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The TRUTH behind Mental Health & Performance in Sport

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Knowing WHO and WHAT you are as a Human being, will improve your experience of life!

When we hear about mental health these days, we often think about performers with poor psychological functioning and behaviours, which are troublesome or destructive to self and others. In this article I’d like to suggest an entirely different perspective on mental health:

What if, all human beings possess an innate divine gift of psychological health, an inner resilience and well-being that can never be lost, or damaged?

What if, by accessing this natural resource you could expand your capacity for insight and deep realizations about how you’re using your mind to navigate your career path and life?

As the former National Coach for Scotland (Netball), I notice that organizations generally provide psychological support at either end of the performance spectrum – those at the top in elite and professional sporting roles searching for marginal gains, and the competitive edge of consistency under pressure and performers whom fall into harms way, and suffer from eating disorders, anxiety, anger, depression, fatigue, and addiction.

But what of the thousands of performers involved in sport in the middle, the athletes and coaches/managers, who appear to be progressing and developing well and who seem to be coping with the demands of the modern game – how do we support and nurture their inspirations, talent and health?

Whatever the level of game you’re working, there is one thing after 20 years involvement in performance sport, I am absolutely sure:

‘Your experience will be determined by the quality of your thinking and this is dependent on your understanding of how you, as a human being, use your mind’.

Do you remember back in the 1960’s when the predominant training regime in elite team sports was of technical and tactical in nature, an on the field type performance development program, the time before physical conditioning? In fact, if you were a strength and conditioning coach you were certainly out of work!

I was talking to my mentor, Dr George Pransky and he tells me the story of Arnold Jacob Red Auerbach, the coach of the Boston Celtics, who operated as some would say, ahead of his time. Red Auerbach followed an insight about the future game of NBA basketball; he dared to tread on unchartered territory.

The secret was simple, Red Auerbach, was one of the first coaches to recognize a piece of the game, the fast break, that required a special type of fitness, which wasn’t attainable from their regular training program.

His players were some of the first to clean up their physical bodies, eliminate the use of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes and focus on a new type of fitness training, which has now evolved as physical conditioning!

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach 1956

Bill_Russell_and_Red_Auerbach_1956 (left) sitting on the bench next to Auerbach during a game at Boston Garden on December 26, 1956. Bob Cousy can be seen in the background. (Jack O'Connell - The Sporting News Archives)

Red Auerbach was a pioneer, redefining basketball as a game dominated by team play and defense and for introducing the fast break, a potent offensive weapon. He would force opponents to take low percentage shots from farther distances, (there was no three-point arc at the time), for misses to be grabbed by rebounding specialists and passed to elite fast-break distributors, who would either pass or sprint down for an easy slam dunk or layup.

Red’s inspiration and love for the game, led him to go where no one had ever gone before, he drafted players from far and wide, who had the capacity to put the team before individual performances. He also firmly believed in breaking down color barriers in the NBA.

The Boston Celtics were renowned for being the best-conditioned and toughest team in the NBA. It was highly noticeable that the Celtics would leave opponents during the 4th period, and close out games with an envious freshness; no signs of tired legs on the jump shots, or lack of speed and power through the court, in fact their sharp awareness, concentration and accuracy on the fast break, their trademark, in the finishing stages of games became a disturbing distraction for all opponents.

The Celtics went on to dominate a dynasty that garnered 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons. The streak of 8 consecutive championships is the longest streak of consecutive championships in US professional sports history.

So what does this have to do with mental health and your performance in life, now in 2016?

It seems to me that back in the 1960’s, physical strength and power was a unique and special ‘add-on’ that progressive coaches adopted for the competitive edge. In time, of course, history tells us that strength and conditioning, being an athlete, became a core fundamental requirement of all elite performance programs.

What if, we now have the technology for so called 'psychological conditioning' available to everyone involved in sport, not just specific groups at either end of the performance spectrum?

What if sportspeople at all levels no longer had to suffer times feeling trapped, not enough, and unappreciated but experienced new elevated levels of contentment and confidence, no matter what the circumstances and environment?

Let’s look into the future, say 2020, 2024, 2028, 2032?

  • Will organizations enjoy a sustainable workforce from diverse backgrounds, no longer needing to shuffle just a few applicants for sporting positions but receive a glut of people, willing to step up, unafraid, ready to be creative and make a difference in the world.
  • Can you imagine personnel in powerful influential roles in the world of elite and professional sport concerned more about what’s going on in the minds of their athletes/coaches than in their bodies?
  • Will you see performance development programs designed around how sports people use their minds, rather than sport science dominated by performance analysis and what we can do with our physicality?
  • Is it feasible that, an understanding of state of mind or levels of Consciousness will be the core fundamental performance variable at the base of all sport training programs and no longer an ‘add-on’ for the limited few?
  • Will current behavioral based disciplinary policies be redundant, regarded ineffective and useless to improve/impact emotional and physical outbursts?

If as I have suggested, every human being has innate mental health, and well-being, and the capacity to experience a rich and satisfying quality of life irrespective of outside circumstances, what then happens to sports people?

Why is it they get so caught up, disconnected and appear troubled and distracted in their passionate endeavor?

How is it they often fall short in terms of consistency and desired outcomes, and fail to maximize valuable resources?

Why is it people don’t put themselves forward, sit back and let opportunities pass them by?

Nowadays, I point sportspeople away from living like a victim of the field, instead they avoid the downward spiral of adversity, with confusion and doubt, and fully engage with life, completely involved, full out and fearless as they settle back to what they already and naturally have going for them as a human being, their innate resilience and the spiritual intelligence of wisdom commons sense and instinct.

What do you make of the following statements?

  • Human beings tend to make poor decisions, act out, even abuse others when they are in low moods/states of mind and conversely are innovative, instinctive, inspiring and communicate well when they're in high moods/states of mind.
  • All human beings have moments of low and high states of mind - conscious states are fluid; we go in and out of them all day and night long.
  • Human beings tend not to make a connection between their own psychology (state of mind) and the quality of their work and lives.
  • Human beings are at their best in terms of choices, ideas and solutions, when their minds are relatively clear, yet traditional psychology concentrates on working through behaviours, beliefs and personality traits which compounds a busy mind!
  • It is not a requirement of being human that we take our thinking seriously - culturally we have inadvertently and innocently learned to give meaning to what it is we assume we hear and see from the outside then act from this place of spectacular illusion.
  • When human beings experience low-level insecure, fearful thinking they tend to get self-absorbed, extremely self-conscious and under perform versus when engaged in high level thinking, you're open and confident, you listen deeply and are responsive to the moment.

The world recently watched the All Blacks perform and you could almost touch, see, taste and smell their mental well-being and connection to inner peace (soul). I’m sure very few would suggest that the All Blacks show any signs of being distracted by extraneous low level thinking either on or off the field!

The All Blacks have learned, how to use their minds, in a way, which is superior to the opposition, yet natural to being a human!

 Steve Hansen All Blacks

Steve Hansen - All Blacks Head Coach (www.superxv.com)

As a team they unite their healthy minds as ONE, they align themselves to the energy behind all life, pure, selfless, and rich in love and humility. This is not an intellectual understanding, which is probably why there is often a resistance amongst sport scientists to look in this direction, but for sure it is logical and scientific!

This way of being in the world deeply connected to soul and spirit IS a significant part of the Maori culture but it’s not limited or restricted to the Maori’s, it points to understanding who and what you are as a human being, and that relates to all of us!

Sports people grinding out mediocre levels of performance or who sadly find themselves completely dysfunctional, are lost in a world of extraneous insecure thinking, which they see as permanent, real and compelling, (when you’re in it, it does feel real – me too!).

The good news, however, if you’re open to it is, you are not stuck with what you think or who you think you have become, this is simply a product of how you are using your mind. It IS possible to learn/understand/realize, about your natural FREEWILL to approach life connected either to your innate confidence, resilience and well-being or come from a place of negativity, fear and insecurity.

Understanding how your mind works is the differentiator between showing up, clear minded not doubtful or irritated, creative rather than frustrated, calm not stressed, innovative instead of restricted and limited, collaborative rather than argumentative - it gives you the psychological freedom to open up to possibilities and opportunities, which were otherwise invisible to you.

As I see it, the more sportspeople look in the direction of connecting to their innate mental health and well-being, the quicker we’ll reduce/eliminate suffering and at the same time, raise the bar to what’s possible for humans, evolving the modern world of elite and professional sport with health, grace, dignity and humility.

Just as Red Auerbach did in the 60’s; now is a great time to be a pioneer in the field of elite and professional sport. Just ahead of RIO 2016, and CWG’s 2018, here is a revolutionary new paradigm, which has the capacity to break through another boundary to brand new horizons!

Warm wishes


(The foundation for my work is based on the Three Principles of Mind, Consciousness and Thought as discovered by the late Sydney Banks – Philosopher and Author – 1931 -2009).

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