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

It’s the hope that kills you

“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 disappointment that inevitably occurs when you follow Scotland’s world cup and euro championship qualification ambitions.scots fan in despair

But, I think that is to miss the point.
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Fail Big, Fail Fast, Fail Often!

In the week of the 2015 US Masters golf championship, many eyes are on Rory McIlroy. In 2011, an even younger McIlroy was on the verge of making golfing history. He carried a 4-shot lead into the final round, having played sublime golf for the first three days of the championship. However, on his final round he shot the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the 3rd round of the Masters. Not the piece of history he was after. Rory suffered what can only be described as a ‘meltdown’ in the unforgiving glare of the TV cameras and the golfing world.

Some pundits questioned his bottle, his psyche, his temperament, and his ‘big game’ mentality. Some said, “history shows that players who cough up big leads in big tournaments often don’t get another chance, their psyches permanently shattered by thoughts of what might have been.” (TwinCities.com

But, McIlroy went on to win 4 majors in the next three years, starting with the U.S.Open championship, just a few short months after his Augusta meltdown. He achieved his victory in some style too, setting a new championship record and becoming the youngest winner since 1923.
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On the Edge of Control

“…Fear is what keeps us from going over the edge……I don’t think what makes a good race car driver is a fearless person. I think it’s somebody that is comfortable being behind the wheel of something that’s somewhat out of control”.                Jeff Gordon

Imagine yourself riding a motorcycle in a high-speed race. You are at full throttle going round the final bend. Only a delicate balance between gravity and centrifugal forces are preventing you from flying off the track. At that moment, are you in control of your bike, or are you out of control? The answer is you are ‘right on the edge’. Too much ‘in control’ and you probably aren’t taking enough risk, and are unlikely to win the race. Too much ‘out of control’ and the likelihood is you are in for a very painful crash.

In 2013, at age 20, Marc Márquez of Spain became the youngest ever World Champion of MotoGP in the final race of the season in Valencia.  For anyone who hasn’t witnessed MotoGP, it is truly breath-taking. Riders appear to defy gravity on the bends, with their knees and elbows scraping the surface of the track at speeds in excess of 300km/hour. marquezExperts have commented on the young Márquez’s style saying, “….he drags his elbow on every corner and leans his body and bike closer to the ground than any of his rivals.”  In this sport, being daring and aggressive is a requirement if you hope to succeed. It would look as though an ability to shut out thoughts of fear, and consequences of getting it wrong, are a necessity in this sport. Yet, at the same time, knowing, in that instant, just what would be too much, too fast, too risky is clearly also a vital (and life-preserving) requirement. As is resilience, perseverance and the ability to learn from (and not be put off by) misjudgements.

During the course of the season, Marquez also set the record for the highest-speed crash in motorcycle racing. While practising his gravity-defying turns, he lost control at 320km/hour. He managed to throw himself from his bike just before it crashed against a concrete wall. He was catapulted into a gravel safety trap at 280km/hour, walked away, and competed in the race the next day.  He is very clear about the fact that he must keep learning and improving.  In the final race of the season, he needed to finish no worse than fourth to secure the title.  He worked out that keeping his two main rivals in front of him, where he could watch their every move, was a better strategy than having them plot and scheme their moves from behind him. He rode a sensible, calculating race, taking less risks, staying out of trouble, and safely securing third place, sufficient to win the World Championship.
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The Power of Optimism

A great deal of pressure was heaped on the young shoulders of Matt Biondi in the run up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  He was one of the United States great hopes for multiple medals in the swimming pool. Comparisons were being drawn with the legendary Mark Spitz who had won seven golds in the 1972 games.    In his first event, the two-hundred-metre freestyle, he finished a creditable third.  Great by most people’s standards, but disappointing for Biondi and the hard-to-please media back home.  The next event was the one-hundred-metre butterfly.  Having blasted into an early lead, and dominated the race all the way, he made an error of judgement on his final stroke. One more stroke squeezed in with a metre to go would have seen him home, but he chose to coast and stretch for the wall instead.  In doing so he was pipped by a fingernail and beaten into second by an unknown swimmer, Anthony Nesty, from Surinam, not a country renowned for swimmers, let alone gold medals.

biondiThere was much gnashing of teeth and criticism levelled at Biondi from afar. This was not the start to an assault on seven gold medals that the American public expected, and many started to write him off.   There was at least one person who did not, however.  Marty Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, watching proceedings on his television, had belief, and evidence, that Biondi had what it would take to come back from these disappointments and go on to achieve success.  Continue reading

Don’t write off the ‘Old Guard’

It has been an intriguing summer of sport already, and (thankfully) it has a long way still to go. What has struck me as interesting is that it has resulted in a large number of teams and individuals being toppled from the top spot.  In football’s World Cup we saw a shock early departure of Spain from the tournament.
spain defeated
In tennis, at Wimbledon, we saw last year’s champion, Andy Murray, and the world’s number one seed, Rafael Nadal, exit the competition – both beaten by younger rising stars of the game. In the women’s competition, we also saw the departure of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and other past champions. Here, as in the men’s game, there is an exciting emergence of new young talent challenging the ‘old guard’.  I have no doubt that the rest of the summer’s sport, in events such as the Tour de France, golf’s Open Championship at Hoylake and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, will throw up other demises, departures, abdications and shock defeats of established past winners.
While the emergence of new talent is both exciting and essential for the good of the sport, what is equally, if not more, fascinating is how the so called ‘old guard’ respond to that challenge, and the hugely important leadership role they play in creating the next generation of champions. Despite the performances of the emerging stars,  the four semi-finalists in the World Cup are all established ‘giants’ of the game, and the eventual Wimbledon winners in both the men’s and women’s finals this weekend were also past winners, and amongst the pre-competition favourites.

Which past champions disappear, slide off into the sunset, and enjoy the dreams of their past glories, and which go back to the gym, come back stronger, fitter, fresher and ready to mount another bid?

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Congratulations

A huge congratulations to the three winners of the competition to win signed copies of “The Vital Edge”.

The winners are:-Screen Print Book Cover

Shaun Coffey
Sheila Richards
Barry Millar

 

“The Vital Edge” will be winging its way to them shortly.

All three winners nominated truly awesome sports people as the ones who had inspired them most.

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Win a copy of The Vital Edge

To coincide with the release of “The Vital Edge” on Amazon, the start of the Football World Cup, and a great summer of sport, I am holding a competition in which THREE signed copies of my new book will be won. Read on to find out more…

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Dip into “The Vital Edge”

Fancy a taster of what you can expect from my recently released book, “The Vital Edge”? Have a look through the attached presentation to see what topics are covered and which sports people feature. If you have already purchased the book, many thanks for doing so. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the subjects raised in “The Vital Edge”, either by leaving a review or rating on the Lulu.com site or here in the comments section of this blog.

“The Vital Edge” has arrived

My book, “The Vital Edge”, can now be purchased at Lulu.com (it will be available through other distributors at a later date).

dt-improved-performance

Using anecdotes and metaphors from sport, combined with psychology and behavioural models, the book provides guidance and pointers as to how business performance can be improved and how common de-railers can be overcome. It is intended to be an easy to read and entertaining journey through a variety of sports, with an intriguing dive into subject areas as diverse as motivation, optimism, ‘flow’, neuroscience, leadership, teamwork and collaboration. It will include worksheets with ponder questions at the end of each chapter allowing the book to be used individually or as part of team-building, leadership development and coaching programmes.

I recently offered sneak previews to readers.

One reviewer commented: “Being an athlete, an improving coach and a sports policy maker makes your book talk to me in a very personal way. It’s as if you have written this book just for me. I love it so much putting it down is a problem. All the elements that bind sport and business are there.” 

I would love to hear what you think of the book. You can of course leave comments and feedback, as well as ratings, on the Lulu.com page, and it would be great if you did.  In addition, you can send me comments directly using the Contact Us Page.

Many thanks.  I hope you enjoy it.

Louis