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The art of focus – Ski the gaps, not the trees!

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.

 

Focus, self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting beliefs

The art of focus. Skiing beautiful powder through the Rialb forest in Andorra, my winter backyard. Skier: Curig, photo: Cathy O’Dowd.

 

 

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:

  1. Identify what you want to achieve and how you will know you’ve achieved it.
  2. Notice when your limiting beliefs or self-fulfilling prophecies occur and hold you back – what triggers them? Note down your limiting beliefs.
  3. Replace the limiting beliefs with ‘believable and achievable’ positive beliefs that focus on what you want to achieve.
  4. Think about and vividly imagine what success would look and feel like.
  5. Look for and collect evidence (e.g. past successes) to support these new positive beliefs
  6. Develop new self-talk phrases to support these new positive beliefs.
  7. Before any potential ‘trigger’ situations connect with your new positive beliefs, feelings and self-talk.
  8. Enjoy achieving – remember how good it feels.
  9. Practice, practice, practice.
  10. Decide how you will stretch yourself even further

Find more about Cathy on her website, Twitter or LinkedIn

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Managing anxiety and self-talk during Escape from Alcatraz test swim – being my own client!

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.

 

Open Water Swim Alcatraz to San Francisco

Approx track of swim Alcatraz to San Francisco

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).

Sarah Fenwick lower right swimmer

Alcatraz test swim with Golden Gate Bridge in background, I’m lower right swimmer

‘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!

 

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Scott Expedition great example of Resilience and Mental Toughness

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)

  1. They’ve kept their head in very stressful and challenging conditions – enabling them to make well thought through decisions.
  2. They’ve stayed strong in their self-belief to complete the expedition – and when necessary made appropriate adjustments to ensure achievement of the expedition.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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Scott Expedition – with 24hr daylight where are the ‘dark sides’?

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.

Click here for a case study on the Rivers of Ice Expedition

this blog has been written with permission from Ben Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere

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