I remember as a child my older brother, a Mancunian, but inexplicably and tragically a staunch Liverpool supporter, once said to me that to see Jimmy White lift the World Snooker Championship would mean more to him than Liverpool winning the league title. Admittedly this was probably in the immediate aftermath of White’s fourth, fifth, or even sixth world championship final loss, so emotion may have temporarily clouded his judgement (as it undoubtedly did to Jimmy White when faced with the unfathomable prospect of actually winning), but I’m pretty sure that if I asked my brother to re-evaluate that statement today, even after another fifteen or so seasons without a premier league title for Liverpool, his response would be the same. However, my brother’s, and subsequently my own, burning desire to see White triumph on the biggest stage was not borne out of the old English habit of rooting for the underdog, but from an indignant sense that such a prodigious and peerless natural ability should at least once negate the psychological foibles which so often seemed to halt his path to greatness.
My brother and I have always felt that we too had sporting talents which to some extent weren’t fulfilled, and perhaps unconsciously we felt that White’s travails paralleled our own, and in a sense justified our existence as talented, but ultimately flawed athletes. To us, a victory for White would represent a victory for nature (vs. nurture), or more aptly for this article, for nature and nurture, and provide hope to anyone born with incredible talents, but perennially frustrated by a mind seemingly at war with their own ambitions. However, I also think it was more than this, for a sportsman with the talent of White could be capable of the unthinkable, of taking the sport to a level not yet seen, and thus demonstrating advancement for the human race in a generation we can call our own.
I can’t speak for my brother now, but for me, some of the most fascinating moments in sport come in the realisation that the current known limits of human ability and achievement have been breached and surpassed. Those moments can be brief and unexpected, like witnessing Bob Beamon jump two feet longer than any man had ever jumped (he jumped almost 30 feet) at the 1968 Olympics, or seeing Usain Bolt run the 100 metres faster than anyone in history despite triumphantly beating his chest and seemingly acknowledging individual audience members two thirds of the way into the race. Inevitably in other sports this process of realisation is more gradual, like being transfixed by the ethereal majesty and effortless grace of a young Roger Federer in full flow on a sun-lit Centre Court at Wimbledon. Either way, when that moment occurs, you feel the neurons in your brain firing as your emotions bond with the significance of the event in a time and place specific to your subjective experience, and form a memory never to be forgotten, waiting to be retold to posterity.
Such phenomena in sport (or indeed in any field) can only occur when a person who possesses the greatest natural ability fulfils their true potential on the biggest stage. Genetics are becoming an increasingly decisive factor in sport as more and more competitors reach the limits of dedication and the most effective training techniques become commonplace at the highest level. This means an athlete must possess an extremely rare combination within his or her chosen sport of the optimal physical attributes, spatial and perceptual processing and decision-making skills, and the mental strength to remain totally focused in the most pressurised of circumstances (not to mention engaging in the requisite amount of purposeful practice). The first of these is less important in snooker, but the second and third are vital, and the third is where Jimmy White fell short.
He never did win the World Snooker Championship, and perhaps the greatest demonstration of his mental fragility came in the 1994 final with his capitulation from 14-8 up in a race to 18 frames, and epitomised by a missed black off the spot in the decider – a shot he would have made 999 times out of 1000 in a match of less significance. What was so enthralling about Jimmy White, and in more recent years Ronnie O’Sullivan, was that they had the second of these attributes in abundance - the ability to process perceptual and spatial information at lightning speed and instantaneously translate these processes into precise desired movements with the highest level of adroitness and coordination.
However, what made these players simultaneously so frustrating (if albeit entertaining in equal measure), was their apparent inability to process efficiently or control their own negative thoughts. Such players stand out not just because of their incredible talents, but because by nature, the majority of people in the highest level of sport have long been better able than most at controlling intrusive thoughts (if they have any at all) which can hinder performance (think of the star players on the school football team whose performances weren’t in the least bit affected by their dads coming to watch). In the past, athletes who were born with the talent to dominate their sport, but without the requisite ability (or acquired knowledge) to dedicate themselves and/or master their conscious and unconscious thought processes on the field, ultimately fell short of the heights that their talents merited (Alex Higgins, Jimmy White, George Best, and Paul Gascoigne all spring to mind). However, where once there was a reliance on a manager’s motivational speech, or the maturational effect of marriage and children, or the input from dilettante psychotherapists, or even the faith-healing hands of an Eileen Drewery, there comes a new dawn of psychology in sport, and with it, a new hope.
If you’re still reading this article at this point (and provided you haven’t just woken from a three month coma), you’re probably one of the people for whom the name Dr Steve Peters has recently become increasingly familiar. Peters, a former maths teacher and now clinical psychiatrist, University professor, and sports’ answer to Uri Geller (only real and slightly more consequential than a flaccid spoon bender) rose to prominence following his success with the British cycling team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There he was credited with much of the work behind the scenes which helped to turn Chris Hoy and co into the dominant force of world cycling and a haul of eight gold, four silver, and two bronze medals. Peters’ work with Victoria Pendleton in particular, stands out as a remarkable validation of his understanding of the fragile but malleable human consciousness. (I prefer the term ‘consciousness’ to ‘mind’ here as it doesn’t imply some distinct metaphysical force). Prior to Peters, Pendleton was often paralysed by self-doubt, and she describes the first (three hour) meeting with ‘the most important man in her career’ as a ‘shell-shocking experience’ which instantly left her feeling lighter and fired up again. The rest is history.
However, it was through his work with Ronnie O’Sullivan that I really began to take notice of Peters’ work. As the youngest ever winner of a ranking event title at the age of seventeen, O’Sullivan’s talent was plain to see, but soon after so too was the capricious nature of his character which lay the foundation for a tempestuous early career. Nevertheless, the watching world (myself included) were forced to take notice and left speechless when The Rocket hit the fastest ever competitive maximum break in 5 minutes and 20 seconds (an average of one shot every 8.8 seconds and a record that will almost certainly never be beaten) in the first round of the 1997 World Championship. Since that day, I have followed O’Sullivan in the hope of seeing his talent flourish where White’s had languished before. His incredible natural ability was such that he won the World Title on three occasions prior to working with Peters (in 2001, 2004, and 2008) despite continually battling his own thoughts, and displaying the full range of his talents only sporadically. More often than not O’Sullivan came out second best against the demons of his consciousness and viewers would watch frustratingly as he walked out of the arena half way through a match with Hendry, or played an entire match against Alain Robidoux with his left hand because he felt bored (we weren’t to know he could beat most of the top players in the world with his weaker hand). A recent piece by Matthew Norman helped to capture the plight of this tormented genius before he crossed paths with Peters:
‘Until he used Peters, whose dozen years of clinical practice at Rampton may have been useful preparation, the saturnine Essex potter was a desperately conflicted figure. Hand in glove with the purest natural talent we may ever see in any sport, there travelled a dazzling compendium of neuroses. Palpably scornful of his own genius, he sought catharsis by squandering it. Fear, diffidence and self-loathing often come disguised as exaggerated arrogance, but seldom more transparently than in the pre-Peters O’Sullivan’.
In Peters, O’Sullivan was offered the chance of a remedy which tragically came too late for Jimmy White, and in the three years since they began working together, O’Sullivan has been virtually unbeatable, taking the game to a level never before seen, reaching three World Championship finals in a row and winning two, and playing with the serenity and enjoyment of a man seemingly at peace with the vagaries of the game and of his once debilitating psyche.
The genius of Peters lies in translating his knowledge of the physiological bases of human consciousness into an easily understandable framework. The model is based on the ongoing conflict within the psychological brain between the emotional ‘Chimp’ and the rational ‘Human’ (the ‘Computer’ is also an important component but we can ignore this here for the sake of simplicity). The Chimp is used to describe some of the many contributions to our conscious and unconscious thought processes of the more primitive core of the brain, or limbic system, which is responsible for (among other things) processing our emotions and our ‘fight or flight’ response to stimuli. The Human is used to describe contributions, primarily to our conscious thoughts, from areas of the more recently evolved outer cortex of the brain, or parietal and frontal regions, and is involved in processing fact-based logic and abstract reasoning. The Chimp is so powerful and hard-wired that it cannot be stopped, and can therefore ‘be both your best friend and your worst enemy’. The key to the Peters model is to learn how to use your Human (and your Computer) to exercise and control your Chimp in order to harness its strength and power when it is working for you and to neutralise it when it is not.
Peters has spent the last year working at Liverpool Football Club (a move I told my brother would be the signing of the season), and many close to the club are suggesting that the successes of some of the young players in the squad during this period are, in part, a result of Peters’ influence. In an interview mid-way through the season, Daniel Sturridge almost perfectly encapsulated the essence and simplicity of the Chimp model when he said, in reference to his work with Peters, that he ‘no longer gets angry during the game, but after it’. This is part of what the model means by exercising your Chimp - giving it an outlet, a plan, by creating an inbuilt response to its impulses (this is where the Computer also comes into use). Psychological literature often discusses the unconscious in this way - that without a conscious, logical, and immediate plan of action put into place for any unsettling or stressful event, it will take over. (Your unconscious won’t even settle when it hears only part of a familiar song because it distinguishes between finished and unfinished tasks to help us to remember. This is what’s known as the Zeigarnik effect and explains why annoying songs can be stuck in our heads for days – it helps to play the whole song until the end!).
As many of you will be aware, the England football team has recently enlisted the help of Peters for the World Cup. This might be too short and too intense a collaboration to really affect the performances on the pitch of the non-Liverpool players (admittedly there aren’t many of those), but hopefully it will help. Nevertheless, Peters has primarily been brought in to help England with their ultimate nemesis – the penalty shootout, and for this, I predict there will be enough time should we make it that far (at the time of writing this we have just lost the first game to Italy).
Like Jimmy White, however, there is one player I can’t help but wish Peters had met sooner. When I first saw Wayne Rooney play I had never before seen such a destructive, bull-dozing tour de force in English, or even world, football. In his youth, untroubled by the pressures of stardom and unfazed by any occasion, Rooney made the best defenders in the world tremble in their boots before he’d even turned seventeen. Since then, even the great Sir Alex Ferguson has never really seemed able to eradicate the ‘Gremlins’ which have taken up camp in Rooney’s mind (Gremlins are what Peters describes as unhelpful or destructive beliefs or behaviours which are removable - Goblins are firmly fixed and extremely difficult to remove). Although he has had an amazing career, and been very unfortunate with injuries just prior to major tournaments, his talents merited more, and his genius has often only been exhibited in split-second reactionary moments in which his Chimp has less time to corrupt his natural zeal for the game (I think his top ten goals might measure up with anyone’s). Rooney apparently sought out Peters as soon as he arrived at the England camp, which suggests that he knows both that he has a problem, and that someone else may be able to help him fix it. To suggest that an athlete’s mind can simply be ‘fixed’ might seem like a bold statement, but such has been the impact of Peters’ work on the individuals he has helped, it seems only appropriate to me. Ronnie O’Sullivan is no longer simply known as the most talented snooker player that ever lived, he is the greatest player that ever lived, and his transformation as a man could provide more than just hope for the future generations of Paul Gascoignes, Wayne Rooneys, and the sporting world as a whole.
The Chimp is dead, long live the Chimp.