Applying the lessons from Euro 2016 to motivate patients with chronic illnesses

After working with top athletes on their fitness, former professional footballer Haukur Ingi Gudnason has joined SidekickHealth’s team and will apply his degree in sports psychology to provide expertise on how to motivate people to live more healthy lives. In this interview The Sidebar asked him about the differences between improving the performance of Iceland’s national football team and helping people with chronic diseases manage their conditions.

What’s the difference between giving Iceland’s national football team a morale boost ahead of their famous victory against England in Euro 2016, and helping someone change their lifestyle to manage a chronic disease?

Not that much according to Haukur Ingi Gudnason, whose career in sports psychology has led him to join Sidekick’s team to help inform the company’s approach to motivating people struggling with serious illnesses.

A former professional footballer, Haukur started his career in Iceland before being signed as a youngster by Liverpool.

But after his footballing career was curtailed prematurely through injury, Haukur decided to study psychology after becoming fascinated as to why certain people, and certain teams, became successful in a highly competitive game.

Many people have the physical attributes to succeed at football, but to really thrive – whether in sport or any part of their lives – something else is needed.

“Everybody knows somebody that doesn’t live up to the potential, and I could see it clearly (at Liverpool). There are so many different things that attribute to the success of people.”

Haukur Ingi in action with Liverpool.

Haukur noted that at the time Liverpool lacked a psychologist, while their more successful arch-rivals Manchester United had one.

“When we look at the mental side of things, and we work with the resilience, goal setting, focus, motivation, we can find this common thing that helps people to be successful in every aspect of their lives,” Haukur said.

After studying sports psychology, Haukur’s main focus was working with sports people, and he has worked with some of Iceland’s best athletes.

He even helped the Iceland national football team on their way to their famous victory against England in the Euro 2016 tournament.

He cites this as a prime example of how psychology allowed the Iceland team to perform at a higher level than England, who were odds-on favorites to win that match with a star-studded line-up.

Factors such as pressure from the press, and a lack of togetherness in the England squad, plus a collective sense of purpose in Iceland’s team swung the match in favor of the underdog, according to Haukur.

“If you just look at pure talent, England should win every time.

“There are so many different things that attribute to the success rather than just pure talent. Iceland versus England from the Euro finals is just a great example of that. If you’re not 100% motivated, if you’re not giving your best effort, if you’re not working as a team, you’re not likely to be really successful.”

More focus on the mental aspect of training is essential to succeed at the highest level in sport according to Haukur.

“The mental aspect of success and performance, in general, is really, really important, and we have to address that.”

Carry over

This also applies to helping people manage chronic diseases according to Haukur. He was attracted to the job at Sidekick after spending the best part of two decades helping people achieve their goals in sport.

Taking exercise has become important given that humans naturally tend to conserve energy, because in the environment where we first evolved, food was scarce.

Nowadays it is easy to find nutrition in the developed world and this tendency to conserve energy makes people prone to chronic diseases.

 “We are in a situation where we are really likely to have some sort of health problems due to our lifestyles,” Haukur said.

“I thought that they had just created something unique, and something that can be really, really helpful for people, and giving them the opportunity to change their life for the better, and also giving people some sort of purpose in helping others by helping themselves.”

According to Haukur many of the principles he uses to motivate athletes can be carried over to working with patients with chronic diseases.

“There has to be some sort of a prop or a trigger to change our behavior. Then we have this ability or capability amend our behavior for better. Then we have the motivation.”

According to Haukur the main difference is ensuring that people with chronic diseases have a workable plan that outlines the path they must take, both on a daily basis and in the long term.

“We want to give them insight into the reason why they should change their lifestyle. That’s probably the main difference. When we’re working with athletes, they have this insight.

“They (athletes) know the direction that we want to go. I think people in general, of course want to be healthy, but perhaps they don’t know the way to get there. When they start off, their goals might be unrealistic,” Haukur explained.

Achievable goals

The trick to get people on the right track is to give them achievable goals, according to Haukur, something that applies to both top athletes and people managing chronic illnesses.

In both cases it is important not just to set targets such as goals scored, but also the behaviors that lead to this.

So, an attacking midfielder may be given a goal tally to meet in a season, but also a target to support that such as the number of times he runs into the penalty box during open play.

Sidekick is using a similar approach for patients who have peripheral arterial disease (PAD) – a condition where walking becomes painful.

At the same time walking helps to overcome the disease caused by narrowed arteries, so it is important to give people goals that are achievable and build the number of steps taken daily on a gradual basis.

Haukur explained: “We can track how many steps people are walking. After the first week, we’ll set an appropriate goal for each and every person.

“This person who’s only walking 500 steps will just get the goal of walking 550 or something like that, something that’s realistic and attainable.

“If we have somebody else who’s walking 7,000 steps, we won’t give him 5,000 steps as a goal. We’ll give him a goal around 7,500.”

Sidekick also uses an approach where healthy behaviors lead to positive change in the real world.

For each target achieved Sidekick pledges to collect water for people who need it, give someone a vaccine who needs it, or plant a tree in the Amazon.

The idea is to make the activities engaging and fun – while footballers get the buzz of scoring a goal or winning a match, people using Sidekick get to see that their actions have an impact on real life projects.

It’s this approach of clearly defining the behavior that leads to success, backed with achievable targets and rewards that is a winning combination in both sport and everyday life, according to Haukur.

“Humans are often motivated by rewards and the anticipation of rewards. That way, we can make habits attractive in a way, and that will help people stick to them.”