As the All Blacks perform their ritual of the haka before the start of a rugby test match, a mysterious unity of spirit and strength of character is revealed. The ritual activates an alert, cohesive and focused group energy that is ready to tackle any challenge in the heat of battle.
Many years ago, when doing a research project about the pressures and harshness of the world of competitive elite sport, I found that elite athletes tended to live behind their ‘mask of competencies’. It seemed necessary that an athlete had to present an emotionally tough, ‘I am confident’, ‘I am in control’ exterior when dealing with the outside world. No weakness was allowed or accepted.
The longer the athlete spent in the arena of competition, the stronger the mask of competency needed to be. When dealing with excessive stress, I found that the athletes rigidified the mask of competency and denied any fears or doubts about their performance. This was usually done in order to emotionally protect themselves from criticism and judgement from public, media, coaches and even fellow players.
On a personal level, the rigid mask of competency tended to block the athlete from getting in touch with the internal dynamics of him/herself, especially around feelings of vulnerability. In turn, I found that this rigidity had a paradoxical impact on performance since it restricted the energetic system of the athlete and usually activated a downward spiral of performance.
It was interesting to read an interview about the All Blacks rugby culture given by their mental conditioning coach. There were two points that struck me in the article. Firstly, players need to feel that they belong in the team. Secondly, when the players are stressed, how can they collaborate and support others who are under pressure as well. This highlights the need to be selfless so that one can extend care and support to others in the most difficult times.
‘As a team, you (need) to sit down and allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s a powerful strategy; once I’m prepared to share my vulnerability, and everyone else is too, we create an environment that becomes a culture of acceptance’.
While it may seem rather strange that the mightiest force in world rugby places such high priority on players feeling that they belong in the sanctuary of a team that cares, it comes as no surprise to me. Playing sport in the love domain provides the interpersonal context for an athlete to fulfill all of his/her potential. However, creating such an environment is easier said than done.
Dedicated to my father, Popsie. His gentle, loving and nonjudgemental energy always underpinned his actions and words.
In my previous article on vision and framing, I took a predominantly past-orientated perspective of how we construct frames around our experiences, and in particular, around our problems.
In this article, I would like to focus on the power of how you can use frames to create and mold a meaningful future for yourself.
By nature, the future is both uncertain and unpredictable. From an evolutionary perspective, a range of possibilities (outcomes) may exist in the future, but nothing is definite. However, the potentiality of these outcomes are influenced and determined by what has unfolded in the past and what is presently occurring in the present.
As part of creating a frame or focus for your future, you need to consciously prime yourself to move into your future with optimism. You can do this by activating an internal process that playfully entertains possibilities that have not yet materialised, but which you can see or imagine.
During play, children transport themselves into a new domain of experience through the power of fantasy and imagination. When next you watch children play, see how easily they are transport themselves into a ‘new place’ during play. Imagination is the vehicle for the transportation.
In consulting with elite athletes, I create frames for future performance through the process of visualisation. This helps to transport the athlete into the future in a way that conditions the mind to be prepared for an upcoming competitive event. An expectancy of how the future will unfold is very much part of the visualisation.
Meditation and mindfulness help a person mentally connect to the present moment that is unfolding. While these processes do not provide actual frames with which to guide you into your future, they paradoxically open up the future for you by asking you to carefully notice the present moment unfolding before you (be it on a mental, emotional or physical level). This heightens an inner awareness that assists you in dealing with life’s demands more effectively. As a spin-off, you will begin to feel more emotionally relaxed about your future, thus neutralising the anxiety that tends to get activated when dealing with uncertainty.
There are times, when I will sit and write a reflection about a particular experience. As part of the reflection, I will tease out what I have learned, as well as, consider possibilities of what else could have unfolded, or what I may have done differently to facilitate a different outcome. In particular, I look at my patterns of behaviour that may have blocked me from achieving what I had set out to do. This helps heighten my awareness regarding my own functioning, offering me alternatives of how to interact in the future. This is how journalling or reflective writing offers a frame of how to move into the future more effectively.
Finally, I believe that your perceptions of what you think your future may hold are determined by your philosophy of life (see my article on viewing life through your personal lens). This philosophy is self-recursive; connecting your experiences with your beliefs and assumptions in an ongoing, unfolding way. On another level, your personal philosophy also influences your anticipations and expectations of your future. Do you have a general feeling of optimism as you journey in your life? Do you see yourself as having the necessary courage to walk into an uncertain future? (See my article on being optimistic in the struggle).
When considering the dynamics of sporting or business performance, one needs to consider time and movement in space. More specifically, a player needs to be mindful of how his/her emotional and energetic state moves while encountering challenges in a competitive environment.
In general, the emotional state of a player will move in one of two directions during practice (or during a match) depending on whether or not he is successful in dealing with the stressful challenges. If he is effective in the process, his emotional state will move to a place of optimism, coupled with a sense of freedom on an energetic level. If he struggles and makes mistakes and fails in his efforts, his emotional state will move to a place of pessimism, and his energetic system will tighten. On another level, the energetic system gets stuck during poor performance, with the player feeling totally immobilized.
While consulting with an international athlete, I asked the player to get connected to his present emotional state before entering the competitive space of intense practice. He needed to do a mind/body connection, without judging his energetic state. This offered him internal information as a starting point. In addition, he was asked to share what he was going to work on, on a technical level, during his practice. This provided him with specific clarity as a starting point regarding technique.
During practice, the challenge for the player was to trigger an internal process to move his emotional and energetic state into a more optimistic place when he was performing poorly.
Introducing meaningful information at a critical point in the process is necessary in order to move a player’s energetic and emotional state into a more freer and relaxed place.
But what constitutes meaningful information, and how can the player access it?
On a fundamental level, there are two distinct levels of information that need to be accessed and integrated. Firstly, there is technical information that needs to be incorporated to ensure improved performance. This information exists on the mechanical level of performance. Secondly, there is emotional and energetic information that exists internally. This type of information can be accessed if the player is mindful.
On a coaching level, the skillful and wise coach is able to introduce a meaningful piece of information at a critical point in time, that frees up the tight emotional place that an athlete can find him/herself in, when performing poorly. This information becomes the key that unlocks the internal potential of the player. When this occurs, the coach will see an immediate shift in performance.
There may be times when the coach stops the process and asks the player to take some time out of the competitive space in order to reflect on what is unfolding. This may be enough to create breathing space, so as to allow the necessary movement to occur. However, while this can be done during intense practice, it will not be possible during matches.
In a recent conversation with another elite sportsman, I termed this general movement as one in which the player moves towards the sweet spot during performance.
While this is a difficult question with no easy answers, it is worth mentioning that Donald Trump tends to use two basic tactics to disrupt and distract his opponents. Firstly, he attacks the person. Secondly, he stirs up emotions, in order to reduce or lower the intellectual component (which is his weakness) of the debate. Understanding this, and drawing on ideas about what it means to be mentally tough in the heat of battle in the sporting arena, some guidelines about how to deal with such a forceful, self-opinionated energy in a competitive debating context can be formulated.
In elite competition, the opponent may attempt to unsettle you psychologically, by distracting and disrupting your focus. In rugby, for example, there may be off-the-ball incidents, such as a punch or a jersey pull. In cricket, a batsman may have to deal with sledging (verbal abuse) by the fielding team between every ball that is bowled. The challenge in the heat of the battle is to have an internal focus, to remain clearly focused on what your goals are. On a simple level, you need to keep your eye on the ball and not get distracted by what you cannot control. Any mental energy that you use worrying about what your opponent is planning, saying or doing, will undermine your effectiveness.
In sport, there is an energy flow between competitors as the match unfolds. There are upward and downward spirals of energy flow, resulting in periods of effortless performance or times of intense struggle. It is important not to panic when you are struggling. To do this, it is necessary to connect with your breathing so that you can consciously ensure that your breathing has an even rhythm and is relaxed. Check to see that you are not holding your breath or are breathing in a rapid, shallow way. Being emotionally composed and balanced underpins exceptional performance.
The fundamental tenet of tai chi (a slow moving martial art) is to know how to use and re-direct an opponent’s aggressive energy in such a way as to physically unbalance him/her. In tai chi, you never meet force with force. Instead, you learn how a slight deflection of an opponent’s action can result in you gaining a major advantage. A slight shift in stance or position helps to give you the upper hand on which to base your counter-attack. Learning how to yield to pressure and then to quickly counter-attack is at the heart of tai chi.
George Bernard Shaw once said: ‘Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it’. It is important not to get pulled into activities that strengthen your opponent and weaken your resolve and focus. I remember consulting with a cricket team who had difficulty in dealing with one particular individual in the opposing team. The fundamental issue was that this individual enjoyed talking and would constantly be trying to initiative a verbal exchange with any member of our team, in order to distract you. He was self-opinionated, and at times verbally abusive. He performed best if he could have an audience to listen to him. As a team, we decided to ignore him completely during the match. No player was allowed to acknowledge or speak to him while on the field. A super-inflated ego thrives on being acknowledged and listened to, and the strategy of ignoring him, removed the source of his egotistical self-validation. Without this validation, his performance dropped significantly.
In sport, an athlete should not attach his self-worth to his performance, but instead should work on detaching himself from his performance. In this way, the athlete will be able to focus on the unfolding process and not be obsessed with the final outcome. Being able to separate the sense of self, from the results in performance allows the athlete to perform in a relaxed, uninhibited and creative way. More importantly, the athlete will be able to think quickly and effectively when dealing with stressful moments during competition. Poor performance is not taken personally and instead, failure is considered to be an opportunity to learn and to grow. This type of attitude reduces the fear of failure during performance.
A political debate is full of ‘attacks and defends’ as the participants try to gain the upper hand so as to increase their support and vote of the electorate. In order to beat your opponent on the debating stage, the lessons of competitive sport suggest that you should:
have a clear, internal, focused strategy regarding the issue at hand
work on not getting distracted and side-tracked by generalized, emotive, contentious statements
remain emotionally balanced and composed when conveying your message
not try and match force with force in a dominant way, but instead unbalance your opponent by asking intellectually, insightful questions that highlight the absurdity of the emotive opinion being forwarded
do not take an attack on your person, personally
In his book, The four agreements, Miguel Ruiz states that ‘you should not take anything in life personally’. Anyone’s actions or comments that are directed at you, has nothing to do with you. Instead these comments are a reflection and projection of who they are. Political debates highlight this point so well.
Recently, my nephew Keaton Jennings, scored two centuries in the opening match of the English county cricket season. Any cricketer will tell you how remarkable this achievement is. His performance placed him in the Durham County Cricket Club’s history books.
I often equate life to the image of an iceberg, where 1/7 lies above the surface (the seen), while 6/7 lies beneath the water line (the unseen). His remarkable performance did not surprise me one bit, since I had observed the accumulation of all the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes. He never shies away from doing the ‘hard yards’, and is keen to learn more and more about the complexity of top performance.
In talking about the mental aspects of elite performance, I shared with him that the mental and emotional components of an athlete need to be integrated and balanced for exceptional performance to unfold. In order to assist this process, Keaton and I spent 6 months doing tai chi together. In addition, he applied the calm breathing exercises of the tai chi practice to his batting.
Besides working on getting into this balanced performance state, I mentioned that an athlete will not be able to perform to his(her) potential if riddled with fear during competition, especially with the ‘fear of failure’. Fear constricts and restricts the energy flow of a person. It tightens the body and freezes the mental capacities of the athlete. Fear vacillates (depending on the context), and tends to rear its ugly head at critical moments during the competitive encounter of elite sport.
There are two processes that one can use to tackle and neutralize fear. It is worth mentioning, however, that fear is a powerful and stubborn energy that is not easily conquered. Given this, one needs to apply gentle perseverance to the process of overcoming it.
Firstly, one should ‘look’ at the fear squarely in its eyes and acknowledge its existence, without trying to change or resolve it. By just looking at your fear, you shine light on it. Since fear operates in the dark recesses of the mind, it does not like light. Besides wanting to remain in the dark, fear thrives and grows with denial. Honest looking, is a powerful neutralizing agent since this is opposite to the denial process.
Secondly, one can counter fear by applying lots of love to it. Love is the opposite energy to fear. When there is love, there can be no place for fear. Playing top sport with love in the heart, assists the athlete to enter the emotional and mental place where mind, body and spirit integrate into a unified and coherent energetic force that allows a quantum performance to occur.
Playing with love in the heart does not mean that the athlete is soft, weak or casual. Love requires taking care of what one does and insists that you are patient, persevering and dedicated in your efforts. Further, love means that the athlete is not critical or judgmental when dealing with failure. Instead, love is expansive and drives the athlete further to reveal the true potential that exists within. By accessing the energy of love, the athlete becomes alert to the unfolding moment and responds spontaneously with an open heart. It is in this emotional place, that the athlete enters the zone, where doubts are released and replaced with an inner peace that thrives on the challenge of the competitive moment.
In the ruthless world of business, a stock price can drop significantly over time due to poor performance and lack of profitability of a company. As the decay continues, the share is eventually suspended due to severe financial loss and bankruptcy.
If Cricket South Africa was a business, operating in the market place where normal economic forces are at play, the share would have been suspended months ago.
While most of the media attention has focused on the poor performance of the senior team over the past year since their semi-final loss against New Zealand in the World Cup, of greater concern is what has been unfolding in the Under-19 team over the past two years, since being crowned World Champions in 2014. At the end of that tournament, Cricket South Africa saw it fit to replace the experienced coach Ray Jennings (who had been in charge of managing successful Under-19 national teams over ten years). The reasons for not renewing his contract were not revealed. Since his departure, it is worth just looking at the results of the younger generation of South African cricketers, bearing in mind that they are the feeder system into the senior team. These results have gone unnoticed by most. Building up to the recent World Cup championships, the bare facts reveal that the team had played 19 Youth ODIs and had lost 16 of these (15,7% success). Then the team did not make the quarter-finals, losing to Namibia, and finally to round off the lows, the team was bowled out for 91 by Zimbabwe, losing by 8 wickets in the Plate matches.
Cricket South Africa should be extremely concerned at the decay that is unfolding in their cricket system. It is obvious that there are internal processes that are causing the system to implode. But is it too late to rescue the situation, or is there the will or intention to address the unhealthy processes that exist in the system?. The sad state of affairs is that the quality of performance of the senior and junior national teams has dropped significantly, to a level where the teams are now losing to their impoverished African neighbours.
In my practice, I consult with many young athletes who have aspirations to turn professional in their respective sports. I have witnessed a dramatic reduction in those wanting to pursue cricket. On a fundamental level, there has been a shift away from team sports (such as cricket), to the more individualistic sports where the possibility of administrative interference is reduced.
I took this photograph while on a walk over the weekend. As I processed the image, I was struck by the powerful message that it was conveying.
For me, it reflects our uniqueness and the evolutionary journey of life. We travel alone and leave foot prints, caused by our actions which defines our history. We move into our future, stepping into unknown, virgin territory.
As we travel, we need to deal with the dualistic nature of life, as we encounter light and darkness (shadow).
The climb is up and in the distance we may have a goal that we are moving towards. But we don’t know what lies ahead, as we summit the hill. While the journey can be planned, the challenges may be many and/or unexpected. While decisions may need to be made, try to travel safely, lightly and with love.