What I Learned Reading 52 Books This Year (Part One)

Last December, whilst away in the US with my bobsleigh teammates, I found myself thinking about things that I wanted to achieve in 2014. I’m not really one for New Years resolutions, but at the same time I wanted to put some goals down so that I wouldn’t just coast through the year. One of the things I wanted to do was to try and focus a bit more on reading. Reading is always something I have enjoyed since I was a child. I remember coming home from school and picking up a book, and reading until it was bedtime. As I got older, I always made an effort to read for an hour or so before bed, and traveling with sports teams always gave me some time to read. I decided that trying to read a book a week for a year was a good way to focus my mind on reading again, and would also give me opportunity to try books from genres that I wouldn’t normally. My circumstances changed somewhat after retiring, as I thought I would spend a lot of time traveling with sports teams, being able to read on the road. However, working for a living makes reading more difficult, but, at the time of writing, I am still on track to hit the 52 (or at least close to it). As I aimed to read across a wide range of genres, only some of the books are related to sport. Nevertheless, I will discuss all the books I have read here.


This article will no doubt be very long, so I have split it into four sections of 13 books each. Here, then, are the first 13 books of my year:


  1. Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?: Olympic-winning Strategies for Everyday Success
    (4 out of 5)


Ben Hunt-Davis won an Olympic Gold medal in the men’s Eight at the 2000 Olympic Games, and since then has been working as a motivational speaker. I read this book in two days whilst travelling across Europe on the way to a bobsleigh competition. I really enjoyed it and found it thoroughly absorbing; the narrative switches between Ben’s story and practical examples of success. The first chapter itself is incredible, as Ben takes us through the day of the Olympic final, and all the emotions and incidents that happened. He follows this up by describing how the team had made this success happen over the whole Olympic cycle, discussing things like goal setting, distraction control, and conflict management. From my experience in teams, I can tell you that it is very unlikely that everyone will get on well, and having ways to deal with this is important. Having read this book, I found that it was always important to be honest with your teammates, which was something I tried to take forward. I also tried to promote a feeling of openness and non-judgement with teams that I was involved in; if what I was doing wasn’t good enough or right, I wanted to be told to my face so I could try and do something about it. The majority of conflicts I have encountered in a team environment are due to cliques forming, and people discussing things behind one another’s backs. After reading this book, I tried to eliminate this as much as possible.


Key things that I took from this book:

  1. Make the journey entertaining
  2. Use the 10-minute rule – if you try and do something you don’t want to for 10 minutes, you might actually do more. I use this when I’m doing exercises that I hate – I break down intervals on the rower into 100m blocks, telling myself I can stop after I’ve done 1000m. After that 1000m, I tell myself to go for another 100m, then another. It makes it much more manageable!
  3. The need for bulls*it filters (his words, not mine!) – negative comments, thoughts and people drain you of your energy. The use of these filters can help remove all this bulls*it. To build these filters, we need to a) “Don’t talk bollocks to Basil” (avoid certain topics of conversation with certain people, try to avoid “helpful” tips from friends/family/team-mates/coaches as everyone has an opinion, and they can often be conflicting.) b) Accept the facts and challenge the negative interpretation (you can’t change the past, but accepting what happened and understanding why is important; use these facts as a basis to improve future performance), c) Find a better interpretation (if you always miss out on something, you can either decide that you’re always a loser, or think that you’re not quite good enough yet, but with enough training you could get better. One of these is unhelpful; the other will help performance.) d) Use bulls*it as emotional fuel (has someone doubted you? Prove them wrong!).
  4. Make it happen – Today is a good day because I am going to make it a good day.
  5. When working within a team, having a common goal, and a set of agreed behaviours. One thing I find incredibly irritating during my time in teams is poor time keeping. On more than one occasion a team-mate has been over an hour late for a team training session, which is not only selfish but also ruins the session for everyone else. Having an agreed behaviour programme could have helped eliminate that. These agreed behaviours should be developed by the team, as that increases individual buy-in. They should also be enforced, and constantly discussed. Teams also need to be able to give difficult feedback to each other, as well as deal with individuals they don’t like.
  6. The key, final point is to constantly be asking yourself if what is happening helps performance (i.e. Does It Make The Boat Go Faster?). The end goal of any team is to be successful. Two teammates not talking to each other won’t achieve that, so they need to learn to work together for the good of the team.


  1. 50 Digital Ideas: You Really Need to Know (50 Ideas You Really Need to Know series)


My generation is the first real generation of digital natives. I can remember first getting the internet, first getting Wi-Fi, the first time I had a phone with 3G, as well as a host of other things. My children won’t remember these things – they will grow up with Wi-Fi as 4G as standard minimums. I chose to read this book as there is a lot of stuff going on with technology and the internet that I have no idea about. This series of “50 Idea” books is really useful as it serves as an introduction into an area, from which you can explore further if desired. I learnt quite a lot of interesting stuff from this book, especially about the deep-web. However, it was all quite dry, and as such I have forgotten large chunks of it.



  1. The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction


I really, really like numbers. I like to use numbers as a guide, to monitor things in my daily and training life. I find comfort in numbers. This book is about using maths to predict things, and where it can go wrong. It’s a brilliant book that looks at things such as the 2008 financial crash, sabremetrics (baseball prediction), the weather, earthquake prediction, and chess-playing computers. The take home point for this book is that humans are quite poor at making predications. We can become distracted by too much “noise” and miss the true signal. As a coach, this is something I really need to be aware of. I might be getting really good noise from a training programme in the form of good testing scores, but missing vitally important signals that could lead to a poor performance. Take my relay error at the 2008 Olympics (detailed here) – the noise of fast times was disguising the signal of leaving early time and time again. Another important variable to consider is random error obscuring the true signal, or creating a false one. An example used in the book is Kasparov playing the IBM Deep Blue computer at chess. At one point, the computer played a move that lead to it losing. Kasparov couldn’t understand why it played this particular move, so he continued to play the game through that night in his hotel room. He discovered that the computer would have lost the game within the next 37 moves, and so he believed it had given up. This disheartened Kasparov, as he thought that the computer would always out think him, and his performance suffered. In fact, the computer had just crashed and played a default move! This illustrates the problem with looking so hard for a signal when one might not be there.


An additional factor to consider regarding false signals is that of physiological testing. In the example of a 100m runner, the only thing that really matters is how quick the athlete gets from 0m to 100m on race day relative to everyone else. Using predicative physiological tests can be useful (and examining these is beyond the scope of what I aim to achieve here), but they can also create false signals / noise. For example, if we used 1 repetition maximum testing to see how well training was going, we might increase our personal best in the power clean by 20kgs. This could increase our confidence; we are stronger than last year, so surely this bodes well? But how much cross over is there actually? Could false-positive signals lead to over-confidence in the run up to a competition?



  1. Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Home-Made Nations


This book details all the micronations of the world. Micronations are entities that claim to be an independent nation or state, but lack official recognition from world governments. Some are quite serious, for example the Principality of Sealand off the UK coast, which has gone to war, and issues passports and stamps. Others are ridiculous, and some lie in between. Overall this was a decent book, its not very long so quite a straightforward read. Its set up like a guidebook, as it’s made by Lonely Planet, which can stop the flow a bit – but it definitely has some interesting sections.


  1. American Psycho


This is quite comfortably the most messed up, disturbed book I have ever read. I picked it up because I’ve seen the film, and also I’m not much of a fiction reader so thought it would be good to branch out. I really enjoyed the book, and found it hard to put down – but as mentioned it is very intense, graphic and uncomfortable. I was reading this book when I suffered my career ending injury, and so it was really good to have something to get involved in and take my mind of all the negative emotions associated with that.


  1. De Bono’s Thinking Course: Powerful Tools to Transform Your Thinking


My motivation behind reading this book is that I wanted to expand how I thought. I’m pretty rigid in how I approach problems, and I have a set of steps that I go through when figuring something out. My hope was that by reading this I would be able to try different ways of problem solving, and hopefully get better (or at least different) solutions. The book introduces a good number of different ways of thinking, which were interesting. The problem is that I am so rigid in my thought process that I didn’t really find any of them effective. I also struggled to remember them all, which makes using the problem solving methods difficult. I’d be interested to hear if many people have much success in using some of de Bono’s methods. On the surface they look attractive, but by getting into them a bit more they are a bit more complicated to use or hard to recall. Overall, I found the concept interesting, but the application a bit lacking. I will certainly give another of his books a go in the near future though.


  1. How to Find Fulfilling Work (The School of Life)


The problem with retiring from professional sport is that you have to find a proper job. My background is that I have a degree in sport and exercise science, and since graduating from university I have tried to stay current within the subject, as well as teach myself about new things within the field. I would say that 99% of my nutrition knowledge is either self-taught, or guided by the nutritionists I have worked with in my career, as opposed to stuff I learned on my course. I’ve also done plenty of my own research into sprint biomechanics. The issue I have here is that I have no post-graduate official education (masters, PhD, etc.), which means that I can’t really get a job in the sports science field as the better jobs require these qualifications. Since leaving university in 2009, I also haven’t worked, at least not in the traditional sense, as I spent my days training. Thus, aged 27 and entering the real world, my prospects didn’t feel that good!


This book was really enjoyable. Roman demonstrated case studies of people that had changed career paths at a much later age than myself. He made my realise that so many people are stuck in a career or job that they don’t enjoy, so picking the right one is important. He also discussed the idea of trying out as many jobs as possible to find one that you like. Since retiring, I have fulfilled a few roles, including children’s coach, sports camp coach, speaker, nutritionist, and running my own seminars. Being exposed to these things allowed me to explore what I liked and what I didn’t, and then make a better choice about what I wanted to do in the end.


When I finished the book, I made a list of the things I wanted from a job:

  • Freedom to work on my own little projects within the realm of my job description
  • Ability to work fairly flexible hours (there’s no point in having a brilliant job if you never get time to spend with your family or enjoy yourself)
  • Be involved in something that I found really interesting.
  • Be able to make a difference to at least some individuals
  • Provide some financial security


My current job provides all of this, and because I am happy in my job role I can do some really good work. With the company I work for, I get to do my own research and little projects, and it is in an area of sports science that I find fascinating. I also get to interact with customers on a day-to-day basis, and I can see the value in what we bring to their lives. I also get to work with elite sports people, and make a difference to their performance, which again is really gratifying.


This book is part of the School for Life series, which is a really good idea too. You should check out the other titles!


  1. The Diagrams Book: 50 Ways to Solve Any Problem Visually


I like infographics, so I was looking forward to seeing really interesting ways of presenting information. This book isn’t that, sadly. Instead, it explores some common graphs used in management. This book would probably be useful if you were giving a lot of corporate presentations, and wanted to find novel ways of bringing across more information. However, that isn’t me.


  1. Information is Beautiful (New Edition)


This is a beautiful book. McCandless presents data in really interesting ways through the use of infographics. Some of the information he puts across is also incredibly interesting. He visually presents topics such as politics (left vs. right), creationism, sport supplement efficacy, types of coffee, a history of rock music, most searched internet terms for each country, and a map of the internet. It really is a joy to read. David has a new book out, called “Knowledge is Beautiful”. Guardian data also have a really good infographic book called “Facts are sacred”. I will be checking both out in the New Year.


  1. How to Thrive in the Digital Age (The School of Life)


Similar to book #2 (and written by the same author), my motivation here was to understand computers and the internet a bit more. This is another title in the School for Life series, and was a decent read. Tom explores issues such as whether we are using technology too much, and what affect that has on us. He also discusses the fact that we are constantly “plugged in”, and whether this is a good or bad thing. An interesting point raised by Tom is the potential for our human memory to not be required as much any more. For example, Facebook reminds us of our friend’s birthdays. It reminds us of their children’s names, so we don’t have to input them into our memory. We are essentially outsourcing bits of information. We don’t need to remember certain bits of information any more, as we can Google it instead.


One of things I have made a move to in recent time are eBooks. I own a lot of physical books, and eBooks represent a space saving method for myself. They are also easily transportable, and I can carry round 500 books on my iPad, which makes me surprisingly happy! However, flicking through eBooks is not at all enjoyable. Gone are the days when I find myself sat next to my bookshelf, leafing through a book and picking up random bits of information. This is an example of the conflict within the digital age – eBooks are environmentally and space friendly (and also generally cheaper), but do they lessen my whole reading experience?


  1. Thinking Statistically


As already mentioned, I like numbers. I also have a set method for thinking. Therefore, I like statistics. This short book by Uri Baum runs through the use of statistics in every day life. Baum gives explains how we use selection bias every day, how we don’t account for random error in our thought process, consistently omit variables when making decisions, and a good introduction into Bayes Theorem. Understanding statistical errors can be really useful when evaluating scientific information – and as coaching is becoming more science lead, this could become increasingly important. I read this book in two hours on a beach in Dubai, and I was happy.


  1. History of World Philosophy


This is a comic book detailing major events in philosophy, as well as providing a decent introduction into the main philosophers. I wanted to enjoy this book, but sadly I didn’t. I imagine the issue is that I have no background knowledge in philosophy, so a lot of it went over my head!


  1. World History: 50 Events You Really Need to Know (50 Ideas You Really Need to Know series)


This book gives a very brief introduction into various events in world history, from Ancient Greece to 9/11. It’s a really interesting read, and I did enjoy it. I learnt a lot, however I seem to have forgotten most of it. And that seems to be the problem with a lot of brief introduction books like this; I enjoy them at the time, but because there is so much information coming in, I tend to forget it much quicker. Compare this to a book that has one topic, and 300 pages to explore it. I remember these things much easier, as every night for a week I return to the topic, so it becomes a bit more ingrained into my head.


So, that takes me upto mid-March. Take a break, and if you’re still interested, next week I will post numbers 14-26 on my list!

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