Peak Performance

Socrates: possibly the world's first ‘new coach'

Comparing the two processes and their results always has a great impact on the course participants. They regularly laugh at the traditional instructor's efforts, but often someone adds: ‘I had one lesson just like that. I hated it and gave up golf on my very first day'. Needless to say, the beginner with whom I used ‘new coaching' was delighted and amazed by the results of her self-learning progress. A picture is worth more than a thousand words! If weather, time and facilities permit, I then take the group outside and set them up in pairs with an inexperienced ‘new coach' coaching a beginner player. The progress often surprises again, but more importantly it breaks the traditional assumptions and beliefs listed earlier. The still inexperienced coach, who knows nothing about golf, is thrilled at the ability discovered by the player and the implication that it is perfectly possible to coach someone in a skill that he himself does not acquire. For the player, discovering that she can learn a new skill without being dependent on an expert is also thrilling.

An experience like this is worth more than two thousand words. If this ‘new coaching' really were new, one might have expected sports educators to be anxious to take it on, even though the British sports establishment is renowned for being unadventurous and resistant to fresh ideas. But in fact there is nothing new about ‘new coaching'. Socrates, who died in 399 BC, was probably the first ‘new coach'.

More recently, some 35 years ago, the Californian tennis coach Tim Gallwey renewed the early philosopher to help with tennis. Tim wrote a book, The Inner Game of Tennis that became a best seller not just among spare time players but people from other sports. Many coaches were more sceptical, though, perhaps because the book's message seemed to threaten their livelihood. Here I reword Gallwey to summarise the Inner Game principles. You start to play the Inner Game when you realise that the opponent within your own head is more daunting than the one on the other side of the net. The outer game is played with a racket and a ball against another player; the Inner Game is played against anxiety, self-criticism, tension, frustration, a lack of self-belief, fear and anger. Your performance is your potential minus your internal obstacles.

The Inner Game process aims to eliminate these internal obstacles to performance, learning and enjoyment and thereby liberate your potential. All sports people are familiar with such internal obstacles and keen to overcome them, but far fewer share Gallwey's confidence that, as these obstacles withdraw, a natural, technically talented player somehow emerges from within, without expert input. How does this happen? The best illustrations of this process come, in my experience, from skiing, because skiers of all standards are beset by fears. There is fear of falling, fear of getting hurt, fear of looking foolish, fear of losing control, even fear of getting left behind or lost. These fears generate huge amounts of muscular tension and inappropriate defensive body postures. Remove the fear and the posture becomes natural - in other words, it self-corrects.

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How internal obstacles compromise performance

Confidence causes us to adopt a forward attitude, which is essential for skiing. By contrast, fear encourages us to lean back, causing skis to increase speed and become unstable, so compounding the fear, and so on, leading to the expected result. This is a fairly simple example of how internal obstacles compromise performance. Now let's consider a more complex illustration. When traversing a slope on skis, the correct technique for retaining ski-edge grip is to turn the shoulders outwards and face down towards the valley. At first this seems an unnatural position. Beginner skiers find it frightening and want to turn inwards to get closer to the mountain for safety, which causes them to lose ski control. Is this a technical issue, or an internal obstacle? When we help skiers to remove the fear, they naturally adopt the position that gives them the best grip, something they discover from the feedback they get from the skis.

That feedback, or ‘sensory awareness', is inaccessible when one is overwhelmed by anxiety. Equally, asking a person what he or she is feeling at the edge of the ski - the point of contact with the snow - forces them to focus their attention to find the answer. This, in turn, leaves no space for other thoughts and emotions, such as fear and the tension that accompanies it. Non-critical focused attention on experiencing (awareness) thereby dissolves internal interferences.

The increased quantity and quality of feedback and the absence of fear delivers the technically correct position for that person. There is no one correct position for everyone because we all differ in terms of size, weight distribution, strength and flexibility. There is an optimal personal style for each of us, which we only find through self-awareness. Any observer, however expert, sees only the surface, the symptom, and can offer only general advice. The problem is, though, that a learner will often take a generality as a specific and struggle to apply the advice firmly, overriding his or her own self-awareness, leading to a counterproductive increase in tension.

CoachMagasinet har i samarbejde med Dansk Coaching Institut erhvervet denne eksklusive artikel, som er leveret og skrevet af Sir John Withmore. Coachmagasinet har valgt at bringe artiklen i dens originale sprog. Dette for at give dig fuldt udbytte af tekstens indhold, og oplevelsen af det internationale særpræg artiklen har. God fornøjelse...