Dr Richard Bolstad is Transformations Principal Trainer

Attitude Determines Altitude

© Dr Richard Bolstad

Steve Gurney's Story

"At school I was hopeless, always last in the races," says New Zealand's top triathlete, Steve Gurney, "I didn't think I had any natural ability so I never dreamed of being a sportsperson." (quoted in Butcher, 2001, p 52). Barely five foot seven tall, and now aged 40 years, Gurney is a Mechanical Engineering graduate from Canterbury University, and runs Gurneygears, marketing a series of his own inventions for use in sports. But in New Zealand he's most famous for having won the grueling "Coast to Coast" triathlon nine times, including seven times in a row. He now excels in kayaking, running and cycling, and is one of the country's best known sportspeople.

The first time he won this race from one side of New Zealand to the other was 1990, after a year working with NLP based mentor Grahame Felton, also the inspiration behind the turnaround of New Zealand cricketer Sir Richard Hadlee. Gurney's path to fame looked set, but in 1994, during a five day adventure race in Borneo, he contracted a life threatening case of leptospirosis. He was not expected to survive the illness. Pulling himself back from kidney, heart and lung failure and then reeling from the huge medical costs, he fell into a six month period of depression and self doubt. It was NLP that enabled him to pull out and be back in the race within two years. He worked with Felton and three New Zealand NLP trainers. "I had a quote on the ceiling above my bed." Gurney says of this time. "Think of three positive things about today." He says on reflection "The appreciation for being alive and making the most of what you've got that I have now absolutely outweighs the horror I went through. Everything in my life now is about my passions, about doing and achieving what I really want to do." (Butcher, 2001, p 56).

The Source Of Steve's Motivation

In 1999 Steve contacted me before the Coast to Coast. There were news stories flying about the younger fitter competitors ready to sweep the race away from him. He explains "It is very easy in the nervous days leading up to the race to succumb to the rumours of incredible training performances, and reports of "on fire form" of one's race competitors. Thoughts that rush through my mind in these days leading to the race are "have I done enough training? Am I overtrained? Have I thought of all possibilities?," In the weeks leading up to the race it is critically important to develop and strengthen my mental attitude. For, I believe the winner will be the athlete with the fiercest burning desire. Even an athlete who has done a little less training than the other competitors can compensate, thereby winning, by racing with greater passion and determination." (Gurney, 2003).

In 1999, what was most important, Steve explained, was that he needed to get clear on why he was racing. He created the vision of a future where he would be a motivational writer and speaker, encouraging others to succeed in their own fields, by his own dramatic example. Seeing those people in his mind was one of the key things that got him going through the most difficult parts of the race that year. Now, four years later, he is listed with Celebrity Speakers and others, and tours the country talking to business and other groups and to school kids about what it takes to be healthy and to recover from challenges. He has three books planned, one of which is "a motivational book based on turning obstacles into opportunities, and insights into what I consider to be my recipe for repeating success." That, he identified, is his mission. The benefit of this mission was immediately obvious back in 1999. In an open email soon after the race, he says "A BIG thanks to you for the NLP work we did before the Coast to Coast. It made ALL the difference, and I'm astounded at how quickly you arrived at a solution. It totally turned my thinking around 180 degrees to a resolved and determined attitude. A much more positive state. Race day was incredibly enjoyable and it was just a breeze. I smile now as I think about it and have very colourful and enjoyable visions. Powerful stuff." Actually, of course, I didn't come up with the solution; Steve did. What I did was point out that the solution could not come only at the level of the race itself. Steve needed something more powerful to inspire him, and that's what he has found.

Reality Is What You Make It

Each year, there have been new psychological challenges to surmount. But in NLP terms, what Steve has been doing is learning to run his brain himself. Like most sportspeople, he is already highly motivated, and all we are doing with NLP is fine tuning that motivation. Here's how he describes the challenge of 2003 (Gurney, 2003):

"The more racing years that I notch up, the more I am learning that the keys to winning are the psychological aspects. "Attitude determines altitude," says it all. None more so than this year. There was a huge weight on my shoulders. Bristling and ready to pounce was a small gang of young successors, determined to take my Coast to Coast crown off me. Hungry young bucks like Neil Gelately, Richard Ussher, Marcel Hagener, not to mention the old adversaries like Eric Billoud. The media was also hungry and fuelled the drama with headlines like "Who will be heir to the Gurney throne" Subaru [the sponsor] simply expected a win, a compliment I know, but what pressure!"

"I'd like to share with you a small but extremely powerful story of how I used mental attitude through Neuro-Linguistic-Programming (NLP), to boost my performance in this year's Coast to Coast. It's a story about turning a negative into to a positive, Converting "worry" into a "challenge"! Instead of being scared of the competition I wanted to "relish in the challenge" I was worried about the mountain run. Despite being a handy runner and getting plenty of run training under my belt I'm not as fast over Goat Pass as Gelately. Historically, I would emerge from the mountain run with a deficit of 8 to 10 minutes on the leader. It then requires a mammoth effort for me to close this gap before the finish line... very stressful! (Of course I could run through the mountains faster than the leaders, but it is a matter of efficiency. I need to carefully pace myself to race at a speed that I can maintain for the entire 11 hours, not just a 3-hour mountain run. I could win the mountain run, but blow up before the race finish line)"

"I enlisted the help of my NLP guru, Richard Bolstad for some help with this one. To summarise, the solution lay in blowing apart my belief that I always trail the lead runners by 10 minutes. Bolstad powerfully pointed out to me that reality is whatever I imagined it to be, and in fact, with a little work I could alter my beliefs to be more powerful and positive. I visualised the lead runner to be "just around the corner" ahead of me, possibly even behind me, and not the dreaded 10 minutes that I was imagining. It worked a treat! I emerged from the run 1 minute ahead of Gelately!! My best mountain run to date!! The mechanism is one of positivity, fun and enjoyment. This releases endorphins and other natural "go-fast" chemicals that enhance focus, concentration and more efficient use of muscles and blood glycogen."

Sports And Life

NLP trainer Joseph O'Connor (2001, p viii-ix) lists the five keys to peak sports performance as:

These are clearly important skills for any life achievement, and it's interesting to notice how Steve Gurney is using all these elements in the example he gives above. As an NLP trainer, I am not myself an expert in the sports that Gurney is a master of. Despite his humorous comment, I am not his guru or his advisor. My interest, each time I see him, is to find out how he is running his brain to get the results he has been getting, both successful and less successful, and to find out what he would like to achieve next. Let me explain, using the example he gives above, how I do that. I've analysed the process we went through using the RESOLVE model (discussed in more depth in Bolstad, 2002)

How To RESOLVE Sports Challenges

Resourceful State for the Practitioner
The session Steve describes took us less than half an hour. When he came in, I welcomed him and asked him what he wanted to achieve from our time. I noted that I had set aside an hour but that I remembered that we usually completed our work in half that time. At this point I am already communicating something very important; my confidence that whatever he wants can be achieved.

Establish Rapport
Steve explained that he had the usual pre-race issues running through his mind (as described above). He said that while he still knew he had benefits from our previous sessions and the other NLP work he had done, there were a couple of key issues that bothered him. I restated what he said and checked that I had understood it, while adjusting my posture, voice and breathing to match his. A lot of what we are doing in a session involves simply shifting state, and that needs to begin with me matching Steve's physiology so that, as I shift to a more resourceful state again, he is swept along for the ride.

I asked Steve what he would need to get out of the session, for him to know that this had been worthwhile. This led him to identify the mountain run as a core issue. If he could get over the feeling that this was so challenging, that would be great. I asked him how he would feel if this problem was solved and he gave me a good sensory-specific description of the state he wanted. I checked that this would be manageable for him. That, as he noted in the description above, was an important ecology issue. If he burned out on the mountain stretch, then he would, as he notes, "blow up before the race finish line".

Open Up Model Of The World
Next, I asked Steve how he managed to get the unpleasant feelings he got on the run. He explained that he had this image of the lead runners being about ten minutes ahead of him. I playfully checked that, if I was filling in for him for the race, what I needed to do was imagine that the others were way ahead, and think about what that meant in terms of how hard the rest of the race would be for me. I asked him how I would know to imagine that they were that far ahead. Could I see them? No, he explained; they are out of sight at that time. What I am doing at this point is opening up his model of the world, and pointing out that he is in charge of creating the feelings he has been getting at this point in the race. He has to imagine certain things in order to get that result.

To demonstrate this further, I did an exercise with him. In this exercise, the two of us were standing. I had Steve bring his left arm straight up in front so it was parallel with the floor. I asked him "Now, keeping your feet still, turn your body to the left, pointing with the finger as far as you can turn, until it gets tight. Notice, by the point on the wall, how far round you are pointing." Then I asked him to turn back to the front, and close his eyes and make a picture of what he would see turning again, but this time going 30 centimetres further? I asked him to sense what it would feel like to be that much more supple, and turn that far easily. Also, what would he say to himself if he could do that easily. Would he be surprised? Then I had him physically turn again to the left. I demonstrated that first, going further myself, smiling "knowingly" and saying "See how far you go, using that same arm, now." This is a simple demonstration of the power of our "internal representations" to shape our external results. As Steve says, "Attitude determines altitude".

This step, not the official NLP change process, is the crucial step of the session. What I am doing is stepping into Steve's experience and finding out for myself what could be adjusted. Before this step, the problem often seems insoluble to Steve. I do not invent an outside solution. I simply point out what he has been doing in his brain to get the result he has been getting. Once that is clear, the "NLP" technique needed is obvious to both of us: do something different!

So now we were ready to alter Steve's strategy for feeling overwhelmed. I pointed out that if he couldn't see the lead runners, then whatever he imagined was just a fantasy. He might as well create a useful fantasy. I had him step into the experience of being in the race, and create an image of the lead runners being just around the bend in front of him. He immediately noted that it had worked and that it changed the way he felt.

Verify Change
Steve is so used to NLP processes that before I can ask him he is confirming his results and futurepacing the change. He quickly rehearsed himself through the situations he would be in, confirming that he would feel different as he used this new strategy.

Ecological Exit
In fact, Steve altered my suggestion in one crucial way. He imagined that the other runners were behind him, even on this most difficult piece. As he says, this actually created a real life result that was better than he had initially planned for. At this point in the session, we were just checking that the issue was solved in a way that would feel right for him in his actual race.

What Does It Take To Work With Sportspeople Using NLP?

Let me restate that I myself am not a professional runner. I do run and exercise moderately, and I sure know that my own internal representations affect how running feels and how fast I can run. I've talked with Steve about my experience of that. However, my area of expertise is in knowing how a person's internal representations are constructed and what results they generate.

I also know how to reframe the significance of events. One previous year, for instance, Steve told me that he was concerned about the fact that there were so many younger and fitter runners in the game now. I expressed surprise. "Wow!" I exclaimed "I would have thought that's exactly what makes this year so exciting. If you didn't win it could easily be explained, and yet the success of winning against younger players will be just so much more dramatic. That where the power of this is!" This is a simple reframe, and I consider it just as important as teaching Steve how to use the NLP visual swishes that propel him forward while kayaking, the anchors that recreate peak states from his best practice runs and the affirmations that he can write on his kayak to re-inspire him mid-race.

There is another aspect of working with sportspeople that I consider important. Steve describes how the 2003 race ended in his online "Gurney's Gossip". He says "Collapsing in sweaty exhaustion, falling face down into the sand may not be everybody's favourite way to round off a Saturday afternoon, but I must say that, personally, it was an extremely satisfying end to a big day out! As race doctors dragged me away from the finishing chute of the 2003 Speights Coast to Coast to administer an IV drip, I reveled in the satisfaction of the knowledge that I was totally and 100% spent. Take it from me, the ultimate race win is one where you could not have gone any harder to win." (Gurney, 2003). Obviously, sportspeople will often be working close to the edge, physically. My interest, like Steve's, is in ensuring that the people I work with not only achieve their goals, but have a life worth living. That means that our sessions will pay attention to more than just "how to win".

Steve explains, "I did some research and found a study from the USA of Olympic level gold medal winners. There were 2 groups under study; repeat gold medal winners, and gold medal winners who tried but failed to repeat. There were many conclusions from the comparisons of the mental attitudes, but the one that impacted me the most was the observations that the repeat winners did not concentrate on the outcome of winning, gold or monetary rewards. Rather they focused on the feeling of competing with efficiency, of racing with ultimate ease, being "in the groove", "in the flow". In short, they were concentrating only on the fun, the passion of their chosen pursuit. Enjoyment!" (Gurney, 2001).

In the end, concentrating on the fun is part of something bigger than "working with sports". Joseph O'Connor says it well when he notes "Sport enriches your life, but you need to have a satisfying life outside sport to enrich." (O'Connor, 2001, p 155). My role is not working with sport; that's what sports coaches do. My role is working with people, some of whom have goals in the field of sports. What most of all makes Steve Gurney fun to work with is that he knows the importance of that.

My thanks to Steve Gurney for contributing to and editing this article.


Richard Bolstad is an NLP Trainer and author of Pro-fusion, a book on NLP and health. Richard has worked with prominent New Zealand sports organizations such as Sport and Recreation New Zealand, and has coached high achieving New Zealand sportspeople such as triathlete Steve Gurney. He can be reached at learn@transformations.net.nz or at +64-9-4784895.