When it comes to competing at an Olympic level, much is made of the strength and stamina of the sportsmen and women. Their punishing years of training and skill are reduced to sets of numbers: how far, how long, how fast.
So it can be easy to overlook the other side to being an Olympic athlete: the mental and emotional aspect that shores up the mind through the physical battles.
We first met Olympic gold medallist Etienne Stott at the V2 launch of meditation app Headspace, who spoke eloquently about the connection between high powered performance and a strong mind. Naturally, we wanted to find out more.
Stott is a slalom canoe racer, and while there isn’t a hierarchy in terms of whose sport is toughest, slalom canoeing is one of the most challenging mentally and physically.
The sport involves plunging through whitewater rapids, and managing all the unexpected conditions during a race demands a calm, clear mind.
Talking to HuffPost UK, he said: “It is a complicated technical game – we’re training physically and in winter it’s very cold. But truthfully, the hardest thing to deal with is frustration and mental demands – you’re trying to understand so many different variables that are changing, from the water conditions to what your crew mate might be doing.
“Frustration is very high and it’s easy to get angry – it’s a mentally demanding sport.”
He is one of the new wave of athletes who feels it’s as important to take care of your mind as it is to go training for three hours a day. These sporting heroes use meditation and mindfulness – where you focus on being in the present which allows you to reduce fixating on anxieties – and is practiced by, among others, basketball star Kobe Bryant and Novac Djokovic, who won Wimbledon this year.
There is no doubt that Stott embodies all the core attributes needed for a medal-winning athelete: hardworking, dedicated, incredibly focussed and unbelievably driven. But he doesn’t believe that has to solely define who you are as a person.
“The meditation has helped me to be the best version of myself or at least helps me work towards who I aspire to be. If you can accept the true version of yourself, it has a massive effect on other people.
“For me it’s important to train and be successful but it’s also important to be a good person. I can be very focused on canoeing and if I want to be I can then switch my focus on people.”
Stott celebrating after his gold medal win in 2012
Stott arrived at this way of thinking while training for the 2012 Games. He was at a low ebb the winter before the Olympics, and he had just been beaten by the opposition. “We were at crisis point,” he says. “I was thinking ‘is all this pain and trouble worth it?’
“We were having regular meetings with our psychologist Katie Warriner, and she mentioned Headspace. She told me to try and do 10 sessions of 10 minutes a day, which is a free trial. So I signed up and afterwards I did feel a difference. It fits a bit into the training I’ve done psychologically because I’ve used the Chimp Management system by Dr Steve Peters.”
Dr Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox, believes that the mind is made up of three things, two of which are the Human, which is fuelled by logical thinking and reason, and the Chimp, which is pure emotion and ‘hijacks’ how you react to certain situations.
“You have to look after your Chimp,” says Stott, “because that’s where all your negative energy comes from. Paradoxically it’s also where your positive energy comes from so if you look after it, you can release that good energy and become a better person.
“When I’m doing my meditation it’s not like each day I find a phenomenal difference or feel relaxed but I do know if I don’t do it for a few days, my mind becomes a little more frenetic. I easily get distracted, angry and lose my perspective.”
Any athlete will recognise that sport can become obsessive, whether it’s beating a personal best or trying to overcome an obstacle. A sense of perspective is something that Stott thinks is incredibly important, and one that he believes is gained by training and nurturing your emotional health.
“In my sport you become obsessed with learning how to do a particular move. Then you watch the news and you see people dying in their thousands and it draws you a perspective – you realise actually, it’s only a sport, I have chosen to be here, it’s supposed to be fun.
“We are lucky to do what we do but perspective is important so you don’t disappear trough of craziness.”
Competitive sport has been part of Stott’s life since he was very young, when he started canoeing in Bedford with the Scouts at 11, and then a few years after that decided he wanted to become a “world class champion”.
Although he spent his teenage years training and working hard rather than slouching on brick walls smoking fags like every other boy his age, he had a good set of mates who kept each other grounded and were interested in the same things.
But when so much of your life can be about sport, the impact it has on you psychologically when you aren’t performing well can be immense.
“When your life is all about being good at something, and you aren’t performing well, life can get pretty bad. Life’s meaning becomes harder to find and that’s down to a total loss of perspective. I’m not perfect but I find I can recognise when I’m going down the wrong road,” he says.
On his days off, Stott likes to sit around not doing much – the cinema is a favourite place to unwind. He certainly earns his down time – he trains for 90 minutes twice a day, whatever the weather.
His focus now, though, is to push himself as hard as he can go, as well trying to make himself a better man.
“The new definition of masculinity at the moment seems a bit messed up,” he says. “It seems to be framed around women and violence, and I want to reclaim what men stand for. You can be focussed, determined and hard about your goals, but you can also be nice and kind.
“You can be successful and operate at a high level but you don’t have to crush anyone along the way. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other.”