The shrink who makes you bigger
The sign on the door in the bowels of the Manchester Velodrome reads simply “Steve Peters”, but there is plenty else it could say. Abandon preconceptions all those who enter here. Logic, not emotion. “The voice of reason,” as the Olympic champion Chris Hoy puts it. “The glue,” to quote another athlete, referring to the unseen force that binds a complex unit into a coherent whole. If you ask Peters to describe himself, he uses these words: the mechanic of the mind.
The British cycling team’s psychiatrist—silver-haired, breezy in manner and in his mid-50s—was an unobtrusive yet powerful influence in a recent run of success that culminated in nine gold medals of a possible 18 in the recent world championships.
He is one of the four-man core management team at the heart of the squad that is expected to provide a tidy pile of medals at the Olympic Games in Beijing this August and was a key element in the success of Hoy, an Athens gold medallist in 2004, and the six-time world champion, Victoria Pendleton.
His clients include the quintuple junior swimming gold medallist Lizzie Simmonds, the United Kingdom’s tae kwon do number one, Sarah Stevenson, Olympic judo qualifier Karina Bryant, and the Olympic bronze medallist pentathlete Georgina Harland. He also works in diving, netball, trampolining, cricket, sailing and Premier League football, and he helped Brian Ashton’s England rugby team on their way to the final of last year’s World Cup.
In cycling, Peters’s brief is tailored to suit every individual. “He brings an understanding of how humans think and behave, way beyond anyone else that I’ve ever met,” says cycling’s performance director, Dave Brailsford. “More importantly, he can actually translate that understanding into clear and practical solutions. That permeates all aspects of what we do.”
As well as the obvious roles his job title suggests, supporting the cyclists and their coaches, Peters also chairs selection meetings—as a neutral from outside cycling. “There are general things where he is of help,” says Hoy. “If you are happy in your life, it generally shows in your sport. Before the races, he’s a neutral, objective person you can speak to. He’s there as a sounding board between the riders and the staff.”
Peters’s background is in forensic psychiatry. He has no quick answers, “no recipe book” as he puts it.
“I don’t come in and tell people what to do. I ask people to see in themselves what they need to be doing and help them get there. If you said ‘I want to get fit’ and you went to a gym, you could possibly go there and train yourself and do really well, but you would probably be better going there with a strength and conditioning coach who can work with you. It’s exactly the same with the mind.
“You walk in with a belief system, ideas, behaviour that you apply to sport. Some people can do very well, but most of us aren’t sure how to use the equipment. I say, ‘This is how your mind works, this is how you get strength in certain areas, this is how to build up on the weak points, this is the skills base you need.’”
Peters’s background includes a maths degree—“logic theory, which has a bearing on how I operate”—before a medical degree and psychiatry, as well as, in his early 40s, running a 10,9-second 100m. He has worked with men with personality disorders.
“You try to contain their behaviour and see if you can adjust their belief systems,” he says. “What you do is help them change their personality or behaviour to what they want it to be. You have a spectrum of personalities, it’s a completely individual thing. You use similar principles with a person off the street to an athlete—all you’re doing is getting the optimal beneficial functioning for a human being. That’s my job: to make people function as well as possible and in the way they want to.”
Peters sees things differently. The prime example of this came during England’s erratic campaign in the Rugby World Cup last year, to which he came late in the day and in which he worked with certain players in areas such as controlling emotions and channelling aggression. In the psychiatrist’s view the team turned their campaign around in the 36-0 defeat to South Africa, precisely the point at which most judged they were heading for the exit.
“I saw that match with friends and they were saying ‘they’ve had it’, but I saw a mental strategy in place that could take them forward. As a result it was awful, but I had six parameters on whether they were working as a team. They weren’t working as individuals trying to prove a point. There was courage and tenacity. They started going for every single ball. Everything counted. Did they control their emotions? These are basic things but they had pulled themselves together as a team.”
Pared down to the basics, the Peters way involves three initial steps. First, the athlete is made to look at himself. “You get inside your head, see yourself as a machine. It’s about how you interact with the world. It’s quite complex and can take up to 12 months.”
The second step is where the athlete learns about how other people function, while the third involves communication skills. Peters underlines that 50% of his work is with athletes themselves, while the other half is with “significant others”, mainly their coaches.
He has an eclectic brief. “In my work with people I look at them holistically, with everything on the table. It’s the approach I would use in mental health work. It’s vast.”
The result is the system of “foundation stones”, in which the athlete and coach write down “everything they know which can make them succeed. You might have 150 points for one event, from physical skills and attributes, through nutrition and mental skills to personal life. The athlete decides which ones they would like to work on.”—Â