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

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