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
I had a bad dream last night. One of the reasons that I am so invested in looking after other people’s mindsets is that I was, once, pretty beset by anxiety dreams. One returned last night. I now know what to do; how to deal with the subsequent feelings and thoughts I experience. Within a few moments, it was gone, dwindling like a match to its charred end.
The imagery is crucial here. Thoughts are very much like matches. If they are used in certain ways, they can start fires. Incredible, powerful, life-changing fires. Every great idea in the world started as a thought. These thoughts can propel you to achieve almost anything; feats of endurance, strength, ingenuity, passion, love and peace, all owe their existence to thought.
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 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.