Inner-Vation© – lessons from Steve Peter’s ‘The Chimp Paradox’

The announcement that England plan to use the psychiatrist who helped British cyclists win Olympic gold as they continue their preparations for the World Cup last week brought Dr Steve Peters into the public domain once again. Already working with Liverpool FC players, Peters has an enviable track record of helping high-performing athletes maintain a positive mindset when competing under pressure at the highest level.

Regarded as a ‘mind-mechanic’, his most notable successes have been with Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton – Hoy says Without Steve I don’t think I could have brought home triple gold from Beijing, while Pendleton says he was the most important person in my career. Peters was a key factor in Britain’s extraordinary track cycling success at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympics, has also worked with Tour de France winners Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.

Peters is perhaps the most unlikely success story in British sports coaching. His background is in serious mental health – for 12 years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personal disorders. He can’t help you do a Cruyff turn or a 40m cycle- sprint better, but he can help you learn what goes on inside your head.

Peters warns athletes against setting goals that are beyond their control. His philosophy is this: you cannot say I want to be the best cyclist in the world, because you have no influence over your opponents. You can, however, say I want to be the best I can possibly be, and devise a plan to achieve that aim.

When Chris Hoy climbs onto his bike he has a weapon on his side that is the envy of all his rivals. It’s not his carbon fibre bike, or a special energy diet, or some new training routine that has produced even more power in those famous quads. The weapon is the mind-management technique from sport psychologist Peters, who has never once cycled round a velodrome.

On the day of competition a lot of people start to lose it. Cyclists are hammering round the banked boards like frantic clockwork toys, and anxiety starts getting the better of them. They start saying things like: My opponent looks in good nick, their new bike looks to be going faster. I really don’t want these feelings, I really don’t want these thoughts, and they’re stopping me from competing at my best.

Hoy admits to being a very anxious man at times. In the keirin, his anxiety can threaten to take over six or seven times – the irrational, emotional side of your personality that is the most striking. Peter’s principle is called The Chimp Paradox, and explains how the human mind operates and how people can learn skills to manage their mind.

In The Chimp Paradox, Peters argues there are three elements to the psychological mind. He labels these the ‘Chimp’, the ‘Human’ and the ‘Computer’. Peter’s model is a tool for understanding and managing the functioning of the mind. The model is not a hypothesis nor strict scientific fact but based on the neuroscience of the brain. The model sees the brain as being divided into three teams:

The first team is you, the Human. You are a conscious thinking analysing being that works with facts and truth and then makes deductions using logical thinking.

The second team is the Chimp, an independent thinking brain that is not under your control. It works with feelings and impressions and then puts the ‘information’ together using emotional thinking.

The third team is the Computer. This is really a brain that is at the disposal of the Human and Chimp to put information into for reference. It acts as a memory and can also act as an automatic thinking and acting machine that is programmed to take over if the Chimp or Human is asleep or if they allow it to run ahead of them with preformed decisions and beliefs that it can act with.

The Chimp is the area of the mind that is driven by feeling, impressions, emotional thinking and gut instincts. The Chimp quickly jumps to opinions and thinks in black and white terms. It can be paranoid and its behaviour can be catastrophic, irrational and emotive. Its primary motivator is survival and it goes back to a very primitive and essential part of our human development.

It is how athletes manage their Chimp that dictates how well they perform. Put simply, learn ways to control your Chimp to train the brain to manage surges of emotion. Impulsive behaviour or nagging self-doubt can impact negatively on our professional and personal lives. Chances are, according to Peters, it’s your inner Chimp, that’s running amuck, and often at those moments of high pressure.

Essentially, there’s a battle between the separate parts of your brain, and the more primitive Chimp part is an extremely powerful emotional machine working five times faster than the Human part, so unless we have techniques for managing the inner Chimp, it often ends up in control and you’re left wondering ‘Why on earth did I do that?’

Peters asserts that managing your Chimp will be one of the biggest factors determining success in life – and it’s down to yourself to do it. Here’s his technique for doing so:

Firstly, realise you can’t bully your Chimp, you have to nurture it.  Meet the needs of your Chimp first and it will be in a position where you can then talk to it rationally and it will listen.  How?

Allow it to have its say, in an environment away from the action, for as long as it takes (typically about 10 minutes), without interruption.  Relax, go with the flow and let it out, however irrational. Once done you feel better and can begin to have a more rational conversation.

You now have the opportunity to deal with it in a measured way, using facts, truth and logic, to continue calming it and addressing its fears and concerns.  Remember they can be real.

In summary it is how to deliver the additional 15% that makes the difference between a good performer and a brilliant one. The key to success is thus managing the inner chimp – the carrier of fear, emotion and irrational thought; the part of you which will always want to jump to an immediate opinion, see things in black and white, think the worst and put you through hell. Managing the chimp allows you to make the logical decisions on the field of play, rather than be bullied by emotion.

When I let my enormous Chimp out, explained Hoy, I started thinking like a pessimist. I had a tremendous sense of foreboding, wondering about the what ifs, about crashes and mistakes. Steve has given me the skills to ask why it was happening, why I was allowing it to happen and how I could get round that. So we worked on that for a long time. I probably did more hours of mental training than I did physical.

The Athens Olympics 2004 was a tipping-point for both Hoy and Peters. The three riders in the keirin before Hoy all broke the world record. Rather than being overwhelmed by self-doubt and anxiety, Hoy used the step-by-step mental drill that the pair had been working on for months.

It was only with about 10 metres to go until the finish line that he first looked up and thought, hey, I’m in an Olympic final, says Peters, It was almost the perfect mental display.

So what exactly does Peters do? There is no recipe, it’s a simple technique that once learned can be applied to every competitive situation. Ask yourself what it is you want to do and why you can’t get there. It’s a mental warm-up, what Peter’s is effectively doing is putting you in a zone where you want to be there, and you’re ready to focus very quickly on your moment and nothing else.

Both Hoy and Pendleton could be forgiven for losing their hunger and motivation after achieving their career goals in the Laoshan Velodrome at Beijing, but they continued to kick-on, and both cite Peter’s technique as being their driver – the goals become: Let’s do the best we can, be prepared as an individual, make sure I get everything right. These are the goals because you can control these. At the end of the day you can’t do better than your best.

Peters tells a story of how, at cycling’s last World Championships, he saw Hoy looking at the giant screen over the track to see a rival break a world record. This wasn’t a part of the routine and Peters wasn’t delighted by what he saw, knowing it would provoke an anxiety. Hoy, equipped to fend off the Chimp, simply went out and secured his own world record.

Essentially Peters has identified the way in which self-doubt and irrational, impulsive behaviour can have a negative impact on our personal and professional lives. His mind-management techniques helps us to recognise when our minds are behaving in this way and overcome the self-sabotage to achieve more positive results in all aspects of our life.

The human part of the mind, as labelled by Peters, is rational, evidence-based, thinks in shades of grey and operates a balanced judgement. It is driven by self-fulfilment i.e. having a real, greater purpose in life rather than the moment-to -moment survival instinct of the Chimp.

Most of us might say the human part of the mind sounds like the part we’d aspire to achieve. But Peters argues it’s more complicated than that. As well as being your worst enemy at times, the Chimp can also be your best friend, and therein lies the paradox in the title. There is a time and a place for everyone’s inner Chimp to prove both useful and necessary.

Nonetheless the Chimp has an ability to hijack us and take over our reactions to situations rendering us irrational, emotional and out of control in a way which we regret afterwards. You cannot bypass the Chimp part of your nature, nor can you control it with willpower. You need to acknowledge it and work through it.

Research across various sports is that possibly as many as 90% of elite athletes will say that mental attitude and ability to deal with emotions and thoughts are critical to a successful performance. Mental resolve in elite sport is often cited as the difference between victory and defeat – keeping focus at the pinnacle of an event, the determination to convert potential into successful outcomes.

For example, two riders in the same race may have different emotions. One may be relaxed and managing their emotions well, therefore for them the impact of emotion during the race will be low. Whereas, the second rider may be a very anxious individual, who panics easily and loses confidence, and for this rider the impact of their emotions on their performance is very high.

I certainly feel far more aware of my own inner Chimp, and am beginning to recognise the moments when it has a tendency to derail my best laid plans. Having this mental measure as a check and balance in my everyday life, as well as having methods to manage and get the best out of this side of my personality rather than deny it, has already made this an invaluable impact, both personally and professionally.

I call this ‘Inner-Vation©’ – it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. When top athletes achieve a ‘Personal Best’, it’s all about realising their potential and achieving success in that moment of opportunity when it really matters, to enable them to reach beyond their expectations.

Success leaves footprints, and whatever your personal development needs or growth aspirations, you can make a leap forwards by modelling what others have done and adapting it to fit your own circumstances and objectives.  We all live lives of infinite potential but few of us make the most of what we’ve got. Opportunity is everywhere, but some people miss it because it looks like work.

Nothing should hold you back from reaching your potential, and that includes you, so what is it that’s holding you back? If it’s your Chimp, then take a look at Steve Peter’s The Chimp Paradox, and remove those inner demons.

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