I spent some time with Tommy Freeman last week. For those who don’t know, Freeman is a prodigious talent. Capped internationally over the summer for England, his club rugby is played for Northampton Saints in the Gallagher Premiership. He is a favourite at Franklin’s Gardens because of the way he plays: intelligent and fast but most importantly, he seems incredibly gifted at producing outrageous pieces of skill when seemingly most needed. Within just a couple of seasons, Freeman has firmly set himself into East Midlands’ hearts.
We talked for the well-known rugby publication ‘The Rugby Journal’ about his rugby journey and making his international debut this summer. One part of our discussion linked especially well to my work as a Mind Coach. We discussed how he best performed out on the field. Amongst the disorder and the fury of a top-flight game of rugby, he revealed what worked for him to access his best self. He talked about his mindset and revealed how top coaches had recognised the way that his mind operates and how they have changed things to suit him.
Parenting is the most difficult job in the world. There are numerous good intentions and a fair few bad outcomes. As parents, all we want is the best for our children, but in our pursuit to be helpful, we often become the opposite.
Nowhere is this more prominent in the idea Don Macpherson labels ‘Accidental Mind Coach’. This is when we affect the thinking or mindset of others in a negative way, without that being our intention. It is very easy to do. And while I’m not expecting you to be able to rid yourself of the problem immediately, just being aware of the idea could be the first step on the way to becoming a more effective person and parent.
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.
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 to 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 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.