Archive for August, 2012

Why a Mind Coach is an Athlete’s ‘Best Kept Secret’

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

 

Dave Diggle Counter TerrorismThe Other Secret Service: Covert Coach Ops

My name is Dave Diggle and I am a member of the Secret Service!

No not THAT Secret Service – not the Secret Service who protect the US President, but the Secret Service who manage the mental, emotional and cognitive welfare of some of the world’s top athletes – so we are like the other Secret Service.

So if we don’t have to be as secret as them, why are we such a Secret Service?

Well for many years athletes, coaches and managers haven’t wanted it acknowledged that their prize competitors needed someone to tinker inside their heads, nor did they want people thinking the athletes were in any way vulnerable – so our role was unmentioned and largely undisclosed to the world.

In reality coaches of yesteryear didn’t truly understand, recognise or value the significant advantage of having an athlete on their team who was mentally aware. There was far more emphasis placed on the physical attributes of the athlete than their mental preparedness, so quite simply, the demand wasn’t there.

In retrospect this belief was quite bizarre as it was openly accepted that all athletes need their coaches. In fact, they utilised a multitude of specialised coaches to be successful – be it physical trainers or technical instructors were deployed due to their chosen expertise and value to an athlete.

These traditional coaches were accepted as part of the game.

But the management of an athlete’s emotions, behaviours and psychology was a taboo subject even though the philosophy of a physical and mental coach are one in the same: to create the best possible athlete based on their own unique attributes.

Traditional sports psychologists were surreptitiously placed into sporting organisations a few decades ago, their main role initially to pick up the pieces after a blow out. But slowly and tentatively this has evolved to now having a more significant input into their training and competition.

So why do Mind Coaches of all descriptions get such a bad wrap?

It is partly about perception. Sporting organisations didn’t want the wider community thinking their athlete, their pride and joy and (lets not beat around the bush) their income were in need of psychological help. Nor did they want it known that maybe they were vulnerable in some way.

We now understand an athlete’s mind is something that is either their individual strength or their unique weakness.

The social stigma associated to the professionals who work with a person’s innermost workings, their fears and psychology were tainted with the white coat brigade, the image of the couch, the questions around your relationship with parents – and if you wet the bed as a child.

These mental images are what most people think of when you mention a behavioural psychologist or professional mind coach.

This is like saying you never want to see a doctor just in case they do a lobotomy!

Today’s professional mind coaches are as diverse in their skill-set as those in the traditional medical fraternity. Most have a basic understanding of traditional psychology, then there are those who specialise in Sports Psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Hypnosis, Timeline therapy (TLT), Emotional Management (EM), Cognitive Science and many more strands of neurological therapies.

Each have their own niche strengths and inherent weaknesses and, when correctly applied, can be incredibly powerful.

As a professional Mind Coach I am normally brought into an athlete’s world only when something significant has gone wrong. Much like a paramedic arriving onto a scene after the crash, we normally arrive into their environment after things have gone wrong – not before – and are tasked with rebuilding as quickly as possible.

The frustrating truth is if we had been contracted six or twelve months earlier the likelihood is the catastrophe probably would not have happened.

At the London 2012 Olympic games a number of the world’s top athletes began publicly thanking their mind coaches, acknowledging the influence they have had over the outcome and recognising them as a significant part of their entourage to success.

It was also noted that the Australian swim team – who had under performed in their own estimations – had not taken their neurological team with them. A coincidence? I think not!

In reality many of these world class athletes had crashed some time before the games and had probably exhausted all other avenues before bringing in the Head Doctors.

But who knows, if they had contracted a professional mind coach earlier – before things had to be fixed – maybe their results would have been better or even come much earlier in their careers.

So as an athlete or a coach are you constantly tuning the mental engine, or are you going to keep running it til it runs out of fuel, or has a crash?

It’s worth thinking about – isn’t it!

 

 

Is that an Athlete or a Movie Star? The Mighty Sports Marketing Machine

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

 

As the armchair assassins sharpen their tongues, polish their sniper skills on their regular columns and frantically distance themselves from any allegiance to Australian sport, the patriotic finger of blame is ready to be pointed.

Swimmers through the lens

Whilst all this public posturing is going on in Australia, the athletes, coaches and organisers are undoubtedly strategically gearing themselves for a hostile return to Australian soil and to the waiting kangaroo media.

Fair or not it appears to be the Aussie way, known colloquially as the Tall Poppy syndrome – if you are not an under dog and beating the rest of the world then you are fair game to the armchair assassins.

However, there are no easy retorts to the many questions being asked of these heavily funded and high profile Aussie sporting organisations.

They have not performed to what the history and hype had lead the Australian taxpayers to believe was almost a guaranteed medal haul at the London 2012 Olympic Games and a smart investment in their sporting greatness.

In the verbal tsunami of media commentators, posturing on this shock and horror Olympics for high profile sports such as swimming, athletics and cycling, there are many emphatic reasons as to what went so wrong and who is to blame – the metaphorical lambs you might say – are being lined up.

The usual excuses such as underfunding, geographically disadvantaged, not enough or correct support staff, and the banning of sleeping pills – and the list goes on and on.

I agree that some of these claims may have had, on some level, an impact but nothing these athletes don’t deal with on a daily basis. These are professional, full-time and seasoned competitors who continually travel the world competing week in week out in less than perfect conditions – its part of the game.

And for most of these athletes the Olympic games is the pinnacle of their sporting calendar, preparing for many years to perform no matter what. No athlete prepares to lose or even get second, athletes at this level all believe they are there to win and nothing else is on their radar – it’s the athletes way.

OK, so what did go so wrong at these Olympics with Australia’s campaign?

Some of you may have read my recent post  Athletes and Fame: Do They Compete? – this article looked at the immediate impact media and social media can have on an elite athlete’s ability to maintain focus and keep things in perspective during the insular world of  international competition.

I also believe there to be a much deeper culture in Australian sport at the moment, deeper than just the pointy end of the athletes individual performance. I believe the bigger issue is the focus and reliance these high profile sports have on just a few top athletes and the lack of depth developed in many sports due to the ‘now’ mentality.

Historically this has been the realm of the underfunding argument where the few receive the bulk of the measly funding and the rest fall by the wayside due to not being enough to go around, only the fittest survive.

But today with millions of taxpayers dollars being pumped into the ‘sexy’ Australian sports plus the private sectors undisclosed sponsorship funding – the story is very different.

Whereas underfunding may have been the viable excuse several decades ago, I believe today the issue is more by design than attrition – a design where the sponsorship dollar is a far higher sought after commodity than the evenly distributed development of the sports resources and the building of the longterm talent pool.

Realistically there is more than enough financial support to go around, to be effective on a world level and to create the required depth in these selection groups Australia wide.

However some of today’s higher profile athletes are more like movie stars than performing athletes, are better commercially funded than some businesses and utilised for marketing purposes as living commodities rather than their skill-set. This inequality creates a divide that can only be likened to the social divide, where the marketable few get the funding and are kept on the team at the expense of maybe the better performing athlete.

This marketing focus by the governing bodies in some sports, rather than natural talent selection process has lead to this shortfall in selectable talent and reliance on what sells, it also nurtures a short term thinking process.

Taking focus off development needs to be corrected if Australia is to once again return to dominate world sporting events. Its clear the talent is here, the athletes are at the club level, I have seen them – they just need the right opportunities and a more even playing field.

 

 

 

Image Credit: Flickr noobits

Olympic Pole Vault: Hooker Needs a Better Imagination

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

 

Pole Vault London 2012Anyone who has ever watch the pole vaulting knows its not for the faint hearted!

Sticking a long bendy pole into a hole in the ground and positioning yourself upside down as you patiently wait to be catapulted into the air and over a 5-6 metre bar before landing on a mat can seem nuts to the average person.

Of course this is what happens when it all goes to plan – but sometimes it doesn’t go to plan and its then we see the true character and mental toughness of these outstanding, if not a little crazy athletes!

At the recent London 2012 Olympics, Lazaro Borges’ (Cuba) pole snaps into multiple pieces during his qualifying jump, throwing him upside down into the mat.

He simply dusted himself off, returns to his very long kit bag, selects a new pole and does it all again – he clearly has the right mental toughness.

Pole vault has always intrigued me, I love the biomechanics of the sport, the sheer guts and determination required and the mental difference that these athletes have – its a very primal sport and one that resonates well with my days as a Gymnast.

When I first saw Australia’s Steve Hooker jump, I was amazed that this fuzzy haired dude could actually jump – I almost wrote him off before he had even put one foot in front of the other let alone sunk the pole into the ground to launch himself skyward!

But Steve Hooker clearly has massive talent and incredible guts. He has been Olympic Champion 2008, World Champion 2009, World Indoor Champion 2010 and Commonwealth Champion, so the guy knows how to jump despite his unassuming appearance.

That being said, this past year or so Hooker has a very public nemesis who has recently been beating him, who trains with him, lives with him and, dare I say, sleeps with him.

No, not is partner – but himself, his mind and his own very maverick imagination.

Last year Hooker misjudged a jump and toppled off the landing mat and onto the ground, damaging his knee. Of course the physical damage could be repaired and after physical therapy he was able once again to jump.

The Australian Athletics community gave a collective sigh of relief, thinking this sporting champ was once again back on track and heading towards the London Olympics to defend his title.

However, he was physically repaired but the psychological damage was running much deeper. Hooker had lost his nerve and confidence in jumping and London 2012 was looking shakier than ever.

As a gymnast, who had practically come to be on first name terms with many of the medical staff at the local hospital, I can certainly understand what an injury of this nature could do to your mind.

The random thoughts of it happening again, the physical changes you would subconsciously make to the pragmatics of the technique would rock your sense of familiarity and control and feeding an over active imagination…

… Your mind running through multiple worse-case scenarios as you stand there looking down the lane towards the jump, trying to collect your thoughts and think about what needs to be done…

It’s not like twisting an ankle on the track, the emotional monster goes into active overdrive, thinking that maybe next time it could be more than just a buggered knee, it could be spinal or even worse.

And so I imagine this is what began Hooker’s internally animated downward spiral, missing and avoiding jumps and worrying about what could be just around the corner. The knee was the catalyst but the mental torture was relentless in proving to himself why he shouldn’t jump.

Hooker publicly acknowledged at the 2011 World Championships whilst defending his title he felt lost on the runway. He admitted to being very nervous and even scared of the jump, choosing to run through three times, culminating in his being eliminated from the competition.

Back home in Australia, Hooker was dubbed as having the ‘yips’. (Urban dictionary – The Yips: Overthinking something so much you become unable to do it. You will often proceed to implode.)

Steve Hooker is just one example of an athlete mentally letting something in, something that eats away at you, as your confidence collapses and your imagination takes on a life of its own.  I have seen this in a number of sports and with a number of different catalysts.

Steve Hooker may not have even thought about the Rio 2016 games just yet as he comes to terms with his dramatic loss in London. However, as a Mind Coach, I think it needn’t have been this way, there are as many ways to combat the ‘yips’ as there is to get them and Hooker just needs to learn a better strategy of dealing with his imagination and more specifically his fears.

Hooker needs to learn to acknowledge what he fears and then, without emotion, deal with it. This very straight forward strategy could have enabled Hooker to have a different outcome in London 2012.

Something that I feel is paramount for all athletes is learning how to read, understand and effectively manage their emotions, they can drive you forward but can also hold you back, so understanding them is paramount.

To have such a grasp on what makes an athlete tick and what is likely to give them the wobbles can help manage them when a sniff of the wobbly wheel occurs, nipping it in the bud and bringing them back on track, maintaining direction and ultimately giving them back their control.

Fear becomes debilitating when our primal imagination becomes overly active and we begin to not only imagine all sorts of hairy things, but ultimately convince ourselves that its a forgone conclusion.

Having strategies that bypass this and keep you well and truly on the straight and narrow enables an athlete to do what they do best, whatever sport it is and to leave the worrying to the parents in the stands.

 

 

Image Credit: Flickr mrtopp