Thursday, 25 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Day 20. The chimp paradox

Dr Steve Peters - Sport Psychiatrist
I've been meaning to write about Steve Peter's book, 'The Chimp Paradox', for over a couple of months now. When I was thinking of what to write for today's entry, I realised I'd got this at the end of my list of posts I want to put online, but had neglected it. What a mistake.

As someone working on the mental side of performance, one of the highlights from this years Olympics, was the fact so many Sport Psychologists and mental skills trainers got airtime on radio and TV during Team GB's amazing success. Not only that, but I felt a sea change in that they were considered 'normal' by the audience as part of the multidisciplinary team that surrounds elite level performers. As sport has become ever more professional across the board since the 1980s; fans from sports as diverse as rugby, football, motor racing, athletics and golf have gotten more used to nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts and psychologists - amongst others appearing as part of professional sport. These have all helped individuals and teams set ever faster times, personal bests and winning performances.

But if you asked me as a trainee practitioner (one in their 7th year of professional development I'll grant you!), who is the sport psychologists sport psychologist, I'd personally say "Steve Peters." And I'd have to correct you that he isn't even a psychologist! He's a qualified psychiatrist, who happens to work in sport.

In terms of his achievements, working in conjunction with the awesome Dave Brailsford, and the rest of UK cycling, he's made a massive impact on those who've worked with him. For different reasons, both Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton contribute large parts of their success down to the good Doctor. What I like about their views of the man though, is that they would say he hasn't just improved them as athletes - and therefore winners, but that he has followed the same kind of professional care and philosophy as I subscribe to. That is to help try to help improve them as people.

This is an important point. For a lot of people trying to get into our field, if asked about what their purpose is, would probably to say to help improve athlete performance, and start off with finding out what an individual's problem is and try going about fixing that. What the likes of Peters do, is to look at the whole person and see how they can help that individual become a better person and in so doing, obtain the best out of themselves.

I don't have the space here to outline what techniques Steve uses, or why the athletes that he works with require his services, but this article by him on UK cycling's website gives you the fuller picture. Fundamentally, his method relies on an individual understanding themselves better and getting a handle on managing their emotions. Some require a little help, some a lot. But having read the chimp paradox and its methods (there isn't any sport specific advice before you dive off looking for any!), I can say that it is more a book for life, for everyone.

As someone in the field with training across the different types of psychology (cognitive behavioural, humanistic, psychoanalytic, etc), I can understand and can see the approach Steve has taken in explaining quite complex neurological and psychological concepts, and putting them in to plain English for anyone who is a lay reader. As it is his approach is cognitive behavioural, but his care through the writing as a reader has the qualities of a humanistic 'holistic' practitioner.

By this what I mean is that he gets you to look at your whole emotional and mental life and explains how the brain works so that you can implement strategies to manage the best and worst aspects of your character. There's no revolutionary change that you are asked to go through. The main premise of the book is that you have 2 brains in (almost) constant daily conflict. Your 'new' rational human brain, and your 'old' emotional chimp brain. Whilst as a person you may have quite sound rational thought, through evolution, you still have your old monkey brain which has a habit of giving you those dark thoughts; those doubts about your ability which disrupt you from achieving what you are fully capable of. One of the key things to get the best out of this book, is that you have to buy into this premise and work with the book through a number of scenarios. Once over the acceptance of the concept, the idea is that you will get a better grasp of yourself and thus your emotions and ultimately your life. Heavy going this sounds I know, but with regard to sport, I could see the immediate benefits for more low level aspects of performance, e.g. accepting your limitations, being kinder to yourself in training and understanding what is possible, whilst simultaneously pushing your own limits.

To anyone who wants to understand themselves in relation to performance and to subsequently push themselves, I advocate giving this book at try. If you want to 'train your brain', you first need to know how it functions and then build from there. I'll try and write more specifically on this approach around endurance once I've gotten past this 30 day challenge. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend reading the paradox. I'd even go so far as to say I've seen the benefit of its advice in other areas of my life beyond sport. Not a bad recommend for someone who cares for others mental well being!

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