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George North and the slow death of the strong silent type

George North won’t be playing for Wales this weekend.

George doesn’t have a choice in the matter. The assessment of the team medics, having reviewed the evidence, is that he needs a break because of a possible concussion. Simply put, he’s been hit too hard and needs to be out of the firing line.

Athletes today are the antithesis of the strong silent type, and not necessarily by choice. They are analysed and measured, watched and reviewed more than almost anyone else outside of astronauts. In the back of George’s shirt on Saturday was a monitor that picks up a wealth of data about performance, heart rate and impacts – if you’ve ever wondered why rugby players are loath to swap shirts on the pitch these days it’s because a typical match day shirt will have over a thousand pounds worth of technology sewn into the back. Often players are substituted not because of what a  coach sees, but because the analyst looks up from his laptop and relays the critical data.

Compare that degree of surveillance and management of the player’s wellbeing with this article about how men don’t self assess or disclose their psychological wellbeing.

Any coach worth their salt today knows that an athlete who has over-exerted will make poor decisions, and perform less well. There’s a point in each athlete’s performance where they don’t just tail off in their output, but actually get significantly worse. It’s known as a threshold.  There are different ones used for different sports, and they are different for each athlete. I’ll give you an example. If I’m taking part in a 30minute event, I can operate at 95% of maximum heart rate, a level that I’ve previously measured in a test environment, and which I monitor throughout the season. At that rate I can get to the finish with a controlled effort that hardly varies. If I go over that level, I’ve crossed a threshold, and while my output goes up for a short period, it falls off a cliff thereafter. We teach this kind of stuff in GCSE PE.

The mechanisms may be different, but I see no reason why emotional and intellectual performance should not be considered to be analogues of physical performance. The stumbling block is stigma, and our belief that somehow, lacking the emotional strength to perform at our best is a moral failing, not a lack of data and development. We learn to be strong and silent because of how we fear others will react, and judge. Oddly though, that only applies in the emotional and psychological environments, not the physical

Let me give you another example. Last summer I was riding in a long distance adventure event. It went badly. I overcooked the first big climb and was in the red in terms of effort and energy. Not only did my performance waver, but on a subsequent climb, when I needed to make a number of decisions about the right gear, the right path, how to avoid the competitor struggling in front of me, I simply failed to make any decisions, and crashed. Coaches in team sports know the same phenomenon. A usually reliable player makes a bad decision, because they haven’t got the energy or the resources to make a good decision. Next time you hear a pundit on Match of the day talk about a tired tackle that gets a player yellow carded, not so much malicious as weary, you’ll know exactly what they mean.

In my case I got back up, and trailed off to the finish, a sorry sight, with my legs hanging out of the pedals at every opportunity as I tried to get the lactic out of my muscles, and my body rocking from side to side as I tried to find a position that would get more air in. No-one called me weak, or a failure even though I looked and felt a complete wreck. As competitors passed me, many of whom had done an extended version of the event, even tougher than the one I’d attempted, they praised me, urged me on, reminded me how far I’d come. One woman slowed down as she overtook, and checked I had enough water to get to the finish, and offered a slice of cake from her stash. At the finish I was able to tell my story to other competitors- we even agreed to share data on the first big climb, to see where I had gone wrong, to check my intuition that I’d over-attacked on an early ramp where I passed other riders who re-passed me as the climb went on, and on. The physical failing, the weakness was suddenly recast as a problem of data, analysis, training and learning. I even have a theory that relates to dietary intake pre-event that means I’ll change my preparation for the same event this year.

In my work I have regular conversations with colleagues who have all the symptoms of psychological stress and exhaustion that mirror the way I crashed on that hill. They just don’t have the emotional energy, or the psychological strength, to complete the tasks in front of them; not just that, but as the burden rises, they find their performance falls off a cliff. Spoon theory is a brilliant example of the way some people have rationalized and learned to manage this phenomenon, but, and here’s the thing that strikes me, no-one in business seems to embrace the analogies and the lessons of performance management from sport. We don’t test or train for these variables in the way that we monitor athletes as they perform and train,then wonder why things go so badly wrong. Sometimes, as with George North’s concussion, it’s not just about getting better, but protecting against future harm from repeated impacts.

When I’m training for an event my heart rate monitor, my cadence monitor and my GPS are essential tools – the data gets lumped into a spreadsheet along with geographical data about the courses used, the effort levels, the training patterns. My boss jokes about it, since the HRM belt is often to be found hanging out of my office window to get rid of the scent of sweat after an early morning blitz up a few hills. When he asks me how I am, though, he doesn’t expect data, just impressions. Which is odd, because as a team at work we believe that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and its corollary, that you probably don’t intend to manage the things you don’t try to measure.

It’s not as if there aren’t tests out there, for stress, anxiety, depression. It’s not as if we don’t know when colleagues are struggling, or missing deadlines. But, in deference to the caricature of masculinity that is the strong silent type, we decide not to manage emotions or feelings, we decide not to manage the manageable, the moments when you cross an emotional threshold and even opening that email from your supervisor becomes an impossible effort.

Reading about Clark Carlisle I wonder how he would have coped if he’d been taught to see his emotional and psychological wellbeing as something that can be managed, to think of that fuzziness when you can’t make your thoughts line up in order as nothing more than lactic acid of the brain that needs to be managed by rest and recovery. I think about all the men, and women and children, who have paid the price for a version of masculinity that says some things are best left unsaid, that we are prisoners of our psyche and our emotions, not their managers.

The slow death of the strong silent type needs to be accelerated, for all our sakes, and we need to praise not the people who deny there’s anything wrong, but the ones who learn to count the spoons and allocate their finite resources wisely.


2 comments on “George North and the slow death of the strong silent type

  1. ValeryNorth
    February 12, 2015

    First thought: a passage from World War Z.

    No one would ever volunteer for a fiver, but they had these KO teams, combat shrinks who were observing everyone’s performance. They’d been with us since our early days on the range, knew us each by name and face, and knew, don’t ask me how, when the stress of battle was starting to degrade our performance. We didn’t know, I certainly didn’t. There were a couple of times I’d miss a shot or maybe take a half second instead of a full. Then suddenly I’d get a tap on my shoulder and I knew I was out of it for five.

    Fiction, obviously, but intriguingly similar concept being described?

    I may have more of a response once I’ve thought about this a bit more.


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This entry was posted on February 12, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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