An Obsessive Mind: Performance development from Alex Honnald’s Brain!

Recently I have become a little obsessed with Alex Honnold and his climbing adventures.

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One of the intriguing things for me about watching his ascent of the Freerider route on El Capitan filmed so sensitively in the movie “Free Solo”, wasn’t the epic and thrillingly filmed climb, thousands of metres above the valley floor, it wasn’t the deep insight that Jimmy Chin captured in his subject, or the dedication and thought that Honnold poured into his preparation for the climb, for me the question that I was left with after I had picked my trembling body of the floor having been emotionally battered by watching the whole climb, was.. What is it about Honnold that made him the right person , at this time to achieve this?

Was it his innate talent? Was it his upbringing? Was it his intense physical preparation?

Was he the right person in the right place in history?

Was he more motivated and ambitious that others?

Or was he just built differently?

Sometimes you see an athlete, and they are just the exact fit for both their sport and their era, they achieve things that seem unbelievable for anyone else; Tiger Woods in his early years, just dominating his sport, Eddie Hall in 2017, the perfect physical specimen to be World’s Strongest Man, Michael Jordan through his utter focus on being the best. If any of these had decided on trying a different sport would they have been as good?

Usain Bolt for example is naturally fast, he has a larger amount of fast twitch muscle fibres (the ones used to make muscles bigger and faster) than the average person. If he had taken up long distance running he would have struggled to develop the slower muscle fibres required, and I’m sure that he would have been lapped by Mo Farah pretty quickly!!

Other athletes without the accidental genetics who don’t just happen to find the perfect sport for their attributes, just need to develop the attributes that they have. This has led to thousands of great athletes, but it is the ones with the extras that really stand out.

So what made Honnold the perfect person to be able to climb the way he does? Is it his genetic makeup, his power to weight ratio or his dedication to training the attributes he has? Is it because he happened to find climbing at a young age? Or encouraged and supported by his parents? Or because he just happened to be born where he was, and spend his holidays in the Yosemite Valley?  All these contribute in athletic development, and have all played a part in developing Honnold as an athlete in the sport he has chosen to excel at.

Can athletes be predispositioned for elite performance?  It is recognised that social background and the environment a child grows up in can massively influence the future performance of them as an athlete, it can even effect the sports that they go into. The fact that a parent has a car and can take a child to training and competitions plays a role. It has also been recognised that body and physical composition is a marker of future athletic performance, a high amount of fast twitch muscle fibres would account for Usain Bolts discovery that sprinting would probably be better than marathon distance races! Eddie Hall has the perfect genetic make up for building large, strong muscles, but also the capacity to use those muscles to carry big weights over distance!

Scientists have discovered that there are over 200 genetic markers that have been associated with performance, 20 of these have been linked to elite athlete status, so if the right person, with the right genes and DNA, finds the right sport and gets the right training, and has the right social conditions then we are looking at these once in a life time athletes; Federer, Ali, Bolt and even Alex Honnold.

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But there are lots of great climbers, possibly even ones that outperform Honnold; Tommy Caldwell, Leo Holding and Chris Sharma have consistently set the bar for extreme levels of climbing, advancing routes and styles in the footsteps of legendary climbers such as Jonny Dawes and Joe Brown, but none of them have done it in the way the Alex has. So what is it that makes him do these climbs in the way that he does?

It must be Mental, and I’m not just talking about the type of climbing he does, no one in their right mind would climb 3000ft rock faces without ropes!!

Is there something in his brain that means that he can do these feats and is perfectly predisposed to not feel fear in the same way that any other climber would?

In the film Alex comes across as a very calm, almost ultra-laid back in his approach to most things, he is singularly self-absorbed, not in an arrogant way but a calm, self-confident and single minded way. Focused on his climbing and preparation, feeling only for the things that seem important to him, and maybe not about extraneous things like food or even relationships. Is this all a thought through approach that he has perfected over the years to ensure peak performance, or is it physiological or even psychological part of his make up?

Climbing steep, exposed routes, without ropes, the risks are extremely high, one small mistake has massive consequence, even imagining it makes my palms sweat. I have had enough personal experiences, and a few near misses while climbing to really feel every small foot placement and finger hold, every move and realistic consequence as I watch him climb, to realise that somewhere in Alex’s make up he needs a much higher level of stimulus to make him worried, his approach to risk is much more refined and he has a clear link between his physiology and the risks he is prepared to take.

During the movie Alex undergoes an MRI scan, which finds that he needs much more stimulus than the average thrill seeker. So to get dopamine flowing through his brain he needs a level of stimulus that exceeds that of most people, he needs to be in risky situations, and in some ways he needs to be able to control his brain in these situations.

During his MRI the medics looked at his Amygdala, 2 small almond shaped lobes in the brain, their main role is to help control a person’s emotions and behaviour, and are also well known for their role in the brains ability to process fear.

The Amygdala is the reptilian part of the brain, a small gland that takes information from fearful stimulus and sends signals to other areas of the brain to trigger the infamous flight, fight or freeze responses. This leads to physiological changes, increases heart rate and respiration, almost unconsciously for the recipient, and therefore effects their behaviour and anxiety levels.

Honnolds Amygdala showed, Nothing!

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Comparing a “normal” amygdala’s reaction to stimulus, the doctor showed that Alex’s barely registered. Confirming that he requires a much higher level of stimulus to really get his amygdala firing. This also means that he could possibly have better control over his reactions to highly risky situations.

This genetic individualism allows Alex to hone his ability to manage his emotions in situations that most of us would find to overwhelming. He can regulate his thoughts and emotions due to his neurological talent, and ensure that he can undertake seemingly overwhelming situations to increase his performance.

Most of us do not know how and why our individual bodies perform in particular ways, especially at a genetic level, this granular knowledge is out of our reach. But if we think about it we do recognise what we are good at and what training our bodies respond to, can we use this to try and increase our own performance in the mental arena?

We don’t have information about the state of our amygdalae but we do know when we are scared by things, or what elicits our anxiety, this pre planning gives us insight into how our own brains function. Every athlete or performer experiences doubt, fear, under confidence and performance anxiety, but the first step to controlling this is to recognise both prior to, and during performance, drawing on our own biofeedback to inform us as to what our own amygdala is doing.

Creating this mental connection is a crucial part of any athlete or high performers arsenal, it allows them to train with focus, set goals to overcome or control the emotions, create stories or scenarios that they can tell themselves when these fearful situations occur and be able to imaginatively walk through situations and create the self-talk to hone the brain and the body to react the way they want, controlling and optimising their performance.

These skills and this level of focus on the mental preparation and links is just as crucial as the development of the performers physical attributes, and allows those of us who were not born with specific genetic markers and physical and neurological attributes to perform almost naturally in the sport or domain we chose to go into, and therefore working on our mental performance is just as important as our physical performance!

Alex Honnold now has greater insight into his physiological make up, he has achieved amazing feats of performance, so it is with great anticipation that we look to his development and where he goes as a high performer and as climber. But even the “average”, “normal” performer can achieve great things when they tap into their neurological reactions and train their brain and their behaviour when dealing with anxiety and stress, without the need to scale sheer cliffs without ropes!

Jack of all Trades, Master of None- Is the polymath the future of Leadership?

“Jack of all trades, master of none” is an often heard phrase related to people have a broad understanding and ability in a lot of activities, but not a specialist in any.

It suggests that although a person can be good across a range of domains they cannot be a master of all of them.

Leadership can often be a place where you have to draw on all your knowledge and skills, making you feel like a “jack of all trades”. You need a broad breadth of knowledge and interests to draw on that enable the creation of the conditions for people to thrive, set the vision, understand people, and do the practical elements of actually leading people. These skills and attributes develop through your experience, training and development, influenced by your personal characteristic and approach to learning. But do you really master all of them?

Or is it even important to do so?

The ancient Greeks called those who mastered a great range of subjects “Polymaths”, people like Aristotle, who wrote extensively and expertly on subjects as diverse as astronomy, anatomy, geography, geology, physics, meteorology, and zoology.

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The term comes from two Greek words “Poly” meaning many, and “Mathma” meaning a unit of Knowledge.

 

Throughout history we have utilized the term to describe great people whose expertise stretches across many knowledge domains; Leonardo De Vinci (Math, Art, technology, invention), Alexander Von Humboldt (geographer, naturalist, explorer, philosophy, politics and science), Paul Robeson (acting, civil rights, athlete), Theodore Roosevelt (Hunter, explorer, politics, naturalist, statesman) and even Steve Jobs (technology, Business, media),

These people not only have a breadth of knowledge and interests, they also have developed a significant depth of knowledge about these subjects. Araki (2015, 2018) identified that Breadth and Depth are the two most identifiable elements of polymathic behaviour. But the key element that really stands the polymath out, is their ability to seamlessly integrate all their domains of expertise. Being able to transition between one and another, creating links in their knowledge and seeing easily how they can help each other in practice.

Already a lot of leadership training involves the development of skill across a range of domains, in the Military for instance it ranges from the practical, to historical, to geographical, strategic and application of skills, but does it lead to expertise or integration of these skills combined at a high level?

Would the encouragement of polymathic behaviours in future leaders benefit their ability to be more agile, gaining greater understanding of all their interests to a level where they are able to integrate the knowledge into better planning, decision making and development of those they lead. Think about a sports team leader, who understands strategy, or can see the pitch in the context of historical battles or past games, or who can relate easily to changes in society or individuals because their interests have been allowed to stretch and include counselling or psychology, politics and sociology?

It could be useful to develop a leader’s knowledge pool to include the arts and philosophy alongside traditional subjects, allowing them to follow their own interests, helping them to think more polymathic, integrating a broad, depth of knowledge into their practice and ensuring that future leaders can be imaginative and decisive.

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Bruce Lee was attributed to the quote “ Fear the man who has practiced 1 kick 1000 times, not the man who has practiced 1000 kicks, once!” which suggests it is better to become a master of one thing rather than mediocre at many. But why can’t we work hard at becoming a master of more than one? Practicing 1000 kicks, a thousand times? If we are interested and dedicated we can develop skill in many domains, as proved by De Vinci and many others, in fact Bruce Lee himself mastered a number of different martial arts while devising his own. Jeet Kune Do was his life’s work, but grew from his great knowledge and dedication of lots of practical martial arts, philosophy, techniques and influences, in fact it integrated his knowledge across many domains, using everything at his disposal to create something new, in the manner of a true polymath!

Historical figures can provide the inspiration for change, but over the centuries we have come to appreciate the artisan, just checkout the resurgence of artisan bakers, baristas and brewers, but is it now time to learn from the polymaths, to create a new style of a more responsive integrated leadership and learning?

Remember, Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, teaching him across a range of domains of knowledge, encouraging polymathic behaviour in him, allowing him to see the connections between subjects and integrating them in his thinking….and look what he managed!

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References:

Araki, M. E. (2018). Polymathy: A new outlook. Journal of Genius and Eminence, 3(1), 66-82

Araki, M. E. (2015). Polymathic leadership: Theoretical foundation and construct development. (Master’s thesis), Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Finding Your Mental Edge- Some thoughts for uncertain times!

Been a while since I have put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard!).

With all the noise around at the moment about the current situation around Covid-19 I didn’t want to just add to it with the standard self help and fitness programmes that are filling up our feeds.

So I’ve been thinking about how I could produce something positive, something that doesn’t just focus on the current situation but can echo into the new world that could come once the situation improves.

Our mental game is always going to be important, for the first time a lot of people are now having to think about their day to day lives in a different way, they have to locate themselves around their own home, when mostly we spend our lives away from it, having to re position work and think hard about educating our own children!

So a strong mental focus, and a handle on our environment is going to be key, being able to react and assimilate into this new world will ensure that we can thrive through this period, be prepared to adapt quickly once it changes and be in a better mental place.

I wrote an article recently for www.britishexploring.org where I described the current situation in military terms, where they use the acronym VUCA  to describe environments that are Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. This applies to war zones and conflict, but could also describe the current situation in the world, where we are uncertain about what Covid -19 is, what it could do, how it has affected our daily and professional lives. We are having to putting trust in people who we don’t trust usually, who are being ambiguous about their decisions or motivations, and we are seeing the concept of society being pushed to its limits, not knowing how things will go if this situation changes or goes on longer, and all the time things are unpredictable and the future a clouded place, that we don’t recognise any more!

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These elements could give us an opportunity to think about how we mentally deal with any situation and relate this to our performance, either as professionals, sports people, in business, in family life and ultimately as a global citizen.

The Chinese warrior/philosopher Sun Tzu is often quoted  for his insights into strategy and mental performance, one quote of his is-
“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”.

Which I think is an ideal quote, not just for our current situation but one we can take forward in preparing ourselves for the future. What I take from this quote that I think are useful are 6 key points-

Mental grounding– thinking through a situation, researching and gaining knowledge about the situation or the enemy. Preparing and organising yourself and your resources.

Vision– Picture what victory looks like, vision the win! Don’t get caught in the fog, the worry or the ego. Realistically create a vision of success, and how it will feel when you get there, and use it as an aiming point to drive towards.

Stay Positive– if you put your head down and dwell on the fear then this will lead to defeat. You need to stay positive, create little wins from goals. Talk positively to yourself, don’t big things up, stay realistic but when you talk to your self, try and do it positively, use words like – “we can” & “we will”.

Walk through– these are used a lot in the military and in elite sport. Imagine yourself walking through a situation, in slow time. What do you see? What do you feel? What are your actions at given points? Really prepare yourself and be confident that you have thought through any scenario.

Don’t rush to action– take time to think through new situations, don’t rush towards it, or make rash decisions.

Face your enemy (competitor/ life changing injury/ business decision or new pandemic!)- know their strengths and weakness. Learn about them and the way they operate, find the chink that can be exploited or worked on, think through your strategy to overcome that. But don’t shy away from facing them.

Sun Tzu said you need to win the fight in your head 100 times first, once you know how and why, and you have studied your opponent you have gone 90% of the way to winning. But if you spent too much time not aligning your vision and purpose with your tactics, then you’ve pretty much lost the battle.  As all you are doing is thinking of the fight and just reacting to your opponent or challenge. Rather than taking control of your mental game you start on the back foot from the beginning. Therefore time spent visioning your victory, understanding your threats, preparing to face them is key to gaining your mental edge.

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Banter!- The key to elite team performance?

People seem to talk endlessly about leadership in work places, society, and sport, but what about teams, surely it can’t all be down to leadership ….. Can it?

In the UK we are currently immersed in a general election campaign, where a bunch of power seeking “leaders’ are trying to convince us in a variety of ways, nefarious or otherwise, to vote for them and their team!
So it seems timely to look at some tricky issues around leadership and team work,
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Recent team performances like England and South Africa’s finals appearances in the rugby world cup, have got us talking about team work, what about Japans amazing run in the same competition, the crushing of the seemingly invincible All Blacks, a team that has been the epitome of team work in elite sport for the last 10 years, or what about the amazing USA women’s football team becoming back to back world champions during the summer, or England’s Cricket team, outside of sport what about the top teams in business, Google, Java and historically Ford Motor Company and Disney?
All these team have and are creating greatness in their own arenas and prompt us to think about whether its teams or leaders who make the magic happen?

There is always the argument that is the combined factors in the make up a team that make the magic happen, or the old adage of “teamwork makes the dream work”, but surely its leaders who set vision, build the team drive it forwards, celebrate with the team when they all succeed?

This supposes that the team just follow what the leader sets for them, the players are just tools of the leader to achieve their aim or goal?

Looking at rugby coaches for example they build teams that match their vision, during the game they sit in the box passing tactical insights to the players, moving the chess pieces on the board and then celebrate when it all works out!! But is it this simple? I would suggest that its more complicated than this, to be an elite performing team requires individual players in that team to forge their own paths, to become the best at their specialised area, to know everything about their co-workers, work out where their skills sit and to commit to making the team work, they may place trust in a leader to set a vision but they need to commit to that to enable it to become reality, they have to take individual feedback and team discussions on board and amend behaviours and attitudes accordingly.

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But a team needs to find its own identity and the ability to give crucial feedback to each other for the good of the team’s development  so that it can succeed at its task.

I’ve been involved in a number of teams throughout my career either as a participant, player or colleague, as a leader and observer and as coach and trainer, all pushing towards achieving goals, whether that was on expeditions, undertaking military missions, in sports teams and in training elite athletes. In all of these environments and team I have noticed a number of common elements that when in evidence alongside more traditional team behaviours have helped ensure that the high performing teams have met their goals or have created a professional winning atmosphere and mind-set.
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Some of these behaviours that I have witnessed in high performing teams, and personally enjoy in the teams I  work in are-
1. Comradeship –  A critical component in teams. It engenders trust, safety and support, the concept that you are in it for each other and you will “die” to protect the person next to you!
2. Banter– lots of good and generally appropriate banter (not bullying) in a team means that they are comfortable with each other, that they can keep the atmosphere light, though when it really matters they can focus when needed. A bit of gentle sledging of each other can also ensure humour in the work place, kindness and demonstrate that people can smile with each other, and at themselves.
3. Family – Teams that consider themselves a family ensure that they develop their own identity and values, ones that they hold themselves accountable for and to, they commit to tasks and each other, protecting and nurturing each other.
4. Fight for Cause– Having purpose bonds people and therefore the team together, it means that they can face testing circumstances knowing that they have a joint mission and end goal, and give it meaning and importance.
5. Leaders across pitch– having many leaders, not just the main one but others who might be experienced, senior people who exhibit leadership skills and values throughout a team or organisation can lead to a supportive team, who can pick up issues throughout the mission or work and keep people on track, and develop the weaker or more junior members.  They know what needs to be done, what good performance looks like, how to keep people focused and moving forwards.
6. Honest feedback– teams that have confidence in giving, and receiving honest feedback always strive to do better, sometimes it seems brutally delivered, but carefully selected honest feedback delivered in a strong way is highly effective. This isn’t rude or bullying, it can be fair, equitable and clearly given to improve performance or review mistakes. No one learns if the feedback is week, in content or delivery!

High performing teams need more than just a good leader or a loose approach to team work, they need a deeper bond, a connection, a focus, a reason to keep pursuing excellence. In modern workplaces teams need more than just a financial or transactional incentive to push further, making people part of a team, immersing them in the comradeship, giving them a goal and reason to come to work, supporting them through key leaders throughout the team, having honest conversations about performance, and keeping the environment fun and in good humour can lead to developing and maintaining the organisation or teams excellence.

If you want to find out more about teams that I think adopt and live by these behaviours look at the All Blacks (check out the book Legacy by James Kerr), or Google the Royal Marines “ Commando Spirt” mantra and Corps Values, these give great insight into organisational cultures of excellence.

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If you or any teams or individuals you know that might benefit from working on developing their own values and behaviours put them in touch with me and I’d love to help them work on developing their own high performance!

info@james-dyer.org

What Could you do with 60% more??

What is stopping you?

What is holding you back from success?
What stops you becoming the best you can be?

Do you set and reach your goals? In life, work, health etc?

If I said that you normally only work at 40% of your capacity ..max! What would you say?

“I do a lot on 40%, I’m happy with that” or do you ask “what could I do with that other 60%?”
It has been recognised for a while now that motivation, goal setting and a persons capacity to achieve are limited by 1 major factor….themselves!
Its not their physical ability to achieve something but their mental capacity to motivate themselves beyond the 40%.

You have to tap into that extra 60% of your capacity.

If you were on a long open water training swim and working hard, pushing out the cranks of your arms and bursting your lungs, you would probably think that your were working at capacity…but what if suddenly out of the corner of your eye you see that distinctive wedge shape of a sharks fin coming towards you??…..I recon you would start to tap into that 60% that your holding in reserve!
I’m not suggesting that the next time you have a serious deal coming up at work or a heavy legs session in the gym, that you borrow your mates pit bull to stand behind you till you complete it.
I am suggesting that if we know that we have this extra reserve can we find ways to tap into it, to use it to help us achieve those goals.

Your mind is the limiting force here, we have evolved to keep this 60% in reserve and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should be using all of it… we will burn out pretty rapidly. But if we could operate with another 5-10% then we could certainly push the boundaries that our mind has told us we have.

So how can we do this?

For me when working with Fitness clients aiming to succeed in their first Spartan race, or mountaineering clients pushing to climb into altitude for the first time and claim that first big peak, I try to work on 4 areas-
Motivation- Why are they doing this? what is the big plan? what got them to sign up in  the first place? whats their mission? whats their goal? Its about having a why!
Self talk – We are constantly talking to ourselves, giving ourselves second by second Bio feedback on our thoughts, actions and behaviors. So is this always positive? When things are hard what is our brain saying to us? We need to make this self talk positive.- Using words like, “I Can…”, “I will…” ,”What if I try it this way….”,  “Your doing well….”, “Keep Pushing….”.
Visualize- What does the end result look like? Be really clear about finishing the race and celebrating, or being at the summit of that mountain.  Link this visual picture to the Motivation, and feel it, connect the brain and body to the goal.
Mental preparation- elite athletes, military units and high performing individuals run walk through’s of situations, they use the motivation, the goal and their visualisation to either mentally walk through situations, or in many cases they actually run a physical walk through. Special Forces units have specific sites where they build replicas of environments they may operate in so that they can physically walk through their plans and operations. In mountaineering terms progressive training and preparation builds clients towards the pressures they may experience, and Obstacle racers can easily prepare by walking through their race, studying obstacles, trying different obstacles in training, preparing their race plan, to build mental and physical muscle memory that they can use when it comes to race time.

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Tapping into these 4 areas helps me, and people I work with to try and push the amount of capacity we have, to face complicated or stressful situations, tapping into the 60% of extra capacity we might have can ensure that goals are met and difficulties surmounted.

Try it and let me know how you get on…. start by looking at your goals… what do you want to do/ achieve/ find/ develop??

The pain of a broken system- The Family Courts & My Experience.

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On expedition in Sweden with my son last year, something that I thought would never happen.

Over the last couple of days I have been reading a lot of the comments about George Kay, former husband of Kerry Katona (90’s girl band star).

George had been fighting to get access to his 5 year old daughter, and whilst also dealing with mental health issues and drug problems, he died tragically from an overdose at the weekend.

There has been a level of backlash on this from various sources, and although none of us know the reasons or the actual details of this case or what George and Kerry were going through, it has highlighted once again issues around children, fathers, relationship breakdowns and the family courts system in the UK.

I penned this article a while ago as a way of expressing my experiences of the Family Court system over the last 15 years, and I am publishing it now so that readers can hear a view of this, from someone who was embroiled in it and has experienced the system, the emotions, the highs and lows, who was broken by it, and have come through it, stronger and with a really key relationship with at least one of my Sons.

For me this is about one emotion- Pain!

Don’t get me wrong I know and am not too fazed by physical pain- I have been beasted on tough military physical training sessions, fallen 50ft in a climbing accident landing hard and breaking bones, been stamped on by a couple of bouncers after a nightclub fight rendering me unconscious with serious head injuries (not the best decision I have made!), I have suffered a serious burn of my inner thigh caused by scalding water from a defective boiler in a rented flat which has probably been some of the worst physical pain I have ever experienced, I have been through days without sleep on long mountain climbs, one of which resulted in frost nip in one of my toes, which took a year to heal!!, I have crashed cars, fallen of motor and mountain bikes, been bitten by dogs, and even stubbed my toe on the table leg a few times!!

But the worst pain I have ever felt was in 2004 when I drove away from the house I had lived in, leaving behind my 2 young sons.

When relationships breakdown, hurt and pain come hand in hand, the arguments, the fights, the recriminations, the separation impact on all involved. At the time when you’re in the trenches, the fog of self-preservation and confusion, It drags you down into a deep, dark hole, but you can climb back out, you can inch your way back, come back transformed by the experience, a better person, a better man for it!

The death of a relationship sends you spinning, the world you created and gave you identity crashes down around you, your comfort blanket that has kept you grounded is pulled away.

Coming home from work, from all corners of the world or just from the office to spend time with my children has always inspired me as I journey home, it warms me on the inside and allows my brain to calm, to help forget about the work I’ve been doing, it makes life purposeful and worth living. When that collapses around you it is like a death and you feel utterly useless.

The pain seers through your mind, you can’t concentrate or focus clearly, your brain moves into panic mode, it struggles to comprehend what has happened. What is this gaping hole that has opened in your life?  Your emotions bounce from high to the lowest of lows.

It’s an emotional chasm that enters your life and the pain finds ways of welling up inside you from time to time, until it pours over the sides and manifests as raging anger or just rolling tears.

I remember one occasion sitting in a bar having a pint on my own, when suddenly this pain just erupted from deep inside me and tears began pouring down my face. I couldn’t stop them, the bar staff had no idea what to do and I just sat there until I was able to control them and return to my beer! You try to cope with this, to push these feelings down, you try to grip it each time it appears, and you try not to think about it. For me the hardest part was the inability to predict when this pain and loss would well up inside.

Initially I thought I was mourning the loss of the relationship, but over time I came to realise that it was the loss of being a father that was causing this pain.  In the whole debacle it was being around my children that I missed. I was stuck, I was still a father, a dad, but I wasn’t because I wasn’t with them every day, I was a single bloke who every other weekend became a father again. It was this loss of identity that actually was the root of my confusion and pain.

Realising this was eye opening, it meant that I had to re process my role, what I was and how that would look in the future. Re-establish a new identity. A bit like when you mourn the death of a loved one, you shout and scream, you cry, you deny what’s happening, but over time the pain becomes more manageable, you recognise what sets you off, you start to visualise where you want to be, the fog clears and the sky appears, you have control and you are able very slowly to deal with it.

Whilst on expedition in 2008, 4 years after I left, sitting in a fishing village in Northern Venezuela, I read these lines by boxing legend Mohammad Ali –

“You never lose when you fight for what you want, you only lose when you fail to fight for what you care about!”

This quote resonated with me, it deeply resonated at a time when I was embroiled in some of the hardest parts of the break up.

Following our separation my ex-partner took an incredibly negative path, and used the children as a weapon in both our divorce and our interactions, so I was kept out of large part of my children’s lives, and refused access. Ali’s quote echoed in everything I did.

I become embroiled in the UK family court system, which was a demoralising experience in its own right, a system that sees fathers as negative influences in their children’s lives. The court system is crippled by its own political correctness and a deep bias, which can be used to justify decisions that protect themselves from being seen as bias, though actually continues to perpetuate their bias!

The Family Court system and a ridiculous organisation called CAFCAS (Children And Family Court Advisory Service) are institutionally geared against men, a mother only has to claim “abuse” of any sort against a father and this organisation totally and utterly work to conspire with them to keep fathers out of their children’s lives. A mother has to provide no evidence or corroboration, just an allegation, and the system works fundamentally to remove men from their children’s lives, this is the 21st Century!!

I decided to fight! It is draining mentally and emotionally, but all the time I focused on what I cared about, and I believed that by doing this I would always win, whether I succeeded or not. Fighting to stay in my children’s life was important, if I gave up I would have been cut out of my children’s life, and never seen them again, if I lost my fight I would have at least used every fibre and resource available to try and be included, and I would have had to get back up again, but I would not have lost, as I had fought for what I cared about.

I attended court appearances, was interviewed like a criminal, had home inspections, had to constantly provide evidence that I was a “suitable” father, all the time while my ex partner just laid on further “ allegations”, weaponised the children and worked consistently to turn my children against me and over the 15 years of this I had to fund the cases myself.

Constantly over these years I was the one treated as the villain, even though I had brought the actions so that I could see my children!! It’s almost like they think that by bringing the case I was a “nasty and Manipulative man “, how dare I? or maybe even that only a nasty piece of work would endeavor to bully their ex-partner to see their kids (CAFCAS actually suggested this in their reports!!)

Looking back at those years, I am so glad that I fought through, I faced that emotional and mental pain of separation and identity loss, and came through it.

I never knew that I could be so resilient, it’s sometimes the case that you don’t know what’s in you till you’re in the crucible of fire and emotion. It was definitely the case that I didn’t realise that I could keep moving forwards and keep focused and be that resilient.

Whatever the physical pain I have experienced or might experience in the future, it will be nothing like the emotional pain I have experienced. I know that facing forwards when in deep emotional pain, realising what it is that I care about, what it means to me, and knowing that it will end, means that I can fight for what I care about, and know that I will never really lose.

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So if you are in this mess, you never lose when you fight for what you care about, you only lose when you allow it to get the better of you or if you give up,its about finding a way through the storm, finding your hidden resilience and driving forwards. It is horrendous that the system is abused and doesn’t have the rights or interests of the children at its heart, which allows some mothers to be supported in denying fathers and children a chance to have a relationship. The fact that George Kay was one of many men involved in custody battles that felt so low and demorolised that they felt they had no other course of action other than take their own lives, is an indictment of this system. It has been proposed that up to 10 men a day commit suicide, and that separation from children and family is a leading cause of this (https://www.fatherly.com/health-science/psychological-effects-divorce-fathers-men-suicide/ ).

I feel that this system needs a complete re shift in its focus, operations and powers, it needs to place children at the heart of its operations and treat mothers and fathers equally, with the concept that children have a right to have both parents in their lives, and if either parent tries to restrict the others access then proof must be provided and punishments for obstruction must be upheld.

Leadership- My Take…..

Leadership as a concept is HUGE!

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I have experienced leadership throughout my life, good and bad, sometimes great and sometimes atrocious,and in a range of environments from schooling, business, military, sport and expeditions.

As a leader it is important to recognise that leadership grows, it is not necessarily something that you are born with, you may have some great qualities and DNA but actual leadership is developed, either through training, life situations or a culmination of experiences.

“….leaders are neither born nor made- they grow.” Mary Cox.

So when developing as a leader what are the elements we need to look at and work on, either from a personal perspective or from a leadership development/ coaches point of view.

I get asked a lot about what I think are the elements of leadership, and as I have just spent a weekend discussing leadership with future expedition leaders and I’m now relaxing with a beer or 2, I thought I would suggest a starter for 10 list (though this is just a snipit of this massive subject!)

  1. On the Tools- this is a saying used in the construction industry, and is all about building a body of experience! Work in all environments, experience others leadership, take on progressively harder and more challenging tasks. Make mistakes, fail and learn, just like an apprentice.
  2. Elvis- Elvis once said that “Values are like fingerprints, nobody’s are the same, but you leave them all over everything you do”. Values are important for leaders, having a strong set of personal values helps direct their behaviours and actions, these values lead them to develop strong relationships and to make their decisions based on ethical standpoints.
  3. Evolve!- be flexible, adapt and evolve. Darwin’s theory of evolution suggested that evolution is not about the strongest or fastest, it is about the species who adapts the quickest, and evolves to their situation. Leaders have to do the same, and do it quick, they have to respond fast and sometimes be able to learn and adapt as they go, to an ever changing environment and pressures.
  4. Tomato- There is a great pro-paradoxyism, which says Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit- Wisdom is not putting in a fruit salad!” Leaders need to build a body of knowledge, usually based in experience that can help influence their performance. This develops Professional Judgement or wisdom that helps them understand the landscape they operate in and to base their actions on a clear thinking process, even when the environment gets hectic and unsure.
  5. Making your mind up!- Not a Bucks Fizz song, but the concept that leaders need to make clear and good decisions. Good decision making is core to a leaders ability to gain the trust of those around them, weigh up the options and create clarity and direction. Decision Making is based on professional judgement, a leaders values and in the development of relationships with others. In the future, leaders will have to also consider the ethical concerns they are faced with in their practice and environments.
  6. Rocky- Resilience is key to a leaders performance, keeping themselves fit and agile, mentally and physically ensures that they can bounce back, re-plan, keep moving towards the vision or goal,  finding a route through confusion and multiple distractions. Rocky (the film boxer) once told his son that ” But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
  7. Its Emotional- If you look at great leaders, particularly ones that you respect, you might notice that these people understood others, could motivate and inspire people, make crucial decisions and keep teams on track. This was down to high levels of Emotional Intelligence or EQ. Some of these leaders developed high levels of empathy and emotional awareness early in their lives, others grew their emotional capacity, either way it enables leaders to understand people!
  8. Aristotle- Leaders need their own take on leadership, they need to develop their own philosophy, based on knowledge, theory, experience and practice. Being a student of leadership they gather up the theories, the lessons and the little gems related to leadership and forge them into their own personal philosopy. They use this as the armour to base their style, practice and interactions on, it helps them make decisions and to set out a clear vision.
  9. Coach!- Be a coach, learn about coaching and use it in your leadership. remember all leadership is about people. People respond best to being coached. The Chinese philosophy Lao Tzu said it best in my mind and I aspire to live up to this in my own leadership practice –“A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and proclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honour people, they fail to honour you. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done,his aim fulfilled, they will all say, we did this ourselves”.
    lao tzu (c. 450 bc).
  10. Back on the Tools- Do the hard work. Work on yourself, learn your craft, continuously improve, learn the technical skills related to your field, work on your leadership, and work on learning more about who you are. Great leaders understand themselves, who they are and what they are about. But they are always learning, reflecting on their actions and ensuring that they are consistant to their values, and ensuring that they put their people first, ensuring that they develop others, with one eye always on the task, and with consideration to the future. In New Zealand, the All Black rugby team have a mantra, that they don’t own the shirt, they have inherited it from those before, and their only obligation is to leave it in a better state, and never dishonour it. The same applies to leadership, you have to honour where you came from and leave in your legacy in a better place!

In this article I have tried to encapsulate some small gems of how I try to lead,as well as the lessons I have learnt from studying leadership.

As with all things everyone will differ, this may be due to opinions or experiences, and that’s great, it would be good to hear what people think. If you want to be a good leader you need to become a student of leadership, to pick through the theories and the chaff, to find what works for you, how it works in the settings you use it, adapt it if necessary and continually review how it works, and if necessary, change it again!!

Hope you found this useful, let me know your thoughts!

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