This article was originally written and published by Mike Conway in February 2018 on LinkedIn, but the principles and frameworks are highly relevant today as they were in 2018.
In the last five years I have enjoyed working with some wonderful individuals and high performing teams from many walks of life: CEOs; executives from many industries both here and overseas; students; families; athletes from cricket; track and field; netball; rugby and soccer. On each occasion I have one goal: how do I help them lift the ceiling on their own performance. I have been asked many times how do I decide what techniques to use and how do I apply them. After creating the XVenture Family Challenge TV Show in New Zealand where we worked with 16 families to help grow their emotional intelligence and resilience, it seemed a poignant moment to put a few thoughts together on this. (The 8 episode series launches on national TV in New Zealand on Feb 11th 2018.)
FLEXIBLE APPROACH AND LISTENING SKILLS
Firstly, one of the most important things to understand in undertaking work such as this is there is no magic wand, no one technique, no trick, nor “sugar hit” that will work on every occasion. It’s important to be fleet of foot every day, every night. We are dealing with human beings. Each person we meet requires a different approach depending on the circumstances. So many things affect people in a high-performance team. If there is one key: tuning into the uniqueness of each individual, both player and coach. Working on your listening skills to unearth the specific needs of the individual is a fundamental.
In some of the lectures I do at post- graduate level and with corporate executives I show them an image of the traditional mandarin character for listening. It’s one of my favourites and a great reminder of what listening means. I have spent years realizing that this is the key yet years realizing I have a long way to go. This is so important.
Another important factor necessary for success is the need to be flexible, not only in the blend of techniques used but the ability to fit into a busy schedule. For an elite sports team such as Sydney FC for example, the areas I work in is just one of many elements in the team environment. Other areas such as physical, technical and tactical elements take up a significant time in the diary as do other time necessary for activities such as PR, media and sponsorship. Let’s not forget game day and travel time too. It’s important to understand that time normally needed to gain maximum outcomes isn’t always available so a pragmatic approach is necessary to ensure you can still make the improvements needed. For example, in my teaching of what I describe as “fast track mindfulness” which can be achieved in a few seconds, I would typically work with people for an hour or two to teach them. This time isn’t available in a busy schedule so I have to work in short bursts of time whenever it can be fitted in. (10 to 20 mins).
To undertake the role well, there has to be very strong relationships which are founded on deep levels of trust and integrity. People won’t share their concerns, their fears, their anxieties, their innermost thoughts, and in turn I can’t help them if trust doesn’t exist. All sorts of issues emerge throughout any time period. Not just matters that can be fixed by a few motivating words, which can of course help in certain situations, although language can be a demon too: we need to remind ourselves regularly that individuals respond to certain words at certain times and can be turned off at others. This is particularly true when dealing with a variety of cultures at the same time.
In reflecting on the last couple of years, I have employed a huge number of techniques and approaches at different times. Basket one are those that have been formally studied and learned over many years. A second basket are those that have been obtained through knowledge sharing with some wonderful like-minded people. A third basket are personal techniques that have emerged over many years’ experience. Whilst not exhaustive, tools include:
anchoring; attitude and belief strategies; body language analytics; communication patterns and modalities; cbt; counselling; eq and resilience improvement strategies; experiential team and learning programs ; hypnotherapy; language management assessments and development; leadership models and principles; mindfulness; negative emotion reframing neuro leadership principles of goal setting; neuro linguistics; paralaxology; past regression; positive psychology programs; relationship strategies; risk management and decision making; strategic psychotherapy, thankful and grateful programs.
Let’s dig a little deeper look at a few of these.
Have you ever really assessed what your decision making process is? Every day we make decisions. Sometimes we have plenty of time and sometimes not. In elite sport, fast acting decisions are often the difference between winning and losing. One of the techniques I have used is the application of perceptual cognitive training based computer models. I have used these to essentially in soccer to help speed up reaction times which then provides a little more time for decisions to be made on the field. As an example, I am currently using this with one young footballer to prepare him for a number of high profile trials in England.
I have found mind mapping and risk management techniques are useful for highly structured people to enable them to identify priorities for improvement and set goals. Using ISO 31000 as a basis for the identification, categorization and treatment of activities and risks has helped a number of individuals and teams determine where to start on their improvement strategies and reduce the overwhelm factor.
EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE AND RESILIENCE
On February 11th 2018 the XVenture Family Challenge TV Show is launched on Channel Three in New Zealand and features 24 new XVenture experiential challenges to test and help families improve their emotional intelligence and mental resilience. What’s unique about this is the EQ and resilience measurement platform which captures data of each family before and after their tv experience. We have undertaken similar measurements in high schools, for Master’s degree students and executives.
This provides a significant input into the emotional intelligence tools and techniques used which is one of the sweet spots in the work I undertake with players at Sydney FC. I impress upon all of them the power of observing their own emotions and their relationships with others. The work of Mayer and Salovey and also Martin Seligman’s positive psychology work certainly have a part to play in how this is orchestrated.
Seligman and Peterson’s book: “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification”, is a significant piece of work identifying 24 character strengths, organized according to 6 key virtues, such as wisdom and courage.
At Sydney FC, I strive for every player and every coach to understand, embrace and respond to the main aspects associated with emotional intelligence and resilience. This forms the basis of reframing negative language to positive and developing a language of strength and positive expectancy for the future. Just take a look at the recent performances of Sydney FC. A goal behind and the team still bounces back!
This reminds me of the comment from CEO of Spotify, Jane Huxley. She looks for team members who are “weebles.” Weebles are a UK toy that have a heavy base. If you knock them down, they just get straight up again. Heavy duty resilience!
Experiential programs are one of the hallmarks of our work. Using a pedagogy which ensures effective and fast learning, this has been particularly relevant through MBA programs, work with organisations such as Westpac and Lendlease and throughout the time with Sydney FC, both during the season and pre-season. In the case of Sydney FC, we developed a range of unique challenges aimed at achieving specific team outcomes and when undertaken provided an opportunity to notice individual and team performance under different pressure situations. The experiential programs also help them to reframe thinking, build cohesion and trust.
FAST TRACK MINDFULLNESS
In an article in 2017 I flagged the significance of mindfulness yet the challenge for elite athletes in a fast moving sport. In soccer, players only have a short time as they walk out to a stadium full of people or waiting for the referee to blow their whistle. Even less time before a free kick, a penalty, a corner to get themselves centered. Recently I’ve been working with a 100m sprinter who has struggled with getting in a calm space prior to the race. Many are finding a fast track mindful program that I’ve introduced to help them in such moments. This requires some quiet one on one time to explain how the brain is working and how to manage it effectively followed by introduction to the principles some practice and follow up to confirm the new process works.
OXYTOCIN AND TRUST PROGRAMS
I’m a supporter of the work of neuroscientist, Paul Zak who has demonstrated that that Trust is a significant component in how people and teams perform. I have been interested in this for a number of years and in my work at Sydney FC and others too. Where individuals in teams trust each other, performance seems to be much greater. Why? In simple terms, we’re happier when we are in a trusting environment. So, how about working on being happier which enables us to trust more too!
In recent months I have been working with Maty Ryan, the Australian national football team goalkeeper who is also now playing at EPL club Brighton & Hove Albion F.C. Maty is a highly dedicated and disciplined athlete at the top level of his sport. His interest in maximizing the mental side of his game, and his commitment to learn has made him a fantastic individual to work with. Over recent months, I’ve introduced many techniques to him. In particular, working with him to reinforce and encourage heightened oxytocin levels and reduction of cortisol at the right time. This combined with fast track mindfulness and EQ programs is fine tuning his already built gifts and talents.
It is early days for this research and early days in its application but it seems very obvious: increase the levels of happiness in life, maximize trust on and off the field and see the results. The happiness element is so important. Noticing those great moments, those times when things have gone well for us, acknowledging that life in balance is a good one, that we’re the fortunate ones as we get to do what we enjoy. Sometimes this is missed and the overwhelm of losing and being judged for this take precedent.
The best sports teams now have sophisticated analytical tools which can help individuals understand their performance, however the parallaxology approach provides an effective extra dimension. Building media through different camera lenses to find the best perspective is part of XVenture’s day to day work (eg XVenture TV show) but it’s not what everybody is trained to do or finds easy. There is an Elvis Presley track called “Walk a mile in My Shoes”! The words are extremely poignant. In essence, I developed “parallaxology” tools to help individuals to build skills to enable them to do just this, improving their own performance after an effective but non-judgmental review of different perspectives. It helps reduce negative future expectancy from analyzing mistakes and focuses on the most significant improvements.
SOLUTIONS ORIENTED HYPNOSIS AND PSYCHOTHERAPY
Deeper methods are sometimes required including hypnotherapeutic and psychotherapy techniques particularly when more significant levels of anxiety exist. A few poor performances can lead to negative thoughts even for the best in the World. Going into the Australian Open in 2018, Rodger Federer admitted he was struggling with this. These became worse when he lost the fourth set before he went on to win the fifth. In soccer, the fear of losing a grand final can be significant particularly if this has occurred before or the thought that a mistake from last week will be recurring.
On occasions I have used solutions oriented hypnotherapy techniques blended with mindfulness to help reframe a negative habit or pattern of behaviour. Again, significant trust is required for this to work.
As an example, focus and decision-making is an important part of soccer. One of the important parts of the role is working with players to increase their concentration levels on those things that matter. However, overthinking during downtime is a habit of many elite sports people and this in itself can fatigue the brain and hence the body. (The brain uses an enormous amount of energy.) I am a great believer of downtime, relax, mindfulness and even daydreaming. In hypnosis, I can draw attention to a player being relaxed and at the same time learn to focus on those things that require fine tuning or as I call it “recalibrating”. In one particular instance in hypnosis, a player added a friend to the equation (a high profile World class player) who takes a drone view on the player’s performance and suggests improvements. Very powerful and if done properly can be highly effective as long as the elements used are emotionally connected to the individual.
TEAM IDENTITY AND COHESION PROGRAMMING
Prior to any work I do, there is much that has already been put in place. Hopefully, this includes finding the right combination of individuals to be part of a team. Get this right and my job is a lot easier. Get it wrong, then leaders have to be realistic in what can be achieved in short mental coaching sessions. Having said that, those that are open to more solutions oriented hypo-therapeutic work can get fast change. Sometimes, some clarity with leaders on the situation is needed. Getting the right people is the key. At Sydney FC it’s not just a great goalkeeper, defender, midfielder, playmaker and goal scorer but also players when combined provide a special synergy and can buy in and commit to a greater goal. I like Steve Waugh’s great line: Attitude is contagious: is yours worth catching!”
At Sydney FC, Terry McFlynn plays an important role in helping identify and bring into the Club the right players. A former junior at Manchester United, played at QPR in England, represented his country and been the Captain at Sydney FC, he’s combined this with a Masters in Coaching from Sydney University so has a unique skill set in leading the identification of new players. He’s built an excellent competency tool regularly updated which when combined with the Club’s football philosophy is a solid platform for making the right choices within the financial constraints faced. What is also significant, though, is that the connections that each of the players have prior to joining the team play an important part too.
These connections make it much easier when building a great team to communicate, foster trusting relationships and create a cohesive team identity. All very important elements in the success of the team.
OUTCOMES AND RESULTS
Over the two seasons in Australian professional football, Sydney FC has broken every record that existed: the most number of wins, the most points, the least goals scored against. They won the double in 2016/17 and in 2017/18, the journey has continued. Having already won Australia’s version of the FA Cup, the team is nine points clear in the Hyundai A league, and with 8 games to go, is not far off winning the premiership back to back. In a short-time they also start their bid to win the Asian Champions League.
Although Australia is not seen by many as a bastion of World Football. You can only deal with what is in front of you. Compare the results to the best performers in the high profile leagues of England, Spain, France, Holland, Italy, Germany, Portugal and their results not only compare but in most instances are better. I have kept a watchful eye on these results over the last two years and created the table below which I have called the football consistency table. It doesn’t provide the results for every high performer in every league across the World but certainly provides a useful insight.
FOOTBALL CONSISTENCY 2016-2018
At home Sydney haven’t lost a game for almost two years and away from home in the same period, they have only conceded a goal every two games. There are currently only two teams performing in professional national leagues who currently have a higher consistency record: Celtic in Scotland and Porto in Portugal. A World class performance without question.
I have been fortunate to see these results like many others. Now without doubt, the best team seen in Australia, hopefully providing much inspiration as we look forward to a fast approaching World Cup. I have also been fortunate to be working with the team in close quarters throughout this period as the team and coaching staff mental resilience and emotional intelligence adviser. There are many who play an important part in achieving these results. The players, the coach Graham Arnold, Terry McFlynn, fitness coach Andrew Clark and the medical team, other coaching staff including John Crawley, Steve Corica, Phil Moss and tech analyst Doug Kors. All the admin and managerial staff under the Club’s CEO Danny Townsend play a significant part as does the Board and the Club’s owners. Let’s not forget those who provide enormous energy and encouragement through their support too. However, I’ve learned and experienced that the biggest single thing that makes the difference between good and great individuals and teams is a positive attitude and healthy mind.
My view is that we don’t spend enough time working on improving our mind. The gyms are full of people getting their body in shape and that’s a great thing. Imagine if we would all spend a little more time on getting the brain in shape –what World class results could we achieve.
If you are interested in learning about and applying some of the techniques in this article, you will find the FCA XV Essential Skills Program valuable. Check out the different modules available. CLICK HERE.