Your body can change your mind

Karl Morris argues that by working on what happens in between shots, all golfers can improve their game.

Many years ago, as I began to work with more and more clients not just from golf but diverse sports such as tennis, cricket, football, rugby, snooker and athletics, it became apparent to me that coaches often miss a big part of the picture when analysing sporting performance and so, in turn, business performance. We often just focus on the obvious when looking to find areas of improvement. A golfer has his swing dissected into a series of positions to be viewed as right or wrong. This, of course, makes perfect sense: if you can’t find a single fairway then your game is not going to progress. Yet at the higher levels of the game when these mechanical skills should be largely automatic it became obvious to me there was more at play.

I became fascinated by what players did in between shots or in cricket between each single ball of an over. I worked for a while with England cricketer Steve Harmison who, for a period of time, was ranked as the best bowler in the world. When Steve had a spell struggling I talked to him about what was going on in his head as he walked back to his mark and got ready to send down the next delivery. It was revealing to say the least and what struck us both was the amount of doubt this period created and the opportunity to feel bad well before the next ball was bowled.

What often gave away an area of concern was the apparent change in the athlete’s body language in between plays or shots. Often the body language would be appalling, they would bury their head in their chest, shoulders would slump down and forward, breathing patterns would change and the general message given off to others would be one of a lack of confidence. The aspect I found most intriguing was that the athlete was sending the most important message not to others but to themselves.

I had a good bit of success working with players on this and a few years later a social psychologist called Amy Cuddy published some research on how the body isn’t just a shop window for what the brain is thinking, but how the body can literally change our mind and make us feel different. Becoming aware of and changing our habitual body language patterns can dramatically alter how we feel. It would seem the body informs the brain just as much as the brain informs the body.

Cuddy set up experiments whereby volunteers were placed in what she calls ‘low power poses’ and ‘high power poses’. A low power pose would have someone withdrawing into themselves, eyes down, shoulders drooping low, arms wrapped around themselves in a protective manner whilst a high power pose would have a strong tall posture, eyes up and forward, shoulders back, arms outstretched – picture Superman posing and you get the idea.

She found people taking a high power pose had a literal chemical change in their system. The high power pose triggered an increase in testosterone in the volunteers and a decrease in cortisol. Testosterone makes us feel strong, brave and more willing to take risks whilst cortisol is a stress hormone. When excess cortisol is released into the system we will feel nervous and generally ill-suited to face life’s challenges.

Cuddy found the exact opposite in the low power pose group; the testosterone decreased whilst the cortisol increased. This was true for both sexes and not just in a small way, but changes of up to 25 per cent in the testosterone/cortisol release. A massive change in the mind body system and a clear indicator of a factor that would have a big impact on performance. The science was backing up the idea of being aware of the importance of what you do in between plays and in between points, the time when no cameras are looking at what you are doing.

Cuddy studied what people did before they went into a job interview, where candidates are sat waiting for what could be one of the most important conversations in their life. Most people sit hunched up, head down going through what they think might need to be said and, as Amy Cuddy points out, indulging in what is the ultimate low power pose, being hunched up over your mobile phone, tapping away mindlessly. Just think of the amount of time people are in this pose in the modern world. When you are in these low power poses you are increasing your chances of releasing more cortisol and reducing your testosterone. Then as you walk into the interview room and people make that all important first impression, what is your body saying to them and, more importantly, what are you saying to yourself internally?

During the time I studied hypnosis I was fascinated by stories of how the great therapist Milton Erickson used to work with clients in his office and give people tasks to do. One of his most famous tasks with people who were feeling depressed was the instruction to ‘count the number of chimney pots’, on the houses they passed. What would you have to do to count the chimney pots? Eyes up, posture up, in a high power pose. What would the depressed person normally do? Eyes down, shoulders hunched, in a low power pose. Erickson clearly understood way before the science would back him up that the body could be used as a key tool in trying to get people to think and feel better.

I have frequently found the concept of ‘taking charge of your body language’ one of the simplest and most important skills you can develop. Not just when you are playing golf, but in your business life in general. Next time you walk into town just take a look at how many people are walking around with their head buried down in their chest. Whilst there may not be as many chimney pots around as there would have been in Erickson’s day, you should still try and spot them. I promise you a very simple action will make your impression of the world and how you feel a whole lot different.

Karl Morris is running his Mind Factor coach certification course in Manchester Nov 20th-22nd. For coaches who want to help players develop practical and applicable mental game skills. www.themindfactor.com for details