Tame the Monkey, free the mind

Mind coach Don Macpherson's FIVE key ways to improve your performance - in sport or anything else in life.

Don Macpherson has been coaching sportsmen where it really matters - between the ears - for over 20 years. He dates it back to the weekend in spring 1994 when Formula One was struck by the double tragedy of the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and three-times World Champion Ayrton Senna at San Marino.

‘David Brabham, who I was managing at the time, asked me whether he should race on. Ratzenburger had been his team-mate. I realised we needed to do more. We were selling the talent short by not understanding the stress they were under.

‘I talked to the successful drivers. I became fascinated by the mental edge that drivers like Schumacher could achieve.’

This insight he combined with what he’d picked up from his father, a doctor who had used hypnosis in his medical practice.

What is 'the Monkey Mind'?

Don developed the concept of the ‘Monkey Mind’ based on a Buddhist idea. The Monkey is the negative chatterbox inside your head, obsessively reminding you of the worst-case scenario. He calls it the ‘what-if worrier - always commentating like a jet-charged Murray Walker’.

Don reckons the principles he has developed can be applied to anything in life that creates performance-related stress - your driving test, exams, even chatting someone up. ‘The way a Formula One driver prepares is, at heart, exactly the same as you need to prepare to be the best you that you can be.’

Don suggests you:

Concentrate

‘Make sure you can concentrate on the task in hand. Children have no trouble concentrating if they’re interested in something. A child can dial out his mum calling him for dinner with no problem at all if the game he’s playing is interesting. But that doesn’t mean concentration gets worse as you age. Any of us can improve our concentration. Schumacher did it all his career. You need to become child-like again - declutter your brain like a child and approach the task with a child’s non-judgemental absorbed curiosity.’

Breathe

‘Many older people are upside-down breathers. We breathe shallowly from the chest - not from the diaphragm. When you feel stressed the first thing to do is to take control of your breath - focus on it and breathe from the diaphragm. Again in the child this is the default position - many of us only start breathing upside down once stress enters our lives when, for example, we go to school. Yoga is very good for learning how to breathe properly.’

Quiet the mind

‘To silence the Monkey, breathing is the first step. Stay with the breath. Slow everything down. If you can, close your eyes. Keep as absolutely still as possible. Breathe slowly from the diaphragm and stay with it. I worked with Wimbledon champion Pat Cash and you’ll often see tennis players do this between games. I haven’t worked with Andy Murray but in my opinion it’s the difficulty he has in grabbing the voice in his head that has caused him to lose big games at recent slams. He needs to quiet the mind’

Focus on the process

‘When things aren’t going well, the Monkey goes into overdrive. Focus on the process and go back to basics. Golf is a good example - the game is just you and the Monkey. Just like a golfer hitting the balls into the trees and assuming that that is the end of his round, we might make a mistake in the first minute of our driving test and think that we’ve failed. But it isn’t necessarily so. There are 17 more holes. When you make a small mistake - for example in the driving test - the key thing is not to make another more serious one immediately afterwards as a result of allowing the Monkey to distract you. Focus on the process - in this case, the driving - not on history.’

Have courage

‘You need to practice these techniques but equally, in the heat of the moment, you need the courage to apply them. Focusing on your breathing may not feel like the most important thing when your ball is lost in the trees but it is. 

‘In my opinion, meditation has never been more important than it is today. The more time the Monkey has to ruminate, the more important it is to be aware of it. Modern life, when we jump rapidly from one thing to another, really winds the Monkey up. Each time you change the focus of your concentration you open the door to him.’

• Mind coach Don Macpherson has worked with racing drivers, footballers, snooker, golf and tennis champions.

This article reflects the experience of the individual. It is not health information from the MHF under the terms of the NHS England Information Standard.

MAIN IMAGE: Angry? by Navaneeth KN licensed under CC BY 2.0