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Charlie Unwin - Episode 7 - The Mindset of a Champion

Watch Episode 7 here


If you would prefer to read Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below.

Amy Williams:

Welcome everyone. It is Amy Williams here for the U Perform channel and we have Charlie, our psychologist, our expert for U Perform. Today it's the mindset of a champion. What do we mean by mindset? It's a word that's thrown around so much.

Charlie Unwin:

Well, Amy, I have to throw that one back at you and ask you. What do you think of when you think of the term mindset? What kind of springs to mind for you?

Amy Williams:

It's a tricky one. Actually, let you say, because it's this word that gets thrown around, I guess I kind of think of being in a positive kind of bubble and having this kind of good headspace that you can think clearly and do what you want to do. Does that even make sense?

Charlie Unwin:

It's quite vague, right? I mean, it's definitely a feeling, it's a sense of. But we kind of need to make it quite specific. And what do we mean by that? And I think all too often in sport, right. It's too easy to judge people. 'They've got a really good mindset' and we kind of know what we mean by that. We know what behaviors we're looking for that might suggest.

Maybe that they're good at taking feedback. You know, they listen and stuff like that, and that's all part of it. But I think we need to sort of tighten up a little bit what we mean by mindset, but more importantly, we need to be able to develop it and develop it from preferably quite a young age because it's one of those things that's sort of quite hard to get right once it becomes sort of really set, but it can change with experience as well.

Amy Williams:

So Charlie, when you're working with young athletes or someone comes along to you, when is it that you start thinking, okay, I can already notice their mindset isn't in the right kind of place that it needs to be?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, it's really tough because we're sort of trying to look at so many different behaviors, different situations. And, I think actually that we get it wrong when we just say, Oh, they have a bad mindset. They have a bad attitude, for example. Because it's always a little bit more complicated than that.

What I notice, however, that there are sort of typical traits that I will notice, which are about people almost tripping themselves up, like not getting the best out of themselves. In fact I've written a list of, of 10 or so of the top behaviors that I notice. So, um, I'll just read them through, you can see which ones perhaps might've resonated for you:

Over competitiveness, fear of other people's opinions, lack of confidence, lack of willingness to challenge ourselves or move to the next level, difficulty in taking feedback or being criticized, a struggle to get back to high performance having been successful before, maybe difficulty in coming back from injury, feeling like we should be further ahead than we really are, seeing other people make more progress than us, feeling an expectation to live up to the image that we've created for ourselves.

I could go on, but hopefully, you know, we can all relate to a few of those. So these are the things that when I first had people coming to me and asking for my help, these are sort of common things that I noticed. What I wanted to know was, is there any underlying pattern here? Is this something which if we work on that, it would correct all of those things. Because, take something like confidence. For example, if you make someone feel confident in who they are and what they do, it doesn't half solve a whole load of other problems. So that was my mission. My mission was to try to distill all of this down to something that could help people to overcome all these other challenges. And I guess really where I, what I discovered was what we colloquially call mindsets.

Amy Williams:

So definitely for me, some of those points were like, yeah, I can think of that. You know, people's opinions that fear what people thinking of me and is that a good or a bad thing? And then I think the hard thing, especially probably for young athletes, is that when you see your other teammates progressing quicker than you and your brain starts thinking, why are they suddenly a lot better? We started at the same time and yet they're doing better. They're faster, they're stronger.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. And that sense of competitiveness is almost good on one level because it spurs you on, but bad when you can't think of anything else or focus on what you're doing.

Amy Williams:

Yeah, totally. I mean, you've put all of those together and we've come back to that, mindset you know, you've come back to that word mindset. Tell us a little bit more about that.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. So what I kind of discovered or came to the conclusion of. If there was something that it all distilled down to, it was their relationship with success and failure on a fundamental level. What I mean by that, is how people measured success in the first place, you know, is it winning that race at the weekend or is it progressing in the techniques or the various components of fitness that I've given myself? Is it improving, you know, the small elements of what I do and build in quality into the system. So we're going to talk a little bit about that, but fundamentally it was their relationship with success and failure.

So a way to bring this to life. And my brother hates me telling this story, but there is a great piece of research that I read years ago around something called younger brother syndrome. The original research was done with brothers. But I there's no reason why it wouldn't work with sisters as well. Do you have a younger brother or sister?

Amy Williams:

I have a twin sister and then my brother is only 18 months older.

Charlie Unwin:

Okay. So you've got an older brother. Okay. So this might work for you.

So what is younger brother syndrome?

I used to play cricket in the garden with my brother all the time and we used to love playing cricket. My brother is older than me; about a year and a half older than me. So all the way through development, he was slightly bigger, slightly stronger, slightly more coordinated. He was also very good at cricket. So we played in the garden all the time and I would get beaten, I'll get thrashed all the time. One day he was bowling at me and probably by fluke, more than anything else, I just connected with the ball. It went flying across the garden landing underneath this bush. And he went off to go and find it. And I was left there to think for the first time, how did I do that?

And I came to two conclusions. One is that I kept my eye on the ball. And the second was that I kept a straight bat. Now, apparently those two things are quite good pieces of advice for someone trying to hit a ball. But I didn't know that.

I became obsessed with doing those two things really, really well. I didn't beat him. It still took a long time for me to get better, but eventually one day it happens. A year later I got so good at focusing on the ball and keeping a straight bat that I scored enough runs to eventually beat him. That was the day he folded up his arms and he went inside and said, I don't want to play cricket anymore. And we've never played since. Hence the reason he hates me telling that story and it kind of dawns on me all these years later when I was reading this research because a disproportionate number of world champions in their sport, believe it or not are younger siblings.

They didn't know if it was a statistical anomaly or whether there is something in that. So when they started to research it more, this whole idea of younger siblings cannot be motivated by the winning alone. They have to be motivated by the mastery of what they do or else they wouldn't play in the first place. If however, you're an older sibling and winning comes quite easily. You never really challenge yourself to understand what you're trying to master. You're just a bit bigger, a bit stronger, a bit faster. So you never really think about it or deliberately practice as much.

So there's something about that that leads to this quite different mindset. And it can have massive implications later on in life. By the way, don't worry if you're an older sibling right. Because I should say that you just have to understand the principles I'm going to share with you. And then, then you can become a world champion in your sport.

Amy Williams:

I'm already thinking of my two sons. Is the younger one going to be way better than the older one because of this.

Charlie Unwin:

And that's where parents always go to. And I don't think we need to interfere too much, but it's perhaps just worth yet understanding these principles.

So I've got, if you're interested, I've got something that kind of helps to bring this to life. And again, you know, this is all great. It sounds great, but what do we do with it? So if it's okay, I'm just going to take you through a model which I developed and that's called 'Inside Out'. I call it 'Inside Out' mindset, but it could be 'Inside Out' confidence. It could be inside out thinking. I suppose, it puts on paper and through a nice, easy to digest format, this kind of notion of younger sibling syndrome.

The idea if I just talk you through it, is that fundamentally when we start doing something, it could be a sport. It could be a new job, something like that. We don't have any expectations about the outcome. You know, we're not expected to necessarily win, we might not even be competing at that stage. So when you first take up skeleton, really, you just sort of care about how on earth do you sort of jump onto the sleds when you're trying to sprint as fast as you can. So you become obsessed with getting the technique right. I.e. the mastery of what you do. That's what we call processes. And they're right in the center of that.

Once you start to get better at some of these techniques, what you notice is that the ways in which you're being measured by your coaches and the outside world starts to improve. So you get faster, your scores start to improve and you get personal bests and stuff like that. So, the ways in which we measure performance starts to responds to the mastery that you're putting all your focus, all your effort into. Kind of makes sense.

Then what happens is the measures of performance gets so good that you start to get good against other people. So the outcome of what you're trying to do starts to play out. You start to beat other people, you experience winning, maybe it's pleasing other people. Maybe you start to build status, you get selected for a team. You build recognition. You build a reputation for yourself. Maybe you get write ups in magazines, stuff like that. Now what happens is that you're achieving success on the outside world. I guess at that point, there's a danger that we start to protect that success. We want to protect that reputation that we have, and our attention starts moving away from what's at the core of what we do, what actually makes you good at what you do, towards the outcome of what we do. So that's what I would call then an 'Outside In' mindset because we focus on the outside. Make sense?

Amy Williams:

It does. And I'm thinking, Oh my word... I don't want to always come back to kind of, for me the success and the moment of then being at the Olympics. But you saying that, the very last thing apart from being in my bubble at the Olympics was those process goals. Those core goals. To win a skeleton race, you need to be perfectly lying on your slide with good form. And I remember watching the race back from 2002. So it's sort of like two previous Olympic cycles and the winner had the most perfect form on the sled. The things that you learn on day one to lie on your sled and be aerodynamic. And they were some of the very last thought processes were have good form be aerodynamic. Because you know, that is the most important thing.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. Ultimately, what is more important than that?

Amy Williams:

It's those very very core things from day one that you ever learn and actually was one of the last thoughts in my head. It comes back to it.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, absolutely. And of course, with your sport and what I love about skeleton is that there's a real physical component when you have those G-forces and, and, you know the aggressiveness you need, especially on a track like Vancouver. But you're marrying that up with the quality of technique at the top. So, you've got almost the push starts, which is its own separate performance. And then you've got the driving and the capacity to flick. I remember talking to Lizzie who demonstrated the archetypal inside out mindset; because I remember one time when she said, we'd been doing this work on breathing and relaxing on the sleds and being able to just mold your body into the sled. And I can see you're imagining it now, your vision, you're taking yourself back there, as I'm saying that. And we looked at breathing and why breathing was such an important component of that technique, which she didn't know at the time, but when we explored it, she realized that's a really important part.

She then said to me, I want to become the best athlete in the world at taking a deep breath. And I just thought that was such an incredible way of summing up what an 'Inside Out' mindset is because she's recognized something that's going to make a tangible difference and that's going to be the most important thing to her. It doesn't matter what other people are doing.

Now what's interesting is that the research by lady called Carol Dweck who is very famous for researching mindsets. And she's based I think now at Stanford University in America. She's found that when people demonstrate this 'Inside Out' mindset or as she calls it a 'Growth' mindset, because we're focused on the mastery of what we do and we're allowing the outcome to take care of itself. Actually we notice a number of other things, which then links back to this list that I gave you at the beginning around things like over competitiveness, fear of other people's opinions.

So what she noticed is that when we get this focus right, we tend to embrace challenge a lot more. Because the challenge is inherent within the technique, which we can control, if we put enough attention on it. We persist more in the face of obstacles. We see efforts as the path to mastery. You can put effort into perfecting your technique. You can't put effort into winning. And so effort becomes a currency which we can use. And it doesn't have to threaten us. We don't have to try harder hoping that it's going to all materialize. We learn from feedback a lot better, I think because probably the feedback is directed at the technique. Whereas we can't get any feedback from the outcome. You know, you can't say, well, you lost today. You need to try harder. You know, where do you go with that? It doesn't work.

And then the final thing was we actually get inspired by the success of other people. So when we have this 'Inside Out' mindset, we're much better to learn from other people who are great at what they do rather than feel threatened by them because we're applying it ultimately to our own process.

So that's 'Inside Out'. Of course it can go wrong. And I think every athlete gets to the point where it can go wrong. Now, interestingly for you, because you won your gold medal and you didn't have the opportunity to defend it four years later. Sustaining or doing it again starts to pose some really different challenges. Why? Because if we look at the 'Outside In' mindset, what happens when you've achieved success, you've done it. You are an Olympic star.

Everyone wants to interview you. Everyone wants to talk to you. Your reputation goes like that. Your numbers of followers on Facebook or Instagram goes like that. And suddenly you're rewarded by the outcome. And I use that word deliberately. The idea of being rewarded because our reward in the brain is dopamine. You get the shot of dopamine and it rewards you. It makes you feel good. And what that does is it reinforces the pathway that related to whatever it is you've just done well.

That pathway, that system, works well when it's related to something that's directly in front of you that you're trying to master or control. It doesn't work well when the rewards happens kind of months, if not years after. So what I mean by that is, you know, what happens if you've been trying to perfect your technique, if you've been trying to master your pacing, if you're a middle distance runner and it's taken you years to get it right. And then suddenly you achieve huge success and suddenly you kind of forget what it was that led you to that because the reward is delayed. It's delayed by weeks, months, even years. And so when we come back to it and we want to repeat good performance, we kind of struggle a little bit. So it's quite profound and it affects us in lots of different ways really.

Amy Williams:

So we've mentioned Lizzy Yarnold, double Olympic Skeleton champion. She clearly was able to do this process four years later, go back and still win another medal. Now someone like Roger Federer, you know, World, Olympic, everything champion of Tennis. Year after year after year, he is performing and getting results. How do you think he would be using this?

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, obviously you wouldn't have seen this. He would kind of live it and breathe it. There's no doubt about that. I mean, it's interesting with, with Lizzy, because she, I think had to work far more deliberately on this second time round when she did have the title of Olympic champion and because it puts everything into that sort of spotlight. And actually one thing I remember having to work on really hard was going back to the quality of notes, for example, that she would write herself during training sessions in during track walks; because you start to just go through the process and there's nothing worse and you believe you're doing the same thing, but going through the process is not the same as being engaged with the process. And I think your example of Roger Federer, there is a really great one because he has sustained such a high level of performance, which so many people struggle to do over, over a course of a career. And especially as you're getting older and your body is not getting any younger.

He was interviewed the other day and asked, when are you going to retire? And he came with an answer; "I'll retire when I stop wanting to get better at my backhands." And I don't think he meant that literally. I think what he was trying to say was I'll retire when I stop learning. When I get up in the morning and I think I've got nothing else I can get better at, which will probably be never. There's always something you can get better at.

So I think you're right. And he's a great example to use. And I guess in terms of how we can all adopt the same qualities; obviously there's something about focusing on the processes, which I know that comes up in almost every subject in sports psychology, but it's such a fundamental. Be clear, be really deliberate about what you are trying to get better at in any one day. When you find yourself going through the process, you're just going through the motions, try to check yourself and recognize what will improve the quality of what I'm doing.

It's a bit like learning a new skill. You've got to put so much effort to it. The moment you find that you're not having to apply the same effort that should ring alarm bells. So I think that's good; good tools for increasing self-awareness.

I think observing other people is probably a really good way of doing this. Skilled observation of the skills and the techniques that other people adopt rather than their accolades, their achievements. You're not seeing them as the Olympic champion. You're seeing them as the person who's really good at this and the person who's really good at that. And I think if you can just sort of shift where your mind goes with that, you can start to kind of pick out the areas of focus and attention that sort of tune you into the right things.

It feels like we mentioned writing things down every time. Because said you write things down as an athlete, it became really important to you. But I imagine it's those golden nuggets that you get in a training session - that you go back home that night, and maybe your coach has said something where you've had this epiphany. And that is probably the single most valuable thing from that day. If we don't write it down, we're going to forget it. Of course, over the course of a year, you look in your book and it's full of these golden nuggets. That is a good news Bible. That's only going to A) focus your attention and what you can do; but make you feel positive about what you do as well. So I think that's good; and just savour the quality of small moments as well. I always like to say that with athletes and you know, really, if you've done something well, take time to enjoy it. And again, I know that's a consistent theme, but it works.

Amy Williams:

It's really hard to do as well. I think that's the thing. We're not very good at patting ourselves on our backs and saying, well done, you did really well there.

Charlie Unwin:

What can help with that is if in your book on the left hand side of the page, you always write down what you want to happen. So today I'm going to focus on my push starts and I'm going to focus on driving off using this focus, mentality or feeling. I'm going to focus on taking a deep breath and relaxing onto the sled. Then on the right hand side of the page, that's what happens. That's what you write down after you've done it. So you draw a line across and say, right that's what I was trying to do. To what extent did I do that? And I call that technique left page - right page. Just get used to in your training diary, your left hand page is always defining what you want to happen in terms of process, input, not in terms of output. And then the right hand side of the page always defines exactly what happens and give yourself a bit of an analysis on that.

Amy Williams:

Great tips there from Charlie. Thank you very much for tuning in to the U Perform channel. Subscribe, hit that reminder, hit the bell. And next week we're going to be talking about mind-mapping. So how to get that blueprint of your performance. I'm just going to leave you there and you are going to have to tune on in. So we'll see you soon.


Tune in next week for Episode 8

See you then!

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