Book Review – The Brave Athlete: Calm The F*uck Down and Rise to the Occasion

The Brave Athlete: Calm The F*uck Down and Rise to the Occasion. Velopress, 2017. By Dr. Simon Marshall and Lesley Paterson. Book review by Laura Clark.  Photo above by Nancy Hobbs.

I must admit my initial difficulty in dealing with the title of this book. Outside of exceptions like Terry Fox, the cancer amputee who ran across Canada to raise money for research, a trek that ultimately cost him his life, I was reluctant to string together the words “brave” and “athlete” in the same sentence. Admittedly, I was conditioned in this response by my husband, a Distinguished Flying Cross combat veteran who, while he enjoyed his 90 Mile Adirondack Kayak Race every year, insisted that unlike other competitors, he had nothing to prove. His outlook equated bravery with life threatening risk-taking.

True confession: I was stumped at how to approach this book review, at least until the Saratoga Springs Public Library (NY) decided to enroll its supervisors in Dr. Brene Brown’s Brave Leadership Curriculum. Apparently, brave is an up and coming buzzword for courageous innovation, one that makes complete sense now that I have had time for further reflection. We are no longer called to trek West on a wagon train, to trap enough meat to get us through the winter or to face down a marauding bear. Instead, our pursuits have gravitated toward the mental frontier, where bravery has less to do with physical risk-taking. So I get it. We need to rise above our paperwork and expand our definitions.

My only other hang up, no doubt attributed to my Catholic schoolgirl upbringing, had to do with the authors’ use of crude language. I am not above an occasional well-placed curse word, but as a general practice, it strikes me as an intellectual cop out. At the very least use your online Thesaurus! But again, Dr. Brown came to the rescue with an occasional bit of colorful language in a business presentation, no less. So why not? And to their credit, once they demonstrated they could swear with the best of them, the authors settled down to a well-placed dirty word or two, which actually enhanced the irreverent tone of their prose.

So who are these authors and why should we pay attention? Dr. Simon Marshall is a sports psychology expert who trains the brains of elite athletes and Lesley Paterson is his wife and a three-time world triathlete and coach. Their road to success is not paved with training tables or stop watches but rather with a Braveheart approach that eschews vague “positive self-talk” and nebulous visualization exercises, approaches that I admit I seldom have the patience for, or if I do guiltily make the attempt, promptly fall asleep.

Taking Dr. Tim Noakes groundbreaking Central Governor theory one step further, the duo divides the brain into three competitive sections. There is the primitive Chimp brain, a bully concerned only with basic survival instincts, the Professor brain, a pillar of reason and logic and the Computer brain that operates your system—once your Chimp and your Professor stop arguing. Our task then is not to Peter Pan the issue by thinking happy thoughts but to recognize when your Chimp is overriding your Professor and take the specific practical steps outlined by the authors to gain control.

The Brave Athlete by Lesley Paterson and Dr. Simon Marshall

How many of these scenarios describe your fuzzy thinking? I don’t handle pressure well; I feel fat; I don’t like leaving my comfort zone; I don’t cope well with injury…and the list goes on. Talent and training being equal, these are the factors that hold you back when others seem more badass (There! I did it!) than you. And you are not left in the dark merely to speculate at redeeming steps. Each chapter is balanced with practical worksheets—not the multiple guess variety, but serious, uncomfortable, soul-searching quests to set you on the right path.

While I am a fairly rigid person who starts at the prologue and plunges through to the credits, I soon realized that this may not be the most practical approach. The prologue, yes, but then I suggest surveying the hang-ups and picking one or two primary ones to focus on. The process demands reading, writing, thinking, competing and then re-reading. There is that much information to absorb.

Luckily, though, the authors’ irreverent style combined with their unique ability to hit the nail on the head, make re-reading a pleasure. Enjoy these memorable moments: Reflecting on the Chimp brain “For all it knows, trying to PR at the Turkey Trot 10K is akin to going over the top of a trench in WW1.” Or, on reducing muscle tension: “Most athletes prefer PMR (progressive muscular relaxation) over other methods because you actually do something rather than just lie there and conjure up swirly-whirly thoughts.” You get the picture.

So read, reflect, then go out and run and then come back to evaluate the interaction between your Chimp, your Professor and your Computer. No more frustration at your seeming inability to suck it up—you will now have the tools to unlock the correct pathways. Finally, as a librarian and firm believer in Andrew Carnegie free access, I do recommend that you purchase this book as it is one you will return to again and again. Besides, there are all those worksheets to fill out and you wouldn’t want to deface public property, right?