High Performance Manager Darren Roberts looks into the things that you can’t really measure.

Photos: Sebastian Schieck

There’s an ebb and flow to sport, with races and championships seeming to have a life of their own - they’re living breathing things. They may seem linear as a championship, because they have a start and finish, a beginning and an end. However this is an illusion, they are anything but linear – anything can, and does, happen. It’s no different with athletes.

When working with athletes you are always getting them to control the ‘controllables’ – to worry about themselves and their own preparation. Any time spent thinking or looking at what a rival is doing is time wasted, you can’t ‘control’ what they do or how – and besides, whatever works for them is exactly that, it works for ‘them’. So just worry about yourself and what you need to do. That's is all fine, and you don’t need me to go into detail on the length and depth modern WC racers go into with their prep in this piece, but what about the ‘uncontrollables’?

You see the it’s the uncontrollables, and the things you can’t measure, that often have the largest impact on not just races, but the championships and more importantly the athletes themselves. It’s the uncontrollabes and unmeasureables which are the ‘dark matter’ of sporting life. They are everywhere, filling the massive voids between what is measured and what can’t be; what can be controlled and what can’t. The specific link on that specific chain, at that specific moment, which snaps; and not in any other moment, but the one that mattered the most. The emotional impact these things have on the athletes, everyone in the team and whoever is close to them, is not to be underestimated, I say emotional rather than psychological, as it’s about feelings… thoughts become things.


I’m not about to wander off into a metaphysical article, I’m not writing this from a nice secluded spot on a mountain side with the sound of a fresh spring keeping me company. How these things affect athletes, how these moments affect the people around them, can and do steer decisions – this is how athletes can find themselves ‘losing form’ as well as ‘finding’ or ‘gaining some form’. We say things like that as it’s the best we can do, which is attribute these phrases to what are really very abstract emotional concepts for everyone (including the athlete themselves). As a coach you try to prepare athletes and let them prepare themselves in such a manner as to foster utter self belief, as it’s that self belief which can help them form ‘winning habits’. This is something I’ve said myself often enough and again a phrase which describes something that is fairly abstract, as the athlete can do the same thing in exactly the same way and lose – so is that forming ‘losing habits’?

"strength in depth are the flood defences against the ebb and flow of sport for the athlete"

In sport, perception is greater than reality. The reality is we try and provide a framework for the athlete which is as robust as possible to cope when they find themselves enveloped in the ‘dark matter’ of sport. This framework is physical and mental, it includes the people the athlete surrounds themselves with. This organisation, this ‘strength in depth’ are the flood defences against the ebb and flow of sport for the athlete – the difference between having ‘good form’ when the results are coming, and having to find some of this elusive ‘form’ when the results seem to be just out of reach, when the ‘uncontrollables’ inevitably strike. Don’t get me wrong, the athlete is very much the tip of the spear, the person that has to put the performance in at that moment, on that track with the eyes of the sport on them. It’s their genius, talent, creativity and athletic capacity which puts them where they need to be. The framework is there to serve them, it has to be.

However if it’s down to them and only them, that athletic and emotional capacity will only get them so far because it’s not when things are going well where champions are made, but when it’s going wrong.

Darren ‘Conehead’ Roberts is High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross Healthcare. He’s been working with some of the UK’s and world's biggest household names in extreme sports for nearly 15 years.