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The man behind the medals

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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."

Peters 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."

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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 physical."

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."

Steve Peters

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 performance?

"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.

Chris Hoy

"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 while.

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."

PS For an interesting blog from my colleague Matt Slater on the proposed changes to the London 2012 track cycling programme, click here.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Great article Tom,

    Steve Peters is very understated in the work that he does and without him the GB cycling team would not nearly be as good as it is (Dave B, Shane S and Chris B all obviously play a pretty big role as well), one thing that has seperated us (GB that is) with the rest of the sporting world was the mental side of competition and Steve has brough the team along way with that.

    Lets hope he can do just a good as job with the road team has he has with the track squad.

  • Comment number 2.

    Probably too late now, but in athletics he could have worked wonders on someone like Mark Lewis-Francis, all raw talent but no focus.

    He could probably do a job on the England rugby team too

  • Comment number 3.

    Funny you should mention that, hermannredux - Peters worked with the England rugby team during the 2007 World Cup. Apparently he told Brian Ashton after the 36-0 defeat by South Africa in the group stages that England would go on to win it. But that's another story...

  • Comment number 4.

    Given his love of athletics himself, I'm personally gutted he isn't part of the setup.

    But for a dodgy TMO decision, he may well have been right about the RWC Tom!

  • Comment number 5.

    Steve is not just a lover of athletics: he is, for his age-group, one of the best sprinters in the world, with a fine collection of gold medals and records at British, European and world level. He knows what it takes to be a winner at the highest level, because he has done it himself many times. Cycling's gain is athletics's loss.

  • Comment number 6.

    Hesperian, runninggareth, you're spot on - he ran 10.90 for the 100m at 44 years old. Reigning world 55-60 champ over 100m, 200m and 400m, and says he only does it for the social side of things.

    Re the RWC - will always be the one that got away, that one...

  • Comment number 7.

    Great blog!

    Steve Peters is also one of the deans of our Medical School in Sheffield, very good inspirational speeches as you might guess. Although often more interest is shown in his occasional lectures on psychopaths!

  • Comment number 8.

    Yes but who is Oliver Sacks?

  • Comment number 9.

    Steve Peters has done a great job with the British Cycling team so far, lets hope it continues throughout London 2012. To tell the truth, the England football squad could use his expertise too!

 

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