A New Approach to Athlete Wellness – What the Science says with Dr. Erin Ayala

me&my health up podcast episode #65 – Transcript

Anthony Hartcher 0:00
Are you someone who plays sport and would like to get better or are you an aspiring athlete who is chasing the dream? In this episode of me and my health up, we’ll be examining a new approach to athlete wellness with Dr. Erin Ayala. I’m your host Anthony Hartcher, a clinical nutritionist, and lifestyle medicine specialist. The purpose of this podcast is to enhance and enlighten your well being and today we’ll be chatting with sports psychologist Dr. Erin Ayala.

Dr. Erin Ayala is a licensed sports psychologist at Premier Sports Psychology in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. She provides individual sports psychology sessions for adolescents and adults, conducts ADHD assessments for collegiate athletes, and directs research and outcomes assessment initiatives at Premier. Dr. Ayala has authored over a dozen peer-reviewed research publications and book chapters on prevention and health promotion, diversity, and sports psychology. She is a certified mental health performance consultant and is listed on the US Olympic and Paralympic Mental Health Registry. So welcome, Erin, how are you today?

Dr. Erin Ayala 1:18
I’m doing well, thank you for having me.

Anthony Hartcher 1:20
We’re so so delighted to have you. I know there are many athletes that listen to this podcast. So they’ll be super excited to hear what you’ve got to share today. So we’ve got to get started with my famous question and that is how have you arrived at what you’re doing today?

Dr. Erin Ayala 1:38
Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s funny, I was reflecting on this earlier today and how to summarize it and it really is like the perfect confluence or combination of personal and professional coming together. Uhm I was always interested in psychology and so I did that as an undergrad student and had some advisors who encouraged me to go to grad school so I did, and I wanted to help people.

So I went into the Counseling Psychology route and it was in grad school, it was kind of an aha moment where I was sitting in front of my apartment that I was renting, and I’m a former smoker, and I was smoking a cigarette and thinking to myself, I’m really proud of where I am in terms of academics and everything I’m done, but I’m not proud of like, who I am inside and it was kind of a big wake up call and I slowly started exercising and I joined a running club and then I joined a triathlon club and now I’m a cyclist.

And it was really me learning more about sports psychology that decided like, I want to specialize and go into this field. So that’s kind of it’s, you know, it was my own wake-up call, though, that led me here, which is, I think, really cool. It’s been a neat journey.

Anthony Hartcher 2:51
Oh, absolutely. It’s inspirational, you know, coming from, I guess that other end of the spectrum in terms of health and really then I guess going to the other end because I know you’re a very keen cyclist, runner, and you compete. So tell us a bit more about your, your, you know, your running, your cycling. Yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 3:15
Yeah, I did, I started with five K’s and like a lot of runners that turn into 10 k’s and then half marathons and then marathons. I’ve done I think nine marathons and it was all during grad school, it was a great way for me to prioritize self-care because if I was registered for a race, I knew I had to train for it, and then that turned into triathlon, I started with a sprint triathlon.

I worked my way up to the Ironman full distance triathlon in Lake Placid, New York and I’ve done a handful of 70 Point threes, that was probably my favorite distance, and then I found cycling and I’ve been cycling since 2016 or 2017 pretty regularly, I gravel cycling like endurance are probably is probably my favorite, as well as road cycling. So I do a lot of criterium races here in the States and then for gravel, I’ve done some ultra-endurance like 200 mile events. This past Saturday, I had a 110 mile gravel race. So yeah, so that’s where I am right now.

Anthony Hartcher 4:21
Wow, that’s incredible. A 200 mile race it’s a long way.

Dr. Erin Ayala 4:27
It’s a long day, yeah.

Anthony Hartcher 4:29
A long day on the saddle so they say.

Dr. Erin Ayala 4:33
Yeah absolutely.

Anthony Hartcher 4:34
So yeah, I am really interested because you’re at the cutting edge end of sports psychology in terms of leading the way and you’ve really embarked on some current research and you’re now rolling this great research out to make it practical for athletes so I’m really excited for you to be sharing what this cutting edge research is around the athletes well being.

Dr. Erin Ayala 5:01
Yeah, it’s kind of a fun backstory, I think, you know, in clinical and counseling psychologists, it’s, it’s considered best practice to do outcomes assessment where you monitor the well being of your clients and see if they’re improving over time. Sports Psych is a little bit different because it’s not just about wellbeing, it’s also about performance in sport and so it’s, I think all athletes can often feel this pressure to choose one or the other. Right?

Like, if they’re training, then their mental health might take, you know, the backseat, whereas if they’re prioritizing their mental health, then their performance might go out the window and I’m basically making the argument that it’s a false dichotomy, like, you can have both of those things if you’re able to prioritize, you know, in this case, seven factors that contribute to finding that sweet spot and that right balance.

And so what we did my team, we found 43, athletes, coaches, and sport medicine professionals, and at all levels, collegiate, amateur, professional and Olympic, and we ask them one question, we said, what are the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that contribute to optimal performance and mental health in athletes. Uhm and it was really cool because it’s taking an interdisciplinary approach to wellness, as opposed to just sports psychology, or just coaching and everyone has a unique perspective to bring in. So our goal was to get that big picture to see like, what does this actually look like from a holistic point of view.

So we had them answer that question, they had over 300 responses. So then we had the fun job of combing through them and kind of cleaning the data, and we got down to 113. And then we said to them, I want you to rate each of these behaviors based on how important they are to mental health and the same thing, how important they are to performance and then we had them sort them into categories and we combined everything and we came up with seven clusters. So that’s where we stand right now.

Anthony Hartcher 7:06
Fantastic and can you share with us what you found in terms of the outcomes?

Dr. Erin Ayala 7:13
Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, the seven clusters, I can start by summarizing them, and then we can go deeper into any or all of them. So the first one is stress management and so this is really a matter of like sports life balance and directing your energy into more than one area of life so that you feel that balance. The next one is like embracing challenges, which and the best way to think of this is resilience, like looking for challenges and having more of a growth-based mindset, where you see mistakes as learning opportunities, rather than points of failure.

We also have self-awareness, which has a touch of self-compassion in there, which is basically being able to let go of that inner critic, and being able to like focus on like self-awareness, and what you need at the moment and how you’re feeling in the moment and then we’ve got team relationships. So feeling like you have good relationships with your teammates, and coach, and then social support in general. So feeling valued as an athlete, but also as a human and then we had, what I missing mental skills, which is like the sports like skills.

So it’s like motivation, focus, concentration, goal-setting, mindfulness, imagery, and then the final one was a commitment to the sport, which isn’t like forcing workouts, it’s more about being intentional with a training plan, building rest and recovery into your training plan and following that, just hard for a lot of endurance athletes, nutrition, sleep, it’s more of like foam, rolling, mobility, making sure you’re taking care of your body so that you’re ready to perform and so those are the seven clusters.

Anthony Hartcher 8:59
Awesome. I was thinking, is that an order of priority? Or just the way you’re sharing the information? Is that like alike is that in terms of the highest priority should be around stress management and go from there? Because is that where athletes are most susceptible to, you know, overtraining, and stress, you know, becomes gets overwhelming and they don’t perform at their best?

Dr. Erin Ayala 9:23
Mm-hmm. Yeah, great question. So that’s why so it’s interesting, one of my colleagues, my supervisor, who’s our Vice President of Operations here at Premier sports Psychology, it’s a group consulting firm and practice and, and we were working on this project together, and he asked a really important question that really helped change and pivot in a new direction for this project.

He said, well, what about behaviors that might be important for performance, but not mental health? Like as a former Olympian, he can definitely recall times where his workouts were not supporting his mental health, or even the way that he may have been treated or some, you know, the training regimen, when you’re really like getting ready for that an event, sometimes mental health takes the backseat and then there are other times where you have to prioritize your mental health and let go of that performance.

So we asked all of our participants to rate each item based on the importance and so the most, the two most important things for mental health were social support and then embracing challenges, which is that resilience, growth mindset and then it was closely followed by self-awareness and self-management, or stress management. So all four of that kind of clustered together for the mental health and then for the performance, it flipped, except for one, embracing adversity stayed at the top. So if you want more bang for your buck, it’s that embracing adversity piece and that resilience and then the other one that was important for performance was a commitment to the sport, having your body physically primed and ready to go.

Anthony Hartcher 11:06
Yeah, and it is certainly supportive of the outcomes that they found from that Harvard study, which I believe is still continuing today. The study on happiness or longevity, it’s, I think, it’s called the longevity study, and where they found the most important thing to our happiness or mental health is around social connection and so what the athletes have, you know, relating back to you is that team support that you know, that people have your back and that they’re there for you in the good times and bad times and you know, you can share that distress after, you know, losing that race so narrowly, because you know, at these, at this elite level, it comes down to split milliseconds, and you know, like, it’s, it’s just phenomenal and you can just make one tiniest mistake, and it costs you the race.

Dr. Erin Ayala 11:55
No, absolutely.

Anthony Hartcher 11:56
Yes, yeah so.

Unknown Speaker 11:58
And it’s so important you know, it’s really, it’s, it’s been fascinating for me because I’m also an athlete, and I’m actively competing and so this is also like me, studying myself, but in a more objective way and it’s been really cool because some of the questions with the social support, really also tap into your relationship with your coach and your teammates and that is so important and I think for me personally, having a coach like I DNF, or I dropped out of a race last weekend and texted him immediately after.

Unknown Speaker 12:28
Angry, like, I quit, right, and he was there ready for me and then, you know, when I won today, earlier, he was there for that as well and so it’s being able to be really honest and open and vulnerable with your coaches and your teammates, so that they can see the authentic you and your, your true self, you don’t feel like you’re always on. Because with sport and performance we’re often on and that’s really emotionally fatiguing and draining, and sometimes you just have to, like take off those layers and cry, vent, rant, do whatever you need to do.

Anthony Hartcher 13:03
Yeah, it’s very true that we, you know, we should, I guess, show our true feelings, because then people can really provide the support that we actually need, as opposed to masking and saying, yeah, I’m okay, I’m okay, yeah yeah, I’ve moved on, I’ve moved on, but deep down you haven’t, and that can really, you know, affect an athlete’s overall health and well being and I was also just thinking, then that, in that, like, of that Olympic team setting, you would have, you know, team members that are competing with one another and so that, you know, it also adds a bit of, or certainly a shift in dynamics around that team relationship and being able to, I guess, leave, leave it on the track or leave it in the pool or, and then be able to be mates, outside of, I guess what’s happening on the track or in the pool or wherever it may be.

Dr. Erin Ayala 13:56
Absolutely and I see it also with my high school clients, a lot of my like, cross country runners and track and field runners. There are only so many places on the varsity team and so they’re often competing against each other while supporting each other and that’s, that’s hard to do. That’s really hard to do.

Anthony Hartcher 14:13
Yeah, I agree because the other thing is, you know, what the other teammates are doing around their training and you think you need to do a little bit more, which, which goes on to what we spoke about earlier about it, you know, is this overtraining, so yeah, because they obviously monitoring okay.

My competition’s doing this, if I do an extra hour on top of that, I’m going to get the edge and yeah, and you mentioned that stress management and I’ve, you know, read a lot about our heart rate variability, and how it’s a good indicator, and, you know, a lot of what you do is outcomes, you know, assessments and looking for these leading lagging indicators for, you know, for performance and recovery. So, I was wondering, you know, how do you measure that stress? A person’s stress management? Is that a questionnaire? Or is it actually you’re looking at heart rate variability? And that sort of those sorts of measures?

Dr. Erin Ayala 15:09
Yeah, yeah, that’s a good question. It’s, I mean, it’s basically so it’s, it’s self-report and so, which there’s always going to be limitations with self-report information because people often think they may be doing, they may be doing something more often than they actually are, myself included.

Right, like, I might say that I’m good at foam rolling and working on mobility when realistically, I’ve got some work to do. So. So it is a self-report questionnaire, and it asks questions about basically, like, I’m intentional with how much time I spend in each area of my life, sport, family, school work, I have interests or hobbies outside of sport that contribute to my mental well being or emotional well being.

It has, I have a good balance between different areas of my life. One that’s really important that’s on the questionnaire is I’m willing to say no to extra commitments when I feel maxed out and so that’s the nature of that stress management is basically working on those personal boundaries. You know, when is it time to say like, nope, I’m done for the day, or I’m going to say no to this extra opportunity, or this commitment.

Granted, there are times when athletes may not be able to say no, right, and so sometimes based on like, I have collegiate and professional athletes where that might not be an option and so that’s where that second category of that self-awareness comes in, is knowing when they need to take a break and knowing what that looks like and feels like and heart rate variability can be one.

Uhm and so knowing you know, like, if that’s really low, and we’ve got a lot of people who, including myself, I wear a whoop and so I watched my own recovery and my coach keeps an eye on it and other athletes are, you know, going into this as well and tracking like, how am I doing today and if they are, you know, the self-awareness is so important. If they’re feeling like they’re overtrained, or starting to feel burnt out, it’s important to be like, have a sit down with the coach and have that honest conversation with them, and say, hey, I need a break, or we need to dial things back. So all of these, overlap with each other, which is what’s so cool about it.

Anthony Hartcher 17:19
Yeah, I love it because it’s holistic, it’s looking at all aspects of their life. You know, you mentioned that family balance that, you know, that social connection, them getting, you know, should be mentioned, nutrition, sleep, obviously, the different levels of training or different types of training, which you mentioned mobility, and you know, you got your high-intensity sort of training and yeah, so it’s a real good mix and it’s all about them, you know, finding that balance that works for them, which is incredible. It’s because, in the past, it’s all about doing more, it’s been doing more, I’ve got to do more, I’ve got to do more, I’ve got to do more. By doing more, I’m going to be better.


Dr. Erin Ayala 18:01
And we were kind of like, I was a little worried about what we would find like it’s scary to put research in the hands of other people in the States. It starts as quality than research with this open-ended question and I did not know what they were going to say. Like, what if they say, like, no pain, no gain, or this kind of like old school mentality, like what’s going to show up, like, push through the difficulties, right and that was not the case and it was, it was a relief for me.

But it was also really cool and exciting to see so many professionals and coaches and athletes, saying like, no self-awareness is really important. Like, you need to know when to dial it back and take a step back, you need to prioritize relationships with other people. So that was really, that was really neat. I was expecting a lot of kinds of traditional sports like skills, like goal setting, and motivation and focus and there’s definitely some of that in there. But it’s only a small piece of that model. So it was really cool to see all of these different facets of well-being.

Anthony Hartcher 19:05
Absolutely and I could imagine it’s quite challenging for your collegiate athletes and that younger generation, you know, the millennials, the Gen Z is because there’s, there’s so much on the go and happening and particularly now that, you know, we’re opening up again, and you know, social events are back on and I can imagine, you know, that they could be feeling exhausted, they’re quite aware of them feeling exhausted, but they have that FOMO you know, I can’t miss it, you know?

Yeah. So it would be certainly a lot more challenging for this generation today. You know, in terms of saying no, and being able to say that I’m too tired, I’m going to rest and chill out so now I’m going to have family time I’m going to prioritize a family has, you know, been out enough and.

Dr. Erin Ayala 19:48

Anthony Hartcher 19:49

Dr. Erin Ayala 19:49
And it’s neat because I think teams really have you know, we all have an opportunity to contribute to team culture. Coaches have a huge opportunity because we know that change always comes from the top and culture comes from the top and so when you have coaches who are really prioritizing well-being you can tell.

I think about some of my athletes and those who I work with some of the teams I work with and it’s really neat, because there are some coaches who really prioritize academics, and they want their collegiate athletes to be just as strong in the classroom as they are in the field and then we also see some of the guys who will like to normalize, being, you know, like, I do a lot with ADHD testing and learning disability assessments, which for some athletes could be really scary or stressful, or carry some stigma.

But the guys will be like, yeah, do it, because it’s really helpful. Like, you should go, I got it done too. So they’re helping to take away that stigma and say, like, yeah, take care of yourself and then there are other teams, I know who will participate in like a dry season together, where they choose not to drink any alcohol for the season, which is huge as a college student, that’s awesome. So it’s really neat to see the team is really taking the reins and saying like, who do we want to be? What does that look like?

Anthony Hartcher 21:02
I was just thinking, you know, in terms of that, the 43-year study, what was the gender mix, and was that you didn’t notice any difference in the responses around the gender because, you know, if I was to be generalized, or stare at, you know, stereotypical, I’d see the women being a lot more connected with, you know, self-awareness, and, you know, and prioritizing relationships, and, you know, if I was to be, you know, gender-biased or whatever, you know, that the males is more around, you know, performance training hard pushing, pushing, pushing. Did you, did that come across in the research?

Dr. Erin Ayala 21:42
Not yet. So we’re collecting data on that right now, actually and I have to wait until I get enough people so I can start crunching the numbers. Our initial participants were about two-thirds women and 1/3 men, which is not uncommon for this type of research, and, like, we had really cool, just a really cool group of people.

We had on like, carrying 17 Sports represented, or something really wide breadth and so that was really neat. But it was two-thirds women, 1/3 men and so I’m curious to see what it’s going to look like, I have a lot of anecdotally, I have a lot of female athletes who are so hard on themselves, really perfectionistic. So I’m also curious because there’s also that masculinity piece that doesn’t jive really well, I think some people are afraid of self-compassion because they don’t want to go soft.

When really, it’s not about that at all. So I did see one study that talked about self-compassion and looked at the differences between gender and it was something along the lines of like self-compassion was more potent for women than men in athletics and I think they did like a self-compassion intervention. So that might have been a mindfulness reflection type of activity and then I think the measured levels, so it’ll be interesting to see what comes out with that.

Anthony Hartcher 23:07
Yeah, totally. I can. I see this perfectionism, with, you know, the women I consult and you know, really, it’s a well they’re really hard on themselves, as you said, and it really affects their mental health. You know, set in a critic is always saying, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough and, you know, they’re self-sabotaging themselves, and that, you know, really puts them down. So what advice do you give you, you know, your female athletes or can be males as well around this perfectionism? Because I know, it is. It’s big in the athletic world because it’s all about perfecting your, your art, your skill?

Dr. Erin Ayala 23:52
Yes, yeah, I use a lot of different analogies and so I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in my work, also known as ACT. There’s an Australian psychotherapist by the name of Russ Harris, who does really good work in this area and he also uses a lot of analogies and so one of the analogies that I really like is this sense of like this, like tug of war, and so often people are told will like, just, you know, like, drown it out with positive self-talk, right?

But you’re wasting energy when you’re doing that and so some of the ACt practitioners talk about this inner tug of war, where you’ve got this inner critic, this negative self-talk, and then you try to like talk back to it and say, like, no, and then be more reasonable, but you’re exhausting yourself when you do that and often, honestly, we don’t believe it anyway and so what I say to my clients is drop the rope, like stop engaging in that war. Like let your inner critic as I think of like little gremlins or demons on the shoulder chatting away, like take them with you and don’t let You know, it’s like, okay, I hear you, like, thanks for the feedback.

There’s a lot of the ACT practitioners talk about this thank your mind or thanks brain and so I say like, you know, let’s say you have I work with a lot of teens. So I say, Do you have any younger siblings who talk a lot? And they usually say yes and if they don’t, then I say, do you have parents who give you unsolicited advice about a sport that they’ve never played? And they often say, Yes and I say, and what do you say to them? When they talk or they provide advice? You don’t want to be rude because you know, they care and it’s usually like, thanks for the feedback. Really helpful, thank you.

But there’s a note of sarcasm there, especially with my 13 and 14 year olds and so I say, that’s what you do to yourself. That’s what you do to your brain. So your brain starts talking, you’re not good enough, you don’t deserve to be here. You know, you’re not gonna make it, you’re not deewan material, you’re not this, you’re not that. Just say, thanks, brain, thanks for the feedback, super helpful, really appreciate your commentary today and so that usually works really well. Because it’s a way to kind of distance yourself from those thoughts so you don’t get as sucked into them.

Anthony Hartcher 26:12
Yeah, I like it, because you’re actually acknowledging that it’s there, you’re not dismissing it, but you’re dampening as you’re turning it turning the volume down.

Dr. Erin Ayala 26:22
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Another one that can be really helpful is this strategy where you say, let’s say like, I’m not going to do well today or I don’t deserve to be here, we’ll just say that I’m not good enough, because that’s a really common one. So the thought might be I’m not good enough.

Then you add to the beginning of that statement, I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough and then you add one more phrase, I noticed, I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough and all of a sudden, it’s a little less potent because now it’s just a thought that you noticed that’s passing by. It’s not the truth and so that’s another strategy and so all of these strategies are a way to just kind of accept and to notice these thoughts when they come in, and then let them go and make room for other more constructive thoughts.

Anthony Hartcher 27:13
So you’re really becoming that observer, as opposed to yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 27:16

Anthony Hartcher 27:17
So you’re stepping away and watching it and observing it? Yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 27:21
Yeah, one of my favorite questions to ask my athletes is, how is that working for you? Because often, the inner critic is not helping, especially when you start to kind of unpeel the layers of the onion and dig deeper, it’s the best performances that they have, are often the ones where they feel the most confident, or they’re having the most fun. Like the ones that they’re really tearing themselves apart, usually are not the best performances and so I help them kind of explore or I approach it with curiosity being like, I wonder, and then I help them kind of realize that on their own, which is a fun process,

Anthony Hartcher 28:01
can imagine and I’m just thinking about what my next question is, for that person that’s taken on an event that they’ve never done before, like you did you know, in terms of your 10k, 21k, you know, marathon and same with the triathlon sprint, and Olympic distance, so on and so on, all the way to Iron Man.

It can be very daunting, you know, taking on a challenge, or an event that you’ve never done before and it can be a lot of that self-doubt and you know, you can be training in the lead up to it, and it can come closer to the event day, where you’re starting to doubt yourself, you might not be you know, your training sessions might not be as great, you’re not might not be feeling all that great and I think how do you get athletes? Because you’ve just mentioned how important it is, the performance is really indicative of how confident you are going into it. How do you really get that confidence built up just before the event, even though your performance and your training might be a little down?

Dr. Erin Ayala 28:58
Yes, yeah. That’s a fun question because it’s something that I talk about a lot with my athletes, and sometimes they’ll come to me and say, well, I just don’t have any confidence, I can’t do it. Right, and so I asked them, What would a con confident Anthony look like? How would a confident Anthony act or behave at the events? Eye contact, posture? How assertive or aggressive someone is out there in endurance sports, racing your own race and not being too affected by what other people are doing around you?

Because you know, your numbers and you know, your body. Right? And then what would an Anthony that is really doubting himself and really lacks confidence, what would that look like? Right, and so then we say, like, start with the behaviors, because the research shows that the behavior comes before the feeling like you have to act confident before you feel confident and so that’s one thing I say is like, and then I say, and then they’re like, well, I’m not going to believe it.

Right, and then that’s where we like, just sit with where you are in the moment and trust the process because you’ve trained for it and when we start catastrophizing, you’re thinking about the past and the workouts that you missed or the future and what’s going to go wrong. You’re losing again, that energy that you could be spending on the moment and the here and now, and that’s what’s so important to sport is, you know, getting in the zone and so that mindfulness and acceptance work actually helps athletes do that.

Anthony Hartcher 30:28
Yeah, also, I remember this saying, old saying is fake it till you make it. So that’s that real, as you said, you know the, you got to have that, you got to act the way you want to be when you’re confident, and then you’ll feel that way and it’s very much that visualization, isn’t it, as you just talked me through then is, you know, how is Anthony when he’s at his best? What is the look like? How’s he feeling? And that’s a visualization exercise that i, yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 30:55
Right, and it’s helping with that, you know, that self-awareness piece with the athletes is like, what do I look like and how do I act when I’m feeling this way? And, you know, with confidence, we know there are other things that can go into it and you think of it as like scaffolding, you’re slowly leveling up and thinking about, you know, how can I push this skill set and by doing it more often, that helps.

We also know, seeing other people like you succeed, or do something also helps with confidence, because I know, well, if I saw her do it, then I can do it too, and especially the more similar that person is to you, the more confident you’ll feel that you can do it as well. So sometimes that’s also helpful in working with folks. But I really like to focus on the person is like, you know, tell me about a time in the past when you haven’t felt confident and then you, you know, you surprised yourself, what happened there.

So another thing that I often do is and it gets to some of that self-awareness work to that’s so important is like knowing what your values are as an athlete, like, what’s important to you, why do you do it? And let’s, let’s set aside the score or the reading or the podium, or whatever it is that you’re chasing, like, let’s set that aside. If we didn’t care about that, we’ll just pretend.

How would you show up? Like, what would that look like? And that can be kind of refreshing, because it gives athletes something different to focus on, especially some of like, really, my teenagers, I think it’s really helpful for them, and being like, oh, I actually have control over a lot of the things that I do and being a good teammate, taking feedback, well, working really hard, hustling, communicating, things like that.

Anthony Hartcher 32:32
That’s great advice. And, you know, also heard in the past that, you know, focus on the process and the steps and not the outcome and you know, we get too distracted by the outcome. You know I want to be up on that podium with a gold medal around my neck and as opposed to, you know, just go through the paces the steps that you’ve trained, so over and over again, and just focus on each little step, tweak or whatever you need to do to your performance, and focus on perfecting that, and the outcome will come as a result of you doing the process well.

Unknown Speaker 33:02
Right, Yep, you’ve got to trust the process and I say to my athletes all the time, and even though it’s cheesy, it’s so true. Because if we’re focusing only on the outcome, like we’re not going to get there, you know, we have to focus on all of those little things and that was part of the research that showed up to is creating really specific and small goals to help you reach your big ones and to create goals that have nothing to do with your time or your place or a medal and that I think is also important, like little milestones for people to celebrate those successes.

Dr. Erin Ayala 33:35
Because we can’t control our competition and so you’ve got to create goals that you have, you’ve got some sort of control over and you know, places like sometimes I’ll say to folks, like if you had a really awful performance, and you won, because not many other people showed up, or you had your best performance of your life, and you weren’t ranked, like what would you prefer? And it’s often you know, it’s the medals are nice, but that performance and you and being proud of how you showed up, like, that’s arguably more important.

Anthony Hartcher 34:08
It’s so true, because, you know, you could do a PB by, you know, a fair distance or fit, you know, a fair amount of time and, and still not get the gold medal, still not to be on the podium. But you if you know, you’ve excelled yourself?

Dr. Erin Ayala 34:21
Yes, yes, absolutely. Yeah. So it’s important to celebrate those little victories along the way and to, you know, I think some people, myself included, I get sucked into this, where we’re always chasing the next thing, right. But we’ve got to celebrate those little things along the way so that we don’t like lose sight of that journey in that process.

Anthony Hartcher 34:40
It’s true. It’s really that gratitude and, you know, giving thanks for what we’ve accomplished, as opposed to being too future-oriented, you know, living in the here and now, and, and being grateful for what we’ve accomplished at that point. Yeah, the other one I was thinking is just before the event, because that’s when you know, you’ve you can actually prepare really well up until the day, feel quite confident, but then the nerves get the better of you, you know, just at the start line and if it’s a short race, you don’t have much time to, you know, really recover if you have a bad start or whatever. So what how do you work with the athletes around, you know, at the start line?

Dr. Erin Ayala 35:18
Yeah, so a couple of things I love to help people prepare for their events and it starts like, as the week of, ideally, the week before or a few days before. I make sure being like, okay, what do you have control over? Sleep, nutrition, hydration, electrolytes, mobility, like all of these little things, packing your bags, checking the weather, making sure you have all of the things you need and so I’ll get really prescriptive with them and being like, Okay, what time are you what time? How much sleep do you want to get? What time do you need to wake up in the morning for the competition?

So let’s assume it takes you some time to fall asleep and so then I’ll get there and go step by step by step. But then I’ll also talk about right before your event, you need to set aside five to 10 minutes to just chill, go to a corner, find a place with no one else around you, you know, put your hoodie up, put in your favorite song, do something for you. Because otherwise we’re too frantic and our sympathetic nervous system is just going awry and being like, okay, I’m ready.

But we’ve got to bring that down before we throw ourselves into the event and that whistle blows and so I say, you know, set aside some time to bring yourself back down. Deep breathing is awesome because we know that’s one of the best and most effective ways to bring down that sympathetic nervous system. So your body is a little more balanced at the moment and that really helps with the pre-race or the pre-competition jitters. So yep.

Anthony Hartcher 36:57
Great tips and I’ve certainly observed that with the swimmers, they’ve got their hoodie, they’re listening to their music, and they’re doing their little routine to get them in the zone. So I’ve really yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 37:10
Michael Phelps got a lot of flack for that on social media a few years ago and like, that’s exactly what you need to do, it was perfect. He had his you know, his noise cancellation headphones, his hoodie up like he was doing exactly what he needed to get into the right mindset and so and what I say to athletes is like, it’s okay to say to your teammates, or your parents or your significant other, like, I’m gonna go jitter now, I’ll be back, right,

Like, if this is your performance, it’s okay to prioritize yourself at that moment and say, I just need five minutes and that’s where you can do imagery. You know, for swimmers especially sprint’s like, you can visualize the whole race if you want to, use all five senses, make it as vivid as possible. We know that that’s the best way or the most effective way for imagery and visualization is like smelling the chlorine feeling the temperature of the water when you first get in. Feel like the tile for like the flip turn, like visualize the flags and over you like all of these little things, like that’s what you need to include in those visualizations. That’s, that’s what’s most helpful.

Anthony Hartcher 38:21
Engage the five senses. Fantastic, I really like it. Just thinking in that situation, when the lead up to the event, there might be a niggling injury, you know, that the person gets in training, and they think I’ll know maybe two weeks away or a week away and how do you get the athlete beyond that point to get you to know, provided the obviously the injury can you know, heal in that, provided it’s not threatening to the race, but it’s you know, it’s just that it’s more than mindset associated with that little niggle.

Dr. Erin Ayala 38:55
The fear of re-injury is huge for athletes, especially because I think our athletes, our athletic identity is so important to us and so when you take away the opportunity to compete, or even the idea of not being able to compete, that’s terrifying and so what I say to the athletes who have like a little niggle, or a small injury is, you know, again, like you’re gonna recover so hard this week like this is your new sport.

You’re going to rest, you’re going to listen to your body like you’re going to go to PT, you’re going to do the exercises that they tell you to because we know that a lot of athletes do not do them and so it’s like, those are your priorities this week and then it’s really listening to the professionals and what they have to say and following their advice and if it’s like a B or C like a second or third priority race, and it means prioritizing your body for the long game, then I’m usually more conservative and I say like sit this one out.

It’s not worth it, right. Like if you’re still having pain and it’s not like this, you know, discomfort is different than pain and so it’s helping them with like the difference between that which is also really hard to do. So yeah, the injuries are really hard, really hard. So I say like, listen to your body and, you know, do whatever you have in control, which is often like rest and recovery and mobility, icing, fun stuff like that. Yeah.

Anthony Hartcher 40:24
It’s like focusing on a new process to get you back on track. So a little bit of a diversion of the path that you sort of set out a little diversion, but we get on to that process for focus on that, and you’ll get back on the path ready for the big race.

Dr. Erin Ayala 40:38

Anthony Hartcher 40:38

Dr. Erin Ayala 40:38
Yeah and it’s often I mean, that was what we found through the research too, is and that’s like, the embracing adversity is when these unexpected situations come up, we as athletes have to be flexible and that’s one thing that I’m often talking about, is this, as this idea of mental toughness.

There’s definitely a time and a place for that but not when we’re like injured and trying to force something and like tough it out, like, no, that’s when we get reinjured and so it’s trying to, you know, like the mental toughness piece in this adversity, like small injuries, that’s definitely adversity and so it’s, it’s being able to be like, okay, I didn’t plan for this. How can I pivot in a different direction and adapt and flex so that I can support myself? The same thing in a race or in a game, this is not what I planned. Okay, I don’t have control over this. How can I pivot at the moment and refocus and redirect? Like, those are often the most successful athletes, the ones who can pivot when needed.

Anthony Hartcher 41:40
Yeah. So be that adaptive person? Is that resilience, isn’t it? It’s.

Dr. Erin Ayala 41:45

Anthony Hartcher 41:45
Yeah, yeah.

Dr. Erin Ayala 41:46
It really is, like letting go of mistakes when they happen. You know, like, you turn over the ball, like, okay, get to the other side of the court. You know, it happens and when we start trying to like, makeup mistakes, or trying to, like, you know, people who will miss workouts, I used to do this, I’ll just double up the next day. No, just trust the process as you missed it, it’s gone. That’s okay, you’re not falling behind, just do one day at a time.

Anthony Hartcher 42:15
So it’s that letting go, isn’t it? Like I’ve made a mistake, I’ve turned the ball over, I just gotta let it go, move on. It’s a new point, a new point, as opposed to dwelling on that previous point.

Dr. Erin Ayala 42:26
Yep. Because if you’re not, if you’re focusing on the last play, you’re not focusing on the current one and then you’re going to make more mistakes, and then you’re going to dig your hole deeper, right? And then you’re just not going to have a good game and so you’ve got to be able to just let it go, which is really hard to do.

Anthony Hartcher 42:40
Yeah, that reminds me of Dr. Adam Fraser’s work, he was looking at our high performing athletes and what, you know, really, why did the top 10 really stand out from the rest of the field, he was studying the tennis players, and what he found it wasn’t their agility, their power, or their serve or anything like that it was all quite evenly matched relatively and what was the real difference is how the athlete responded between points.

So whether it was a good yes, a good here to whatever, you know, they had that positive reinforcement and a built up self confidence and all that. But it was that one way they miss shot, yeah, miss, miss shot or whatever, that what they did to get themselves ready for the next point, as opposed to dwelling on that miss-hit, and then allowing that to compounds and so of course, that the third space, which is between a and b, it’s right in the middle, and it’s what you do in that middle that really counts.

Dr. Erin Ayala 43:36
Yes. Mm-hmm. Yeah, that makes sense and it’s being able to just like pivot and redirects your energy into like, what do I need to focus on right now? Right, and focusing on like, the missed hit is not going to help you. You can do that after you can watch the tape and say like, I love to do an activity I learned from another sports psychologist called the WWW and the WWI’s and it stands for after competition or performance what went well. So what did I do well that contributed to a strong performance it can be sleeping the night before, it can be pre-race or pre-competition meal.

It can be what you did during the events, your warm-up routine, whatever you want, the music you listen to pick three, and then the WWI is what’s worth improving. So it’s not what did I do wrong? How did I screw up? It’s What can I do differently next time to do better? And it’s more strength-based which is so important and so okay, you turned over the ball. Let’s watch to see how like how did that happen? What did you do? Or the same thing with you know, like thinking about others like you missed a hit, let’s look at your forum or your stroke or in like cycling, you know, miss the timing for a sprint. Well, let’s see when you attacked versus when the person next to you did, that’s where we can learn from our mistakes. It’s not in the competition, that’s not the time to reflect. You got it, you got to perform.

Anthony Hartcher 45:05
It’s so true, it’s after, yeah. So yeah, let it go, yeah, refocus, and then we’ll catch up with the coach afterward and review the replays. Yeah, perfect. Just, uh, you know, I guess I, you know, my final question I have here, and it’s around, you know, it’s part of the seven, which, you know, I found a bit peculiar was the motivation, one. So, you know, for me, like, I just see athletes as extremely goal-oriented, like, so those that that one that would just, you know, motivation, goal setting and all that sort of stuff and, you know, I think that’s a real strength of athletes.

Is that they can set goals is so focused on it, they got the extreme drive, it can just like that can just be their life and everything else is just secondary, and it’s all a priority. So what is it around the motivation, because it must have come up as athletes must at some periods get demotivated? And whether it be maybe an injury or a setback? What is it in the research? You know, what? Why did this motivation come up? And, and is it their why that gets them back on track? Isn’t it? Yeah, so that’s like, yes.

Dr. Erin Ayala 46:15
Yeah. So I think two things that are worth talking about. One is self-determination theory, which is a really well-known theory in psychology, it’s, I think it started in education settings and has since been brought over to sport and to simplify it, they basically say there are three ingredients to motivation.

The first one is autonomy. So feeling like you have a choice for athletes having some sort of choice in the events that you do, the structure of your training, your routine, have some sort of control and so for coaches who want to who wants to improve the motivation of their athletes, give your athletes some more choices. Because that can improve motivation because then they don’t feel like they’re being forced to do something.

The second ingredient is relatedness or belonging. So that’s where those team relationships and the coach and athlete support also really come in and feeling like you belong, and you’re a part of the team, and you’re a part of the community. If you don’t feel like you’re belonging, you’re not going to feel motivated and then the third ingredient is competence.

So feeling like you can do it, and like knowing that you’re there, and you deserve to be there and so for coaches providing feedback, like all the time on what athletes are doing well, not just what they need to improve, but really specific feedback on like, hey, the way that you responded to that play was so good. Do you notice how blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, right? Like really specific feedback can help with that competence.

Because athletes are so hard on themselves and so when athletes feel like they’ve got choices, they feel like they belong, and they feel like they’re decent at what they’re doing, they’re going to be motivated. The opposite of that is burnout and so that’s when you feel like you’re a robot going through the motions. Like why am I in the sport, it doesn’t matter anymore, I’m not that good anyway.

That’s where the burnout hits and it was interesting, the research we’re doing, we have some initial findings, but there’s a negative correlation that was significant between scores on our measure with these seven clusters, and burnout. So the higher someone is with the stress management, the social support, the facing adversity, commitment to the sport, the higher they are on that, the lower their burnout. So someone also wants to help with the motivation, like focus on the basics, get back to building up that foundation.

Anthony Hartcher 48:45
It’s so true, I can see how they all interconnected, you know, your seven key areas, and particularly, you know, this last point you’ve raised around, you know, if scoring well with stress management and their commitment, and they’re very much that resilient nature, so that that will allow them to get back on track to refocus on their goal and to lift them whereas as you said if they’re not doing that stress management, and they, you know, they’re feeling low and down, then that that bounce back that resilience is just not there and, you know, we see it with corporates.

For example, it’s exactly the same if they’re not doing that self-care, that stress management and they do they get that burnout, and therefore, they’re not able to cope with something that goes bad because they’re just got no energy to feeling and you know, comes back to that autonomy and what’s in your control and you know, so I just love how everything is spoken about,

Dr. Erin Ayala 49:39
Oh it’s so interconnected and I think people like to simplify, you know, we like to simplify things. It’s, it’s, it’s more simple than we can do it and it’s less daunting and like seeing a list of these seven clusters or 113 behaviors, like that’s overwhelming. I look at it and I’m like, I can’t do all of these things and it’s not the expectation isn’t to do all of these things.

Honestly, the expectation is like moderation, you know, find the right think of these as like seven different levers, and they’re not all going to be high at the same time, you know, they’re going to differ based on the time of your season, or the nature of your coaching or team relationships, whether or not you’re in transition, how you’re performing, like things are going to change and as long as you’re kind of monitoring them, that’s what’s most important and recognizing sport is super dynamic. There’s a lot, you know, ebb and flow. There are a lot of changes, some seasons are better than others and that’s a part of the process and stepping back to look at that big picture.

Anthony Hartcher 50:37
Thank you so much, Dr. Erin Ayala, it’s been an incredible conversation with you, I’ve really enjoyed it. How can listeners best contact you?

Dr. Erin Ayala 50:46
Mm hmm. Yeah, can go to We’re also on Instagram premier sports psychology. My email is also on the website. It’s e a y, an l a at Premier sports psychology dot com and then my personal Instagram, which is all biking, just as a warning is Erin E Ayala.

Anthony Hartcher 51:12
Awesome and in terms of that publication, is that available on the premier sports psychology website?

Dr. Erin Ayala 51:18
Not yet, but it will be Yeah, we’re actually I’m writing it up right now with my team. We have a deadline at the end of the month. So fingers crossed that we get it done and then we’ll be publishing white papers on the website. We’ll be adding a research and development or research and analytics subsection to our website in the near future, well we’ll be posting more of it.

Anthony Hartcher 51:39
Oh, fantastic, I’ll incorporate all the links that you’ve just shared with us the website, your Instagram, your email in the show notes, so listeners can go directly to their and end of the month you can. So that’s the end of June, you’ll be able to see the white papers in the publication around Erin’s great work, Erin and a team’s great work.

So yeah, Erin, I just really want to sincerely thank you for sharing so much wonderful knowledge, which is certainly empowered me and I’m sure the listeners are very empowered in terms of what you’ve been able to share around the most cutting edge leading research around sports psychology and for the listeners if you’ve liked the episode, please like and share it with others.

So we can get this wonderful cutting edge research out to others that really will help them not only in their sports performance but in their everyday performance, whether it be being a mom or dad or whether it be being the best at their work, it will help irrespective of what you’re doing. Whatever performance you need to do, it will help with because it’s all fundamentally important and yeah, there’s so much evidence that supports it in all aspects other than sports. So please like and share it and stay tuned for more insightful episodes of me and my health up.

Dr. Erin Ayala 53:01
Thank you so much for having me.

Anthony Hartcher 53:03
You’re so welcome.

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