About a month after leaving the Army, I was having coffee with a former colleague, now a highly successful endurance athlete and performance coach. Over a couple of hours, she offered lot of helpful advice; however, one comment really stuck with me. After listening to me talk about my plans and direction of travel, she looked at me with a wry smile and said “there seem to be an awful lots of ‘shoulds’ in there.”
Fast forward 6 months and I was stood on the side of a mountain as part of a Snowboarding and Mindset workshop, run by Jenny Jones - the UK’s most successful professional snowboarder and the first Team GB athlete to win an Olympic medal on snow. Part of the attraction of this workshop was that as well as snowboarding, it offered sessions focused on performance psychology delivered by Jenny’s personal sports psychologist, Louise Jones. Jenny has worked with Louise for over 15 years and credits her with a major part in her success in the Olympics, so this was a unique opportunity to benefit from some of that knowledge.
The format of the week involved a full day of snowboarding, framed at either end by yoga sessions with yoga and health coach, Sian Leigh, and performance psychology sessions run by Louise and Jenny. These sessions were designed to move progressively throughout the week, covering topics including motivation and goal setting, managing fear, dealing with setbacks and techniques in mindfulness which could be applied not only in snowboarding, but in every day life.
With a background in occupational psychology, I was particularly looking forward to Louise’s sessions; to my surprise, however, I found myself really struggling as we were asked to identify our goals for the week. After wrestling with this for most of the session, I spoke to Louise and Jenny immediately afterwards. Their combined reaction echoed that of my colleague a few months earlier: “that’s an awful lot of "shoulds’” – and that’s when I began to realise that the problem was not that I didn’t have any goals, but that I was unable to separate what I felt I should be doing from what I actually wanted to achieve.
It was a two-pronged attack. On the one hand, I felt this enormous pressure to perform. Having snowboarded since my early 20s, spending several seasons in the mountains and competing for the Army, I wanted to prove that I could still achieve at the same level (despite being now being in my 40s and spending most of the week at a desk!) Yet, since having children my main challenge on the slopes has been the logistics of getting three generations there and making sure everyone has gloves - as a result, the focus on my own progression has definitely taken back seat. Rather than acknowledging this, however, I had started to use this as a stick with which to beat myself every time I faltered or fell.
My other demon sat clearly in the “mum guilt” camp. I had left my 5 and 7 year old with my husband and parents for the week and was acutely aware that, despite the military precision of my planning, a week of “me-time” does not come without a cost. I felt pressure, not only to have the best week ever to ensure it was worth it, but also of the potential consequences if I was injured or worse. This guilt sat in direct conflict with the drive to push my snowboarding ability and left me in a state of constant turmoil – either I was not pushing hard enough, or I was recklessly placing myself in a dangerous situation where the consequences would affect those I loved the most.
Given these two competing pressures, Louise and Jenny’s point struck an immediate cord. Where were all these ‘shoulds’ coming from and what, if anything could I do to stop them?
Mid-week, Louise delivered a session on overcoming fear and part of this was focused on mindfulness. Having practiced yoga over the years and spent lots of lovely dog walks noticing leaves and buzzing insects, I thought I had this nailed. In one sentence, however, Louise delivered her killer blow. If you are constantly focused on ‘what might happen’ or ‘what has happened’ then you are not truly making the most of what is actually happening in the present. By constantly berating myself about what I should be doing, I had lost the ability to simply enjoy the ‘now’.
This was the catalyst I needed. Having taken that initial leap of faith to sign up to the week, I now had to make the decision to fully embrace the opportunity on offer. In order for this to happen, I needed to give myself permission to do two things. The first was to allow myself to fail. Up to this point, I found every time I didn’t achieve a task we had been set, it was fuel to the fire for my inner critic and my confidence started to falter. By releasing my expectations and taking the pressure off my performance, I was able to not only enjoy the process, but achieve more than I had ever thought possible.
The second thing was to let myself be truly in the moment and have fun - no strings attached. I had to trust my judgement and that of the team, but also trust that my family had my back and wanted me to enjoy and commit to every opportunity the week presented – as Louise pointed out, it’s not about eliminating the fear, but learning to move it to the backseat rather than sitting upfront as a co-pilot!
In the final psychology session of the week, we were asked to highlight one thing that we wanted to take away from the week and apply in our everyday life. Choosing just one from such a rich experience was a difficult task. So, in the end, I decided to compromise and settled on one practical and one psychological focus.
The practical takeaway was to work yoga into every day to give me a chance to recover from the competing demands on my time and energy from both my business and my family. This would in turn act as platform for my other challenge: to release myself from the oppressive power of the ‘shoulds’. What I have learnt from this week, is that I perform best when I commit to the moment and, as a result, get the most from what I am actually doing.
As Louise said, it ultimately comes down to a decision. Either you decide to drive your life in the direction that you want it to go or you allow yourself to be dictated to by your inner critic. And as Jenny showed in her medal winning performance at the Sochi Winter Olympics, by committing absolutely to your goal, putting your fear in the back seat and focusing on your own best outcome, you dramatically increase your chances of success.