By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - It used to take world record-breaking cyclist Victoria Pendleton almost an hour and a half to pull herself out of a potentially defeatist mental crisis at crucial international competitions.
Now she can do it in five minutes - thanks to the British cycling team's beloved brain trainer Steve Peters.
Little wonder, then, that British cycling's poster girl and multiple Olympic gold medallist calls him "the most important person in my career".
"I get inside their head and start to perceive their world. I do a whole analysis of the way their mind functions and then see what could be improved," says the 59-year-old Peters, whose slight, unassuming trackside presence contrasts with the enormous high-level impact he's had on the mental fitness of Team GB cyclists.
"I don't tell them what to do. I offer suggestions. They tell me what they want and I offer advice on behaviours and beliefs that can lead them there."
In the case of Pendleton, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins, that has meant bringing them to the very peak of their performance in the right place at the right time, helping to make them international sporting heroes.
Psychology in sport is nothing new. Almost every Olympian at the London 2012 Games has had some kind of help from a brain trainer - or "head coach" as Peters' team like to call him, with the pun fully intended.
What stands out is Peters' eye-catching success and the apparent simplicity of his approach.
Using a technique he has dubbed "chimp management", Peters thinks of the athletes not as patients but as students.
To help them understand the various parts of their mind, he labels them "chimps" and "gremlins" and seeks to mark these out from the "human" part that people feel most in control of.
The "chimps" are the emotional and sometimes irrational thoughts, while "gremlins" are negative beliefs or behaviours.
Any one of these has the potential to ruin a great performance, Peters said in an interview with Reuters at the London 2012 Olympics. So they need to be properly managed.
"I like to teach my students this skill - chimp management - and help them develop it and maintain it," he explains.
"And it's important to distinguish between controlling and managing. You can't control it, because it's far too strong, but you can manage the chimp."
Peters stresses he's not a psychologist, but a psychiatrist and doctor who brings years of experience of hospital medicine to bear on his role as team doctor and head of medicine for the British Olympic cycling team and Team Sky.
With degrees in maths and medicine, he spent 20 years in clinical psychiatry where he developed a special interest in optimising the function of the mind.
He makes no apology for reducing the brain's complexities to chimps and gremlins, saying simplicity is the key to success when the pressure is on and emotions are running high.
"What I've got is not a science, it's not a hypothesis or theory, it's a model," he explains. "I do it very individually. I don't have a recipe. I'm trying to give people a working ability to manage something very complex."
"I KNOW THEIR CHIMPS REALLY WELL"
It's a model that's attracting a lot of attention.
Peters admits he is pretty sought-after - not just by rival cycling teams and other sports, but by chief executives from the worlds of business, management and even hospital staffing.
But while the silver-haired and softly-spoken doctor acknowledges he is valuable to the team - Chris Hoy has said he could never have won his five Olympic golds without Peters' help - he also says that if he's done his job well, he is barely needed when it comes to race day.
Just as with physical coaching, Peters starts his mental coaching many years before a big competition. He is already working with junior cyclists hoping to be part of the British team that goes to the Games in Rio in 2016.
And as the London 2012 velodrome erupts into roars of delight as British cyclists smash record after record, Peters smiles quietly, confident his work here is done.
"By now there's really not much of a need for me, Everybody's in the right place and I am almost redundant," he says.
"The only time I might be pulled in at this stage would be if someone comes to me and says: 'I know what the plan is, but the chimp's hijacking me and I just can't manage it right now'."
"Then I'd step in and grab the chimp by the scruff of the neck and get it into a box. I know their chimps really well."
(Reporting by Kate Kelland, editing by Peter Millership and Jason Neely)