“I think we associate stress with negative fear and panic anxiety – having a challenge-response trains us to feel excitement more than fear towards what we’re doing”

Business Leader sat down with Olympic mental performance coach Charlie Unwin. Unwin was an athlete and platoon commander in Iraq before becoming a mental performance coach for various GB Olympic teams. He is also a speaker and has recently released a book ‘Inside Out: Train Your Mind and Nerve Like A Champion’, where he shares how anyone can programme their mind to achieve their full potential.

Your new book ‘Inside Out: Train Your Mind and Nerve Like A Champion’ has recently been released. What is an Inside Out mindset?

An Inside Out mindset is something that I think we all start with, certainly as kids, where we focus on the mastery of what we do to get good at something without being shackled or hindered by the outcome or an expectation for how good we should be.

Of course, as we move through our careers, or we start to achieve great results, we become far more aware of how the outside world sees us. The temptation becomes that we focus more on being able to protect our reputation. For example, we expect certain results or metrics if we’re in a sales team and as a result, we become preoccupied with those metrics and it starts to dilute and take away from the quality of focus that we have on our inputs – the mastery that made us good in the first place.

How does that kind of mindset differentiate from an Outside In mindset?

The Outside In mindset is summed up by people who are gifted at what they do, or who find achieving an outcome relatively easy. They never have to apply themselves to the same efforts once they have achieved their goal. This is where I think we have to be cautious about how we use the term ‘talents’, and who we call ‘talented’. Because talent has a nasty way of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve.

Do these ideas align with mindfulness?

Of course, our physiology is immensely powerful. It’s the cornerstone of what thoughts present themselves into our consciousness in the first place. How we’re feeling and the sensory experience of the situation that we’re in will depend on how our brain effectively brings thoughts to consciousness, and sometimes you don’t feel in control of that. Certainly, when it comes to physiology, it’s a kind of alien world to a lot of people in business.

Meditation has become universally popular, even now on television there’s Wim Hof’s programme about submerging ourselves into cold water and being able to maintain control. That’s something which I call the development of the challenge-response, as opposed to the fight-or-flight response. So, it’s about becoming much more aware of how our physiology drives our thoughts, which then drives our behaviours — this is something that I feel really passionate about.

Is mindfulness or Buddhism a part of your life in any way and how were you introduced to it?

They are a part of my life and they probably became a part of my life without me realising. The work that I do specifically, I call ‘applied meditation’, because I don’t think the act of meditation alone is enough for a lot of the high performers that I work with. I think they have to feel like meditation is somehow being applied to their own goals.

I was in the army for eight years where they train you brilliantly to be able to stay very calm and think correctly in very high-pressure situations. So, ‘applied mindfulness’ is something I came across then. I also competed in sports and modern pentathlon and was on the British team for several years. I did target shooting as a sport, which is what we call a closed-loop sport. In other words, it is dependent on the repetition of what you do to get the same outcome.

It takes a remarkable amount of practice and skill to be able to maintain that consistency under pressure. I found myself doing what we call ‘dry firing’. I would practice the process of firing the perfect shots, saying to myself “calm, control, sights”. I even had specific exercises that made each one of those words create a very powerful sensation. So, “calm” was total relaxation, “control” was a feeling of being able to bring the pistol down onto the targets, with total utter control as if I was being supported, and “sights” just allowed me to focus on the sights themselves, which is very important.

I realised that through training in the kitchen, rather than on the range, I was going through this very repetitive meditative process, and I would come out of that with my mind being completely clear and in a very different state from how I’d started. It was only in doing that, and almost ignoring the results, not having the outcome to worry about to distract me from that process, that I started to perform a lot better in competition. I started to get the best results I’d ever achieved. I took that very seriously and have now applied that to other areas of my life.

Is social media stopping us from having an Inside Out mindset?

In short, yes. I do worry a lot about social media and its impact. In some ways, social media doesn’t have a place if you’re a purist in high performance. Because it encourages a degree of self-editing that takes you away from the flow and your process.

Self-editing is highly detrimental to ‘flow’ when we look at what’s going on in the brain. ‘Flow states’ — which are peak performance states — achieve a complete ‘shutting off’ when we experience self-editing and self-questioning.

But it requires high degrees of focus on a process or ‘applied positive focus’ on what we are trying to do. To be in a ‘flow state’ requires an appropriate level of challenge. So we have to feel challenged by what it is that we’re trying to do. Too much challenge and this causes our working memory to become overwhelmed. It floods and we go into more of a survival state, so that’s not good.

Social media has very little benefit. It does, of course, have huge benefits for being able to promote what we do.

How important is self-talk and our relationship with ourselves in this?

So, self-talk is the sort of dialogue that we have going on inside our heads and we tend to become more aware of our self-talk at points of high pressure, where it can become more negative or more damning.

That’s just a function of the emotional centres and limbic system in our brain becoming more activated, and more sensitive to threats. It’s like a radar looking for things to worry about.

Self-talk is going on all the time in our minds, but we tend to only notice it when it becomes quite negative because then it shouts a little bit louder as well. We must become more aware of our self-talk all the time, rather than necessarily at the point at which it starts to affect us.

Is the way we understand the capacity of our minds changing?

Visualisation is a concept that is now fairly universal. We cannot expect to perform at our best without first having visualised in our mind what it is exactly that we want to achieve. More than that, visualisation helps us to regulate our emotions more effectively, because it emotionally prepares us for the eventualities of what might happen.

With a sport like skeleton, where you’re going down a mountain headfirst on ice that 90 miles an hour, you can’t do that more than twice a day — your body won’t allow it. So we use visualisation as a way of accelerating our every experience that we had, and being able to get better through mental training rather than just physical training. But this is a universal principle, right? This is something that we can all benefit from.

Can visualisation be as effective as real-life practice?

Studies in basketball have shown this. They took an elite basketball team and split them into three groups. The goal for each of the three groups was the same – they had two weeks to enhance their free throwing skills from the penalty spots.

One group was allowed to practice as they normally would – so physical practice as much as they wanted to. While one group was only allowed to practice mentally – so they had guided visualisation that allowed them to execute the perfect shots every time but in their head. The final group was a control group, they didn’t do any practice.

The group who visualised scored significantly better results at the end of those two weeks and they performed better than the group who physically practiced over those two weeks.

Can virtual reality be a crutch or a tool when it comes to visualisation?

So, visualisation is important for enhancing skills and having a goal-orientated approach to what we’re doing. Virtual Reality won’t necessarily achieve that for us unless we are guided by the same sort of goals and intentionality.

For example, imagine what it would be like to stand on stage in front of Wembley Arena, or a huge arena with hundreds of thousands of people looking back at you. You could argue that we could use that experience through Virtual Reality to become more attuned or adapted to being able to perform, whether it’s music or giving a speech.

But the problem is, if all it’s doing is putting panic in you and making you feel anxious, you’re not addressing the key things that are going to make you better in that situation. So, I think for it to be useful it will require a blend of technology and human performance.

Why is it important to approach adversity with a ‘challenge response’?

Stress isn’t a bad thing. Stress is a very important thing for the human condition and human performance. I think we associate stress with negative fear and panic anxiety – that would be what we would call distress. But there is also euphoric stress, which is excitement about what we’re doing. Having a challenge-response trains us to feel excitement more than fear towards what we’re doing.

Now, to do that, we have to be able to fundamentally pull the levers of control that exist within us. By that, I mean practicing breathing, managing our physiology, managing our muscular tension, and managing our focus.

Is there a particular story or person from your years as a mental performance coach that stands out?

I suppose Lizzy Yarnold as an athlete always stood out in the sport of skeleton because she went through her own real roller coaster journey and I talk a lot about her experience in the book.
In our first meeting together, I asked a question I ask many Olympic athletes: “Why does it mean so much for you to win a gold medal?”

She turned it straight back at me and said: “Well, why does it mean so much for you, for me to win a gold medal?” I didn’t know how to answer that and I kind of realised that in these performance environments, we are all susceptible to the same emotions and the same pressures, we all take our job very seriously. I learned a lot from this group.

How can our readers turn negative things into positive motivation?

Failure and success are two sides of the same coin. One requires the other, they are totally interdependent on one another. So, there’s a little bit of a mindset shift here that has to occur.

Successes are normally littered with many failures and many successes. Being able to break our performance down into things that are far more tangible and more controllable is a positive.

Focus on the small things that you can commit to, and start to derive a sense of satisfaction and pride from doing those small things well knowing that ultimately, that will lead to better things. So my question back to you is: “How can you better measure incremental improvements?”