The Performance Gene and Other Myths - By James Elliott

James Elliott - British Army Mental Resilience Trainer and Author

What can only be described as a roar erupting from my daughter as we watch Lauren Rowles MBE, Para Olympian Athlete and all round good egg, hammer down the lane in her outstanding Rio performance, made me wonder what it is that makes some people such high performers and some so seemingly blasé about their existence and their purpose. It was a phenomena I’ve witnessed throughout my career, from being pre Para selection staff on one of the British Army’s most grueling selection courses, to a strength and conditioning coach at a National League rugby team, to being the second in command of the British Army’s Mental Resilience Training, there were individuals dedicated to their successes and there were individuals who were almost where they are by sheer circumstance and error; but why?

Why are some people so motivated and confident and energetic and exciting to be around, yet others so unmotivated and so lacking in confidence and so draining and negative? You could put it down entirely to Cattell’s 16 Personality Factors or any of the other theories of personality and be done with it: some people are some way and some people are another and that’s that. I’m not a believer in motivation and success as a personality trait though, I see success as an attitude, a behaviour and a belief, and attitudes, behaviours and beliefs are all changeable. So which of the interchangeable parts of an individual’s behaviour is the main route of success? If I am going to argue that it is not a personality trait and I am going to argue that it is a learned behaviour, I have to back it up, well let me introduce you, to a well known word but a little understood one: “goals”. Goal setting, simply put, is the “development of an action plan designed to motivate and guide a person or group towards a goal”, the key words being “motivate” and “guide”. From all the outstanding individuals I have been truly fortunate enough to meet, from Olympians, to rugby players, to elite soldiers, to CEOs and textbook writing Doctors, the one thing that truly unites them all, is their ability to set effective and progressive goals. The ability to set effective and progressive goals is definitely not a personality trait, it is a learned behaviour. Someone, somewhere has broken down a challenge for them into achievable steps and they have carried that knowledge with them throughout their lives, they have learned to perceive challenge in a very different way to the majority of people, seeing it as an opportunity to perform rather than as an opportunity to fail. The previous successes they have had, have fueled them further, the previous successes have built self confidence, self efficacy and intrinsic motivation. The process of setting goals is a long one, it is actually quite technical, GROW model with SMART principles to outcome, performance and process goals have filled many pages of many books of every varying branch of the psychology tree from sport to behaviour and certainly not enough tying space for it on here. However, their effect is easy enough to see; I had an individual that I would coach strength and conditioning to at a national league rugby team, for the benefit of this and him we shall call him “Jack”. Jack was a mountain of a man well over 6ft and sitting in around 18 stone, his enormous arms would often pluck the rugby ball from an opponents hands as if he were a child. However, his performance was, to say the least, varied. He would go several games on the bounce being the very foundation that the remainder of the team could rely upon, to then, almost over seemingly nothingness would spiral, he would lose confidence and motivation, he would say that he no longer cared and would become almost blasé about his own performance going from team hero, to the bench. Having spent a lot of time with him, it was very simple to work out exactly what was going wrong, very obviously, he lost confidence in himself the moment people screamed and shouted at him, hoping this would get him to further his performance, a fairly widespread misconception that everyone responds well to this. He was well-educated and well nurtured, it definitely didn’t suit him to be screamed and shouted at, it was not motivational at all for him. All I did, was build a far more robust sense of self confidence by setting him achievable but challenging goals and attributing his success and their completion to his effort and his ability. We developed a short mantra of “strength and confidence” often finding that, that would become a trigger for a very high level of performance, his understanding that his deadlift and squat strength and his ability to turn scrums and rucks over was down to his work rate with me in strength and conditioning, he would become the very player that everyone hoped he would be. Screaming and shouting became water off of a ducks back and he would be more and more un-phased by the behaviours of crowds. The clinical part behind setting goals, is the engagement of the prefrontal cortex, giving power to the rational and logical part of the brain, with a task to focus on, no matter how small or insignificant it appears to be, we are removing the power from our emotional centre. Even if we move this into soldiering and the ever frightening parachuting course that the British Airborne Forces must complete to be recognised as a much coveted airborne soldier, we can see the powerful effect of goal setting. Within the aircraft itself, when preparing for a parachute jump there are several drills that must be carried out, truth be told, it would be quicker for the instructors to simply do the drills for the soldiers themselves, however, by providing the soldiers with these series of tasks, they are distracting them from their own fear and greatly increasing their chances of completing a successful parachute jump, without any surprise visits from a shin bone upon landing. The eventual success and awarding of their wings would fill the individuals with pride and a sense of self confidence found seldom elsewhere outside the 4 walls of the Airborne Forces, a true belief in themselves and each other, simply by goals, their completion and understanding it was by their own hand. There is no inexplicable and inherent gene or personality trait ensuring personal growth and success, simply by effective goal setting, we allow ourselves to gain the self confidence required to outperform our peers, we can distract from fear and over thinking and worry. The belief that some are born with the ability to be successful and others aren’t, I have found to be untrue, all we ever need is a good knowledge of the process of effective goals and the first step to do so. A step we must provide for each other, to coach, to mentor and to help one another, from the youngest rugby player to the most elite of elite soldiers we all need those above us to help guide and coach us in effective goals and our next steps. Stronger, together.

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