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Book Review: The Brave Athlete

Are you wondering which sports-psychology self-help book you should read next? If swear words don’t put you off, and you’d like to get a broad overview on how to solve the most common psychological roadblocks endurance athletes face, then read “The Brave Athlete. Calm The F* Down And Rise To The Occasion”.

The authors are a husband-and-wife team that consists of sports psychologist Dr. Simon Marshall and XTERRA Champion Lesley Paterson. Together they own the company Braveheart Coaching, where they help endurance athletes improve their performance. 

Their book “The Brave Athlete. Calm The F* Down And Rise To The Occasion” is a fun read, full of practical advice and case studies. It possibly is the closest we can get to have our own sports psychologist. It is an excellent book for those who can stomach a decent amount of swear words and quirky humor.

Many examples and case studies are from the triathlon world, but the lessons apply to all endurance sports.

Moreover, they apply to many areas of your life, where you want to gain control over your emotions, act with confidence, and achieve ambitious goals.

The authors first introduce a mental model of how the brain works. This is the foundation for the rest of the book. Then the three pillars of a brave (mentally strong) athlete are introduced. Those parts that make up a brave athlete are the heart, wings, and sword. You need to develop all three components to achieve your best performance.

Let’s first take a look at the mental model of the brain.

How To Work With Your Brain To Improve Performance

Chapter one describes how your brain influences your athletic abilities. The authors use a mental model to explain how your brain works and then use that model throughout the book. As a science-nerd, I especially like that the authors use science to explain how your brain works and how it developed during our evolution.

Then they introduce a mental model to describe how the brain works. They want you to think about your brain as a party of three: Your chimp brain, professor brain, and computer brain.

The chimp is your emotional brain, responsible for your fight–or–flight responses. It doesn’t know that the perceived threats it tries to protect you from are merely other competitors and no life-threatening animals or rivaling tribesman coming after you.

On the other hand, the professor brain is your rational self, trying to navigate the civilized world.

And finally, your computer brain tries to keep the two from fighting. Because fighting they do – all of the time. And the authors show you strategies and techniques to discern which brain is in the driver’s seat throughout the book.

They also teach you how to calm the chimp brain to improve your performance.

The Three Components Of A Brave Athlete

1. The Brave Athlete's Heart

Chapters 2 through 4 deal with the brave athlete’s heart. The heart represents your athletic identity, your passion, and your motivation. Throughout the three chapters, you learn to develop a positive athletic identity, tap into your love for your chosen sport, and develop good habits that support your goals.

If you have trouble seeing yourself as an athlete, struggle with self-confidence when pursuing endurance activities, or can’t seem to follow good habits consistently, then chapters 2-4 are a must-read.

2. The Brave Athlete's Wings

Chapters 5 through 8 deal with the brave athlete’s wings. In these four chapters, obstacles and setbacks are the main topics. The authors discuss the negative influence social media can have on our athletic self-confidence, body-image issues, how to deal with injuries, and the risk of exercise dependence.

What I loved about these chapters is the no-bullshit approach devoid of fairy “feel good” mantras. Instead, the authors force you to evaluate your habits and behaviors honestly. They also explain why many of the pseudoscientific motivational memes so many people like to re-post on social media are not helping us in our quest to better deal with obstacles.

3. The Brave Athlete's Sword

Chapters 9 through 13 deal with the brave athlete’s sword. The authors give strategies that help you get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to better performances. They provide tips for deciding when to quit and when you should continue, despite feeling the urge to drop out of a race or cut a training session short.

What I especially liked about this part of the book were the practical tips on keeping focused when dealing with physical and emotional exhaustion in training or competition and how to improve your concentration skills. Lastly, the authors show you how you can calm your pre-race nerves to perform at your best.

Tip - Use This Book Like A Workbook

This book is full of practical advice and case studies that illustrate the theoretical concepts. Besides, every chapter includes exercises that force you to take an honest look at yourself, your thought patterns, and your behaviors.

I recommend you pick an area you’d like to improve, read the chapter (again), do the exercises, test your strategies in practice, and come back to the chapter to review. Not everything will be relevant for you. For example, I only once read through chapter 7 (“I Don’t Cope Well with Injury: How to respond to setbacks, big and small”) because it is of little relevance to me.

However, I keep coming back to chapters 12 (“I Keep Screwing Up: Developing Jedi concentration skills to become a better athlete”) and 13 (“I Don’t Handle Pressure Well: How to cope with stress, anxiety, and expectations on race day”) several times to improve my ability to calm pre-race anxiety.

No matter if you are a newbie who has only recently discovered the world of endurance or a seasoned athlete, this book is an excellent read. It will help you to improve your enjoyment of the sport as well as your performance.

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