My dream was to win Wimbledon

My dream was to win the Wimbledon Championships, or at least get into the top 10 on the Women’s Tennis Professional rankings (WTA). I failed! The highest international ranking I achieved was 447 in singles and 255 in doubles. When I was forced to retire, due to a lack of sponsorship to continue on the world tour, I became determined to discover why some of my compatriots, including Wayne Ferreira and Amanda Coetzer, were able to achieve my dream, and become top 10 in the world. I became devoted to studying the psyche and how it affects performance and the full expression of potential. My Master’s thesis research was entitled “The Making of a Champion: A Constructed Reality”.

The revelation of what constitutes champions

As part of my research, I interviewed world champions, in different sports, such as Maria Mutola, Herman Chalupsky, Reg Park, Amanda Coetzer, Wayne Ferreira, Brian Mitchell and others. During my interaction with these champions, I arrived at a surprising revelation. I had always thought that, in order to become world champion, I needed to be superhuman. I had always perceived champions as extra-ordinary! However, in all the champions I researched, I found the very opposite of what I was looking for. I discovered that champions were particularly open to being ordinary, not superhuman, just human. In their openness to being ordinary, they were more able to connect to their vulnerable imperfect selves.  The embracing of their ordinariness, their doubts, fears, struggles, anxieties, and weaknesses allowed them to get to know this part of their selves well and, in turn, figure out successful strategies and tools to deal with them.   The great differentiating factor between champions and the rest, therefore, was that champions acknowledge and accept their ordinariness. As a result, champions are empowered to choose to do a ‘little extra’ every day, and it is this ‘little extra’ which causes them to become extra-ordinary.

On the basis of this finding, I have formulated a concept for optimum, consistent, peak performance. I have found marked changes in attitude, consistency, and performance among my clients who put this concept into practise and then integrate it into their daily awareness. The concept is called little me and GREAT ME.

“Little me” and “GREAT ME” Talk

Every human being is able to divide their thoughts, images and inner self-talk into “little me” and “GREAT ME”. When working with my clients, I give them a piece of A4 paper and ask them to divide it in half. At the top of the left-hand column, they write “little me”; on the top of the right-hand column, they write “GREAT ME”. This exercise can take from few minutes to a few days, but in this period, whatever comes to mind that is negative for e.g. your fears, self-doubts, rejection, anxiety, criticism, inadequacies, worry about the past and future, etc. you write in the half headed little me. For example, “What if I false start and get disqualified! Then I won’t even give myself a chance. My knees have been tender, imagine if I get injured as I’m about to win. My compatriots seem to be performing so much better than me, and the Olympics are so near. I wish I could perform like I do in practise!”

In the same vein, whatever comes to mind that is positive, including their challenges, courage, self-belief, acceptance, excitement, and visualising optimum performance, and feeling fully in the moment, they write in the second column (“GREAT ME”) For example, “My nerves are contained at the start, I will be quick off the mark at sound of the gun. This is my opportunity to stretch myself. My knees are tender, which means I need some rest , visualising performance is just as powerful! My compatriots are in good form, but so am I. The Olympics is going to be an exciting challenge! I will use my nerves in the race to raise my level!”

This exercise is particularly useful to determine how much time “little me” thoughts are consuming your inner world. Once you get to know your “little me” and “GREAT ME” in black and white, it becomes much easier to masterthem.

Your inner self-talk is constantly changing. The key is to keep your “little me” thoughts to a minimum, so that your “GREAT ME” can be maximised. Once you are aware of the interplay between “little me” and “GREAT ME” in your mind, your goal is to manage your “little me” so that it maintains a minimum of 20% or less and to amplify your GREAT ME to 80% or more. There is a direct relationship between the dominance of “GREAT ME” thoughts and consistent peak performance, as well as the dominance of “little me” thoughts and inconsistent average to low performance.

The secret to minimising “little me” and maximising “GREAT ME”

The secret for minimising little me and maximising GREAT ME for consistent peak performance is actually counter-intuitive, which is why it’s unfamiliar territory for most athletes or performers in many aspects of life. We have grown up learning that negative feelings emotionally or physically, like fear and nervousness, are not healthy and thus it must be scolded, pushed away, or denied. However, the more we do this the more the negative feelings actually grow. What we need, rather to be learning, is to accept and validate our “little me”.

Validate your “little me” as normal

In my research, I found that champions embrace their ordinariness, and it is this fact that empowers them to choose to do a little extra every day in order to make them extra-ordinary! In order to minimise your “little me”, you need to acknowledge and validate him or her as normal. For example, “little me” reminds you to work hard, it enhances your performance from the adrenaline it produces, and shows you how not to think! Once you start accepting your “little me”, as a normal part of your pre-performance and performance, you will be able to accept him and use him to your benefit. When you befriend your “little me” it becomes much easier to contain, substitute or minimise.

This is how many champions manage their self-doubt, anxiety, fear etc. so well. Overtime, they have embraced their “little me” and have figured out what tools,which serve to minimise “little me”, thus providing the space for “GREAT ME” to grow!

Awareness is magic

Awareness is magic because nothing can be changed unless you are aware of its presence. Just the process of being aware of the mental and physical feelings associated with “little me”, can in fact shift them. The first step is to be able to ascertain which inner-talk dominates and to what extent. Is most of your inner world consumed by “little me” thinking, images and the consequent feelings? Or is your inner world fulfilled by “GREAT ME” thinking, images and the consequent feelings? Once you have this awareness, you can begin the process of investing in keeping “little me” to a minimum and “GREAT ME” to a maximum.

The “little me” part of yourself can be understood like a little child

The “little me” part of yourself can be understood like a little child. By denying or rejecting him/her, your “little me” would subsequently feel just as though a little child feels. The more you ignore or reject a little child, the more they are going to find ways of getting your attention, which is why the less you deal with “little me” the more he will grow. For example, try shouting at yourself, becoming louder and louder each time: “Don’t think of gorillas, don’t think of gorillas, don’t think of gorillas, DONT THINK OF GORILLAS!!”

 What are you thinking about?

Some tested strategies to minimising “little me” AND MAXIMISING “GREAT ME”

I have studied the tools and strategies of many champions in sports and in business. Below you will find examples of these strategies, as well as “poke questions”. Poke questions serve to nudge you into thinking about your thoughts and feelings, in an attempt to become more aware of your “little me”, thereby minimising him/her and in so doing maximising your “GREAT ME”.

Normalise your “little me”

At least 20% of “little me” has a very important role to play in your life. When you coach yourself into accepting that your “little me” may always be present in the back of your mind in one way or another, then he becomes easier to deal with and therefore to minimise. For example, “little me” may say, “I am afraid of what might happen if I feel nervous.” Or “I don’t want to think of the race because it makes me feel under pressure.  My body is feeling so tense; I don’t have control of it.” This kind of thinking drains energy and increases tension even more

Your “Great Me” talk needs to normalise your “little me” by deeply understanding that doubt, nerves and tension are hardly ever conquered. This is the vulnerability that makes us human, that makes us ordinary. It is the understanding of the dynamics of this ordinariness that facilitates the ability to do “little extras” which will create extra-ordinary performance. These are examples of how your “Great me” could normalise your “little me” and do little extras: “I always feel nervous in competition, so I trust my techniques or rituals to lift or lower my tension levels.”  I can feel the butterflies clearly in my body. Gold medallists – before breaking records -have all felt very nervous.” “I am doing exactly what I feel I need to be fully here!”

Poke questions:  How do you feel about your “little me”? “How does he feel in your body? What happens when you tune into these “little me” feelings?

Be the KING/QUEEN of your world, not the servant.

Another important theme common to your “little me”, amidst the pressure of pre-performance or during performance, is to focus on others, more especially their opinions and their perceived strengths! When your “little me” sounds self-effacing and inadequate, as that of a servant, you need to remember: Be the KING/QUEEN of your world.

For example, when you are the servant in your world, your “little me” would say, “He has better technique than me. He looks stronger than me. He must have trained harder than me.” When you are being the King of your world, your “GREAT Me” would dominate. For example, , “I have a unique natural style that is the best for me. I put my earphones on look up at the sun and feel all the energy needed to conquer whatever I intend.”  I have done my best to prepare for this event. I have faith in the moment. I am ready.”

Poke Questions: How has  your “GREAT ME” got you to the Olympic Games? What is your “Great me” talk that makes you the KING or QUEEN of your world? 

EYES must be Friendly

Earlier I explained how, if you befriend your “little me”, he becomes easier to manage and minimise. The same goes for how your eyes perceive your pre-performance context, as well as the performance itself. Eyes that are friendly will be able to perceive the situation as a whole, thus providing the glasses for opportunity, positive reinforcement, enjoyment, and being fully in the moment. However, eyes that are critical will miss the right time in the right place, they will reinforce negativity, hate the performance, and focus on the unrealised expectation. Take a moment to imagine that you are looking at someone you hate. How do your eyes feel?

When you are looking at someone, whom you hate, your eyes will most probably perceive them with judgement, force, and negativity. Your eyes will be critical and they will more than likely feel taut and constricted. In this state your “little me” will dominate your inner world. For example, “The wind is howling today! This is not going to help my performance” Or “My coach is not watching me. I need his support to perform at my peak.” “Why do I keep making mistakes!”

When you have critical eyes, even your head feels taut and constricted. Therefore, you are physically holding in the negative mind set of your “little me”.

When you are looking at someone whom you love, however, your eyes will become soft and loose, and they will subsequently feel friendly, accepting and scanning accurately for the positive and the perfect opportunity. In this state, you will have “GREAT ME” dominating your inner world. Your head will feel relaxed and spacious, allowing for even more amplification of your “GREAT ME”! Your “GREAT ME” for example, says, “I will use the wind to serve my performance.” Or “I am the only person who can make my dream come true!” “Mistakes are merely miss –takes, I have a chance to correct.”

Poke Questions: What kind of eyes do you have before and during performance? How can you soften your eyes to make them friendly and make space for your “GREAT ME”?

Choose one thing you are doing well and focus on it!

Prior to the event, that will enable you to achieve your goal, you expect your mind and body to be thinking and feeling in top form. For champions, this has not always been true at the verge of winning an important match or breaking a world record. In fact, many winners report that they are feeling low in energy or their technique is not up to scratch, prior to having the spontaneous experience of slipping in to the zone state. Again it is the way they deal with this lethargic, ordinary, human part of themselves, their “little me”, that determines their opportunity for slipping into the zone state. For example, your “little me” talk may say, “My muscles feel lethargic. My timing feels out. My technique feels awkward.”

When you choose one thing you are doing well and focus on it, regardless of what aspect of your performance it is, movement, attitude, mental skill, or technique, it will expand. When you make a decisive choice, your body feels in control. Focus expands that which is focused upon. So make sure it is something you are doing well in that moment, it is not important what that something is! Focusing on it means that you make a point of repeating and commending yourself for it. For example, “My body doesn’t feel 100%, but my first serve percentage is better than ever.” Or “I can’t visualise a perfect performance, but my muscles feel energetic and nimble.” Or “My strokes seems heavy but my turns are like propellers!”

Poke Questions: What are you doing well? How is your “GREAT ME” reinforcing it? Can you hear, see or feel your “GREAT ME” repeat the good aspects of your performance?

DECIDE what you want and imagine it!

When you have spent months, and even years, preparing for an event like the Olympic games, the amount of energy, tension and expectation that has accumulated is enormous! It is not unusual to feel totally overwhelmed by the experience, especially if it is your first time. You need to ensure that you are “magically aware” of your talk and feelings in your mind and body. As long as you are constantly taking stock of how you feel, you have the magic of “poking” your mental and physical state into place. You may become aware of your “little me” for example, saying, “I can’t believe I am here, I can’t believe I am good enough.” “Seeing the other competitors from the other countries is terrifying for me!” This is totally okay to think or feel! Remember you need to validate your “little me” as normal and par for the course when you are competing on an international scale in an effort to fulfil and express your full potential. So once you have validated your “little me” your “Great me” decides, “I want to express my full potential today! Then imagine, ““My “GREAT ME” is taking over; I am seeing myself perform at my peak in my mind’s eye. It feels exciting!”  Other examples of your “GREAT ME” may be, “This is my dream. I have been working my whole life for this. I am seizing the moment and grabbing this opportunity!” “I have chosen to express my full potential at this event and I will let it happen regardless of these unfamiliar, even uncomfortable feelings. It feels good to see myself performing in a zone state.”

So decide what you want and imagine it is happening in the here and now.

Poke Questions: How much do you really want what you want? How much are you prepared to overcome in order to make it happen in the here and now?

So, before you retire prematurely, or do not seize the moment and draw on all your potential, or fail to achieve your dream, stop chasing the mirage of becoming superhuman as a prerequisite for achieving your goals. Start by embracing your ordinariness! By getting in tune with all the parts of yourself, both little and GREAT, you will be accessing the deep recesses that are necessary for expressing your full potential in the moment, and facilitate your chance of slipping into the place that all athletes worship, “The Zone”. Choose to experiment with the above secrets and choose to do a little extra everyday on your journey of feeling and becoming extra-ordinary.