When champion swimmer Adam Peaty won Britain’s first Olympic gold in Tokyo, one man wasn’t surprised. Acclaimed performance psychologist Bill Beswick works closely with Peaty and the British swim team, and is author of a new book Changing Your Story - 20 Life Lessons Drawn From Elite Sport. He knows what it takes to be a success, and has helped to train Olympian swimmers in the necessary skills.
Yet, the challenges professional sportspeople face echo those we face in life – "I see normal people as high performers, as well as athletes," says Bill – and according to him, the same qualities and attitudes can help us find purpose and contentment, achieve our goals and foster good mental well-being.
Be accountable and make no excuses
"If you blame others, you never make progress, in life or in your career," says Bill. Our athletes in Tokyo are coping with "a unique and strangely eerie environment. No crowd, isolation, no mixing. But they’re dealing with it magnificently, because we’ve trained them not to blame".
We all indulge in self-pity on occasion, but "taking responsibility is an everyday thing for an athlete". That means recognising when you’re in a "victim" mindset and changing it to a "fighter" mindset: "You cannot have Manchester United going on the field in victim mentality."
We can’t control every situation, adds Bill, but we can control how we respond. "Bad things happen in life, setbacks do occur. Blaming the situation is a waste of time, energy and effort."
Apply rationale instead. "What can I do about this?" That "is the quality of a winner. The attitude of the British swimming team for instance is, ‘We will make the difficulties of Tokyo our competitive advantage. Because we’ll be trained to deal with them better than other teams’".
Adam Peaty has "a no-excuse mentality," says Bill. "And he has that every day. Many people try to achieve that on performance days, but actually it’s a habit – Adam has the habit of going to train for two hours at six in the morning, and stopping as he enters the arena and saying, ‘Today I will train like a champion’ – despite how he feels."
"We all know how we feel occasionally at 6 o’clock in the morning" – and, notes Bill – "he’s got a young baby at home. And he does the same at 6 o’clock at night, for two hours. Not many people have the discipline and mental fortitude to do that, and that’s what makes him unique. That’s what makes him a champion."
Focus on becoming excellent (not perfect)
Peaty’s daily rigour exemplifies another lesson in Changing Your Story – you might dream of success, but you can’t control the outcome. While it’s great to have goals, says Bill, "winning is building the everyday effort to achieve those. We train every day and focus on the process, so that it leads to the outcome we desire." (So when he gives talks to students at his local high schools, he’ll say: "You want your GCSEs and A-levels and that’s excellent, but the only thing you can do about that is study excellently today.")
Self-belief is also key to success – as Bill says, "how you see yourself becomes your reality" – and 26 year-old Peaty’s attitude reflects that. In the book, he recalls how minutes after the champion swimmer won his first European title in 2014, he was asked what he was thinking. "What’s next?" answered Peaty. It’s the response of someone who puts no limits on himself. Peaty subsequently won an Olympic gold (100m breaststroke in 57.1 seconds) at Rio 2016. Two years later, broke his own record. And now, a second Olympic gold.
However, another lesson from elite sport is not to aim for perfection – which will only leave you frustrated. "Young people especially believe they have to be perfect," says Bill. "I’ve worked with some of the best athletes Great Britain has produced and none of them have been perfect. They’ve all had defects and flaws and shortcomings. But they don’t let those put them off. They focus on what they can do, and they absolutely hammer the process." Follow their lead by aiming for "mastery" not perfection.
An A-grade attitude can trump ability
Crucially, attitude is more important than talent. Bill says: "We have many players in the Premier League who are actually B for talent – but they’re on the field because they’ve got A-grade attitude. You can win with B-grade talent. But you can’t win with B-grade attitude."
As he notes, high performance requires leaving your comfort zone, managing stress, overload, uncertainty, pressure on your personal relationships – and the chance of failure. In business as in sport, he says, there’s increasing recognition of "the power of character".
Effectively managing stressful situations means not becoming overwhelmed by your emotions, as "they prevent you thinking rationally" – and when you calm down the next day, you have regrets. Having strong emotions is an excellent thing, says Bill – if we temper them with "self-control and rational thinking.
"Tom [Dean, who took 200m freestyle gold despite twice contracting Covid last year] is carrying powerful emotions, the desire to win gold, but he’s got to temper that with controlling his emotions, so he’s disciplined in the arena. And he swam his race plan perfectly."
We, too, can apply the "traffic light" system Bill coaches in elite athletes: "When you are captive to your emotions, you see red. Red is the traffic light that brings everything to a halt. If you are emotional but in control, using those emotions to harness your energies, then you’re in green. You’re in flow, making progress."
However, in between is "that wonderful warning sign – amber. In any situation, we can teach people to recognise the signs that they’re going into the red". Learn to recognise when you’re in amber, and "you buy yourself that moment to recover and get back into the green".
There’s no strength in silence or shame in failing
"The way that parents, teachers, coaches, business leaders deal with mistakes is very important," Beswick says. "If they accept them and move on, it makes so much difference." If every error is met with rage or regarded as a catastrophe, people become incapacitated with anxiety.
Once upon a time, he says, sport was seen as a "macho occupation for alpha males, so expressing vulnerability was the last thing they would do".
But as with four-time Olympic gold gymnast Simone Biles, who made the tough decision to withdraw from the US women’s team final saying it was important to "put mental health first", Bill believes emotional intelligence is always a strength.
Not everyone needs counselling, but even top-class performers need someone to confide in – "a thinking partner" who provides a "psychologically safe environment" where they can speak up without fear of judgment to someone who’s "neutral, experienced, can offer them other viewpoints, who can question them, and make sure they are on the right lines", says Bill.
As do we: "When you’re alone, the conversation in your mind can easily become negative and repetitive and you can beat yourself up and become depressive. Sharing those concerns and anxieties with a thinking partner is a massive relief." He adds: "As my mother used to say, ‘A problem is a conversation not had’."
A willingness to admit and discuss difficulties or errors also means you’re more likely to learn from them. It’s why, says Beswick, "some of my most rewarding work in the last 10 years has been with women’s teams. When a game is finished, men shower, discuss it for three minutes, then it’s gone. With women’s teams, they shower, and there’s an evening of discussing it – they want to learn from it, and share their feelings. I think it makes women athletes very strong. They can deal with the mistakes, the setbacks, the disappointments – and get them out of the way."
The Daily Telegraph