053: Susan Backhouse on eating and cheating

Sue Backhouse, Professor of psychology and nutrition at Leeds Beckett University is this week’s guest. Sue is an expert in the complexity around two huge areas – eating and cheating. Everyone’s a nutritionist these days, everyone’s a psychologist and everyone has an opinion on the issue of doping. Three emotive, convoluted and noisy areas for Sue to tackle.

What Sue’s research does is something quite unique, particularly so compared with a lot of reductionist studies that pare back all confounding variables to a level of control almost sterility. Of course, you need that level of meticulous control for some research but often important areas get neglected by researchers because they’re too messy. Equally what Sue is able to do is see through the clatter, the jumble and offer illuminating yet grounded findings and advice.

We explore the hows and whys of influencing athletes to adopt certain dietary practices and how underpinning motivation and behaviour are essential for change. Then we get into a rich discussion about why people dope, the context, knowledge, social norms, group think, can all be factors in people taking or not taking that step into violating rules and how people reconcile their minds that what they’re doing is ok. A fascinating area, one that I have spent my life staunchly and adamantly against and working to support athletes in an ethical and legal way. At the end of the conversation I felt more aware and understanding and perhaps slightly more empathetic towards a doper – NOT that I have lowered my stance – but by better understanding why people cheat I feel I might be able to help someone choose not to.

Show notes:

Sue’s formative years leading to her career in sport.

Resetting ambitions and dealing with rejection and disappointment and how this has turned into an advantage.

Complexity of behaviour on multiple levels towards food and nutrition.

The role of emotions and how it drives behaviour, decision making and the support required to be sensitive to.

Capability Opportunity Motivation model of behaviour (COM-B); a behaviour change model recognise that in order to bring about change one needs a capability i.e. education, training and skills.

Having difficult conversations and making sure everyone is on the same page with the same expectations.

Just telling!

Barriers towards nutritional adherence

What are the unintended consequences of some of these short term solutions?

Doping, “I just did what I was told…”

Social norms of dysfunction, the power of the group.

Unravelling the complexities of doping, the vulnerability, the goal directed behaviours, the protection of health, athlete identity and winning at all costs.

Differences in doping violations, team versus individual approach

Therapeutic exemption and the knock-on effect of the negativity surrounding doping

Fearless organisations and having difficult conversations



Sue on Twitter https://twitter.com/susanbackhouse

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Dr Steve Ingham is one of the UK’s leading figures in sport and one of the world’s leading performance scientists. He is steeped in high performance and has been integral to the development of Britain into an Olympic superpower. He has provided support to over 1000 athletes, of which over 200 have achieved World or Olympic medal success, including some of the world’s greatest athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent. Steve has coached Kelly Sotherton's running for heptathlon and to 4x400m Olympic medal winning success. Steve has worked at the English Sports Council British Olympic Association, English Institute of Sport, where Steve was the Director of Science and Technical Development, leading a team of 200 scientists in support of Team GB and Paralympics GB. Ingham holds a BSc, PhD and is a Fellow of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. Steve is author of the best selling ‘How to Support a Champion: The art of applying science to the elite athlete’, discussing and inspiring the importance of learning and adapting to reach our maximum potential. Steve established Supporting Champions with the ambition of helping ambitious people to find a better way of creating high-performance. Steve hosts the Supporting Champions Podcast on sharing his pursuit of understanding and exploration in performance.

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