Archive for July, 2012

Athletes and Fame – do they compete?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

London 2012 is set to excite the world with it’s unique sense of pageantry and individual take on what it means to hold the world’s biggest event in your back garden.

 

It’s finally here – the Games of the XXX Olympiad is an especially exciting games for me as it’s in my old neighborhood. However now that I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Australia), due to the conflict between my passion for the games and my geographical location – I am set for two weeks of being sleep deprived, but I am sure it will be worth it and, after all, always have another 4 years to catch up on sleep.

Track MedalsAs a former athlete who spent many of my years competing for Great Britain at an International level, I have that unmistakable ‘British pride’ pulsing through my veins. I’ve been described as a competitive Brit on more than one occasion. With an Australian wife our house can sometimes be just as competitive as the sporting arena – our three kids have however learnt to play the odds and back whichever side is winning – v. smart 😉 …

So on a pride level I understand the talking-it-up of a nation’s chances, the chest beating by coaches and commentators and the cheeky jibes athlete to athlete. Lets be honest its what makes it even more exciting when you pit the best against the best and you commit your allegiance to one team over another – it’s tribal.

But amongst all this festivity and good-hearted competition there is a slightly sinister side to the games, one that is currently being playing out in the media here in Australia and probably in many other countries around the world too. It’s a side that was always destined to cause heartache and controversy and frequently at the cost of these young athlete’s dreams and reputations.

Australia is one of those outstanding countries that always appears to do well at world sporting events and has sport running deep into the average Aussie psyche – irrespective of their own sporting prowess. As a professional sports mind coach myself – I LOVE living amongst that competitive culture – be it the Rugby, Cricket or the Olympic Games – Australia has to win and doesn’t suffer loss well, which is probably why I fit in so well.

But the ugly downside to this expectation is probably the interruption of focus to the athlete and their number one objective – competing. The belief of sporting superiority that is cultivated and fed by the media, unethical politicians looking for a photo opportunity and the bar-room and BBQ experts across the nation can cause an athlete to take their eye off the ball.

We all love a champion and in todays world we feel we know them intimately, their every move, their every thought and their private lives.

By buying into the commentary, some of these athletes are being set up with massive expectations on their shoulders and an attitude that is less than attractive or productive on the world stage.

Media favours controversy and much of the story is driven by the marketing machines behind them and the products set to profit off their backs. Harmless banter frequently becomes replaced with a dirty war of words, which is normally the speciality of battling politicians, but has in recent years spewed into the sporting arena, adding a new dimension to the world of an elite athlete.

It is a supply and demand economy and some athletes are taking it to a stage where it is cringeworthy, bordering on cockiness in an attempt to be noticed and picked up by the lucrative sponsorship dollars.

My professional focus is always squarely on the athlete and their sporting development, so I get very frustrated and disheartened when I see them ‘playing the media game‘ or treating the healthy banter like an opportunity to get personal and inflict carnage in order to gain a financial advantage.

For me, in my game of mental and emotional efficiency, this focus on playing politics frequently just diverts the athletes attention away from their main job of perfect performance onto creating controversy and a dollar.

When their focus becomes more about marketability and their competitor’s vulnerability rather than their own preparation – this just hands the control over to the opposition. Posturing outside of the arena is not going to result in a focused athlete inside the arena. It just obligates a competitor to hold down multiple roles, that of the professional athlete and all that goes with it and the character assassin looking to sell their controversy to the highest bidder.

When I work with an athlete I reiterate to them that their job (whilst competitive at least) is as an elite athlete and to perform at their optimum, to replicate precisely each and every time irrespective of their surroundings or competition. If their attention is even partly divided they are not 100% focused on their objective.

I recently had a client who was striving to make the National Australian A team. He was doing all the chasing, he was putting himself in the obvious places, doing the obvious stuff that he thought would get their attention. What he wasn’t doing, however, was what he did best – performing as an athlete!

This meant he was always two or three steps behind the selectors. By the time he observed what they were looking for and delivered it, they had found it elsewhere and moved on – leaving him thoroughly disheartened and bewildered as to how to get selected. We identified this and set about re-calibrating his focus back on his performance and skill-set, NOT on the selectors.

Within a few weeks the National team had not only noticed him but had invited him in. They saw what they were interested in and were looking to add to their dynamic.

Had he added to his sporting talent? – No. He only changed his focus point. The result was what he had been chasing for years, then achieved within weeks once he had this awareness.

Another athlete had 100% of her focus on beating a particular national rival. She and her coach built her entire programme around beating this one rival and putting her into the number one spot.

When we started working together, that was clearly her entire focus in and out of training. She had 100% of her drive invested in one adversary and her game plan reflected this. When the first trial came round this rival was ruled out due to injury. You would have thought it would have been a walk in the park! But no, she under performed and came in 6th, just scraping into the finals! It was not the performance her or her coach had anticipated.

With her only motivator to the National title ruled out, what changed her performance? In looking back, her focus was on matching and beating her nemesis – her game-plan was all about her competitor and not about how she was to perform at her optimum.

Would she have performed better if her nemesis wasn’t injured? – Probably not as she would have waited for her to act before she could react and would always be behind or waiting.

After spending just a few hours with her and re-calibrating her focus and getting the motivation back onto her and her objective, 24 hours later she went out and won the National tittle by a considerable margin! The difference was not in any physical skill-set but rather a tangible and measurable focus on her own set of objectives.

So when an athlete splits their focus, they split their efficiency, be it on a single competitor, on selectors or on being marketable.

I watched the Australian men’s 4 x 100m freestyle relay in the pool and this sure thing team that were going to bring home the gold crashed in dramatic style. I was asked what I thought went wrong from a performance perspective and for me it was simple.

Swimming RelayI had watched these very talented athletes leading into the games spend almost as much of their time focused in front of cameras doing promos, fulfilling sponsorship deals and answering media speculations as they did in the pool. Looking purely at behaviour, it was clear to me that they were not 100% focused on their primary job as swimmers but also focused on building the media attention.

So is this the responsibility of the athlete, the coaches, the governing bodies, the media or us as fans?

Well I believe its all of these contributing factors. Our social media hungry society is not satisfied with not knowing our stars every move, nor are the media particularly respectful of their number 1 job as athletes. Their coaches and governing bodies should be the ones in front of the cameras answering the questions and fronting the world. However, we know they are not the real story, supply and demand!

I also feel the athletes want their cake and eat it too. They want to be super athletes, ruling the world one performance at a time and still turn a dollar off the back of it.

Do we demand these super human athletes to be more than athletes? Is it possible for them to focus on the job at hand and once retired their focus can then turn to their marketable profile and turning a dollar?

We cannot deny them their opportunity to cash in on all those years of training when they are finally successful, but maybe not at the cost of their focus, their goals and their dreams!

Mental Output in the Game of Tennis: Advantage or Disadvantage – Your Call

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

 

As a self proclaimed tennis tragic, I found myself in an emotional quandary this weekend as my all-time favourite tennis player Roger Federer was going for yet another record as the longest standing World Number One and seven times Wimbledon Winner at Wimbledon 2012…

 

… but he was playing Britain’s Andy Murray, our first real hope since Fred Perry of seriously contesting men’s world tennis and his first grand-slam title.

The weight of expectation from the British sporting nation were squarely on Andy’s shoulders. In this Olympic year, when our Olympic team and city is shining brighter than ever, the English Cricket Team is firing on all cylinders and the England Football Team – well, are not! (but that’s another article) – my loyal head was with Federer but my British heart was 100% behind Murray.

As I stepped away from this internal battle raging within me and looked at the two players as no more than individual athletes, and more specifically from a Sports Mind Coach perspective, and what I would do to improve someones chances of winning given the opportunity, I realised just how immensely different these two players really are at this stage of their careers.

The Federer we have come to know and admire epitomises the cool, calm and collected athlete, the one who has a plan, has a cast iron strategy and no matter what gets thrown at him – he accurately and systematically applies the blueprint. The Swiss timepiece, as he is known, very rarely lets his emotions out to play and they almost never dictate his game. I am not sure he even sweats under pressure.

Murray, on the other-hand, is a more emotional athlete. He is outwardly passionate and prone to the odd blow-up, tantrum, dummy-spit and teary moment – reminding us of past champions who too were prone to an uncontrolled emotional lashing or two!

Andy Murray is extremely talented and is known as being both one of the hardest working athletes on the professional tennis circuit, and also a little difficult to be around if things are  not going his way.

With Andy Murray you can see every play. His every hit and every miss is written all over his face, on and off the court. During his game he telegraphs his emotions in big neon lights through his physiology to his opponent, broadcasting how he is feeling, when he is up and firing and when he is down and they are best poised to strike. For Andy Murray it is all or nothing – 100% raw, random, uncontrolled and unpredictable emotions

If the old adage ‘You can have mental output without physical action but you cannot have physical action without mental output’ is true, then this statistically close game was always going to be won or lost between the players ears not on their physical skills.

Passion can be a good thing, it shows you care and willing to go to greater lengths to achieve, to do whatever it takes, and nothing is out of the question when talking about winning!

So passion is important. But so is stability, strategy and replicability if you want to be a champion. Assessing and understanding what needs to be done and then having the clarity of mind to just do it – this takes a certain kind of mental skill-set.

TennisOur emotional monster needs to be fed. And as we are what we eat, both physically and metaphorically, what we feed this monster depends on the style of our approach.

What emotions do you feed your monster?

Confidence, clarity and focus

Or anxiety, fear and anger?

When I watch Andy Murray I can see a frustrated champion lurking deep down inside, itching to get out. Like a destructive ADD child, incredibly gifted and talented, hardworking and tenacious, but one who is shackled by his own self-created demons. These demons are, for now anyway, dictating how he plays his tennis. These may be the same demons that arguably haunted Roger Federer when he was much younger, more fiery and unpredictable.

Over the years at the Smart Mind Institute, I have seen these unchecked emotional monsters cause untold damage to an athlete’s career.

Damage such as:

  • an increase in physical tension and emotional stress resulting in an increase of muscular and tendon injuries
  • to recurring injuries
  • lowering of their bodies immune system and an increased susceptibility to illness
  • to emotional self harming
  • performance and skill blockages
  • physically vomiting and diarrhea
  • a loss of performance focus resulting in competition chocking

 

To his credit, Andy Murray has managed to tame many of these demons in recent years which has seen him race up the rankings and to the position of the tour bridesmaid, appearing at a number of grand-slams but not yet bagging the top prize.

Over the more recent years Roger Federer too has not been impervious to the demons within, whilst Nadal and Djokovic have had Federer sitting in 3rd spot for the last year or so, you could say his clinically predictable and emotionless approach had left him blindsided and led him to take his eye off the ball.

Even though some would disagree with me, Federer is human after all (I think!) and initially his slip from number one impacted his confidence and he lost sight of what had made him so formidable. But thorough self analysis may have re-calibrated his perspective and direction.

Watching Murray at this years Wimbledon, I got the impression the pieces of his puzzle are coming together, his game is at an all time high, his on court performance and approach to the sport is definitely a world above previous years and the number of brides-maid gigs are increasing.

I believe the missing link for Murray is his lack of effective emotional management. The unpredictability of his performance, his not knowing who will be waking up to play – the whirlwind emotional ADD child or the precise, focused athlete.

If Murray can tame the dark side and unleash his skills for good not evil then a Grand Slam victory is surely on the cards for him. But whilst he reacts and doesn’t respond, the elusive number one will remain just that – elusive!

Our emotions are a skillset, not an excuse.

The difference between an athlete and a champion is NOT just knowing what to do – it’s being willing to do it – no matter what others think or say!