Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Daley's Christmas mind games

It is at this time of year that I often think of the athlete who was my sporting hero when I was younger; the double Olympic gold winning decathlete Daley Thompson. This was a man who could not only perform to the highest level whenever it really mattered under the most severe pressure but also could get into the heads of his main competitors. At the height of his powers, his rivals were the West German duo Jürgen Hingsen and Siggi Wentz both of whom towered over Thompson in stature and yet seemed to wilt when they were within his close proximity.

Hingsen, was his main threat. He’d held the world record 3 times but never managed to beat Thompson in a head to head in 7 years’ of competition. One reason for this was that Thompson was the king of the mind games. I particularly remember watching the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles noticing that whenever Hingsen and Wentz looked nervous or seemed to be lacking in energy, Thompson would be parading in front of them, laughing and joking as if competing for a gold medal was the easiest thing in the world. The gold medal had effectively been won before the first race, the first throw or the first jump.

The reason I am reminded of Thompson at this time is that his attitude to training over the festive period wonderfully illustrated how he constantly looked to maximise both his physical and mental superiority over the rest of the field. There would be no day off training on Christmas Day for him, as he said himself, "I train twice on Christmas Day because I know the others aren't training at all, so it gives me two extra days". Those two sessions may seem a small factor in the big scheme of things but psychologically, any opportunity to get one over the opposition would have played a huge role in improving his self-belief and motivation.

Next time you are wondering how to get the edge on your competitors, take a leaf out of Daley’s book and you won’t go far wrong.

Andy Barton
Performance coach
The Sporting Mind

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Superstitions and weird rituals: a footballer’s magic remedy

Much is often made of the strange rituals and superstitions that many footballers display either before, during or after a match. Whether it involves wearing some ‘lucky’ clothing, carrying a charm or mascot with mystical powers or performing some kind of intricate routine, we can often marvel at the weird and wonderful practices players can put themselves through to give themselves piece of mind.

As a performance coach, I am often asked about how superstition can affect a player and many people are surprised when I tell them I actively encourage a lot of superstitious rituals rather than try and help players overcome them.

Superstitions are not a recent thing either. Back in the 60s and 70s, England football captain Bobby Moore wouldn’t put his shorts on until everyone else in the team had finished dressing. His team mate Martin Peters would have fun at his expense by waiting until Moore had finally put his shorts on before Peters would proceed to take his own shorts off again. Moore then would have to take off his shorts and wait until Peters had put his back on again before repeating his ritual.

Rituals certainly have the effect of giving a player a sense of comfort and control over the extreme pressures that come about from playing at the highest level. Another effect they can have is to tap into a player’s positive emotions by providing a ‘Pavlovian’ association with the ritual where the performing of the routine itself is associated with a positive feeling. So when Javier Hernandez of Mexico drops to his knees in prayer before each match he plays, he is not only connecting with a higher being, he is also enhancing his emotional state and improving his confidence on the field.

These superstitions can also impact on a player’s self belief by creating an expectation of performing well, what is often referred to as a ‘placebo’ effect. Placebos are most often used as a control when studying new drugs and often come in the form of sugar pills or salt water injections. The amazing thing about placebos is that they very often get as good results as the pill they are being tested against. When the great Pelé went through a dip in his form, he sent a friend of his on a mission to track down one of the last shirts that he had played in when he was playing well which he had given away to a fan. Although the friend lied and pretended that the shirt Pelé had actually used in the previous match was the ‘lucky’ shirt, the belief that it was the shirt was enough to have the hoped for placebo effect and Pelé’s form quickly returned.

The only thing I stipulate with the players I work with is that any routines or rituals, however strange they may be, must be in their control and must be repeatable. If a player needs to be blessed by a one-eyed druid standing on one leg in the centre circle before kick off in order for him to play well, he may have problems replicating that before each match.

One ritual that I probably would not recommend was the one chosen by the Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea at the 1990 World Cup who decided it was good luck to urinate on the pitch before a penalty shoot out. Having been successful after performing this ritual in the quarter-finals against Yugoslavia, he decided to repeat his lucky routine in the semi-final against Italy which also went to penalties. The ritual obviously worked as Argentina won through to the final. We can only speculate as to what the outcome would have been if the ‘call of nature’ hadn’t come for Goycochea.

Andy Barton
Performance coach
The Sporting Mind

Friday, 7 August 2015

England cricket: The power of a positive approach

Yesterday many of us witnessed the most extraordinary day of cricket with England completely destroying the Australian batting line up for just 60 runs. A couple of months ago, very few (if any) would have predicted that England would have even given Australia a decent battle, let alone tear them apart in the way that they have. 

So what has changed? Apart from a small change in personnel, it seems that it is the mental approach of the team that has had the most significant impact on the team.  England have stopped playing safe and are now taking a positive, attacking approach to their game. From what I have seen this optimistic approach has benefitted the team in a number of ways. Here are a few of them.

Firstly, taking a positive approach to your game makes you focus more on what you would like to happen rather than on what you fear might happen. If you play not to get out you end up focusing on getting out. This means you end up mentally rehearsing the thing you don’t want to happen again and again and you actually prime your brain to make mistakes.  By focusing on what you do want to happen you are preparing your mind to play the shots that you want to play and bowling the balls that you want to bowl.

Secondly, the fact that new England coach Trevor Bayliss (an Australian) has stressed the importance of the players playing to their own style of play has allowed them to play to their own preferred tempo. Rather than try and hang on as long as possible, the likes of Root, Moeen, Stokes, Buttler and Broad, who all like to swing their bat are working to the principle that they’d rather make a quick 50 than a slow 30 and it is paying off.

Finally, a positive approach breeds confidence, which can have a significant effect on a player. A confident player has more energy, thinks more clearly, makes decisions more quickly, plays more unconsciously and lets go of mistakes more easily.

It's looking extremely good from an England perspective. The question is, can Australia tap into their own confidence and create a miraculous turnaround? That would have to be some turnaround! 

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Friday, 26 June 2015

It's not all about the money Mr Lawrenson

I read with interest Mark Lawrenson’s assessment of why England’s Under 21 football team failed to make it through to the Semi-Finals of the European Championship but find it hard to accept his theory that because young players are paid so much they aren’t as hungry for success as other teams. I do agree that being paid a lot of money can have a negative impact on a player but it isn’t because they lack interest. The money creates obligations, expectations and demands on a player, all of which may be understandable but none of which are particularly beneficial to good performances. But does having a healthy bank balance really mean the players lack motivation?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with many of the best young footballers in the country, including a number of England internationals, over the years and one thing is very clear; each and every one of them would be playing football no matter how much (or how little) they were paid. The main issue that young England players face, I feel, is the intense scrutiny they are put under, particularly from the fans and the media (including Mr Lawrenson). When most of us were the same age as some of these players, we were able to make our mistakes in private with little fear of ending up on the front pages of newspapers. When Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish drank too much on a holiday with his mates, he was only repeating what countless other 19 year-olds have done but in his case his photograph is shared online by millions of people and he is publicly chastised for it. When I did that kind of thing at the same age, the only real comeback was the hangover that resulted (which was bad enough).

From my experience, the main impediment these players have is the huge expectations that are placed on their shoulders. The mistakes they make on the field are scrutinised to such a degree by the coaching staff, the media and the fans, that they start thinking in terms of avoiding making any mistakes rather putting their attention on putting on a positive performance. The more you try and avoid something the more you end up focusing on it so, instead of thinking about playing easy, carefree football, they end up worrying about missing a tackle, making a bad pass, missing a shot or letting in a goal.  As a result of this, they become unconfident, indecisive, hesitant and weighed down by the pressure. This lack of confidence plays a significant role in a player’s energy levels, movement and his ability to think clearly. Players suffer paralysis by analysis and so don’t play their natural, free flowing game. This is why they may seem lethargic. It is more a case of them being stifled rather than being unmotivated. If anything, the players I have worked with are too hungry for success to a point where the fear of failure is too great. To be a winner you can’t be afraid that you are going to lose.

Mistakes are a vital part of a learning process but if you fear making them you are going to have problems. The England one day cricket team has become rejuvenated because players were given permission to go and express themselves. Captain Eoin Morgan received comparatively little criticism for getting out first ball trying to hit a six in the final match against New Zealand because their strategy was to be positive. Mistakes were acceptable so the team played with immense freedom and energy.

England football could learn a lot from this. They need to focus on playing positive, high intensity and flowing football without fear of making mistakes and with a view of accepting the consequences whatever they may be. The media could play a role here by showing some understanding rather than making sweeping judgments on the players. I’m not holding my breath though. Unfortunately, many ex-players seem to forget the pressures they were under during their playing days. 

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Friday, 23 January 2015

Arrogance vs Super Confidence

I recently worked with a professional squash player (let’s call her Amy) on issues she had around confidence. Although she told me she wanted more confidence it soon became apparent that she had developed an unhelpful perception of what confident people were like and, in her mind, she had concluded that the super confident people she knew were all arrogant. This caused her real conflict as, although she wanted to be more confident, she didn’t want to become arrogant so she ended up resisting change in her personal growth.

One thing I have found over the years is that we often get trapped in our problem state because we form an unhelpful belief around any alternative way of being.  This was certainly the case with Amy. In her mind she had generalised that all confident people are arrogant which meant that the only way for her to become more confident was to become arrogant herself; something she did not want to do.

The irony about Amy’s belief is that arrogance has absolutely nothing to do with confidence. In fact, it is the polar opposite of confidence as it tends to be displayed by individuals who are lacking in confidence.  Put it this way, if you had all the confidence in the world, why would you feel such a need to tell everyone? One of the most confident and inspiring people I ever worked with was a client called Simon who I was helping develop the culture of his business. Simon is a man of very few words and prefers to listen more than speak. I can remember sitting in on a meeting with him and about 15 of his senior managers who were all desperately taking turns to talk up their role in the success of a project they had all been working on. It was reminiscent of a scene from The Apprentice where everyone was desperate to take the glory at the expense of the remainder of the group and it started to get quite heated.  As things started to get out of control, I could see a grin appear on Simon’s face like that of an indulgent parent. Then he leaned forward, made the tiniest of coughs and, as if he had put a spell on everyone, the room immediately fell silent and all eyes were on him. In a matter of a few, quietly spoken words, Simon had diffused the whole situation, refocused them on the subject that needed addressing, changed the tone of the meeting and then he leaned back again, leaving his team to take turns speaking in a calm and collegiate manner. At no point did Simon speak to them as anything other than as an equal. He is a man of great humility, empathy and modesty, all under-pinned with a big dose of confidence.

Interestingly, when I explained this to Amy, she actually started to feel sorry for the arrogant people that she knew. This allowed her to let go of the limiting belief which had been holding her back and over the following weeks we were able to make a real impact on her confidence levels in all areas of life.

So if you ever start to feel intimidated by someone who is being arrogant remember that they are probably a lot less confident than you are.

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charl Schwartzel’s collapse: A case of thinking too much

The denouement of yesterday’s South African golf championship was very much one of mixed emotions. If there was ever an advertisement for the benefits of playing sport to enjoy yourself, then Englishman Andy Sullivan’s dramatic win on the first play-off hole against Charl Schwartzel was it. Throughout the final round a smile never left Sullivan’s face as he seemed to thrive on the joy of playing the game just for the sake of playing. He was a pleasure to watch and, ultimately, his maiden tour win was well deserved.

It was not, however, such a happy end for Schwartzel, who had been not long before been standing on the 14th tee five shots ahead of the field with only a handful of holes to play and looking a huge favourite to win his home championship for the first time.  Sadly, there ensued one of those terrible collapses that are painful to watch and are what is often cruelly referred to as “choking”. Choking essentially comes about from over thinking. When we are performing well, we process information unconsciously, trusting our bodies to perform the skills that we have learned. When we start to over think, we process information consciously which leads to a deterioration in performance and, in extreme circumstances, can lead to a complete crash.

For me, the telling moment that Schwartzel was over thinking could be found as far back as the 8th hole when he could be witnessed spending a considerable amount of time discussing the mechanics of his swing. There is only one place for dealing with your technique, whatever your sport, and that is on the practice ground. If you take your mechanics into a competitive situation, it forces you to perform consciously and that will always have a detrimental effect on how you perform.  The unconscious mind is your feeling mind so to put in a winning performance, it is far more important to work on your emotional state rather that getting into deep analysis. So while Andy Sullivan was preparing himself effectively by staying in a happy state, Charl Schwartzel was activating his conscious mind by going into over thinking mode.

So if you want to be competitive make sure you leave your mechanics in the garage. 

Have a great week!

Andy Barton
Performance coach

Thursday, 1 January 2015

How to achieve your goals for 2015

Happy New Year to you!

This is the time of year when a lot of you may be considering setting some goals. You may have even set some goals for 2014 and some you may have achieved and others may be still on the “To Do” list. There are a number of reasons why people don’t achieve their goals. Some of the main ones include; setting a goal that is too big (“I want to win Wimbledon”), having a goal that isn’t inspiring enough (“I want to keep my house tidy every day”), aiming to achieve something that is too vague (“I want to be successful”), looking to please someone else (“I will practise my clarinet for 2 hours every day to keep Mum happy”) or creating a goal that doesn’t have a timescale (“One day I’m going to write a book”).

If you want to set some goals for 2015, here are seven hints to make it more likely that you will achieve them.

1. Make your goal challenging yet achievable. We are more motivated by a challenging goal especially if you have a good reason for achieving it.

2. Be as descriptive as possible, in terms of what you want to achieve, how you are going to achieve it and what resources and abilities you require to get your goal. The mind is always scanning for things in the environment that are relevant to you. If you let your mind know exactly what you want, it is more likely to draw your attention to things that will help you achieve your goal.

3. Break your goal into small, easy to achieve chunks. If you are aiming to be able to run a marathon, the first goal may be to run a mile first. Give each stage a timescale so that you know whether or not you are on track.

4. Tell others about your goal. It has been found that we are far more likely to achieve a goal if we tell everyone about it. If you keep it to yourself, there is a lot less to lose if you give up. One very good reason for using social media.

5. Write your goal down. Research has shown that you are far more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down (remember to make them descriptive!).

6. Have fun. Enjoy the process of achieving your goal. The pursuit of a goal can be far more rewarding than the actual achievement of attaining the goal itself.

7. Take action. Do one thing every day towards your goal. Even if you are not in the mood to work towards your goal, just do one very small thing that moves you towards it. Once you have started, the chances are that you will end up doing more than you intended to.

Have a fantastic 2015! I hope it is all you wish it to be.

Andy Barton
Performance Coach