Tuesday, 8 June 2010
A week spent rushing around the Hebrides attempting E7s and 8s with Tim Emmett, under the constant scrutiny of a camera team was a good learning experience. Even more so as we rounded it off with a rather soul searching set of interviews with Edi Stark (who has won a lot of awards for her ability to dig deep into the motivations of her interviewees).
Any time spent in the company of athletes like Tim is fascinating. Through our own chats, seeing each other in action and talking with Edi we could see some big differences in our approaches to hard climbing. It’s clear to me that there are several ways to skin a cat when it comes to sport performance psychological strategies, especially when you take into account the interaction of a particular strategy with a strong personality.
Today I was reading an interesting idea about nostalgia for the future, and it got me thinking about Tim’s approach. Successful athletes are by definition, driven. It’s that extra they can give that everyone else can’t that inspires us to do at least a little better. But folk like Tim do a LOT better. The guy broke his ankle late this winter and was in plaster just a handful of weeks ago, but did Wales’ first E10 on Sunday. That’s impressive, but from him, not surprising.
Everyone enjoys nostalgia about the past, but I must admit I’d not thought of the concept of nostalgia about the future. We like visualising what the future will be like (usually like the present but a bit nicer, like with your latest project in the bag). Folk that visualise some quite big things and get attached to the vision they’ve created. When failure to realise the vision stares you in the face, it’s painful. And the pain, or fear, can bring out the best in you. It can make you swallow your fear and go for that hold, or get up earlier and train, or rearrange your life to make it happen.
Explained like that, it sounds a bit negative. And sometimes it can be. There are a lot of unhappy sports people out there, elite and non-elite. Sometimes it’s ok to feel this pain in a negative way and use it as a tool, so long as you can stand back afterwards and see it for what it is. Not everyone can.
If you are really a master of goals and following them, you can use your attachment to your vision of the future as a great tool, but never be dragged down into regret.
It seems to me that Tim is a master of this game. Making big goals, facing the potential for failure absolutely head on, feeling the fear and using it as a tool. But how does this square with being happy and relaxed about life? It’s an apparent paradox.
The answer is that the master of goals has the ability to become deeply attached to an ambitious, even improbable outcome, like climbing an E10, yet drop that vision and move on at a moment’s notice without regret if it doesn't work out. I’ve always marvelled at Tim’s ability to set ridiculous goals, tons of them, one after the other, in different sports, and manage so many of them. But no athlete ever manages all their goals. Hence so many are unhappy when they retire from them.
Being a successful athlete implies a deep dissatisfaction with your immediate performance. It’s the only thing that produces enough motivational momentum to realise big changes in performance, year after year. The ability to quit those goals held so dearly as quickly as possible, and without lingering regret is both the secret to achieving many of them and to avoiding turning into an unhappy zealot. Easier said than done. If you get the chance, go to one of Tim’s lectures for a lesson from an exemplar.