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.
We want to make sure that teachers receive the same sort of performance mindset coaching that elite athletes do. At the bottom of the page, there is an extract from an article in The Daily Telegraph where George Ford, the England Rugby player, details how he uses MP3 recordings to get him ready to perform. I want to create that sort of thing for teachers.
We hope you enjoy them; they can act as the catalyst for you to take greater care of yourself and your mind. I split them up for ease, although you can also download them as one long recording if you would prefer. They work best listened to with headphones, perhaps at a time when when you can just focus on yourself and your thinking.
Audio Recording 1 – You the teacher, your monkey and control
Audio recording 2 – Your superpower and clearing the street
Audio Recording 3 – Being ready for the next child and the best version of your teacher
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.
The good news is that, in one way, the answer is relatively straightforward. And this links in neatly with another of my ideals, that ‘less is more’. We will not be looking to add, just take away.
As parents, we often fall into the trap of thinking our children need help. When what they really need is support. Now, to make my point, the language has to be pretty specific here, as support and help are almost synonymous. But, for me, in this instance, help is when you involve yourself in the problem they are trying to solve; support is when you remain separate, but provide other things that allow them to succeed on their own.
Let me put it like this: a ‘supporter’ at a football ground stays in the stand, making those on the pitch feel valued and appreciated, allowing the players to do their thing. A ‘helper’ at a football ground takes to the field as they think the footballers need physical help getting the ball into the back of the net. Imagine your child is a footballer: which one would they want – a supporter or a helper?
I wrote a piece for a well-known website about rugby players and their dads. I wanted to examine the relationship between players and their fathers; former players and their sons; and former players who had managed to create professionals in their offspring. I interviewed some of the game’s greatest names and the insights were fascinating. They constantly feed into my appreciation of this area of parenting. If you can, do give it a read.
One of the people I spoke to for the piece was Michael Lynagh. One of the most famous and successful names in Australian Rugby: a World Cup winner, a ‘hall of famer’, a record points scorer, and also now, the father of one of the most exciting names in Premiership Rugby. Louis Lynagh (pronounced Lewis) is a Harlequins superstar and destined for great things internationally with England. I was desperate to know what pearls of wisdom Michael had given during the formative years of Louis. A great player had begotten a brilliant young talent: surely there was some amazing parental advice to learn from; the answer was as surprising as it was enlightening.
Lynagh senior said pretty much nothing. He didn’t try and impart any of his experience or knowledge. He knew that Louis would find that on his own, via his own means. All he did was support. He often went to watch, stood on the sidelines and allowed his boy to know he was there. He praised his son’s efforts; he reminded him that he loved him and when things were tough, when they hadn’t gone well, he provided a safe and comforting space to recover. Very occasionally he would ask questions, but only as a means to see how and what his son was thinking. He didn’t advise, unless it was directly sought, which was very seldom. Other than that he listened, drove the car and smiled.
Michael Lynagh made it very difficult for him to become an ‘Accidental Mind Coach’. We all have the capability to fall into the trap, the skill is limiting or eliminating the possibility; spotting it when it happens is a huge help. Let me give you a recent example of how I did some ‘Accidental Mind Coaching’: I was umpiring a game of cricket for the team I coach. Our bowler had bowled the opposition batters out with two successive deliveries and the team was facing a cricketing rarity: a hat-trick ball. Feeling the tension and wanting to help, I spoke: “Right boys, concentrate, you don’t want to be the person who drops the hat trick ball…”
You may be able to predict what happened. The ball flew skywards off the top edge of the bat, two players converged, eyes keenly fixed on the lofted cherry, bumped into each other, and the ball hit the ground with the sort of dull thump that represented all of our disappointment.
Why did I speak? I wanted to help. I involved myself in their world and drew their attention to a particular happenstance. That was my first mistake. The second was I placed the idea of a dropped catch in their minds. If I’d wanted to say anything, I should have said: “Right boys, let’s make a great catch!” then at least I’d be creating some positive visualisation for them. Or better still, I shouldn’t have said anything. I should have let them find their own way; supported them whatever the outcome; reminded them how amazing they were and just smiled.
Parenting is very difficult. But perhaps speaking less, is something you can do from now on. Children need to find their own way, develop their own relationships and make their own mistakes. Being a parent is about providing love and support so that they will give things another go.
Accidental Mind Coaching is just that, accidental. But fewer accidents will happen if we take care. And in this instance, refrain from thinking we need to help when all we need to do is just support.
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 am always looking to the world of sport for lessons in mind coaching and teaching. I’m constantly learning from all sport and I love to read about the way that various coaches and managers get better performances from their players.
There’s a coach at the moment who is making waves in football. Not for his overt management of a few multi-million-pound-a-year footballers, but for how he quietly goes about getting the best out of every player in his team. In fact, his club are becoming well-known for their ability to create very good players – taking players that other clubs aren’t drawn to, and making them a lot better.
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.