Working with and training with dangerous environment athletes has shown me how important the psychology training we do is. Not only must I get my clients into the best shape ever, I must make sure they can complete their challenge and then arrive home safely. It’s a very real element of working with adventure athletes and professionals and I am reminded every time I take on a new client who is heading off to a Pole, an 8000m or a technical smaller mountain, rowing the Atlantic or crossing Baikal, that the most important element is tying psychology to their fitness training.
My starting process to achieve this is understanding the individual. I must know what their passion is, what drives them, what they have going on in their day-to-day life and what their real weekly schedule looks like.
Secondly, I must ensure that I understand the physical elements of the goal entirely. Fully appreciating what physical strain their body will be put under allows me to suitably prepare them for the challenge ahead. I do this by speaking to the individual to draw information, researching other athletes who have completed a similar challenge previously or assessing the environment that the individual will complete their challenge in.
Once I have a full appreciation of these elements, I can begin to formulate the training plan. This is obviously the core of my role as a coach and I draw from many years of my own learning and experience- learning about an individual’s ability to cope in certain environments, learning best methods to train the individual for these environments, learning about the impact of environmental conditions on individuals, learning how to train the fitness elements of the basic physical challenge, be it climbing a mountain, skiing to the south pole etc.
An individual’s psychology can also be impacted by their confidence and knowledge of the specific skill set that is required in their chosen challenge. Whilst this is not something I necessarily have the advanced knowledge of, understanding the importance of it is crucial. The client must have self-efficacy when it comes to the required skills in their chosen environment and I must have the understanding of physical demands that are put upon the individual.
Once an athlete is progressing in their physical training, I can begin to add extras to their training plans which support their psychological health and also utilising those extra skills that we’ve previously identified which will be critically important in their chosen challenge. As you may suspect, these “added extras” are not necessarily the most enjoyable elements of an athlete’s training plan. For a mountaineer, a basic training climb might become harder by adding extra weight into their rucksack (to replicate the real weight they will carry on their challenge). For a polar athlete, a quick dunk in a river prior to their tyre drag will help to replicate the challenges that the cold will bring. For an Atlantic rower, a training session which brings them back to home (or base) half way through before asking them to continue on again, will push mental limits and will teach an individual about how they manage mentally when they have to dig deep to keep going.
All the time, I am measuring the response to these sessions. An athlete must progress and most times (if not all) I will put the client through tougher times than they may face on their adventure. This is psychological conditioning- these clients will have a belief that they can deal with the stresses and strains they may well encounter. It’s imperative that I don’t go easy, or just pretend I am making them work hard, remember it’s not for a medal it’s to allow them to complete the challenge and live! If I sell them short in my training approach, the risk is so much greater.
All the a forementioned areas must always be linked back to the client you are working with. Each client is unique, I often become great friends with adventure athletes due the nature of what I am preparing them for and the level of understanding I must have about this individual.
Finally, I always have deep conversations with my clients, during training, just before they head off and after they return. These key conversations pre trip are designed to ensure athletes take no extra psychological issues with them- taking family issues, financial issues etc with them can bring a trip to an early end, so again they must have their mental health locked down in such a way it will not pop up and say hi.
This is a very personal level of work and is so important to helping clients have a safe and successful trip.
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