Here’s something that was revealed to me by the brilliant Michael Neill, in his book and theory, ‘The Inside Out Revolution’.
It resonated with me and how my life has been. I think about the idea a fair bit and always look to try and find myself not falling into the trap. It is a cycle or process many of us will recognise. We almost get conditioned along this path from a young age. When I think back to my previous generations, my parents and grandparents, it was definitely an ideology handed down. And I’m sure you’ve heard it too.
“Life is tough.”
Just writing it, I can hear the voices from my childhood. The monologue would go something like this:
“Life isn’t easy, it’s a struggle. You have to put your head down and work hard. And that won’t be pleasant but it is something you need to do. You need to struggle, to sacrifice, to stress, because in the end you will be rewarded with success. And success, when you achieve it, will make you happy. So, let’s not complain, that is the deal, just get on with it and get used to the fact that life is tough.”
And so, this is what you do. Stoically, unquestioningly, apathetically, you just get on with it. Hoping that one day that promised land will be found and everything will become easy.
What they fail to mention, the sowers of these morbid seeds, is that success is not a destination. Success is like a moving target. When you achieve success, however wonderful, it isn’t long before your eyes are drawn further down the track, to some other success. Having achieved one thing, you immediately look for more. I talk about the addiction that many of us have to what I refer to as ‘achieving’, rather than ‘achievement’ in this blog, but let’s assume we all agree that success is not some stationary paradise that we will ever get to. And so, with it being a constantly moving objective and something we will always be striving for, we are destined for a lifetime of struggle. Seems a little daft, no?
As Michael Neill puts it – the sum doesn’t work:
Struggle/Sacrifice/Stress = Unhappiness. But our Unhappiness is withstood because it will ultimately = Success. And, we hope (or are reassured) that Success= Happiness. So let’s lay that out:
Struggle = Unhappiness = Success = Happiness
But any mathematician will tell you you can strike two of those factors out and the sum will still stand:
Struggle = Unhappiness = Success = Happiness
We are making ourselves unhappy, in the hope that we become happy.
How about we rethink that?
Fill your life with positivity and fun. Yes, work hard but do not chase success. Do not make it the be-all and end-all. Appreciate the journey you are on and do not focus on the destination. Practice, train, and aspire but remember that true happiness is found in relationships and connections with friends and family. Remove the unhappiness of struggle, sacrifice and stress and just be happy to begin with. Appreciate the small things, the moments in your life that you have and are thankful for. Enjoy the moments that go well and don’t spend too long chastising yourself when they don’t work out. Relish the challenge life hands you; don’t be motivated by money or title, be motivated by feelings of improvement and love.
Do this and things will start to feel better. Because the old way of accepting that ‘life is tough’ just doesn’t add up.
The Sky Sports Commentary team are waxing lyrical about Joe Root; England’s premier batter is showing his class once more. He has notched up his 10,000th run, in what seems like record time, and, relieved of the captaincy and under the new test match stewardship of Ben Stokes and Brendan McCullum, appears to be playing some of his best cricket.
But then something is said in commentary that really piques my interest: “Joe Root always seems to play well at this ground. And that’s definitely ‘a thing’: you turn up at a ground and you just know you’re going to play well.”
The ground in question is Trent Bridge. The scene of Root’s most recent test match century, against New Zealand in the June of 2022. And while this is an idea that is not new or unusual, whatever sport you are playing, it is worth examining more closely.
Is this an actual thing? Does Trent Bridge have some sort of inherent power over Joe Root’s batting ability? For a mind coach working with the performance of sportspeople, the answer is simple and complex; it is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
Let’s deal with the most logical and obvious answer: ‘No’. Of course it doesn’t; that is preposterous. Trent Bridge, like any other international cricket ground in the world, has no inherent power at all. It’s an inanimate venue with no magic or mysticism ingrained in any part of it. Trent Bridge has no idea whom Joe Root is because Trent Bridge doesn’t have the capability of thought, cognisance or basic recognition of anything. It is a passive entity. It is powerless.
And yet, and yet, many of you will have read those comments from the commentary box, or heard them at the time, and nodded to yourself. Many of us have played sport, some of us may well have played sport to a very good level, and all of us will have recognised the concept that is being put forward. In a way, Trent Bridge does have a power, because Joe Root feels good playing at that ground, and when he feels good, he plays well. But, and this is the most crucial part, the power does not exist at Trent Bridge, it exists in Joe Root’s mind.
Joe Root is a brilliant batter. Capable of scoring lots of runs at any cricket ground in the world. But on some days, at some venues, he bats better. And understanding why (or how) is the nirvana all sportspeople are trying to work out the route to.
The problem with sport is that it’s not easy. And the reason it’s not easy is that most sports have tricky technical aspects, which require many layers of skill and judgement. Sportspeople practice for years before getting to the levels we see on TV: Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal book ‘Outliers’ put forward the idea of 10,000 hours of practice before expertise is achieved in a particular skill. Many sports have numerous skills within them, and being professionally good at any sport takes a great deal of applied effort and time. Rising to international level, the skill level is almost incomprehensible.
Through years of practice, once you have conquered these particular skills, you are looking to ingrain that skill into your body so that you can perform them ‘under pressure’. Now, pressure is an interesting concept because, as we were alluding to earlier, pressure only exists in the mind. It is an internal force: yes, it is definitely a thing capable of ruining performances, but is only produced by the mind of the person attempting the skill.
But let’s park that particular idea and return to the idea of your body being so practised to do something, it can produce it on demand. In Joe Root’s case, hitting a bowled cricket ball through the covers for four. He needs to be able to recognise the delivery from the bowler, move all the different parts of his body (feet, body, legs, arms, hands) in coordination with each other to get into position, at exactly the right moment, to allow the centre of his bat to meet the moving cricket ball; with the perfect angle and timing, so that maximum energy is transferred into the ball to exert it, at speed, through the gap in the field, with enough momentum to cross the boundary rope 85 yards away. To do all this, is, without question, a physiological masterstroke. And to complete this, he needs his mind to be completely in tune. In fact, he probably needs his mind to get out of the way; allow the right physiological neurons to fire and let his body do what he has ingrained into the ‘memory’ of every muscle he possesses.
We need to agree something before we go any further: we perform at our best when we are free of internal tension. When I talk to musicians, dancers, sportspeople, speakers, business executives, parents, school children, they all agree that they are at their best when they aren’t tense. They achieve their potential when they move freely, almost without thought. A tense, braced, strained body will not move as quickly, as fluidly, as purposefully as a relaxed body. This is why we see athletes shaking their bodies down ahead of a race or event. They are trying to stay loose. So that they can react to any and all eventualities.
Tension in the body comes from thought. Pretty much every physiological response we have comes from a thought in the mind. Danger signals emanate from the amygdala and trigger a physiological reply. The only way around this issue is to not have those thoughts. And one of the best places to be to avoid those thoughts is in a place of comfort and confidence. Trent Bridge has become, in Root’s mind, a place of comfort and confidence. In opposition, another ground may hold for him a memory of a bad dismissal or poor shot and so, danger is present in the mind of Joe Root; it interferes with his body by producing unwanted tension, and he doesn’t play as well, adding substance to the idea that that ground holds some sort of inherent power over his ability.
Don Macpherson’s background in Formula One would see this phenomenon at particular circuits. “This is my favourite track,” the driver would say, “I always perform well round here.” And of course, they invariably would. Free from any tension, their body, trained over years of expert practice, would perform at its peak, allowing the fallacy to continue.
In conclusion, I can understand why commentators, sportspeople and members of the watching public believe this is a thing: that there are certain spaces, venues, stadia, courses, grounds where you perform better. But it’s not a power inherent in something else. It exists in your mind. The trick is identifying the concept, removing the thought, and recognising that your skill or technical prowess is yours to control. That your talent is performed best when you get your mind and its invasive thoughts out of the way. You are brilliant and can be brilliant wherever and whenever you need to be, you just have to recognise that it is all in your control.
You have the power, don’t give it to the powerless.
I met up with one of my favourite former colleagues yesterday, who is now a Headteacher at an all-girls school. As well as sharing war stories from the last twelve months, we talked about the mindset of both boys and girls and how they differ. As a parent of two boys and a girl, I am always looking for help and pointers to aid me along the way. Children don’t arrive with a user manual, do they? We have to learn on the job!
One thing we both surmised was that a young female’s attitude to learning, and in particular failure, is very different to a young male. Boys, in general, and there are exceptions to the rule, have a greater propensity to give things a go. Girls tend to be a little more guarded about putting themselves forward and my friend is working hard at her school to try and give her pupils a lot more chances to fail, survive and learn from failure.
If you have a young female in your life, one who is looking for great female role models, I would really recommend the film ‘The Wall’ (currently available on Netflix). Not only is it a very well-made documentary about an unusual sport (climbing), it follows four female athletes as they all vie for gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. It is a 12 certificate and contains some choice language, so viewer discretion is advised.
One thing it does highlight is how important failure is. I’m sure you’ll all be aware of the countless failures famous entrepreneurs, inventors, and world leaders have had. You can’t really go too far on social media without some meme popping up and telling you all about how JK Rowling suffered before Bloomsbury gave her her break, or how many experiments Thomas Eddison floundered around with before his lightbulb moment. Failure is very much part of success, but why is it so important? Success is great for the soul, wonderful for confidence and can provide some much-needed happiness – failure does the opposite – why is failure as important as success? Here are some reasons you may not have thought about.
Failure makes great stories. And stories connect you to other people. The best stories I’ve ever heard had failure at the heart of them, and without these stories to tell people, we wouldn’t be able to connect in such an important way. Some of the best moments with your friends have involved getting stuff wrong. When we get together socially, reliving these moments and amusing each other with our plights and misdeeds can form a strong bond and appreciation. Sharing each other’s successes is lovely but feeling empathy for someone’s nightmarish situation is the stuff that really binds.
And coming together in a social situation is so vitally important for your brain. The hormone release that social encounters and shared experiences gives you is the best medicine in the world. Oxytocin works in direct opposition to the stress hormone Cortisol, and it is released when you come into social or positive/intimate contact with another human. Our minds need oxytocin to operate at their best, so great social interaction is necessary for our lives. Failure stories are an essential part of this.
We need complex. The way our brains work brilliantly is just outside our comfort zone. Our brain is set up for the constant introduction of new neural pathways. And neural pathways are only formed by repetition, and we are much more likely to repeat an action in the pursuit of success if we get something wrong. Doing things that we can achieve serves no real purpose in our lives and we must always look for new and different experiences to benefit our brains and continue our growth.
Life is a journey, not a destination. This is echoed in Shauna Coxsey’s final monologue in the film, where she talks about what she’s achieved and how she feels about it. To paraphrase her slightly, she concludes that ‘her successes (and failures) aren’t useful to anyone else, but what she learnt along the way is.’
Our minds trick us into thinking that achievement is important. But, for me, it is the act of achieving that we need in our lives, not achievements. In fact, once an achievement has appeared, it immediately starts to fade only to be replaced by something bigger and better, further down the line. I think many humans adore the act of achieving and so will constantly reset their sights on new and higher accolades. And because we are so enthraled in this process, we need it to be a challenge (worth achieving) and therefore we need the jeopardy of failure.
And as soon as we start to see failure in these ways; as necessary and beneficial, the more we can train our minds to not only accept failure when it happens but be pleased to see it! Now I can almost hear you thinking how ridiculous that last sentence sounds but failure’s last gift is that it makes success worth it. Failure should sting, hurt, and maybe even derail you for a moment, but that’s there to make you practice, train and commit to the pursuit of success even harder. Failure makes you do a couple of extra sets in the gym; pushes you to read a little further in the book; gives you a reason to stay out on the training field just that little bit longer. Without failure, we wouldn’t be working so hard. And without hard work, success wouldn’t mean anything. It is a cyclical process that needs all its parts to be effective.
One of the most effective ways to teach children to do anything is a process we refer to as ‘modelling’. As a species, we are especially good at copying others, and children, with their spongelike brains, take in all sorts of behaviour and information in this way.
From dance crazes to sayings and from hairstyles to how they sit at the dinner table, our children are watching and learning. It is not a conscious process for them, it is without thought; they take in what they are seeing and hearing and regurgitate it as their own. The facial expression that you thought was hereditary is not, it is learnt. Yes, nature does play a part in some things, but nurture is a very powerful process in children learning.
I speak to a lot of parents of children who are anxious or worried. Working as I do in a pastoral capacity in a school and then as a mind coach, the epidemic of anxiety is a very real problem. But once the parent has told me that their child is anxious, the very next question is always ‘What can I do?’
The answer is relatively simple. And yet, I also understand how difficult it can be. Your child’s health, whether physical or mental, is a parent’s preoccupation. If a child is unhappy or uncomfortable, parents will worry about little else. But very often, a vast amount of a child’s anxiety will either emanate from or be exacerbated by a parent’s anxiety. One of the best things you can do for an anxious child, is practice the tools available to ease that anxiety and model for your child someone who is happy and content.
Let me put it like this: if you want your child to work hard, they must see you working hard; if you want them to be kind to others, they must see you being kind to others; if you want them to read more, they must observe you reading. It is exactly the same with anxiety. They will model the behaviours they see.
Parents will often cite school as the cause for their child’s anxiety. And yes, school, being an occasionally tough place, can be the reason for unhappiness. But on investigation, I often find out that ‘how was school?’ was the first question asked by the parent when home. They push further looking for details of a potential cause and the anxiety around one particular situation from a busy day is relived by the child. The cross examination only highlights the negative situation and ferments the thought in the child’s mind. There were many other things that happened that particular school day but the parent’s anxiety has zoned in, identified the deficiency, and added power to it. They think they are helping but, in truth, they are only making things worse.
So, what can you do? Get the child help. If early in the process, seeking help from a mind coach like me is a great first step but be prepared to join them in the process. Learn the tools to take better care of your mental health and practise them well. Practise together, but also apart. Suggest that they can talk to you about anything but don’t probe or ask questions. Fill their home with positivity and activities that provide a break from the other things with which your child is having to deal. When we have a tough day at work, having to explain it at home is often the last thing we want to do. We want to park work problems and get the most out of family life. It is exactly the same with school. Make yourself into the most comfortable and controlled parent you can be and, in that state, comfort your child with positivity and fun. Show them how possible it is to take control of your mindset and resist anxious behaviours. They will copy you.
If the anxiety is bad and needs medical intervention, then, of course, find the right medical expert and support them on that journey. But for you the above will not hurt here either. It will be a challenge to see your child in such difficulty but providing support and love in a happy and contented way is one of the best ways of accompany them.
I don’t have to try hard to convince you of the benefits of physical health. I mean, you might not be in peak physical fitness but you would like to be, right? You know that going for a run/cycle/swim is going to be good for you. Doing those things regularly will make you live longer, healthier and less likely to get ill; being fit has all sorts of benefits to you body, mind and soul.
Mental fitness is less appreciated. Despite the connection and similarities with physical fitness, people tend not to believe in mental fitness as much. When I tell people what I do and how important it is, there are sometimes raised eyebrows and cynical expressions on faces. They seem to say, ‘I don’t need that, I’m fine.’ Mental Health has a stigma attached to it that connects with the broken, defunct or mad. And this is as stupid as suggesting poor physical health is only present in those in wheelchairs. That we only recognise and do something about poor physical health if it meant we couldn’t walk or stand. In the same way, work on your mental health should not start when you can no longing think properly.
Mental training and fitness happens in a number of different ways. We get a lot from our normal day to day routines, especially if you’re in an engaging job, and surround yourself with interesting and positive people. The problem comes when we don’t have those things or if we spend time away from others or engaging or interesting environments. Lockdown was exactly that situation, and the ripple affect of poor mental health has surprised no one who recognises the link.
Mental fitness is something you can work on, and like personal fitness, it takes time, effort and care. Just a few minutes a day, going through a few exercises and processes, can really start to make a difference and you will see changes in the way your mind copes and deals with problems.
I’m often asked if there are some quick fixes to mental fitness. And while I will always maintain that like PT, mental fitness possesses no real shortcuts, there are simple things you can do:
1. Breathing. Focused periods of deep breathing will be hugely beneficial. Whenever you can during your day make time for some good deep, diaphragm engaging breaths. Slow the heart rate and decrease your blood pressure. The side effect of this is whatever you’re doing will have a slightly different feel when you return to it after your breaths. The mind will have been invigorated and will approach a problem slightly differently.
2. Letting go. Stop holding on to negative or disruptive thoughts. Let them go. Use your breath to help them set sail and stop festering. You can’t do anything about yesterday and tomorrow can wait, be here, in the now and let things go.
3. Three great things. Everyday, maybe just before bed, write a list of three great things that are in your life. Maybe it could be a list of three great things that have happened that day. Three great moments that made you laugh or smile. Three great people you came into contact with. Three great things that are on their way towards you. The mind (and your monkey) is easily fixated by the not-so great things in life. We can, in those moments just before sleep, start to rummage around in negativity. This process of ‘Three Great Things’ can counteract that tendency and remind you that positivity is around you. Hopefully it will also make you smile and smiling is great. Do it now. Think of something or someone who makes you smile and smile. Can you feel that change in your mind. The lift? It’s there. You just have to bring it to the fore.
Practising mental fitness is as crucial as physical fitness. We need to start thinking about it differently and treating it with the respect it deserves.
When working with sportspeople, our talk often gravitates towards how they can be at their best. For elite performers, being ‘in the zone’ is a place they always want to be. However, no human can be at their best at all times. And however good your mindset coaching, and however diligent you are at applying the tools and principles, nothing is guaranteed.
But like many other areas of their game, good mindset coaching will make their best more accessible. Practising the skills and concepts that allow your mind to be in the best possible place when you perform will increase the chances of things going well. A bit like a bigger racket or goal to aim for, mindset coaching will make success more likely.
It can also help the other end. There is a golfing idiom about how you should rate your playing ability: “It’s not how good your good shots are, it’s about how good your bad shots are.” Everyone can have a purple patch but how rotten is your game when things go wrong? How do you respond to a moment that lacked the requisite skill? Is one mistake compounded by another? Good Mindset work is as important for you when things are going badly, as when things are going well.
The above is one of my favourite pictures in sport, as it embodies a nirvana often sought by top athletes. Serena Williams is totally and utterly focused on the ball. She is not considering anything other than the task at hand. She is free of any extraneous thought and allowing her body to do what she has trained it to do. Rod Laver had a phrase when asked what he was thinking about out on the tennis court: “Nothing but the ball.” This picture is that phrase personified.
Our minds will often get in our way. The thoughts our minds produce will often produce physiological responses and, in turn, will make us feel and perform differently.
I know that from my work in sports commentary: my best is when I don’t think; I just react to what I am watching. I don’t try and force lines, I stay open and relaxed, and use the words that come to me to describe what we are watching. I plan and prepare thoroughly but I recognise that having done that, the best thing I can do is let the skill come to the fore and get any predisposed thinking or erroneous thoughts out the way. Just be present and happy. Immerse myself in the action and allow everything to happen naturally. I know that things won’t go as well when I try and force phrases or ideas. If I push, then the work becomes artificial and inauthentic. It is passable but it isn’t the best of me.
When things go wrong in commentary – and they invariably do: I’ll incorrectly name-check a player or misinterpret a law – I know I can’t spend any time worrying about it. The game moves quickly and I need to be ready to react to what is coming next. If I agonise over something I got wrong then I won’t be in the best possible place for the next piece of action. It is tricky, but I have to push away that feeling or emotion connected to the mistake, leave it, smile, (that’s a great way of resetting my mind), and stay present.
It’s the same for everyone, in any role where they find themselves under pressure. Trust the preparation and training. If you’ve worked hard up to that point and put in the requisite time and effort in practice, get your mind and its thoughts out of the way. Let your body do its thing. Stay in the present, not the past or the future; just remain happy and content in the now. It’s your gift. The present of the present.
I was fascinated to hear Eoin Morgan talk about how he approached that unforgettable final over in the ODI Cricket World Cup in 2019. I’m sure you don’t need reminding what had happened but to refer to it as one of the most enthralling sporting spectacles of our lifetime is not an understatement.
Morgan was amongst it. Trying to see the wood for the trees and, as he recalled it, trying to communicate with the bowler who would bowl England’s crucial sudden death over, Jofra Archer.
When speaking to Sky Sports about the situation, Morgan revealed that his first thought was his own breath. He wanted to control it; take some good steady breaths before approaching the young Archer. He recognised that the most important thing in that moment was not necessarily his words, but the way he came across. He wanted Archer to perceive an ease and comfort in his captain. In the swirling storm of the situation, Morgan did not want to panic his man, or create any unease in a player he knew needed to be at his best. And Morgan knew the key to this lay in managing and controlling his own breathing.
As I have spoken about at length, our breath is our superpower. As performers wanting to operate at our best, we need to have clarity of thought and ease of action. The breath governs all of these things. Taking a few moments to slow our heart rate, lower our blood pressure, to control our breathing and therefore, in this instance, our voice and delivery, is key.
If you get into the habit of working on your breathing on a daily basis, this process will become easier. When you really need it, your body will find the strong deep breath more easily. A bit like any other technique or skill, if utilised often, the muscle memory in your diaphragm will respond. Morgan’s sublime example is the reason why we should all practise our breathing.
If we want to perform at our best, if we want to present to others a picture of serenity and control, breath is the cornerstone.