Steve Tidball: Extreme Athlete Entrepreneur. Treat Athletes Like NASA
Steve Tidball is the founder of Vollebak, the world's most experimental adventure brand which produce functional wears to help athletes push their physical and cognitive limits in new and unimagined ways. Vollebak focuses on ideas that have the potential to create quantum leaps forward in every athlete's performance, and transfer as seamlessly across adventure sports as athletes themselves. Today, he shares his inspiring experiences and his journey.
-----For those who are not familiar with you, allow us to know more about you. If you summarise yourself and your life, who are you?
I'm an adventurer, an athlete and a designer. Together with my twin brother Nick, I run Vollebak, the world’s most experimental adventure brand. We fuse science and design to create performance-enhancing sportswear and experiments.
Before launching Vollebak we spent 15 years designing experiences, events and products for sports and tech brands like Adidas and Airbnb.
At the same time, we've raced and trained around the world in ultra marathons and adventure races as well as doing endurance riding, skiing, climbing, surfing, kayaking, paddle boarding.
Vollebak combines these two worlds. We’ve taken our insights and problems as athletes and try to find solutions using design.
-----How come you decided to start up your own company, which focused on athletes?
The idea of creating an adventure sports brand that brought together elements of physiology, exploration, neuroscience, material technology and biotech, actually emerged quite organically over a few years. But there were two really key moments that accelerated our thinking on it – and both came from pushing ourselves to our physical limits.
The first happened when we were out training in Tarifa on the south coast of Spain. At the end of a long training run [shouldn’t this be ‘swim’ if he got dragged out to sea?] I got dragged out to sea by a rip. I remember losing all hearing within seconds, and my vision narrowing down into this tiny black and white tunnel. At the exact moment that I really needed to rely on my senses to help get me out of the situation, I effectively lost all meaningful access to them.
The second came out in the Namibian desert the night before a 78-mile ultramarathon. Knowing we’d spend the next 24 hours racing in 45 degree plus heat, I spent almost the whole night awake in our tent with my mind racing and feeling totally wired. This is such a common problem for athletes. During the 6 hours that I really needed to be conserving energy, my body and mind were just burning through it.
The upside of these stories is that they both turned into really formative moments for the brand. It’s no coincidence that one of our launch products hacks your central nervous system to help slow your pulse and brainwaves to help you relax pre and post sport, and that one of our launch experiments is designed to enhance your sensory perception in life and death moments.
Ultimately these experiences made us realize that no brand was tackling these fundamental issues you face when you’re out there pushing the limits of what’s possible. As athletes we couldn’t see anyone experimenting in this space, and as designers we believed we could find ways to solve that.
-----What was the most difficult thing when you embody your idea?
Conceiving and creating the Baker Miller Pink Hoodie was the most challenging part of the last few years for a number of reasons.
First we were attempting to tackle a problem that no one’s really taken on. You don’t walk into your local sports shop and find the aisle of clothing aiming to enhance your parasympathetic nervous system to help you relax. So were starting with an entirely blank canvas.
Secondly we decided to approach the project as a piece of behavioural design, not product design. Our end goal was simply to create a more relaxed athlete with any method available to us. This meant exploring a lot of different avenues before distilling the final design.
In total the process took more than three years and like any project the idea morphed and adapted along the way.
The process started back in 2012 when I was reading John Krackauer’s book, ‘Eiger Dreams,’ in the Alps. In it, he suggested climbers experiencing the phenomenon of tent rage could benefit from a tent made in a unique shade of pink known as Baker Miller Pink. It was a colour discovered in the late 1970s, and if you look at it for long enough, it flips a switch in your central nervous system, lowering your pulse and forcing you to relax. During the 1980s entire confinement cells were painted in it as it was used to suppress violent and antagonistic behaviour in prison inmates, juvenile delinquents and military prisoners.
What we were immediately interested in was applications this colour could have for any high level athletes looking to stay calm before or after risking their lives. Tension, anxiety, stress and fear are not unique to climbers – they’re huge performance factors in any sport where you’re pushing yourself towards the edges of what’s possible or what you’re capable of. What we then went on to explore was how we could heighten that effect by simultaneously influencing other physiological elements like breathing, body position, and the senses.
We created a mesh visor that floods your field of vision with the colour to slow your pulse. The position of the visor encourages you to breathe through your nose, which slows your breathing. The pockets have been made to function like slings to reduce movement, limit oxygen consumption, and position your arms on your stomach to help you check you’re deep breathing.
The final element for the hoodie was creating a soundtrack for wearers to listen to in order to help them slow and regulate their brainwaves.
The idea of using sound design in clothing to alter perception was inspired by chef Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Sound of the Sea’ dish, where you’re served an iPod Nano in a conch shell playing a ‘seascape’ while you eat your fish in order to heighten your perception of flavour.
We worked with sound engineer Michael Powell who’s a specialist in the field of brainwave sound design, to create a bespoke track for athletes to download from our site and listen to whilst wearing the hoodie. The track itself is constructed almost entirely from elements of pink noise – a frequency found throughout the universe that slows and regulates brain activity.
-----The sports industry is dominated by a couple of few players. For that reason, probably many people have tried to stop you. Did you see this endeavour as a risk?
Well first I think we're programmed to over-estimate the level of risk we attach to potential events. I also think our brains are wired to over-dramatise what might happen if that risk becomes real.
I didn’t grow up thinking this way. It’s something I’ve seen and learnt first hand from adventure sport. And it’s something we wanted to apply to our own company.
I remember racing in the desert, which is one of the most deadly and inhospitable landscapes you can find. Threats ranged from heatstroke, to snakes, scorpions, and bizarre poisonous plants. All of them could kill you. The variables were in the speed they’d do it.
The thing I found fascinating though was that once you were in the race itself, they were just things you dealt with as they happened. By the time we met our first snakes and scorpions we were so exhausted we’d already been hallucinating, so we just ignored them and they ignored us. The heatstroke that hit me was pretty serious, – I was shaking with cold despite the fact it was over 130 degrees – but there were doctors on hand to deal with it. And we avoided the plants the same way you’d avoid moving cars in a city, you run round them.
One of our aims with this business was to make sure we didn’t accidentally use fear and risk as something that informed our decision making process.
You can spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about what brands like Arc’teryx, Patagonia or even Nike are doing. Or you can get on with the unique things that interest you and have the confidence that other athletes are going to be inspired by the same things.
-----Some people say that entrepreneurs and artists have lots in common. What is your take on this?
I think the dividing line between entrepreneurs and artists is getting thinner and thinner.
From the artists' side you have iconic figures like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst with entire workshops filled with staff creating their work overseen by them. There's nothing wrong with that. Artists since the Renaissance have been doing this. But the scale it can now be done at, and the financial rewards at the end of it are as much to do with entrepreneurialism as they are to do with artistic endeavour.
From the entrepreneurs' side you have people like Ferren Adria of elBulli, or Elon Musk, taking on giant challenges that are inherently artistic. Both have a vision that runs counter to the mainstream. They bring it to life by accepting no standard truths, and rethinking everything from first principles. And then they are unwavering in their execution. Instead of bending to the market they reshape it.
Ultimately the best artists and entrepreneurs have trained themselves to see the world in a way others don't, then packaged that up in a way that makes people stop, look, question, react, buy, laugh, consume, wonder, whatever it is.
-----When you are thinking of some idea, what happens in your mind? Do you visualise it or it is something more logical?
I’m a huge fan of the concept of flow, so I deliberately harness this state to come up with most of my ideas. On a practical level that simply means doing the majority of my thinking when I’m out doing sports in nature, or immediately after finishing.
I think in words, not in pictures. So most ideas start as a conversation in my head. If you take a run for example, in the first hour of any run I let my mind roam freely over the clutter that's in there. In the second hour I'll start zeroing in a problem I'm trying to solve or an idea I'm trying to come up with. Then for the final hour or two my brain is a lot quieter and I find lateral thinking and the association of previously unconnected ideas a lot more likely.
-----Through this business, what are you trying to realise?
Over the next decade, the intersection of science, sport and clothing is going to witness exponential advances. We’re going to move from the data gathering model we’re now in, into one where our clothes actively respond to and initiate behavioural change. You can already start to see and feel it coming. It’s like this giant wave ready to rise up. Some brands will simply try to ride that wave.
Our aim is to be the wave itself.
We aim to do this by bringing together the learnings from radically disparate fields – anything from space exploration, to neuroscience, to conceptual art – to create profound products and experiences that change how athletes think and perform.
One of our original starting points was the idea that if NASA swapped space for sport, Vollebak should be the result. I remember first seeing the glove that Neil Armstrong wore on the moon for his space walk, and sewn onto it was a small patch of Betacloth with a series of instructions for his moon walk – how many rocks to collect, where to walk, what to photograph, when to set up his experiments.
The sheer pragmatism of that amongst the cutting edge technology of the day was something that really struck us. Even though he was Commander of the mission, NASA chose not to rely on something as basic as his memory working. The key to his survival was not just in the materials he wore. It was in how he responded psychologically to the unknown. Knowing that he would be in a dangerous and stressful environment he had never encountered before, they decided it would be better if he didn’t have to think. He simply had to look at his clothes and do what they said.
And that’s why you’ll find the same solution on our Condition Black Jacket, which comes with glow in the dark instructions on your left forearm for when your brain and body start shutting down under extreme duress. Like NASA we’ve combined today’s most advanced material technology with a design process informed by human physiology and psychology.
The other moment that proved highly influential in creating our design principles was the elBulli exhibition at the Courtauld Institute. This was the first time we’d got to see Ferran Adria’s work in person. One of the things that stood out most was a bespoke plate they’d had created for one of their dishes. It was entirely black and molded with a series of unique oval indentations where the various elements of the dish were intended to sit.
What we were really fascinated by was how in a different context, if you’d been told it was a plate designed for a mission into deep space you would have believed it. What we saw was this amazing crossover where extreme functionality and the extremes of creativity were impossible to tell apart. And that’s where we realized we should sit. Nearly every subsequent aesthetic decision has fallen out of that.
-----Is there anything you would have done differently in the beginning if you had had the same experience and knowledge then?
Well Vollebak has only been live for 10 weeks, so we're still very much at the beginning of our journey. I’ll be able to answer this question a lot better in 10 years.
-----If you can make a call to 20-year-old Steve Tidball, what would be your advice to him?
ST: At 20 years old I'd just been told by doctors I'd never do sports again after a series of spinal injuries, and that I should find a job where all you had to do was sit in a chair. It was finished off with the advice that, "the human body really isn't designed for running."
I think the psychological impact of being told something so conclusive by authority figures in the field was almost as damaging as the injuries themselves. It took me several years and a lot of painful experimentation to work out they might not be right. So I’d definitely use my phone call to tell the 20-year-old me that they’d called it wrong and that I’d end up as an ultra marathon runner.
Edited by Jennifer Ann Garcia