I have never given much thought to sports psychology; I will skip references to sport when they are introduced even by my favourite researcher,Adam Grant. It sometimes feels as if male positive psychology writers all conspire to introduce ‘soccer’ into any book. I do however appreciate the cross over with leadership across all areas and in the interest of expanding my knowledge attended a talk at the BPS in London by sports psychologist SteveSylvester.
Steve shared his personal journey on ego mountain and his discovery of the selfless route. He explored his career as both a professional sportsman and psychologist to highlight the way in which his own ego challenged the success (and otherwise) of his career. He detailed of how he was able to trace the variations in his results by looking at his own ‘ME’ focus and how his research has continued to show a correlation between selflessness and winning across many sports.
Steve’s research methodology is time consuming and meticulous, he observes and listens to both individuals and teams, evidence gathering without judgement, before collecting data with in-depth interviews and group discussions. His qualitative research seems to produce rich layers of information at both micro and macro level; ideas that can be applied to individuals, teams and the culture of contemporary sports. His findings challenge the assumptions that in order to win we must be focused on beating others rather than being the best version of ourselves. The line that kept occurring to me was ‘there is no I in team’. Looking through a PP lens many of his discoveries tally with concepts of flourishing, flow and mindfulness. I especially like his views on giving, they reflect Adam Grant’s work in showing that, contrary to popular expectations, when we ask how can I help rather than what can I get from this situation we create personal success as well as promoting collective success. In sports we expect the individual to be the centre of their universe; Steve’s work shows that when the motivation to be the best comes from a more collective mindset everyone wins. He told anecdotes about times when the difference between ‘about to fail’ and going on to win were attributable to an outward-looking mindset; the desire to be authentically your best for those you love or the team rather than forcing a ‘I must win or else’ approach.
Steve has developed simple steps to enable his research to be applied to all areas of life. Detox your EGO, is a straight forward approach to losing ‘What is it about for me?’ To becoming ‘What can I do for others?’
Takeaways for me last night include:
- What do I avoid about myself?
- Are my heart and mind aligned?
- Am I having fun? Is everyday a Saturday?
- Do I seek evidence that I am ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or am I able to just accept?
- Can I tolerate ambiguity?
- What’s going on below the surface?
My favourite insight from the evening is ‘How can I create a bright sunny internal climate when I perform?’ As a coach and practitioner I hope to generate environments in which my clients are able to flourish; in my own personal way of ‘being a coach’ rather than ‘coaching’ I want to lead others to shine. I want to lose my EGO and run naked with Balloons! (note to self :perhaps not whilst coaching.)
Steve has a vision of elite sports leaders who show us a new way to behave, to reflect positive personal selflessness that we can all model. His work with schools to teach children that you can be ‘nice and a winner’ is taking his research to the next generation of champions. I was left last night with questions about applying this research to politics and leadership. Do female leaders find it easier to adapt these views to creating flourishing cultures? Are there studies exploring gender differences in selflessness, success and sports? To what extent is a positive psychology sport coaching culture affecting the way that male dominated sports, such as football, are enabling men to explore their mental health and well-being? Can we as coaches use this research to encourage better ‘Mental Wealth’ in a population (men) that has been traditionally more resistant to self-reflection? And yes I am Aware that I have many gender stereotypes going on here but the views in the room last night appear to confirm that male sportsmen still feel that expressing emotions may make them look weak.
By his own admission Steve is still surprised that his research consistently uncovers the same results, I’m looking forward to seeing more real life evidence. So how likely are we to see a culture of kindness in the premiere league this season? And what will this mean at Stamford Bridge? Can I look forward to more hugs and smiles at home games?
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