February 22, 2016
10 steps to positive focus in work, life and sport
I’m really excited to present the first in a series of blog posts, written in collaboration with Cathy O’Dowd, an awesome adventurer, speaker and author, and the first woman to climb Everest from both sides. Together we will be exploring the psychology behind some of the lessons we learn through adventure. Today – how to focus on the success you want, rather than the obstacles in your way. We start with the story of Cathy’s experience and then I will explain the psychology.
“Ski the gaps, not the trees”
That always seemed to be one of the silliest pieces of advice I was given as a novice skier. Let’s get real here. I might face-plant in the powder of the gaps and fill my goggles with snow, but the gaps aren’t going to hurt me. Those trees, though…..
Those trees are evil. I may not be an irresistible force on skis but those trees are undoubtedly immovable objects. When you run into them at speed, it hurts!
“The skis will go where you look.” That was also clearly nonsense. I’ve had my two skis abruptly part ways and head in two entirely different directions, neither one where I was looking, and the results weren’t pretty.
I learnt to ski as an adult and it was a slow, awkward process, driven by conscious learning rather than the intuitive discovery of children. With time, I came to realise that some advice only applies once you are good enough to use it.
Gradually, my ski control became a sub-conscious process, my body learnt to make the fine, intuitive adjustments faster than I could deliberately think them through and it became true that the skis would go where I focused. I started to see that if you skied down a slope staring straight at a tree, you’d ski into it.
Nevertheless, I certainly wasn’t going to ski through a forest without keeping a wary eye on where exactly those trees were. It still hurt to run into them! The challenge was to see how far I could push the tree into my peripheral vision while still having a beady eye on it.
The result was a series of heart-stopping near misses. Somehow the tree would sidle imperceptibly towards me and then abruptly leap into my path, resulting in a frantic swerve, a high-speed wobble and probably a crash into a snow-drift.
Finally it dawned on me that the truth was simple: you get what you focus on. A tree in my peripheral vision was still a tree I was obsessed with, afraid of – drawing my attention away from where I actually wanted to go.
I’m not suggesting you ski into a forest without taking an overview – a rapid mental snapshot of the nature of trees, the depth of the snow, the angle of the slope. At that moment I identify the obstacles I need to avoid and plot the line of gaps that will carry me safely through.
But once I’ve committed to the descent, then I need to let go of all the possible problems and give my full attention to success – focus on the gaps, one leading to the next and the next, slide my way through in an exhilarating fast dance to where the slopes open up below.
Ski the gaps, not the trees. Focus on what you want, not on what might stop you. It turns out to be very good advice.
Sarah shares the psychology behind Cathy’s experiences, and tools to help us all focus on success
Have you ever had one of those ‘I got what I focused on’ moments? I know I’ve had plenty, and I’m sure most readers will have their own experiences of that realisation – whether you wanted it or not, you got what you got because that was where you’d placed your focus!
These experiences are sometimes referred to as ‘self-fulfilling prophecies’. We have an uncanny knack of expecting something to happen, usually based on our beliefs, and then behaving in a such way that our expectations become reality. We’ve proved our beliefs to be right and so we’ve further strengthened them. This is all well and good when it is a positive belief or expectation. However if our focus is based on a negative or limiting belief we may well get exactly what we don’t want.
When Cathy enters the tree thinking ‘if I hit a tree I’ll hurt myself ‘ or ‘there are so many trees it’s difficult to ski my way round them’, she finds the trees have a knack of leaping into her path…… and her belief that they are difficult to ski is confirmed.
When she switches her focus to ‘ski the gaps’ with the expectation that they will carry her safely through, she’s challenging that previously held ‘limiting belief’. By focusing on directing her skis where she wants to go, she enjoys an ‘exhilarating fast dance’ through the trees, a positive, self-affirming experience. With each successful experience, she reinforces a new ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where ‘one gap leads to the next’.
10 steps for creating self-fulfilling prophecies that will focus you towards success in work, leisure and sport:
- Identify what you want to achieve and how you will know you’ve achieved it.
- Notice when your limiting beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies occur and hold you back – what triggers them? Note down your limiting beliefs.
- Replace the limiting beliefs with ‘believable and achievable’ positive beliefs that focus on what you want to achieve.
- Think about and vividly imagine what success would look and feel like.
- Look for and collect evidence (e.g. past successes) to support these new positive beliefs
- Develop new self-talk phrases to support these new positive beliefs.
- Before any potential ‘trigger’ situations connect with your new positive beliefs, feelings and self-talk.
- Enjoy achieving – remember how good it feels.
- Practice, practice, practice.
- Decide how you will stretch yourself even further
July 13, 2015
June 2015 I found myself in San Francisco supporting my husband Adam Younger, who was competing in the iconic Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon to be held on the Sunday. 1100 Friday morning we discovered that there was a test swim at 0700 the following day and the organisers had opened up an extra 10 places. Loving open water swimming and a challenge – and not wanting to miss out on what might be a once in a life time opportunity – I signed up.
With less than 20hrs to prepare myself I started to reflect on just what this meant. Approx 1.5 mile swim from a boat just off Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. The water is notoriously cold and the currents notoriously strong (the majority of the swim is across the current). I’d swam in the sea (England) about 5 times this season for up to 25 mins/swim in temperatures from 11C – 15C (no pool swimming) – so I wasn’t swim fit and was relying on my general fitness to get me through. On the plus side I had my open water swimming kit with me (in case we found some great swimming spots during our holiday after the triathlon), I’m used to swimming off the Isle of Wight where we also have strong currents and the early season sea temperature is similar, this was a test swim for the organisers, with professional swim coaches/guides swimming with us, so no pressure to swim fast or even complete as they even wanted to test their rescue/recovery systems! I realised I would be somewhat out of my comfort zone and this was definitely to be one of those ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ (Susan Jeffers) experiences.
0615 the next day we were given an very thorough briefing and loaded on to two boats before heading out to Alcatraz. We were a really mixed gang of experience, confidence and anxiety levels. Some obviously very nervous, and as we got further from the San Francisco waterfront, I too was becoming increasingly anxious about the size of the challenge I’d taken on. We had a short delay waiting for some very large ships to clear the shipping channel we were about to swim across – which only added to the nerves and the wind had now increased so instead of a calm sea it was reasonably choppy with wind against current.
Then it was time to jump off the boats and start our swim……I’m not one to prolong the agony of ‘pre-start anxiety’ so was in the first wave of swimmers to jump in. The first pleasant surprise was the water temperature wasn’t as cold as I was expecting (I later discovered this was due to a lack of snow melt in the Sierra Nevada). For the first 5-10 mins I was really excited to be started on my journey and loving my challenge. I was struggling to get my breathing under control and relax into my swimming. I usually breathe alternate sides, every third stroke and can easily settle into this within a few minutes. I put it down to the initial excitement and choppy sea.
However after 10-15 mins I found myself in a cycle of negative self-talk which was increasing my anxiety levels and not only preventing me from getting my breathing under control but making my breathing worse (short, shallow, almost hyperventilating).
‘Alcatraz still looks very near and the city a long long way’
‘have I really got the general fitness to do this?’
‘the sea is getting really rough…not sure I can tough it out’
‘I could just stick my arm up and get hauled out – but I don’t want the embarrassment of being the only one not to finish or to be last’
‘I’m not sure I can do this’
‘what if the current sweeps me past the beach we are aiming for?’
‘if only I could get my breathing under control, it’s all over the place….’
oops – time to remember I’m sport psychologist – and to be my own client. What would I recommend to a client in this situation? Focus on my breathing and use positive words/phrase about what I want to be feeling and what I want to achieve. So on my inhale found myself saying ‘Now I am calm’ and on my exhale alternating between ‘I am really enjoying this swim’ or ‘I can complete this swim’. I also remembered the advice from the briefing about taking time to take in the scenery from the unusual sea-level perspective – noticing Golden Gate Bridge, the waterfront, various iconic buildings, Alcatraz becoming more distant and San Francisco closer. Having switched myself into this more positive and mindful attitude I found myself really relaxing into the swim and thoroughly enjoying my surroundings.
And then time passed quickly and I was on the last push across a back eddy to land at the scheduled landing spot, the beach next to one of the St Francis Yacht Club. A few high fives and emotional hugs with my fellow swimmers before looking back to Alcatraz Island and taking a few moments to reflect on how great it felt to have taken on the challenge, overcome my self-doubt and negative demons and retaken control of myself to enjoy what was an amazing and most likely once in a lifetime swimming challenge and journey.
What a fabulous reminder and lifetime memory of successfully feeling the fear and doing it anyway!
January 4, 2014
Amazing resilience and mental toughness is being demonstrated by The Scott Expedition team Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere during their extremely challenging expedition in Antarctica, particularly during recent days.
Resilience is the ability to absorb stress, pressure, feedback, or personal challenge without being affected, or deflected from one’s own purpose. It means “bouncing back” and even “bouncing forward” from challenging experiences. It is thought that resilience is a mixture of behaviours, thoughts, and actions that anyone can develop (i.e. it is not something that people either have or do not have).
Ben and Tarka have demonstrated the 3 C’s OF RESILIENCE: CONTROL – COMMITMENT – CHALLENGE
- Control: they have been very clear with their expectations as to who or what is responsible for what happens. For example they have no control over the weather, terrain, etc, and have to deal with it as and when necessary. However they do have had control over their purpose, planning and preparation, the decisions they make and the actions they have taken as the expedition has progressed.
- Commitment: they have had a clear sense of self, team and purpose – staying on course, even when the going gets tough. Commitment requires having clear and stretching goals, planning for the ‘what if’ scenarios, using effective coping strategies and knowing when to ask for help.
- Challenge: They have risen to and overcome challenges as they have encountered them and are comfortable and confident in dealing with changing and uncertain situations.
“Courage is resilience to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” Mark Twain
Mental toughness is defined as having high self awareness and the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviours in a way that delivers sustained performance and success across a wide range of situations. Ben and Tarka have demonstrated the four pillars of ‘Mental Toughness’ identified by Jones & Moorhouse (2008)
- They’ve kept their head in very stressful and challenging conditions – enabling them to make well thought through decisions.
- They’ve stayed strong in their self-belief to complete the expedition – and when necessary made appropriate adjustments to ensure achievement of the expedition.
- They’ve made motivation work for them – they’ve used their goal focussed determination to overcome some very challenging conditions and still have a very strong motivation to succeed.
- They’ve stayed focused on the things that matter – on how they achieve their bigger goal through looking after themselves and each other, and given the challenges and circumstances they are faced with, making the best decisions that will help them progress towards successful completion of this hugely challenging expedition.
November 8, 2013
Extreme expeditions are high risk physically and mentally. I am very excited to have been asked to provide psychological support to the Scott Expedition. Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are very aware that their journey across Antarctica to complete Scott’s 1,800-mile return journey to the South Pole on foot will be pushing the physical and psychological boundaries of human potential. As part of their psychological preparation they thought it would be a good idea to get an insight into their own and each other’s personality, to make most of their strengths and reduce the potentially life-threatening impact of any default ‘dark side’ behaviours that might come out when the going gets really tough.
To achieve this we used two personality questionnaires:
- The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) is designed to assess the ‘bright’ side, that is aspects of personality that promote success. This can reveal areas of strengths and some interpersonal tendencies that might cause problems.
- The Hogan Development Survey (HDS) identifies the ‘darker’ side of personality, revealing what we might experience when people are stressed. These ‘darker’ sides of our personality can affect an individual’s leadership style and behaviour. Under normal circumstances these characteristics can be strengths. However, when stressed, tired, hungry or otherwise distracted these risk factors may become dysfunctional, impeding effectiveness and eroding the quality of relationships and decisions.
In an extreme environment where Ben and Tarka are interdependent for survival having this intra and inter-personal awareness gives them greater ability to manage themselves and each other in the potentially challenging situations they might encounter.
Ben’s profile reveals he is friendly, warm and popular, enjoys being in the limelight and exciting others about his projects. He thrives in adventurous, high risk situations, is highly ambitious, self-sufficient, competitive, confident and comfortable in a leadership role. Whilst he enjoys the bigger picture aspects of the expedition, he is reasonably organised and reliable when it comes to managing the day to day tasks critical to their survival. He is able to focus on what needs to be achieved and remain calm and composed under pressure. Ben prefers learning on an as and when needs basis and is curious, creative, analytical and good at developing well thought through solutions before deciding what to do.
However in high stress/pressure situations or when, cold, tired and hungry Ben may become overly confident and manipulative about doing things his way and on occasions may become a little impulsive and impatient. Ben prefers to avoid conflict and so may struggle to address any differences of opinion or other issues as and when they arise.
Ben’s profile also suggests he may experience an inner conflict/dilemma between his reserved /self-sufficient dark sides and:
- his colourful, limelight seeking dark side
- his friendly, caring, conflict avoidant ‘bright side’
Tarka’s profile reveals he also thrives in high risk, adventurous situations, is highly ambitious, self-sufficient, confident and comfortable in a leadership role. However he may sometimes come across as ruthless, dominant and competitive. Like Ben, Tarka enjoys the bigger picture aspects of the expedition, however Tarka has a more unorthodox approach to developing ideas and solutions to expedition challenges. He also has an ability to focus on what needs to be achieved, however may struggle to pay attention to the detailed, more routine tasks that may be key to their survival. In a crisis Tarka is likely to remain reasonably calm and make a realistic assessment of the situation before deciding what to do.
In high stress/pressure situations or when tired, cold and hungry Tarka may not listen to Ben, may be dismissive of Ben’s ideas and/or may struggle to persuade Ben why his rather unorthodox solutions/ideas might be best.
The likelihood of their ‘dark sides’ emerging is reduced and/or moderated due to their ability to remain calm and rational when under pressure and they both thrive in adventurous, high risk situations.
Following their individual and team feedback, given the insights they’d gained, we discussed how they can best manage themselves and each other to maintain psychological fitness throughout this challenging expedition.
this blog has been written with permission from Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere
December 31, 2012
Coaching is now one of the ‘must haves’ for people who want to achieve. However feedback from people and organisations I work with suggests that finding the right coach can prove challenging, confusing and even overwhelming due to the many different approaches and options. If you are looking for a coach to help you achieve your New Year resolutions and goals for the coming year here are a few hints and tips to help you select a great coach.
Coaching is an industry that has seen vast growth over the last decade, in terms of the number of coaches, the number of people and organisations using coaching and the wide range of coaching specialities (executive, business, skills, performance, career, life, team, etc).
An effective coach will help individuals and teams on their journey to professional and personal success. Research suggests that coaching is hugely powerful as a means to helping people to identify and achieve their visions and goals. There are many excellent coaches from a wide range of backgrounds, e.g. training, human resources, psychology, mentoring, counselling or from other professional backgrounds for example financial (wealth coaches) and health and fitness (health coaches), which should enable you to find the right coach for your needs.
However those considering hiring a coach should be aware that coaching is, as yet, an unregulated industry and therefore it is not compulsory for a coach to have any form of training, qualification or membership in order to set up in practice as a coach. As a result there are some coaches out there from whom the client has little or no protection should they experience ‘mal practice’. Being that a coach works with people’s thinking and behavioural styles, I am concerned about the lack of regulation, as coach selection has the potential to be a minefield for those considering using a coach to help them achieve their goals.
A good coach will have membership of professional body, with Code of Conduct, Ethics and Complaints procedure, and which requires evidence of ‘fitness to practice’ (rather than just accepting anyone who pays the membership fee!). They should also have professional indemnity insurance and if UK based be registered under the Data Protection Act.
Over the last decade many organisations have sought to be ‘the’ professional body for coaches. I’d strongly recommend selecting a coach that is recognised by one of the leading professional bodies (e.g. International Coach Federation (ICF), European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), Association for Coaching (AC), or equivalent in your country). In addition there are longer established professional regulatory bodies who now include coaching as an area of professional expertise (for example in the UK The British Psychological Society’s Special Group in Coaching Psychology and The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).
So before you engage a coach remember to check out whether the coach:
• has a qualification or accreditation from a recognised professional body
• adheres to a professional code of conduct
• understands the boundaries of coaching
• offers an all important ‘chemistry’ meeting
• walks the talk – the best coaches always do!
Wishing you a highly successful year.
Links to my related blogs:
August 23, 2012
I was completely obsessed with the Olympics and fascinated by some of the stories and insights into Team GBs outstanding performances, particularly the insight into the cycling team’s ‘Marginal Gains’ philosophy. Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s Performance Director in a BBC interview said “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
From my work as a sport psychologist and executive coach, and my own sporting achievements I know that attention to detail and ‘Marginal Gains’ is critical to success. It reminds me of a saying my father would often use to encourage me to save pocket money ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’
So how do we break down business or sporting performance to the micro level that will help you focus on and deliver marginal gains? My top tip is to focus on how you set and achieve your goals:
Top tip 1: Set your goals using a top-down approach – as Stephen Covey suggests in his book 7 habits of highly effective people Habit #2 ‘Begin with the end in mind’:
- What is your vision/dream goals? e.g. to be the best in the World, the company vision
- To achieve your vision/dream goal what outcome goals do you want to achieve? e.g. to set a world record, to be top 3 organisation in industry by revenue
- To achieve your outcome goals what performance goals do you want to achieve? To beat the World record by 1 second, to increase revenue by 10%
- To achieve your performance goals what process goals do you want to achieve? What do you actually need to do? e.g. strategic, financial, technical, behavioural, environmental, psychological, physical, etc e.g. better cycling position, improve client retention,
- To achieve your process goals – what are the ‘marginal gains’ goals you want to achieve? e.g. 1% improvement in aerodynamics (bike, athlete, helmet, etc), 1% improvement across all client satisfaction ratings.
Top tip 2: set about achieving your goals in a bottom-up approach. Focussing on and achieving your ‘marginal gains’ and ‘process’ goals will provide solid foundations on which to improve performance for the achievement of your higher level goals.
April 18, 2012
Think back to 1st January 2012 and the New Year resolutions you made. How many have you achieved or kept up?
Like many you probably started the New year with the best of intentions, to achieve some goals, kick some old habits, action new habits….. Now nearly 4 months on, how are you doing……..have you achieved your goals? Are you successfully enjoying new habits? Or, have you found yourself making excuses for not turning intention into action. Typical excuses I hear when coaching clients are ‘I don’t have the time’, ‘I’ve other things on my mind’, ‘I feel awkward/uncomfortable’, ‘it’s too hard’, ‘I’m too busy….’, etc. You are not alone, behavioural change takes time and commitment – research suggests it can take anything from 3 weeks to 3 months, depending on different factors which might include how ingrained old habits are, complexity of the new habit/behavioural change, how committed you are and how frequently you practice.
Prochaska and DiClimente’s Transtheorectical model of behavioural change describes behavioural change as a five stage process that to turn intention into action and sustainable change.
Stage 1 Precontemplation: This is when you are not aware of the need to change, or you may have unsuccessfully tried to change. You might not know what you could change, or you’ve become comfortable with how you are, or you might be scared of change. At this stage you are likely to resist offers of help or even ignore/be blind to information that suggests you would benefit from changing!
Stage 2 Contemplation: You’ve become aware of the need to change and are intending to change in next six months, but haven’t yet thought about how to do it or committed to action. You are open to information, however might procrastinate or become stuck as you weigh up the pros and cons of changing.
Stage 3 Preparation: You are actively open to change and consciously thinking about your options and planning action within the next month, including how to overcome barriers to action. This is a good time to enlist help and support.
Stage 4 Action: At this stage you are going for it, change is happening and old habits are dying or have died! At this stage it is critical you have planned for overcoming any barriers to change and to be watchful for relapsing back into the old behaviours and habits. This is a time when you will benefit from help and support.
Stage 5 Maintenance: The new habits and behaviours are automatic, you’ve been confidently and successfully doing things differently for a while – you are now in the maintenance stage. You still need to be aware of situations that might trigger a relapse, and if you do relapse it’s important to re-visit what has worked for you and how you achieved change. Again this is a time when you can benefit from support to maintain progress.
So thinking back to those New Year resolutions for 2012, what stage are you at? The very action of setting New Year resolutions suggests you’ve at least reached contemplation. What about the preparation to move you to action? Congratulations if you are at the Action stage and are moving to maintenance? Or, are you struggling to move through the stages, finding yourself procrastinating, feeling stuck, coming up against barriers (real or perceived). If so you might find some of the following questions useful: ‘How would I like to be?’ ‘What needs to happen for me to move forward?’‘What is happening already?’, ‘what resources do I have’ ‘what are the different ways I can achieve [insert your resolution or goal]?
All the best in moving to the next stage.
January 18, 2012
Reading the recent BBC article on how endurance sports are becoming more and more extreme http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16548236?postId=111448477#comment_111448477. Nowadays a marathon or iron-man event is often just the starting point for the real ‘ultra’ endurance events as participants love discovering just how much further they can push themselves. Equally in the continually challenging economic climate I’m hearing managers and leaders likening their work to endurance events e.g. ‘it feels like we are scaling Everest’, ‘I’m running through treacle 6 days a week’.
And for all the physical fitness that is required, the mind also has to last the distance, as the saying goes ‘what the mind believes the body achieves’ . This requires both good mental toughness (see my earlier blog http://sarahfenwick.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/mental-toughness-and-resilience-on-ice/) and good self-management (i.e. knowing and managing our own personality).
We will each have our own interpretation of ‘endurance’ events in our lives and we each have our own personality make up that can help or hinder us in seeing them through – whether that be to take part and complete or be a winner. Typically the stronger (more extreme) aspects of our personality provide us with strengths to draw on especially when things are going well. However some of these personality strengths also have a ‘dark’ or flip side. And in the moments when things aren’t going so well and we are under pressure, feeling stressed, maybe tired, cold and hungry, what were strengths if we overuse or over-rely on them, can become our ‘dark sides’, potentially leading to dysfunctional behaviours (e.g. confidence turning to arrogance) and a negative impact on our and/or our team’s performance or even derailment.
When working with individuals and/or teams in business, sport and extreme sport/expeditions I have found using the Hogan Development Survey questionnaire invaluable in helping people to identify their potential ‘dark sides’ (Rivers of Ice Expedition Hogan Personality case study). Once you’ve got to know your own ‘dark sides’ (some even name them and play with them – especially good in teams!) you can learn how to manage them so that when the going gets tough you learn to keep them as strengths and help you to be one of those who makes it to finish and achieves your goals.
April 14, 2011
I felt very proud when Anne Scoular of Meyler Campbell (www.meylercampbell.com ), one of the ‘thought leaders’ in business and executive coaching asked me to contribute too and sense check a couple of chapters in her recently published Financial Times Guide to Business Coaching (available on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/FT-Guide-Business-Coaching-Guides/dp/027373444X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1302778862&sr=8-1 )
Anne refers to my work on the application of techniques to develop mental toughness and resilience in the chapter on ‘Building Coaching Skills, the different approaches’. Additionally she sought my advice and input on approaches and tools to include in the chapter, ‘Advanced Coaching: Motivation and Change’.
I feel very honoured to have been asked and very proud to be listed as a contributor.