Young Guns #3: Catch Facts Not Feels

from Performance Life

A phone-call on fighting the demons of self-doubt, learning from experience and thieving sisters.

Toni-Ella-Alicia

For those familiar with Dair Magazine, you’ll already have encountered Alicia Barrett. ‘Frank, funny and humble’ is how I’ve described her in the past. She is also one of England’s great young hopes at a time when many of our previous Athletics heroes have retired or are winding down. Alicia trained alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill, under the coaching eye of Toni Minichiello, during Jess’ final year. From being a record holding junior, Alicia is now attempting to pick up the metaphorical baton, avoid the Bermuda triangle that seems to beset so many young stars, and run with it to senior success.

Her latest challenge is flying to the other side of the World to take part in the Commonwealth Games, competing in one of the most hotly contested events: the 100 metre hurdles,

“I got told just before Christmas. Then March seemed forever away but it’s meant a change of plans with a couple of small injuries that have made me feel a bit all over the place”.

‘All over the place’ is evidently not ideal preparation for a major championships

‘All over the place’ is evidently not ideal preparation for a major championships but as our conversation progresses it’s apparent that, despite injury, a plan is very much in place. You wouldn’t expect any different from Toni. For starters, training has changed significantly,

“Instead of 6 or 8 hurdles it’s been 9, 10 or 11. Runs are longer. They’re 150 or 180 metres. And we’ve been more specific in gym. More snatch, lifts and cleans. It’s about being quick and explosive. I’ve also focused a lot on my nutrition, preparing for competition. That’s meant more protein and less carbohydrates”.

“How’s that been?”

“I’ve had to be careful about how I fitted it in and fuelled correctly. I don’t want to affect speed and power. I’ve also had several chats with a sports psychologist, using things that went wrong last season to address ways to improve this season. Now it’s about practicing so it becomes a casual, normal thing”.

As I’m reflecting that everything seems in place, the level of background noise increases dramatically, prompting me to ask,

“Are you in a toilet?”

Alicia laughs, “I’m in a café and it was so loud I’ve hidden in the toilets. Now this woman has come in and she’s being really noisy”.

The glamour of being a World Class athlete. I choose to change the subject,

“How about the actual competition? How do you feel about that?”

Alicia chuckles, “I’m basically a negative person. I feel worse this year than last, but Toni points me to the evidence. As he tells me, I’m actually quicker and stronger than last year. So, I feel like I’m in a worse position even though I’m not”.

I can almost hear the conversation between Alicia and Toni. Fragile self-belief is a constant companion for most athletes. Toni calls it the ‘crystal ball of doom’. He counteracts feelings of self-doubt by referring to documented progression in their training and focusing on performance improvements. It’s one of the reasons Alicia keeps a comprehensive performance diary documenting almost every aspect of her training life. It’s a lesson for any of us. Too often we rely on how we feel, often at the expense of reality. Want some good advice? Keep a performance diary. How else will you know that you’ve got better? If you have a written record of where you’ve come from you can re-assess yourself in light of your personal ‘facts’, not your feelings. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

Spending time with Alicia and her notebooks

Conversation turns to the challenge ahead and the reality of being at competition without Toni. Travelling to the other side of the world for four weeks, to perform at your best whilst under the media spotlight is not your average teenage pastime and Alicia is understandably  a little nervous,

“I was worried a bit, going out there without Toni. There is a coach from England Athletics who’ll help me whilst I’m there: doing timings, setting up hurdles. Stuff like that. Toni does all the plans…”.

Later, I called Toni to ask him his views. He was in no doubt,

“She’ll be absolutely fine. It’ll be a growing experience. We’ve got our plans in place. She doesn’t need me”.

I’m not sure I, or Alicia, agree with the last point but I’m equally confident that, once there, the doubts will fade and Alicia will focus on achieving her goals. There is a steely determination that shows through, despite the doubt,

“Competition wise, I want to make the final. It’s going to be really difficult as the hurdles is one of hardest events.  But going into the 100 metres, I love it so much more than the 60 metres. That will make it a lot better. Toni tells me to just run as best I can. I know what he means as I feel it’s an unrealistic aim to make the final”, Alicia pauses, “but I do want to make the final!”

What I learned from the World Champs is ‘do your own thing’. Eat what you normally do. Don’t be led by what other people do.

Irrespective of whether she makes the final Alicia, like any young athlete needs to be very conscious of the choices she makes in the lead into competition. Four weeks in Australia for the first time is likely to present its fair share of distractions,

“What I learned from the World Champs is ‘do your own thing’. Eat what you normally do. Don’t be led by what other people do. If they want to go out to eat and you want to eat healthy, stay on your own and eat well. At the Worlds,  in retrospect,  I feel like I didn’t put myself in the best position to do my best. There were a lot of reasons, including all the factors that come with being at an elite competition, mainly: sticking to what you always do. This time I almost know what to expect so I just want to focus on doing my own thing.. I’ll take in the experience but do the best I can do for myself. I want to give it my everything”.

Wise words from a young athlete and critical to achieve success.  Working with Per Mertesacker at Arsenal, one of his mantras is ‘always be a positive influence on yourself first’. I have no concerns about Alicia in this respect. It’s evident that, competition by competition she reflects, assesses and progresses.  We’ve said it before in Dair Magazine, above all things be a student of self.

I change the subject to more immediate matters,

“You’re a huge film fan, what are you going to download onto your iPad?”

“I’ve got to finish an essay on the National Road to Socialism in Yugoslavia.”

“I don’t know what to say to that”.

“It’s not too bad. I probably will get distracted by the films in the plane. But then you get no sleep for seven hours. Which is no good for preparation”.

“Before I let you escape the loo, one last question: how are you going to cope without Ella?”.

Readers of Dair Magazine will know that Alicia has twin sister, Ella, who is also an athlete (she’s in the feature photo with Alicia and Toni Minichiello). Much of the time they are inseparable.

“She’ll be there. She’s coming over for 2 weeks to watch and support. Besides, she’s in America now anyway”.

“Do you miss her?”

“I missed for her about 24-25 hours until I saw her post a photo in my new Adidas bottoms. I was so angry. Those bottoms are soooo beautiful. I’m not materialistic but… I planned to wear them in Australia. I even thought about buying another pair but then thought ‘what are you doing, don’t be greedy’. I listened to some good music and that calmed me down”.

It’s good to know some things never change. Like siblings stealing each other’s things. It’ll be an interesting conversation when they meet up in Brisbane.

I wish Alicia well on her 24 hour flight, writing essays, watching films and trying to get some sleep at the start of a really big adventure.

This is part of a series

This article is from the Performance Life channel.

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