The Chimp Within Us All

I’ve recently read the Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters who has been credited with helping numerous British Olympic athletes win gold medals.

In broad terms, it’s a ‘self-help’ book, however it is the way in which his techniques & ideas can shape the sports player’s mind that interested me most. Victoria Pendleton, Bradley Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy are a few of the top athletes that Peters has successfully worked with in recent years.

The book is a layperson’s guide to how the mind works in certain situations, particularly when under stress & anyone who plays competitive sport will find it compelling.

Peters calls the limbic part of the brain, the chimp. It’s the body’s emotional machine. We all have our own chimps & as Peters states it can be your best friend or your worst enemy – that is the Chimp Paradox. The key to success in sport (& life) is discovering how to deal with your chimp.

As a player, I had more than my fair share of traumas on court. The overwhelming desire to win a particular match & the stress that this induces can be hugely debilitating. The more I wanted to win, the less able I was to do so. My chimp ran riot!

I was a far more successful player competing in over 35 & over 45 events than I ever was as a junior. The emotional maturity that came with age helped me cope with the emotional rigours of competition but mentally I still wasn’t perfect & the doubt, fear & anxiety that plagued my junior days was still evident, albeit in a more manageable form.

I was naturally always keen to unearth the secret to playing tennis without fear as it’s the only way to play well. I tried many techniques including hypnotherapy but the stifling nerves were still always there. It’s one thing saying to yourself “one point at a time” but another actually believing it.

You’re probably aware of a dialogue in your head when you have to make any kind of decision; the rational versus the emotional. This is the human versus the chimp.

When playing competitive sport, most people put way too much store in winning & the stress that this brings, switches the brain to chimp mode. In this state, the brain works much slower so the automatic nature of your performance is lost. Even elite players can lose the ability to function correctly if it’s their chimp that’s in charge. Think ‘yips’ in golf.

How do you achieve optimal performance? The answer is clear. To play sport to the best of your ability, you have to learn to manage your chimp. The rational part of the brain must manage the emotional side. Winning matters but not that much. Failure must be embraced, not feared. The desire to impress others & prove your worth should be expunged. Focus on your performance & not the outcome – it’s clichéd for a reason.

Giving your best effort is all that should matter. But we all knew that anyway!