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Charlie Unwin - Performance Psychologist -  Episode 1

Who is Charlie Unwin?

Charlie Unwin is one of the country's leading Performance Psychologists. Click on the video below to find out more about him, as Amy Williams MBE interviews Charlie for our YouTube channel.


If you would prefer to read Amy's interview with Charlie - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello, I'm Amy Williams and I am here with the U Perform channel and I've got Charlie Unwin here, Performance Psychologist. Tell us, what is it that you actually do?

Charlie Unwin:

Hi Amy, performance psychology isn't particularly well known, but I work with some amazing people really, in all fields. It's mainly sports, but also business, military, surgeons, fighter pilots, basically anyone who has significant mental demands in what they do. I use research to help them perform at their best and apply themselves mentally to what they do.

Amy Williams:

Incredible amount of people. So where did that first fascination with the mind for you come from?

Charlie Unwin:

I think very early, to be honest, my earliest recollections. I was brought up on a farm on the Essex, Suffolk, Cambridge border, and living in the middle of nowhere I had a lot of time to myself.

I was quite an introspective kid. I think I got to know my own mind pretty quickly and kind of make sense of the world around us. There was probably a girl as well, very young. She was way out of my league I seem to remember. I also remember buying a book called 'How to Win Friends and Influence People'.

This was actually a real classic of its time. And I think my affections for this particular girl probably wore off fairly quickly, but what I read in that book stayed with me after that and stayed with me ever since. And it got me fascinated in people. In the way they think, the way they behave.

Amy Williams:

So is that what kind of made you go into sports psychology and find that link between sport, the mind and performance?

Charlie Unwin:

I never knew there was a link between sports and psychology. Sport was very much in the blood for me, my Dad played rugby for England and the British Lions. So I very much had sports around me growing up - quite an eclectic mix of sports from rugby to athletics, to horse riding as well.

One thing I noticed fairly early on is that when things started to get serious, when I wanted to do really well, my performance often really fluctuated, which was really frustrating. And I know we'll get the opportunity to talk more about this. I realized that this was as much a product of what was going on in the mind as it was my ability to physically do something. I read a book, another book from Steve Backley, who you might remember the javelin thrower.

Amy Williams:

Yeah, he was one of my idols.

Charlie Unwin:

It was incredible. And again, quite an introspective person. He actually wrote a book on sports psychology and this was the first time I realized that sports and psychology had actually met and they had quite a good relationship as well. And the research was growing and growing and has done hugely over the last 20 years.

And really, it kind of made me think, well, if, if you know, throwing a pointy stick, as far as you can, if there's a, if there's a real mental game to being able to do that well and consistently under pressure, then this was an area that I wanted to explore.

Amy Williams:

And you used to do modern pentathlon. So I guess for you, you could, first of all, start to take those lessons either Steve Backley had managed to teach you in the book and I guess practically you were able to do these lessons and you've learned from them to be able to pass on to other athletes?

Charlie Unwin:

Definitely. I think so much of what I do now is built not just on academic knowledge, but on experience and self-reference. I have never asked any athletes to do anything I either haven't done myself or don't routinely practice myself even now. I got into psychology professionally earlier than I thought. Although technically I wasn't a psychologist, I joined the army.

I had done a degree in psychology at university and joined the Army. I realized very quickly that psychology is all around us. It's in the way that we communicate in a way that we apply ourselves to learning new skills and especially to performing under pressure. I joined the Army and I went to the Royal Military Academy Center to do my officer training. I joined on September the ninth, 2001. So basically two days before the planes flew into the twin towers.

And for me, my expectations going into the army were very different. A few days later, at the age of 23, I found myself on the front line in Iraq as a platoon commander - in charge of about 30 soldiers. A lot of people ask me, would you have joined if you knew that that was what you would end up doing?

The honest answer is, I don't know, but what I do know and have reflected on a lot since, is that the army are incredible at training, not just your knowledge and skills, but also your character and your self-belief. And they spend a lot of time working on you as a person and developing you. And I think for me, that's been a really important takeaway into the stuff that I do now.

Because I think sports can be guilty of being seduced by talents and physical ability, which can sometimes take away from those who have that somewhere beneath the surface, but that no one ever really helps them. Developers, people develop their character, their belief, their confidence to almost unlock that.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, I'm a military wife, I'm married to an army man myself. For you being in Iraq, how did you find that situation? You had to take control and you had things changing around you? How then did you find that?

Charlie Unwin:

I think the irony is that most of the time, I really struggled in training to do all the right things. They put you under pressure a lot in training. One of the key messages for me, which I take now into sport, is we've got to practice pressure. It's got to be part of our day to day. We can't just wait until we get there.

And again, I know we'll have some fascinating conversations about your experiences on this. For me, I always struggled in training and when we got out there and did it for real, I was amazed at how we were all able to do it so effectively.

It was pretty rough in 2004, we were being attacked in camp about four times a day. And there's no greater test for how you perform and think under pressure than being shot at. But like I say, practicing pressure became a real cornerstone of the stuff that I do. And when I got back from Iraq, I got into sports a lot more, which is actually where, when we met. We were both training at the University of Bath at the time. And I got into pentathlon is, as you mentioned earlier. Shooting, fencing, swimming, riding, and running. I wasn't the most talented of athletes. I really wasn't. And that's not me being modest in any way.

What I had to depend on is the mental game. What I realized very quickly is that when you've got a sport like pentathlon, there are some athletes who are up there one day and down there the next. And very often the more talented they are, the more up and down they are.

Often people rely on their talent, rely on their physical skill. And, and so I thought, well, if I can be near my best every single time, I'll be quite difficult to beat. But having that level of consistency required, meant applying myself in a way that we weren't taught or perhaps other people didn't do. So I reinvested in psychology and I got back into it has led me to where I am now.

Amy Williams:

You know what? I can't wait for us to be chatting a little bit more later and dive into how you did it and what your techniques were and do a bit of comparison.

Charlie Unwin:

Me too.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, you left the Army, you got into sport yourself and clearly at some point you, you stopped sport and then started working with performance athletes. Tell us a little bit about that.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. I soon realized that my real vocation was going to be helping other people - apply the stuff that I'd learnt over time. I went back to university, did a masters in sports psychology to really to allow me to formalize some of the ideas that I'd developed and it's those ideas and there is a set system that I now use today. So I was lucky enough to get asked to come and work with lots of Olympic teams.

Whether it be fencers, swimmers, equestrians and of course, skeleton as well, which is where I met Lizzie Yarnold. Who at the time was very much hanging on to your coattails. I also managed to do a little bit of work with England football as well, because for them, I think it was psychology wasn't something they've always used or relied on very much. But in the Gareth Southgate era, they were bringing in outside people a lot more.

I got to work with both men and women, especially around things like penalty taking and other key pressure moments. And I think that's something that certainly for him [Southgate] he's used to define the difference between his team and previous generations.

Amy Williams:

But for you it's, it's not all about sport. What's daily life now, what are you kind of focusing on?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, I very soon realized that all the stuff that we did was it was about the human condition. It wasn't just about athletes. And some of the earliest emails I got from youth athletes, young rugby players, for example, working with them in school; was not about a thank you for helping me in my sports, but thank you for helping me in my exams.

Reflecting on it we never did anything on exam technique or anything like that, but I think people naturally see these techniques as a way of helping them in life and whether, you know, your teenagers, you know, transitioning a very difficult part of your life, whether you're trying to balance being work with being a full time mum with also trying to do a bit of sport as well. I think this stuff becomes really valuable in every aspect and that's what makes it so enjoyable.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, it's been great talking to you today, fill us in a little bit about what we can expect next week.

Charlie Unwin:

The reason I'm so excited about being able to do this is because it's an opportunity to share some of these ideas that have been percolating over the years, techniques, ideas, exercises for people to actually. So that's the kind of longer term plan. Next week, we're just going to focus on my approach and sort of key philosophy, get people to sort of understand how to think differently about their own performance and then in particular, their mental performance.

Amy Williams:

Love it. Great. It's been amazing talking to Charlie today. Don't forget to subscribe to the U Perform channel, click on the bell and we will see you next week!


Make sure to tune in next Thursday for Episode 2.

See you there!

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