I learned some time ago that the best way to improve performance is to get people to relax and enjoy themselves. So picture me at the gym recently, facing the prospect of a fitness test to determine if I had made any gains since employing a personal trainer in December. I did not feel relaxed. I was not enjoying myself. No part of me believed in myself. In fact, I shied away from the treadmill, kettle bells and TRX cables that loomed before me like a pony before a pack of wolves… Oblivious of my inner drama, Jason, my personal trainer, reminded me of my starting-out score when I joined the gym, which innocently compounded my misery. I was that bad then, and could not possibly be any better now. Yet before the hour was up, I learned that I had smashed through all my previous scores, even shaving over 3 minutes off my 1-mile run-time!
Apparently, positive self-belief is not a precondition of high performance. This shocked me, and compelled me to reflect on the topic of ‘achievement'… How could I have done so well, while all the time telling myself that I would fail and should stop and go home? When I got home, later, I recalled Tim Gallwey’s thoughts on ‘Self 1’ and ‘Self 2’ from his classic book, ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’. Apparently most of our troubles come from Self 1 (The Teller) distrusting, insulting and controlling Self 2 (The Doer). Gallwey believes that we function best when Self 1 sets a goal and then allows room for Self 2 to accomplish the task. As he says of a goal orientation, ‘letting it happen is not the same as making it happen’.
This points to the heart of the relationship between these two parts of ourselves, and I believe is of importance to coaches and consultants who strive to enable high performance. Basically, Gallwey is saying that when we set out to achieve something, a part of us will inevitably and aggressively slander our best efforts - rather like me, telling myself that I’m too old for this, that I’ll only injure myself, that I’ll never succeed anyway, that I’m simply no good… With this vituperative distrust of my best efforts, unless I take action, Self 1 attempts to take over and accomplish the task - with disastrous results that could, ultimately, reinforce the negative mindset it’s spouting.
So what exactly is effective action in the face of the onslaught from Self 1? Gallwey’s belief is that beyond the initial goal-setting, Self 1 must be actively engaged in some micro-detail of the process of achievement, but not the outcome. For example, if a tennis ball is hurtling towards you, get Self 1 to spot the seam of the ball as it is spinning through the air. In my case, afraid of injury, I turned my attention to taking faster and smaller strides, and to counting how many times my foot could land squarely on the treadmill without heel-striking. The ’static’ of negativity still crackled away, but without much potency. This legerdemain allows Self 2 to prevail. It is as though the intensity of the focus on a process detail obstructs the channel through which negativity flows, and opens the channel for the undiluted tacit knowledge of Self 2 to contribute to success.
Another way of looking at this is that we can learn to stop thinking and trust the body’s innate ability to surprise us! We definitely won't succeed if we are fighting ourselves, but if we are present, and focus on and within the moment, we could break through our negative beliefs! Top athletes often talk about the importance of making the mind blank and coming to their immediacy of their senses, as a gateway to results. The body is, after all, the locus of our experience whether we are a tournament tennis player or a corporate team leader.
Unrealistic negativity is a dragon that cannot easily be slain. But it can be distracted…