Get Out Of Your Own Way

Every so often I have these moments.  It feels like a loss of focus, it gives rise to a dip in confidence, and an anxiety that the ‘clarity’ I had been experiencing has drifted away, perhaps never to return. As a coach, trainer and consultant I convince myself that I ‘need’ a solid and reliable platform from which to operate successfully. A base where I feel reassured by my own purpose. How, after all, can I be fully effective in what I do if I am seeking clarity as much, if not more, than my clients?

In these periods, my go-to instinct is to read.  To read and re-read passages from books that have in the past provided me with light-bulb moments. Flashes of light that put everything into perspective and allow me to get back on an even keel.

But this week it just wasn’t happening.  I was scanning some of my favourite books and papers.  Writers and commentators who have filled me with inspiration and energy. I was looking for the theory, or model, or piece of latest brain research that would sort me out.  And then, just as I was getting desperate, and thinking that my ‘mojo’ had departed me, I started to scan some of the highlights I had made, many years ago, in a book that I read when I was first in training.   Tim Gallwey’s “Inner Game of Work”.

And then the words jumped out of the page at me.  “We get in our own way.”

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How close are you to your ‘A’ game?

It is heartening to revisit old blog posts and find that they are still as relevant today as they were when they were first written. The Open golf championship is underway at Royal Birkdale this weekend, and, as always, Rory McIlroy is very much under the spotlight. He has come into the championship in rather patchy form, and after the first 9 holes on the first day he was virtually written off as a contender. He could not find his ‘A’ game and looked like he was as good as out of it. In the second half of the round he pulled himself together and put himself back in the frame. Afterwards he was interviewed and asked how far off playing at his best he felt he was. He has clearly learned much in the intervening years since the original post. He said that he felt it was ‘real close’ and ‘there was no reason he could not go out in the next few days and really put himself in a great position to be one of the main contenders for the championship’. We will wait and see how it unfolds, and watch with interest to see if Rory can find his ‘A’ game.

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I was intrigued by something that Rory McIlroy said recently in an  interview following his widely-reported ‘early exit’ from the Honda Golf Classic in Florida.  Clearly he has been going through a troubled time, with speculation bouncing between whether it is down to his new clubs deal, his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniaki, or, as he claimed in Florida, a troublesome wisdom tooth.

source: sports.yahoo.com/blogs/golf-devil-ball-golf source: sports.yahoo.com/blogs/golf-devil-ball-golf

He summed up how he feels when he is off his game in very simple terms.  “I always think when I’m playing bad that it’s further away than it is.”(meaning his best game). I sense this is true for many of us, in all walks of life.  Rory went on to say “….If I have a bad round, it’s sort of like the end of the world.”   This ‘catastrophizing’  form of thinking, is, I am sure, familiar to many of us…

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It’s the hope that kills you

It feels appropriate to dig out one of my posts from 2 years ago. To remind people, the subject related to “Hope”, and how, as a football fan, especially of the Scotland national team, it can play dreadful tricks with your mind.

Well, yesterday was an excellent case in point. As our boys in dark blue set about the task of tackling England, a nation 50 places higher in world ranking, my hope and expectations remained firmly on the floor. I’d been there too many times to let myself get carried away with fanciful notions of victory. Yes, I know if you look through the history books of this, the oldest international fixture in football, you’ll find that Scotland have held their own against the “Auld Enemy”. In fact, for a country with barely a tenth of the population of its southern neighbour it has a remarkable record of success. But, not so much in recent years. No victory in the 21st Century, and the last three encounters have all resulted in us leaking three goals per game.

The signs were not good, and I was ready. Ready for us to lose, ready for a plucky but not quite good enough performance, and ready not to be too disappointed. Realism at its best. I had tamed the beast. Only years of experience of handling disappointment can prepare you for this. There would be younger, more hopeful supporters dreaming of glory. Good luck to them, but they too will one day come to learn.

There I was, calm as can be. It was playing out just as I had expected. England weren’t playing brilliantly well, but they always looked the more likely team to score. And score they did. It was inevitable, it was fate, it was only a matter of time. I was right. Right to not let the beast take hold of me. Then it happened. In the cruellest of ways possible, it happened. Just when your guard drops, and you feel you have conquered your demons, the beast of “Hope” springs at you from behind the sofa. That’s right, Scotland, from nowhere, and with no warning, score TWO, NOT ONE BUT TWO, extraordinary goals. What strange form of madness was this? What do I do now? The game is finished. Only injury time to be played. My pledge to not allow the demons to take hold of me has been rocked. All was under control and now it is taunting me. Come on, it seems to say. Allow yourself to Dream, to Cheer, to Savour and, yes, to Hope. Only 90 seconds of injury time on the clock, what can possibly go wrong now. This is it. This is the moment. One of the greatest victories in Scotland’s history. The boys will be legends. They will be immortal. YES, YES, YES – you’re right – this is it! They have done it, what an amazing turnaround.

But, I should have known. It was a moment of weakness. I had dropped my guard for a second, and BOOM! That was it. I had let Hope enter, only for it to mock me and ridicule me once again. Yes, Scotland could not contain their emotions long enough to see the game out professionally. Excitement and Passion mixed to create a collective head-rush amongst the players and allowed England to sneak one final unchallenged touch on the ball to prod it into the empty Hampden net. For 3 minutes it had been a rush. People dreamed the unbelievable. People believed. People were already constructing their “I was there…” stories. I had been so careful. So cautious. So impregnable. But, what can you do. Hope is a cruel mistress.

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“It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair.  It’s the hope I can’t stand. ~ John Cleese (as Brian Stimpson in the film Clockwise)

Those who know me well will know that I am a long-suffering Scotland football fan. I have followed the national team for more years than I care to remember. Anyone who knows anything about sport in general, and perhaps football in particular, will recognise the dilemma that most football fans face. That is, they cannot always ‘choose’ their team.  As a professional coach and a psychologist who spends most of his life spreading the message that we all have choice, this does not sit well with ‘what I know’.  Why don’t I simply support Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Argentina or whatever team is top of the division on any given week?  That would be easy. It would take away a lot of the pain and…

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Hands up if you’re scared

In the wake of yet more mass murder, this time in Manchester, useful words are hard to find. All acts of this nature are senseless and horrific. Somehow the targeting of young, innocent children accentuates our sense of revulsion. I have chosen to re-post my thoughts from last year after the killings in Paris.The words are the same. After all, nothing seems to have changed.

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Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Hands up if you are more scared this week than last?  Hands up if you believe you are more likely to be the victim of a terrorist atrocity than you were before the Russian airliner fell from the sky? Or the killings in Paris?  I see a fair few hands raised. I’m guessing that your hands are not raised having quickly calculated the complex statistical probability associated with being mixed up in such occurrences. More likely, it is coming from something in your gut, or in your heart. Somewhere far away from cognitive reason and rationality.

creative commons creative commons

And, of course, that is what terror intends. To switch people off from reason, rationality, logic and constructive discourse, and switch on our more primal decision-making systems. “I feel it in my water. In my gut. I can smell it. My heart is ruling my head”. Believer v Non-Believer. Black v White. Love v Hate.  For…

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Choice, Happiness and the Quarter-Life Crisis

Last month’s post ~ Does Choice make us Happy? ~ attracted a lot of attention. Thank you for your excellent feedback. Some of the comments I received prompted me to consider this issue further, but this time from the point of view of the younger generation, particularly Generation Y.

Alice Stapleton writes sensitively and authoritatively about the phenomenon of the Quarter-Life Crisis. Unlike the well-documented mid-life crisis, which afflicts people in their forties or fifties, and is linked to feelings of stagnancy and a desire for radical change, the quarter-life crisis stems from anxiety about change, expectations, instability and identity.

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Does Choice make us Happy?

How can Choice be bad for us?  This surely goes against everything that we in the western world have taken for granted for decades, indeed hundreds of years. Choice is fundamental to freedom, and, for people who have no freedom, it makes total sense that increasing personal choice, will provide at least an illusion of freedom, and in turn enhance their welfare, satisfaction and happiness. Continue reading

Talismanic coaching: where science meets superstition

This Article was published originally in Coaching Psychology International, Volume 8, Issue 1 (Summer 2015) – ISSN 1758-7719 – pages 16-19. 

In Daniel Goleman’s (2013) Focus, he proposes that in a world of ever-increasing 24/7 distraction, we need to become better at focusing in the here and now. In this paper we propose the benefit of “superstitious conditioning” through the use of a Talisman to help
clients focus their attention in post-coaching situations.

Learning, at its most fundamental, is based upon the creation of neural connections which either strengthen or inhibit behaviour, facilitated by attending or not attending to stimuli. Learning can be said to happen when a new state (ie, a new connection) or a new association of existing connections occurs. The stronger the associations become, the more they become embedded, meaning the associated behaviour will be more readily enacted.

As coaches, we are in a highly privileged position, able to utilise this knowledge of how learning occurs for the benefit of our clients. We can share with them tools and techniques to create and strengthen associations. Once changes are fully embedded, then the tools may no longer be required, but, in the early days, having a proxy association to aid the formation of a neural association assists with sustenance of early progress.

However, all too often in coaching, after gaining insight, clients return to the everyday fray of work. Here, they lose conscious awareness of their coaching goal as it becomes displaced by more demanding pressures. Continue reading

How do you know when coaching has been successful?

As a professional coach, I regularly take coaching issues and dilemmas to supervision. These sessions are an essential part of every coach’s development, growth and emotional maintenance. I thought I’d share something important that came up for me in my most recent session with my coaching supervisor, in the hope that you may too get something from it.

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

courtesy: Maurizio Pesce, under Creative Commons, Flicker

The dilemma I expressed was around exploration of vision. Some of my clients move naturally towards vision. They are comfortable with the language and for them it is not a threatening or challenging conversation when we explore what it looks, feels or even smells like. Other clients struggle to talk in terms of vision. Even the concept of aspiration, dream or goal can be challenging. This is particularly true for some of my clients who find themselves in custody as young offenders. Many express the view that they do not like to think too much about dreams or visions as it only results in them becoming disappointed. They say that they do not want to build up their hopes only to be let down, and as a result they content themselves by living in a world of very low expectations.

When I put this issue on the table in my supervision session, the statement that my supervisor came back to me with was “It is not our job as coaches to breed optimism.”

I let this statement sink in, and my first instinct was to rail against it.  Some of the clients I work with have very low levels of hope or positivity, and I believe that people do their best work when positive neural circuits are switched on. My coaching often focuses on work around beliefs, particularly limiting beliefs, and how those give rise to thoughts, words and actions that generate negativity. Surely the work of the coach starts from the basis that people want to seek improvement, do ‘better’ than they are currently doing (whatever that means), and fulfil their potential? Why wouldn’t we encourage them to look toward alternative futures and choices?

Committing to New Year Resolutions

So, another year is about to begin. Who knows what it may hold? For some, they approach it with trepidation. Others can’t wait to get started and to grab the opportunities that the new year will generate. It is a time when many people make plans and resolve to make changes, yet so many of those dreams will be but memories before January is out.

resolutionsEvery call to adventure is acted upon by two opposing forces.  In one direction we can choose to embark on the adventure, to take the journey into the unknown and face the uncomfortable challenges that will inevitably lie ahead.  In order to make this choice, the force of reward must be sufficiently strong to overcome the opposing force of inertia, the appeal of the status quo or the comfort zone we have become used to.

I spend a lot of time in workshops and working one on one with people who know that they are in a bind.  They know that their current world is less than satisfactory. They recognise that changes would be positive and could make life better in so many ways. And yet, there is no guarantee that people will make the necessary commitment to move away from the world they inhabit, to make the journey that is necessary to gain the reward, the change, the life that they would prefer.

People know they would be healthier if they gave up smoking, that they drink a bit too much alcohol, that they don’t exercise as much as perhaps they could, or that they are in a dead-end job and a change would breathe new life into their career. They may even make a resolution each New Year to do something about it.  Some may even get as far as joining a gym, giving up smoking or drinking for a while, or actively seeking job vacancies on the internet. And that does demonstrate some level of recognition that change may be attractive. So, why are so many of these attempts aborted so early?  What is missing when people embark on these annual failed excursions, which rarely mature into fully fledged adventures resulting in transformation? Continue reading

It’s Lonely at the Top

I have long been a fan and admirer of Andy Murray, so naturally I was delighted for him when he recently reached the pinnacle of his sport by being crowned the world’s number one-ranked male tennis player. Amazing!  Perhaps even more amazing when we reflect on the fact that he comes from a small town (Dunblane) in a country (Scotland) with practically no history to speak of in the game of tennis.  His journey to get to the top has been far from easy.  He has played in an era which has been dominated by three other great players, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, an era that most tennis experts agree has been the most highly contested period of excellence in the men’s game – ever!

And here he now stands. On top of the world.

So, what next?  Well, the only certain thing about being world number one is that the day
will come when you will no longer be world number one.
 Sorry to introduce such a note of pessimism to proceedings, but that is the stark reality.  It’s a lonely place being out on your own. Not everyone has enjoyed it, and not everyone has coped well with it.  Andre Agassi has described how miserable it made him, and John McEnroe found it lonely and exposed. He once said, “You’re out there on your own island, and you feel like you’re disengaged, not only with the rest of the world, but the rest of your competitors, some of them friends.”andy_murray_practice_27107035063

This is similar to how many CEOs, Business Owners and Leaders describe the feeling of being at the top, or out in front of their organisations and companies. It can be a lonely place.   Continue reading