Dr Steve Peters is the renowned sports psychiatrist who worked with Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton during Great Britain Cycling’s impressive Olympic medal haul at London 2012.
Speaking at The FA Licensed Coaches’ Club conference in December 2012, Peters stressed that the very best athletes develop methods to manage their inner ‘chimp’, which is the emotional and irrational part of the brain triggered by anxiety and fear.
Peters also works in football, and has recently taken up a part-time consultancy role at Liverpool FC.
After December’s coaching event Dr Peters invited the 600 attendees to send through questions on the subject. Here’s a selection of the best questions and Dr Peters’ responses.
Was it a natural leap to move from ‘psychopath’ to cycle path?
Not really! It was by pure chance that I was asked to give an opinion on a cyclist and then this escalated.
After four years of part-time work I took the jump and went full-time with cycling. It was a very different world but my work is with people and how their minds function therefore the field in which I go is not the important aspect.
You eluded in your presentation that IQ is fixed and there's nothing we can do about it? Is this correct and do you think it's perhaps sending the wrong message for us as coaches?
IQ is the recognised psychological means to assess a person’s intellectual intelligence. There is evidence from research that this is fairly fixed and cannot be altered. By revising on how to do intelligence tests you can falsely improve your mark but this isn’t a real improvement in intellectual ability.
However, IQ is not the only form of intelligence. Learning from situations and becoming stress wise are two examples of different forms of intelligence and these can be improved. We can all build on our skills and knowledge, which will lead to better performance.
How big is the task ahead of you at Liverpool FC and does the average footballer understand you?
I think the task is big but not impossible. The biggest plus is having someone like [manager] Brendan Rogers and his staff to work with. They are insightful and we work together so it’s a partnership.
This makes a massive difference. As with all skills it will take time. How far we can go will depend on how we maximise our skills and clearly also on the footballer's ability to play football.
I can only comment on the footballers that I have worked with so far and they have all been very positive and engaging so no problem there.
Being understood is about my ability to explain things at an appropriate level. So if a footballer doesn’t understand then I guess I need to work harder!
How would you work with a person like Paolo Di Canio? How would you tame the beast?
Whenever I work with anyone I work with him or her as an individual. I always begin by establishing what it is that they want and why.
I then look at the experience that they currently have. We then together explore their mind and how it is working. We then make adjustments and practice these in order to effect changes. It always relies on the person wanting to change and making the commitment to do so.
How do we get rid of the ‘chimps’ on the touchlines at junior football matches?
If you stop and think about it, only the person who has the Chimp is capable of dealing with it. So if they choose not to or if they willingly use their Chimp then there is a limit to how much you can manage their Chimp.
You can influence their Chimp by setting rules or sometimes by discussing with them what they think they are achieving or what disruptive influence they are having. Some people would be more amenable than others.
I have had to deal with disruptive parents in sport before. Most did appreciate being involved and discussing the problem and changed their behaviour following the discussions. Some chose not to listen and rules then have to be made and enforced!
It seems a lot of people around me only have the ‘chimp’ in their head. So far I'm strong enough to prevent them from controlling me. Are there any simple ways to keep doing so?
It is tough. Once you can see that people are in Chimp mode it can become frustrating because you can see how it isn’t helpful.
However, if you can see they are in Chimp mode then it’s a case of accepting that and working with it. Sometimes by helping to manage their Chimp they will calm down and flick across into Human mode.
Accepting that this is the way that people are built can be a hard thing to do. Once you accept this then learning to manage people’s Chimps is the next step.
As an everyday human I can be a ‘chimp’ quite often, but as a coach I can be reflective. Is there hope if I put the time in for my everyday human?
My experience with this model is that if a person is determined and makes time, just a few minutes each day, they will definitely get improvement in their everyday life. It’s like gaining a level in sport; you have to work at it to maintain it and the more you work at it the better you get.
Do you believe that different nationalities have the ability to control the chimp better than others in sport?
Yes. We all have a cultural influence as well as a genetic influence. Even the influence of a family upbringing can have a large part in how you manage your emotions.
You mentioned that motivation is 'useless'. Does that mean that we should ignore it when working with our young players?
I pushed this point heavily because I hear so much about getting everyone motivated. Motivation is not a bad thing. It is an emotional aspect to help drive us with enthusiasm. Sadly, it is fickle and constantly needs topping up. So if a player is motivated this isn’t bad, it can only help.
However, you don’t need to rely on motivation to get a job done or to be successful. You need to rely on commitment.
The Human within us works with commitment. This doesn’t vary because it’s based not on emotion but on logic. Logic doesn’t change, so people with thought-through commitment don’t allow their emotions to side-track them.
Commitment has a high prediction of success whereas motivation is not as predictable in leading to success. For children, being complimented and encouraged is pretty critical.
This will not only motivate them but also help them to commit to plans. It is an important lesson when [you are] young to learn to do what you have to do rather than do what you have to do only when you feel like it. Youngsters can therefore learn commitment with compliments and encouragement.
Which book did Ronnie O’Sullivan read before asking 20 pages of questions?
He read my book ‘the Chimp Paradox’. The point I was making here is just how serious he was in really getting to understand what was happening within his own mind and then working to put it right.
Read more about Dr Steve Peters’ presentation at The FA Licensed Coaches’ Club conference here