Sunday, 2 October 2016

WADA Prohibited List 2017

WADA, the world anti-doping body, has published it's updated prohibited list for 2017, which will come into effect on January 1st. It is available to view here.

They have also, helpfully, produced a document which summaries the changes to the list. That document can be viewed here.

Athletes should remember that they are responsible for whatever substances are found in their bodies, and should stay abreast of changes to the Prohibited List. Any medications that you are taking should be checked on the relevant database (Global DRO if you live/purchased your medication in the UK; Eirpharm if you live/purchased your medication in the Republic of Ireland) on a regular basis as medications that you are taking may change in status.

Those of you who follow the doping news (or sports news in general) will remember the furore earlier this year when a number of top sporting stars failed tests for meldonium, a substance which was added to the 2016 banned list. Some, including Maria Sharapova, claimed that they didn't know the substance was banned, in Sharapova's case because she only knew the substance it only by its trade name Mildronate; others claimed they had stopped taking it before January 1, but that it hadn't cleared the system. Sharapova is currently serving a two year ban, as it was her responsibility to ensure that the drug she was taking wasn't banned.

Sharapova got off lightly - the standard ban for a first time doping offence is four years!

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Personal development concepts: a bias for action

I was first introduced to the concept of 'a bias for action' when reading the excellent The Skilled Helper, by Gerard Egan (no relation), six years ago. The book was one of the main texts for a course in career counselling that I was studying for at the time, but which I never managed to complete (the course that is; I still have aspirations of finishing the book), and, somewhat ironically, the phrase 'a bias for action' resonated with me. It is one of the main values which I constantly endeavour to bring to my consultations with athletes.

'A bias for action' is a term often used in the business world. In that sphere it refers to the "propensity to act or decide without customary analysis or sufficient information, to 'just do it' and contemplate later" (ref: In the business world, it is rarely the most effective way of doing things and is typified by people attempting to simply look busy, feel productive, or to be seen to be making a difference.

The term has a slightly different meaning in the helping context, though in certain contexts, there is a value to doing things for the sake of doing something, not over analysing and just trying things out. 

In essence, those with a bias for action are doers rather than bystanders. They set and pursue life goals, they take responsibility for their actions and they persist against obstacles. According to Egan, bias for action is one of the key values that drive the helping relationship. "The doer is more likely to move beyond problem management to opportunity development" (Egan 2007, p61).

The overall goal of the 'helping' practitioner - in this case the personal development/lifestyle support practitioners - is to help the client (athlete) become more effective in managing problems and developing opportunities. This involves helping them "become more effective 'agents' in the helping process and in their daily lives - doers rather than mere reactors, preventers rather than fixers, initiators rather than followers" (Egan, 2007, p61).

The practitioner should adopt a bias for action themselves, as well as help the athlete become doers and active agents for themselves. During consultations, practitioners with a bias for action will question what more they can do to increase the chances of the athlete taking action and solving their own problems in an intelligent and prudent way. Relationship building is a fundamental part of the 'helping' process but it shouldn't get in the way of solving problems and developing opportunities. Councelling and coaching are often seen as simply listening to the client, and yes, listening is an important component, since, afterall, we can't actually advise the client or take action on their behalf. But we can facilitate them to take action.

Egan goes on to talk about non-discretionary and discretionary change. Non-discretionary change is something that is mandated to us; something that we have to change in order to achieve a certain outcome. In the high performance sport context, a governing body might tell an athlete that unless they start attending their strength and conditioning sessions, they will be removed from funding. If they want to remain on funding, they must make the change.

Discretionary change, on the other hand, is something that we choose to do simply to improve our situation. Human nature means that if we don't have to change, we generally don't. We generally think that others should change first and that we will only change if we absolutely have to. This is the reality that we as helpers need to be aware of. Having a bias for action will help promote discretionary change.

Take, for example, an athlete who expresses concern over how their coach-athlete relationship has developed. They might feel that they are not having enough input into their development. The relationship which worked well when they were a junior athlete is no longer optimal. Often, however, the athlete in this situation isn't motivated enough to have a conversation with the coach about how they fell, and how they can work together to change the situation. Before long, the athlete's performances start to drop, they blame the coach, trust is lost, and something which could have been fixed with a conversation and some basic discretionary change, requires drastic intervention. The athlete will often end up changing coaches or moving training groups. Helpers with a bias for action would encourage action when concern was first expressed.

In many cases, simply taking action can help an individual to feel better about themselves. Take and injured athlete for example. In most cases, athletes who take control of the situation will fare much better psychologically (and probably physically) than those that don't. Whether it is just making an appointment with the physiotherapist, doing rehab exercises, or hitting the cross-training, each action that an athlete takes is a step closer to getting better. Deciding, after weighing up all the options, to use the injury as an opportunity for a prolonged rest is, in itself, action.

And not all action has to take place in the consultation itself. In fact, most of it will occur between sessions. There are normally 4 to 8 weeks between my consultations with athletes. In order to promote action, at the end of a session I will ask them to summarise how they now feel about the situation that we have discussed, and ask them what actions they are going to take before the next session. Depending on the situation, I may follow up via email. At the start of the following session I will ask the athlete what actions they have taken following our previous session.

If you would like to learn more about bias for action and other aspects of Egan's Skilled Helper Model, purchase the book via the link below.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Olympic Creed: Living it out in your sporting lives

Amid a backdrop of corruption allegations, selection controversies and doping scandals, the latest edition of 'the greatest show on earth' is fast approaching. When Pierre de Coubertin set up the modern Olympic Games 120 years ago, he could hardly have imagined, firstly, how big the Games would become and, secondly, just how far removed the modern day ethos of the Olympics would appear to be from that he originally envisaged.

The Olympic creed come's from de Coubertin's words spoken at a reception in 1908, words which had been inspired by those of Ethelbert Talbot, Bishop of Pennsylvania.
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well",
No matter how commercialised the games have become, or how much the desire to win at all costs removes us from de Coubertin's original vision, it is important to regularly remind ourselves of the creed on which the modern Olympic Games were built, and to ask ourselves whether or not we're doing everything we can to live out that creed in our everyday sporting lives, whether we be a weekend warrior or an Olympic medallist, because, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether or not everyone else is living out the Olympic spirit, if, when we reach our 'Olympic' moment, we get that warm fuzzy feeling inside knowing that we have both struggled and fought well, and done so with honour and integrity.

Irish Olympian Ciarรกn O'Lionaird said it best when he posted the following on his Facebook page earlier this week:

And remembering that the struggle is more important than the triumph doesn't mean that we have to give up on victory, or reduce or sporting goals in any way. Going about achieving success in a way that is true to the Oath may even make us more successful.

Here are some ideas on how we can apply the true Olympic spirit (not the win at all costs one), to our everyday sporting lives. Please feel free to add any further suggestions that you might have as comments below.

1. Don't forget to enjoy the moment, whether that's at a national championship or an Olympic Games. You've earned your place on the start line. This is what you do. Take a moment to take it all in.
2. Whether you win or loose, shake the hands of your fellow competitors. Without them there is no battle to win.
3. Be gracious in defeat, and humble in victory, but don't let that stop you feeling the emotions your win or defeat has created.
4. Play by the rules, and by the spirit of the game.
5. Set goals with are both stretching and realistic. Challenge yourself. Strive towards your goals.
6. Thank your coaches.
7. Encourage others.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Burnout in young athletes: Are we doing everything we can?

As a teenager and young adult the end of season break from athletics was always an important part of my training year. Two weeks of complete rest normally coincided with the first few weeks of settling back into school or university, and was followed by a further two weeks of mild and varied exercise. I always looked forward to this phase of the year, but, after a week or two I was keen to get back into training. By the end of the four weeks I was ready, both physically and mentally, to get stuck into the hard winter miles again.

Even now I take a break at the end of the season, though various enforced breaks mean that the end of season isn't always a predictable period in September, sometimes falling much earlier, and some years a lot less needed than others. However, whether I feel like I need an off-season or not, this break in training is necessary, if just to mark the start of the next 12 month cycle, reflect on what went well or not so well in the previous 12, and set new goals for the season ahead. A finishing point for one season gives you a starting point for the next.

I have no doubt in my mind but that the annual break helped me remain mainly injury free over the years, and has allowed me to have a 'career' that has spanned 24 years, and counting. The value of the off-season is well supported by scientific and anecdotal evidence and is a fundamental component of any sound training programme.

It is therefor disappointing when I hear of 12 and 13 year old athletes who take no annual break from sport, or even have a day a week free from some form of physical activity. Yes, that's prepubescent boys and girls partaking in sport seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, for as many years as their bodies (and minds) will put up with it. That, in my book, is child abuse.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to hear of young people participating in sport, trying multiple different sports, and not being afraid to partake in competition. But that shouldn't be at the expense of the fundamental principles of training. If an elite Kenyan athlete - who doesn't have school or university, or even making a living to worry about - can spend 4-6 weeks away from sport each year, then surely growing boys and girls can.

The great thing about athletics is that there are always things to train for. But that is also its downfall. I remember as a child how packed the annual calendar was, particularly since I competed in multi-events and cross country in addition to a range of events on the track and field programme both indoors and out. There was a competition on the programme almost every weekend, and even more once I became eligible to compete in junior competitions as well. When I was finally good enough to reach the national Community Games finals, the season end was extended to early September, with county cross country championships - races that I had to do to be eligible to compete in regional and national competitions - usually being held just 4 or 5 weeks later. The season was almost endless. Thankfully my coach was wise enough to know that the break was essential, no matter what the calendar said, and my ego was robust enough to take a sever beating when racing county championships more or less straight off a break.

Other sports are similar. Seasons have been extended to prevent athletes wandering off to other sports and not coming back. That's not to say that athletes don't do multiple sports - they just try to do 3 or 4 sports with overlapping seasons on top of each other, and with no consideration for the overall loading that their body is taking. But the physical components of sport, particularly in young individuals, are transferable. Training can, absolutely, be altered to take into account what an individual is doing in training elsewhere. If they are developing speed and endurance in another sport, then they just need to concentrate on the skills and technical aspects of that sport. This fear of loosing athletes to other sports or not having complete control over their participation in your sport is having undesired effects. Not only are they not coming back, not making the transition from talented juvenile to junior and senior competition, not being the next star athlete, they are being lost from sport altogether. The 'must-find-and-keep-the-next-superstar' attitude has to change because too many young athletes, each with the potential to be a useful sportsperson, are being resigned to the scrapheap long before they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

And that is not fair play.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Anyone can be an Olympian; but that doesn't mean it's easy

This week has been a big week in the lives of track and field athletes across the world. This is the week in which most national governing bodies are announcing and nominating their teams for one of the central sports on the Olympic programme. It is, in short, the week in which dreams are made and hearts are broken.

This morning I gave a small talk to some of the athletes attending the week's Wexford Athletics Summer Camp. Twenty-three years in the sport has thought me that if just one of those young athletes makes the Olympic, they'll have beaten the odds. In fact, if even two or three of them compete in athletics as an adult, that'll be a small miracle. Over the years I've seen hundreds of young athletes, many far more talented than me, give up on the sport because they can't handle been beaten, because they want to concentrate on their studies, because they want to get a job or spend more time socialising, because they get injured, because they go through a bad patch, because they think that success doesn't happen to people like them and because they think that if they are not good enough for the Olympics then the sport has nothing to offer them. Some simply fall out of love with the sport, move on, or do other things with their lives. And that is perfectly fine. There are things that I did as a child that I no longer do, there are things that I realised that I wasn't very good at, and there are things that no longer interest me. 

But, the Irish team named on Tuesday disproves all the myths about where successful athletes come from or what they do with their lives. It proves that you don't have to give up on your academic goals to follow your sporting ones - Paul Pollock and Sara Treacy are both doctors; Mark English is working towards that goal; Ciara Evarard has studied physiotherapy; Michelle Finn will go straight into a block of teaching practice when she gets back from Rio. It proves that you can absolutely work full time and still be a top athlete - Kevin Seaward is a fulltime PE teacher, Breege Connolly works full time in software testing, and Lizzie Lee, a fulltime employee at Apple, recently said that she wouldn't have it any other way (yes, that's half our marathon runners with proper jobs!). It proves that it's not always the best juvenile athletes that make it big time - many of the team will not have been standout juveniles - only a few years ago Michelle was deemed not good enough to be sent to a European Cross Country Championships, now she's going to the Olympics. Indeed, Breege and Lizzie didn't even start to run until their late twenties. It shows that injuries can be overcome - before winning European bronze on Sunday, Ciara McGeehan, one of the true former junior standouts to make the team, had not worn an Irish vest for five years because of injury. 

But most of all, it proves that ordinary people, like you and me, can make it to the Olympics. 

And those of us that don't, can have a darn good time trying, and achieving our own 'Olympic' goals.

The closest I'm likely to get to an Olympics

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Mood cards and understanding our emotions

Recognising and understanding our emotions and knowing how to deal with them is an important skill for managing our lives both on and off the sporting field. Whether it's managing pre-competition nerves, dealing with anger on the pitch or learning how anxieties and fears about our personal lives are holding us back, moods and emotions constantly need to be managed. 

That's not to say that we should bottle up anger, fear, anxiety and other emotions which are perceived to be negative, and constantly exude happiness, excitement, love and hope. Quite the opposite is true. Expressing our emotions, both positive and negative, can help us to better cope with life, but recognising the emotions that drain our energy, the thoughts that we associate with certain emotions, and the situations that initiate or prolong negative emotions can help us deal with them. Sometimes emotions just need to be acknowledged.

Take the mood of depression*, for example. Feeling depressed is rarely a positive experience. Sometimes we feel depressed for no real reason. Sometimes it's something we feel when we're bored or have reached a crossroads in our lives. Sometimes it's something we experience in the lul period after a big event or time of extreme excitement or on a Monday morning after a particularly big weekend. Sometimes it's one of the many feelings we experience when we get sudden or unwanted news, experience an injury or go through a breakup. Depressed moods can also be associated with female hormone fluctuations (periods, in other words) and low iron levels. 

When we are feeling depressed, we may find ourselves crying unexpectedly, we may have a more negative outlook on life that usual, our lust for life may have temporarily disappeared, or we may find that we simply do not feel anything. In some situations we simply have to go through the emotions (or lack of), cry the tears and feel sorry for ourselves, for a while. But recognising and acknowledging the mood can help us to deal with it quickly. Acknowledge what is making you feel depressed. Ask yourself what you can do to change your situation. Think of a time when you were in a happier mood and what your outlook on life was then. Acknowledge the emotion, take time to deal with it, talk it through with someone or write down your feelings, and, when you're ready, move on. (If your depressed mood lasts longer than expected or becomes uncontrollable, make sure that you seek appropriate help.)

While I generally avoid labels and categorising things, I have found the naming and recognition of moods and emotions particularly useful, both personally and for some of the athletes I work with. A few months back, when looking for mood scales on the internet, I came across this particularly useful tool - a set of mood cards which each have a mood or emotion on them, a face representing that emotion and a phrase associated with the emotion. On the reverse of each card is a series of questions and an affirmation relating to that emotion. They are a great tool for personal exploration, group work, and one-on-one therapy sessions. They are probably the most useful and versatile I currently have in my toolbox.

*Depression can refer to both a mood or emotion and a mental illness. Unfortunately, because of the lingering taboos associated with the mental illness, we shy away from describing our emotions and feelings as being depressed. We don't want to be labelled as having depression or not being able to cope, but truth is that most people experience a depressed mood on a relatively regular basis. That doesn't mean that they have a mental illness. However, failing to deal with a lingering or severely depressed mood may predispose or lead to depression. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Time management tips for student-athletes

Exam season is now upon us. Many student-athletes will be busy trying to balance the time demands of revision, the stress of exams, and the physical and mental challenges of training. Check out our Time Management Tips factsheet for some ideas on how to get the most out of your time.

Best of luck in the exams, and remember, no matter how you do, life still holds numerous wonderful possibilities that you can't even imagine right now.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Sharapova, Meldonium, and our anti-doping responsibilities

In light of the recent doping revelations concerning Sharapova and meldonium, there’s no better time to remind athletes and their support staff of some key anti-doping rules and responsibilities in the fight for #cleansport.

Athletes are subject to ‘strict liability’ when it comes to the presence of banned substances in their samples. The athlete, and the athlete alone is responsible for what is found in their bodies. Take responsibility for what you take, and take all the necessary measures to ensure that you are not taking a banned substance.

Just because it’s not yet illegal doesn’t mean that it’s not immoral. We'll cover this point more in future blogs, but probably sums it up quite well (this in relation to Sharapova and Meldonium):

Just because it’s not on the banned list now doesn’t mean that it won’t be in the future.

Just because it’s available without prescription doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain banned substances.

Supplements can inadvertently contain banned substances. They are not subject to the same strict production controls as drugs and medications.

The anti-doping code, including the list of banned substances and methods, changes every 12 months. Changes come into effect on 1st January, but the updated list is generally available from September the previous year. Regularly check all the medication you take.

If you are taking medications or supplements, be sure to list them on your doping control form if/when you are tested.

If you need a medication for known medical condition, ensure that you have followed the correct TUE procedures for the level you are competing at/the medication you are taking.

All the resources and information that you need are available at:
GlobalDro: Database on which you can check whether your medication in permitted or prohibited (for products purchased in Canada, UK, USA or Japan) 
Eirpharm: Similar database to the above, for products purchased in the Republic of Ireland.
UKAD, Sport Ireland, or the national body which oversees antidoping in the country where you are.
WADA, the world anti-doping agency

Friday, 1 January 2016

30 ways to reinvigorate your life: Our 2016 challenge to you

This challenge is an adaptation of a task I recently saw somewhere on Twitter. There are 30 suggestions of different things you can do to make the world a more interesting place - some of which will benefit others; all of which will add new meaning and purpose to your life.

Making others feel good; doing something different; gaining knowledge - these are all ways of giving our life a little boost. All the little boosts added together can mean the difference between living a meaningful, happy life, and just getting by.

Hell, even cleaning the fridge can have major therapeutic benefits.

Try to achieve one of these tasks each week until the whole grid is complete.

Why not print off the sheet, cut out each square, place them in a hat, and pull one out each week?

Go on, give yourself those regular little boosts; you deserve it!
Pdf version of task sheet can be found here