Friday, 5 December 2014

Want to feel invincible? You need to set the right tone

I recently worked with a tennis player who had become interested in the use of affirmations after reading that her hero Serena Williams used them for her preparations. From a young age Serena’s father would write motivating messages on large pieces of paper for her and Venus which he would hang up around the court where they were practising. Words and phrases such as “Believe” or “You are a winner” would adorn the courtside and would become mantras that they would repeat to themselves to get themselves in the right mindset to perform.

My client told me she had come up with some affirmations of her own but found they didn't really inspire her very much. I asked her to give me an example of one of these affirmations and she proceeded to mumble, in a totally uncommitted (and slightly embarrassed) monotone, the words “I am invincible”.  For a moment I glanced at her fingers to see if she had crossed them for good luck, such was the lack of resolution in her voice. I then asked her how “invincible” she was feeling after stating the affirmation and she admitted that she wasn't feeling it at all.  

This was unsurprising to me as words, on their own, aren't particularly effective for instilling emotions in us. For an affirmation to be effective they need to be stated with the appropriate tone of voice. It doesn't matter whether that is the voice you speak with or whether it is the voice in your head.  For example, if you were to imagine the words “I am invincible” being stated by Mickey Mouse or Homer Simpson (go on give it a try!), can you really take it seriously? Now try it using the voice of Darth Vader (the fabulous voice of actor James Earl Justice) and notice how differently you feel about the phrase now.  

An invincible affirmation requires an invincible tone of voice. If you also add to that the appropriate body language, you will find it difficult to feel anything but invincible.

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Friday, 31 October 2014

Who's responsible?

I once worked with a footballer who’d been struggling with his performances for several years. A few years previously he had been feted as the next big thing. At the age of 18, those in the know were expecting him to take the Premiership by storm and inevitably take a leading role in the England set up but now, aged 23, things hadn’t panned out quite how he had hoped and he was even struggling to keep a place in the starting XI of the mid-table League One team that he was now playing for.

A reluctant client (he was only seeing me because his agent insisted) the main problem appeared to be that he didn’t seem to accept that he had any control over his world or how we acted or felt. An explosive temper had led to a number of incidents which usually end up in a yellow card, and very often a red. His progress had flatlined and, he even admitted he had been a better player 5 years previously. As a result, he had moved from club to club; each one buying him largely based on his old reputation rather than his present form. And yet, he didn’t believe that any of the responsibility was his. He was very quick to blame everyone and everything apart from himself.

In the sessions we had together at various times he blamed his coaches, his team mates, the tactics, the referee, his fitness coach, his diet, his girlfriend, his boots, the fans and even the pitch. Hand in hand with this was that he also didn’t feel that he had any influence on his performance. He referred to himself as being a ‘confidence’ player. A term you hear quite a lot in football and essentially means he is the type of player who will only play well if he wakes up feeling confident. Unfortunately, those days were becoming few and far between. At no point did he consider anything to have been his fault.

You may be aware of the concept of Cause and Effect (C>E), where one action causes another to happen. The problem is that a lot of people seem to live their lives on the Effect side of the equation where their mindset has them believe that what they do and how they feel is a consequence of external factors, i.e. everyone and everything else. If the world decrees that they are going to be confident that day then so be it, they can go out and perform. However, if the world decides otherwise, then it’s going to be a bad day. Successful people live their lives on the Cause side of the equation, where they feel that they are responsible for what they do and how they feel. Confidence, then, becomes a choice not an aspiration. One way to put yourself on the Cause side of the equation is to take responsibility for what you do and how you feel. Unfortunately, my client saw responsibility as being a bad thing and, unsurprisingly, after a few sessions decided that it wasn’t working for him. The last I heard was that he was playing semi-professionally for a non-League team.

It seems to me that there is very little benefit to surrendering your responsibility to the world, apart from the fact you can have an excuse when things don’t go to plan. Taking responsibility allows you to shape the world in the way that you want to and feel confident, happy, motivated, energised and fulfilled when you want to and not because someone (or something) else decides for you.

As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it:

"Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent."

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Feeling bad? Change the label

It was fantastic at the weekend to watch the Ryder Cup victory by the Europeans. The whole competition was an illustration of sport at it’s most intense. Some players, like Justin Rose and Rory McIlory seem to just thrive in these situations and others just find it completely overwhelming.

Have you ever had that feeling when you’ve gone into a competitive situation or even done something out of your comfort zone like making a speech when you feel ‘nervous’? Unless you are devoid of emotion, we have all experienced this feeling at some point. Interestingly, according to psychologists  Shachter and Singer (1962) we don’t experience a particular emotion such as ‘fear’ or ‘nervousness’ immediately.  According to their Two Factor Theory of Emotion they state that we actually experience a level of physiological arousal and then take in our environment and only then put a label on the emotion. So when Webb Simpson stood on the first tee to play the very first shot of the Ryder Cup, he would have been experiencing high levels of arousal and would have then taken in his surroundings (large noisy crowd, 1st tee, European and US flags etc) and quite possibly would then have given this arousal the label of ‘nervousness’ or even ‘fear’ (which would certainly have accounted for the bad mis-hit that followed).

Initially, the physical manifestations of ‘nervousness’ and ‘excitement’ are identical. The head spins, the heart beats fast, hands get a bit sweaty etc. It is only when one of the labels is put on it that we respond accordingly. So, if we call it ‘fear’, we will then put ourselves into a negative spiral which can be quite hard to undo. If however, we describe it using labels such as ‘euphoria’, ‘pumped up’ or ‘buzzing’, then we tend to greet the racing heartbeat as being a good thing. Great sports performers don’t necessarily need to calm themselves down, very often they just need ride the wave of excitement.

When Rory McIlroy was asked how he felt about being drawn against in form US player Rickie Fowler for the Ryder Cup singles, his answer typified his mental approach.

“I’m really excited. It’s going to be a great match.”

When you are feeling strong emotions make sure you pick the right label!

Have a thrilling day!

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Monday, 4 August 2014

Don’t wait for certainty, just take action

How often have you said “One day I am going to...” and then followed this with a statement such as “...get in shape”, “...write a book”, “...learn a new language”, “ a marathon”, “...take up an instrument”, “...change my career” only to end up not doing anything about it because you are not certain that it is going to work. You then decide to put it off until a time in the vague future when you do have certainty. The problem with this approach is that there is no such thing as 100% certainty so more often than not people never get round to pursuing their dreams. Instead we sabotage our dreams by making excuses (“I don’t have time”, “I can’t afford it”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not ready”) and then carry on with our lives as they are.

One problem with dreams is that people tend to focus on their conclusion rather than the process of achieving the dream. This usually has the effect of making it seem far too big and unachievable. For instance, if your dream is to climb Everest and you haven’t actually done any exercise for two years it may be quite intimidating to think about getting to the summit. The best way to make a dream achievable is to turn it into a goal by breaking it down into small pieces and then focus on the smallest piece first.  So instead of focusing on getting to the summit of Everest, set a goal to scale a local climbing wall first and then move onto a slightly greater challenge. Focusing on the smaller parts of the goal gives you greater motivation, belief and energy to achieve your dream. Even the smallest step takes you towards your dream and creates a feeling that you are working towards something worthwhile. 

So what are you waiting for? Now is the time to take action.

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Watch what you say

Have you ever considered what impact the words you use have on the way you represent the world in your mind? Our language colours our perception throughout the day and impacts on our self-belief, our behaviour, our confidence and our emotions. When we think about the future, for instance, we play an internal movie representing how we expect that future to be (or less visual people play a radio show). Our words play an important role in our internal representations as they are effectively the script of the movie. The words that we use mostly in day to day life will therefore determine the kinds of movie we play. If we constantly use negative words such as  ‘worry’, ‘fear’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘stress’, we end up creating disaster movies in our minds. .

An experiment was carried out at New York University where subjects were primed with words associated with old age by getting them to rearrange cards with individual words on them to form a sentence. Each of the sentences included words such as ‘worried’, ‘forgetful’, ‘bingo’, ‘lonely’, ‘grey’ and ‘Florida’ (if you’ve been to Florida you will know why), all words which could be associated with the elderly. Waiting outside the room where the priming took place were researchers who secretly timed each of the subjects as they made their way to the room at the beginning of the experiment and as they left the building at the end. Interestingly, the ‘old age’ words seemed to have a profound effect on the subjects as they were significantly slower leaving the room as they had been when they arrived.

If you want to be happy, excited, fulfilled, relaxed or motivated, make sure your script is the right one!

Andy Barton
Performance consultant

Friday, 11 July 2014

Think yourself fit

Even after many years working in the field of mental performance I am still in awe of the extraordinary power of the mind. Certainly the one thing that seems to unite elite sports performers, no matter what their chosen sport is, is that they all possess unusually vivid imaginations. It is what allows them to see, hear and feel things that us mere mortals are not able to that sets them apart in a competitive situation.

One way of exploiting a powerful imagination is to use mental rehearsal techniques essentially to train the mind and body to perform skills successfully. When we imagine performing a skill, we actually fire up an almost identical pattern of neural response to when we are actually performing the skill itself. When Rory Mcllroy is lining up a golf shot, he mentally rehearses it by using all of his senses to imagine the look, sound and feeling of the shot in his mind before actually playing the shot. As he imagines it, he fires up the required neurons and muscles that are involved in the shot, effectively programming it in to his mental computer.  The more vividly he imagines the shot, the better the programming is.

One study carried out in Cleveland, Ohio compared people who went to the gym with people who imagined being at the gym and having a virtual workout.  The participants who actually went to the gym over a 3 month period increased their muscle mass by an average of 30%. Interestingly, the participants who only did the virtual workout and lifted no weights at all, still managed to increase their muscle mass by an average 13.5%.

So if you want that six pack before you go away for your summer holidays, all you have to do is use a little imagination!

Andy Barton
Performance consultant

Friday, 4 July 2014

Chilled or pumped? It’s a personal thing

I don’t know whether you have been absorbed with the World Cup as much as I have but I just love it when it gets to the knock out phase where it becomes a real test of mental and physical strength and determination. At this point of the competition, coaches have very little need to get their players ‘pumped up’ as, in most cases, the players are going to be highly stressed already. This is where a coach really needs to have a good understanding of his players individually because we all perform at our best at different arousal levels so some players like to be really pumped up but others will perform much better when they are at lower arousal levels. If a coach takes a one size fits all approach and does a stirring pep talk for the whole team which gets their hearts beating fast, their hands tingling and their heads spinning, it may be of benefit to maybe 3 or 4 players but for the rest it could end up having the opposite effect to that intended.

When I used to play rugby (many years ago!), before the match started in the changing room, the whole team would form a circle, link arms and gradually crank up the excitement as we shouted louder and louder counting from one to ten whilst stamping faster and faster onto the concrete floor. Those who managed to avoid turning their ankles then ran out onto the field whipped up like a bunch of crazed warriors ready for action. Except for me, it seemed. Such frenzied displays did nothing for me and so I would spend the next few minutes actually calming myself down before the match started as I realised even back then that I played much better when I was more relaxed.

One of my clients experienced this state of over-arousal when he made it to his first Cup Final. Normally a very confident player, after a heartfelt speech from his coach somewhere on the lines of Shakespeare’s Henry V, he then made his way down the tunnel at Wembley and as he saw the crowd and heard the roar, the whole occasion got to him. He was just too pumped up to perform and he spent the largest part of the match in a state of paralysis.

It is essential to recognise that everyone is different and so it is important to work with people on an individual basis if we want to get the best out of them. By helping individuals tap into what is that makes them tick, we can go a long way to get sports performers into the right frame of mind to perform to their best.

At this stage of the competition, the team who wins the World Cup may just be the one with the coach who understands his players the best.

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant
The Sporting Mind

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Don’t worry, be happy

I have noted a worrying trend in recent years, particularly in my younger clients, that, in the pursuit of excellence, they seem more and more to be losing their enjoyment of their sport. They get to a point where they feel it is time to take their sport seriously and something changes in their approach. Instead of taking a carefree, curious and open-minded approach to learning new skills, they start focusing on results and status. As a consequence of this, they develop a belief that they should only be happy as a reward for achieving a particular goal or as a consequence of good results rather than enjoying playing for the sake of playing. They feel they should be hard on themselves, they will beat themselves up when things go wrong and scrutinise their performances for errors. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t work very well.

The thing is, we are much more resourceful when we are happy than when we are focusing on our faults and chastising ourselves. I often ask my clients what it was like performing in their sport before they took it seriously, and pretty well everyone I have asked this question has spoken positively, almost with a glow of nostalgia. There was no fear of failure, they played instinctively, they focused on the process of learning rather than the consequences of their actions and they had complete trust and belief in themselves – essentially all the things you want from a sports performer.  And yet they would still put off happiness until they achieved something rather than use it as a means to help them achieve.

Being positive even has a profound effect on our ability to use our senses. The Russian psychologist Krikor Kekcheyev found that, when thinking pleasant thoughts, test subjects could see, taste, smell and hear better and, more significantly for sports performers, could detect finer distinctions in their sense of touch. 
Personally, I see this as a win-win situation. If you go out purely with the intention of enjoying performing, you will actually perform better than if you are hard on yourself and take it too seriously.

So why wait to be happy?  Go and have fun!

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant

Friday, 7 February 2014

Feeling overwhelmed? Isaac Newton can help

I was working with a business client recently who was feeling overwhelmed with the sheer workload ahead of him. He suffered from ‘never-ending list syndrome’ (okay, I’ve just made that syndrome up) where he would have a huge list of things to do but for every thing that he completed and crossed off the top of the list, it seemed that he was adding an extra two things to the bottom. As days and weeks went by, he found he was achieving less and less and any motivation that he had was now turning to procrastination. His focus now seemed to be wavering between various social networking sites, spider solitaire and Sky Sports but very little was being done for his business.

The problem is that we can only consciously process about 7 pieces of information at a time so when we try to think of a number of things greater than that (such as on a long list) we can become stressed, anxious and out of control. We also very often distort the amount of work we have to do so the task just seems so much greater than it really is. One way people deal with this is to give up altogether and do nothing which ultimately makes matters worse as the list will continue to grow.

To help my client, I gave him two very simple but effective tips. First of all, I suggested that when he first got into work that he should decant from his list a maximum of 5 items that are priorities for that day and put them on a new, separate list. I stressed that it was essential that it was possible to achieve all of these things in the day otherwise he was to remove items from the list until it was achievable. The never-ending list was then to be put out of sight and he was just to work on one item at a time until all items on the new list were completed. This meant that he no longer would have a large number of items to worry about. Having only a small number of achievable tasks to aim for can have a significant impact on our motivation and also gives us a feeling of achievement and closure at the end of the day when the list is completed (which the never-ending list never does).

My second tip was that, contrary to some widely held views which suggest it is best to get the biggest thing out of the way first, he should in fact do the easiest/smallest thing first. Why? Well, this is where we look to Isaac Newton and his First Law of Motion (otherwise known as the Law of Inertia), which states “An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion”. If we aim to start on something that only takes 10 minutes, we have already created motion so the likelihood is that we will continue onto the next thing using the momentum from the easy task.

So if you are feeling overwhelmed all you really need to do is create a small, achievable list and just get moving!  

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant

Monday, 27 January 2014

Sportlobster TV: What does a relegation battle do to the mind?

I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Sportlobster, the new social networking site for sport. I was sharing the couch with former Premiership footballers Jimmy Bullard, Leon McKenzie and Paul McVeigh. We were discussing the mental effects of a relegation battle. The programme can be accessed by clicking here.

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant
The Sporting Mind

If you want to get ahead, get a purpose

One of the questions I very often ask my clients when they tell me they have a goal in mind is "for what purpose are you striving for this goal?" What I want to establish from this question is whether they are doing it just for themselves, for someone else or whether they have a bigger reason to achieve the goal.

It is certainly important that the person wants to do it for themselves first. You may be surprised how many of my clients tell me that they have a goal in mind but there is something about their body language and tone of voice that suggests otherwise. Very often it becomes established that the goal isn't theirs at all but somebody else's (usually a parent or coach). This is where you end up with 'pushy parent' syndrome where a parent is living their own dreams vicariously through their children and their children end up pursuing something that they would rather not. The problem with striving for a goal for someone else is that eventually any motivation to train, learn and develop your skills will turn to resentment, lack of drive and, often, fear of failure (not wanting to let people down) which all make achievement far less likely.

For a goal to be successful it is essential that it is your own goal. However, to make a goal even more likely (and to make it more fulfilling) it is much better to have a reason which is bigger than yourself to do it. This is very different to doing it for somebody else. This is about having a purpose or a mission to strive for. Purpose takes many forms and can essentially be anything that you feel to be really important. Examples could include wanting to do something for your country or community, doing something for a charity, for religious reasons, to reflect a certain philosophy, overcoming adversity, to be the best at something or to do something that has never been done before.

When Roger Bannister came a disappointing fourth at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, he was close to giving up the sport. He only decided to continue when he discovered his purpose;he wanted to be the first man to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Having this goal in mind motivated him to dedicate himself to do what ever it took to the achieve this cause. He made significant changes to his training regime and absorbed himself in the task in hand. The extra impetus he got from pursuing his cause led to his eventual success in May 1954 when Bannister achieved the feat by running the mile in 3.59.4

Having a purpose, whether it is in work, sport or any other area of life, gives an individual greater motivation, more focus, increased determination as well as greater resilience to put everything into achieving a goal. So if you want to achieve a goal, make sure you know why you want to achieve it first.

Andy Barton

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Tips for an effective New Year’s Resolution

The New Year is always a good time for contemplation and dreaming of a better future. It is a time when people resolve to make a difference to their lives. They are going to get fitter, work harder, get a better job, drink less, lose weight, give up smoking, earn more money, pay more attention to their families, learn a language, improve their sport, climb a mountain, run a marathon or take up a new career. Some people stick to their resolutions; most don’t. So how do you make your resolutions a reality?  Here are a few tips.

1. Write your goal down
It has been found that people who write their goals down are much more likely to achieve them. To make the goal more meaningful, write it down in you best handwriting on your best stationery and then hang it up where you can see it. As the expression goes “Don’t just think it, ink it.”

2. Make it positive
When writing your goal, make sure it is stated in the positive. Our unconscious mind cannot process negatives so we end up focusing on the thing we don’t want to happen. If you were to say “I don’t want to get angry with the kids when they make a mess”, we end up playing an internal movie of doing exactly that. Instead it would be better to say “When the kids make a mess, I want to stay calm and relaxed.”

3. Define your goal
The more defined a goal is the more real it becomes. For instance, if you were to set a goal to be “successful”, it is such an abstract term that it is almost meaningless. When we define a goal it fires up the imagination. The more defined the goal is the more your mind has to work on to help you get your goal. Imagine what you would see, hear and feel when you achieve your goal so you know exactly what you are aiming for.

4.Create the journey
Once you have established your goal, it needs to be broken down into small pieces. This makes a big goal much more achievable as you are only focused on one small thing at a time. As the saying goes, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”.

5. Take action
The bit where most people become unstuck is the fun bit, putting the goal into practice. People often give up because they feel they don’t have time or see the goal as being too big. If you just commit to doing 5 minutes towards your goal every day, it is likely that you will actually end up do considerably more as you get into the flow. As Newton’s first law of motion states: “A body in motion stays in motion”.

6. Enjoy it!
We are far more effective when we are in a happy mood so it is really important to approach your goals in a positive manner. If you adopt a smile and positive body language and talk about your goal in an effusive way, it will become something you look forward to doing rather than dread.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful 2014. I hope it is everything that you want it to be!

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Beware the "realists"

Earlier this year I was reminded of the story of the man who went to his doctor for a regular check up. On this occasion the patient declared that there was no longer anything the doctor could do for him because he was already dead. Slightly bemused the doctor humoured the man and asked him all sorts of questions about his condition to get the man to realise the foolishness of his claim. However, rather than changing his patient’s mind, the patient, if anything, became more convinced of his demise as the questions kept coming. Finally, the doctor had a Eureka moment and asked the patient “Do dead people bleed?” Straight away the patient retorted, “Of course not. A dead person couldn’t possibly bleed.” The doctor took a syringe from his desk and asked the patient if he could try and take some blood from him. “You can do your best but I assure you, you will not find any blood there.” The doctor then proceeded to inject the syringe into the patient’s arm and fill it with the patient’s blood and then, with a flourish, presented the syringe triumphantly out in front of him. The patient look perplexed and then finally, after a long pause, exclaimed, “My word, I was wrong. Dead people really do bleed!”

The thing that prompted the memory of this story was a phone call I received from a researcher from one of our leading radio stations. They were doing a feature on the back of the England U21 football team’s poor performance in the European U21 Championship in the summer and wondered whether I would be interested in participating. The theme of the feature was “why do British sports people bottle it at the big event?” They weren’t just referring to football but they seemed to be generalising it to all sports. Once I’d picked my chin off the floor, I pointed out to them that they seemed to have missed the outstanding results in the Olympics, including the magnificent displays by the likes of Jessica Ennis, Laura Trott and Mo Farah, Andy Murray’s performance in the US Open, Rory McIlroy winning 2 major golf championships, Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France, Ronnie O’Sullivan’s amazing return to win the snooker World Championships, the Brownlee brothers dominating the triathlon world. Interestingly, since they contacted me, Andy Murray has won Wimbledon, the British Lions have defeated the Australians, Justin Rose has won the US Open golf championship and Chris Froome has won the Tour de France. Hardly “bottling it”.

The belief the people from the radio station held about the British sports people reminded me of when I watched a TV discussion programme a while back after a long hot summer (it was a few years ago) when after just 2 days of rain a woman on the programme exclaimed what terrible weather we had had that year.

So why did they get it so wrong? Well, in a sense, they didn’t. What we believe is essentially a result of how we perceive the World. It is not how the World actually is. It has been estimated that we are processing about 2 million bits of information every second of the day, through our sight, our hearing, our sense of touch, our sense of smell and our sense of taste. If we could be aware of all of that information at once we would go stark raving mad. In fact, we are only able to hold approximately 110 bits of this information in our conscious awareness at any one time, just a tiny fraction. The rest of the information is deleted, distorted and generalised to form our perception. What that means is that when we have formed a belief, whether it is a positive belief or a limiting belief, unless the evidence is overwhelmingly strong, we are likely to delete anything that contradicts the belief from our awareness. If, for instance, you believe you can’t tell a joke, you will only remember times when a joke has fallen flat and will delete the times when you’ve had people rolling round in stitches. Thus your belief will remain intact. If, however, you actually look for evidence that contradicts your belief (I would suggest you only do this with a limiting belief), you are more likely to diminish or even eradicate the belief.

I couldn’t do the radio programme due to other commitments but something must have challenged their belief as the theme of the programme when it was aired was no longer about British sport in general but was limited solely to football.

The point is if you want to have a happy, fulfilling and rewarding life, you don’t have to change the World. You only have to change your perception.

Andy Barton
Performance Consultant