oliver Sacks of cycling. He has variously been described as a “genius” (Dave Brailsford) and “the reason I am riding today” (Vicky Pendleton). “Without Steve I don’t think I could have brought home the triple golds from Beijing,” Hoy has said.

“I do get phone calls from cyclists in the middle of the night,”
laughs Peters. “But at the end of the day, that’s what I’m here for. I
can catch my sleep up some other time.”

is perhaps the most unlikely success story in British coaching. His
background is in serious mental health – for 12 years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders – and he never watches sport on television.

Since the record-breaking successes of the British cyclists in
Beijing, however, he is a man in demand. Like his boss Brailsford, he
has been tapped up by other countries and other sports, and like head coach Shane Sutton, he will be trackside for every minute of the action over the next three days.

“On the day of competition a lot of people start to lose it,” explains Peters, perched high in the stands at the Manchester velodrome, cyclists hammering round the banked boards behind him like gaudy clockwork toys.

“Anxiety starts getting the better of them. They start saying things
like, ‘I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these
thoughts, and they’re stopping me from competing at my best’.

“Chris is a very anxious man at times. In the keirin, his chimp can threaten to take over six or seven times.”

Ah yes. The chimp. Peters has a way with animal-based metaphor – he
once said all elite athletes could be categorised as Labradors,
Rottweilers, Alsatians or poodles – but it’s his depiction of the chimp
as the irrational, emotional side of someone’s personality that is the
most striking.

“When I let my enormous chimp out,” explained Hoy, “I started
thinking like a pessimist. I had a tremendous sense of foreboding,
wondering about the what ifs, about crashes and mistakes.”

“Chris is an excellent pupil,” says Peters. “There was a lot of
motivation for him, a lot of engagement and a willingness to try, and
then a lot of effort – so therefore a lot of success.

“Dave Brailsford was supervising me back in 2003, when I was just
part-time. He’s not that keen on psychiatry or psychology but he wanted
me to show my worth, so he gave me Chris and said, ‘Is there anything
you can do here?’

“I wanted to give Chris the skills to ask why it was happening, why
he was allowing it to happen and how he could get round that. So we
worked on that for a long time. Before Athens, we rehearsed everything
for hours. He probably did more hours of mental training than he did

Athens was a tipping-point for both Hoy and Peters. The three riders
in the kilo before Hoy all broke the world record. Rather than being
overwhelmed by self-doubt and anxiety, Hoy used a step-by-step mental
drill that the pair had been working on for months.

“It was only with about 10 metres to go until the finish line that
he first looked up and thought, hey, I’m in an Olympic final,” marvels
Peters. “It was almost the perfect mental display.

“Once Dave saw what was going on, he said, ‘Everyone has to meet you
– this is powerful stuff!’ but I didn’t want that – I wanted them to
approach me. After about three years pretty much everyone had knocked
on the door and at least said, ‘Can I just see what you’re doing, see
what you might do for me.'”

Peters speaks with a quiet self-confidence. While his career switch
into sport was something he could never have envisaged (“It was an
accident, really”) he is absolutely certain in what he is doing.

“Some of the team don’t need me. With other athletes it might be one
per cent or nothing. But for the majority, being in control of their
emotions can be the difference between success and failure.”

Where Hoy overcame his chimp in Athens, Pendleton was unsaddled by
hers. It is her subsequent successes that Peters seems most proud of.

“Vicky had the skills on the bike, the power and the ability, but
what she couldn’t do was control the fears and the anxieties, so when
she came to competition she massively underperformed. She wanted to
disengage, to actually get off the bike.

“What I wanted her to do was engage with her emotions, work on the
mental skills so she could get back on the bike and fulfil her
potential. If you wanted her to say what percentage difference her
mental skills made, she’s likely to say very high.”

So what exactly does Peters do? Is there one simple piece of advice
he could give to all amateur sportsmen to instantly improve their

“There is no recipe,” he says. “You’re working with an individual
mind that might take you anywhere. You, Tom, might tell me that the
more people out there on a day of competition the better you feel,
whereas someone else might say the direct opposite. It’s a unique
interpretation of your world and belief systems, and I have to work
with that. It’s very complex and it can take some time to unravel.

“I would get to know you really well, ask you what it is you want to
do and why you can’t get there. Everyone has unique beliefs or
behaviours that are stopping them, so I would work on those things that
are specific for you.

“Everyone comes in with different agenda. It might be, ‘Can I
communicate better with my coach,’ ‘Can I understand my discipline more
easily,’ ‘Can I be a happier person,’ ‘Can I be more motivated’.

“I like to work half the time with the athlete and half the time
with the coach. They’re the experts. All I can do is oil the wheels,
ask the coach what it is that he or she can’t do.”

Before each race this weekend, Peters will be trackside, ready to assist each rider in their own unique way.

“We use a structured five-stage mental warm-up, just as you would
use a structured physical warm-up. They all want different things. Some
want to chat to you while they’re on the rollers, warming up; some just
want you to say hello so they know you’re around if they need you,
others might give you a phone call.

“What I’m effectively doing is putting you in a zone where you want
to be there, and you’re ready to focus very quickly on your event.”

Peters is in his ninth year with British cycling, his fifth
full-time. As with many in the British set-up, from riders to coaches,
he is aware of the need for fresh challenges after the outstanding
results in Beijing.

Both Hoy and Pendleton could be forgiven for losing their hunger and motivation after achieving their career goals in the Laoshan Velodrome.
Peters too could have stepped away, moved into a new and more lucrative
area, but there are two big reasons why he intends to stay put for a

The first is Team Sky, the forthcoming British road-racing team that
will make its Tour de France next summer. “Dave wants me to work in the
same way, so that we have a psychological power base and can get
optimum performances. I hope we can replicate our success on the track
and win the Tour. It should happen.”

The second is the people he has around him in Manchester. “I love
this team. Dave is a personal friend, Shane Sutton (head coach) is a
personal friend, Chris Boardman – we’ve all become friends. As long as
we’re all a team, and I don’t get too old, I can’t see myself moving
on. I’m just a minion in the system, but it’s a fantastic atmosphere
working here.”

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December 12, 2009

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