There's a chimp on my shoulder!

Mental Training is just as important as physical training and anything that helps bring your concentration into the moment is good enough. There are lots of books out there to help you offering a wide variety of techniques which help people conquer their demons within the area of Sport Psychology.

The best one I’ve found and one that works for me is one called “The Chimp Paradox” a model that explains why sometimes that inner voice (or chimp as Prof Steve Peters has called it) sometimes gets the better of us and therefore ruins our run. Peters has spent many years helping people who suffer with anxiety overcome their fears but he is probably best known for his work with top sports people, Ronnie Sullivan, Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton to name a few. I have been fortunate enough to attend a sporting conference where one of his colleagues demonstrated the effect that “the chimp” had on sports performance, it makes sense to me so here is just a brief introduction on what his model is all about.

The Chimp Model explains how the mind can be seen as three teams, each with their own agenda and way of working. The Human (you), is mainly based in the frontal lobe, is associated with logical thinking and works with facts and truth.

The Chimp, mainly based in the limbic system, is an independent emotional thinking machine and works with feelings and impressions, and acts without your permission! The Human and Chimp are two separate thinking machines that independently interpret our experiences. Either of them can take control, but they can work together.

There is also the Computer, spread throughout the brain, which is a storage area for programmed thoughts and behaviours.

The Human and the Chimp can both put information into the Computer and the key is to store helpful information on the Computer.

In this model, everyone has an inner Chimp. It thinks independently from you and it is not good or bad, it is just a Chimp.

Although you are not responsible for the nature of your Chimp you are responsible for managing it. You can tell if your Chimp is hijacking you if you:

· Have unwelcome thoughts and feelings

· Struggle to live life the way you want to

· Sabotage your own happiness and success

· Act impulsively and regret it later

· Procrastinate or can’t stick to resolutions

If you suffer from unhelpful feelings of anxiety or catastrophic thinking, your Chimp is in control. Learning to recognise the difference between yourself and your chimp is an important part of working with your mind. Whenever you have feelings, emotions or thoughts that you don’t want then your emotional circuits (the Chimp) are hijacking you.

Your Human may try to take back control from the Chimp but the Chimp is much quicker and stronger than you and you may not succeed. For example, if you suffer from a panic attack brought on by claustrophobia you, your Human, may logically know that the situation isn’t dangerous but you cannot control your reaction. Recognising that it is your Chimp reacting not you is the first step to managing anxiety. It will also stop from you criticising yourself.

When stress hits, in whatever form, the Chimp will always react first. It isn’t possible to stop this and in some instances it could actually save your life. So the first reaction you will get will always be a Chimp one. This is normal and healthy – although it is not always helpful.

Under stress the Chimp will go into Fight, Flight or Freeze mode, depending on what it thinks is best. You need to recognise how your Chimp reacts to stress, as everyone is different. The key is to develop a way to stop the Chimp from taking over.

One way to manage anxiety:

· Recognise the Chimp is reacting

· Slow down your thinking (to allow the Human to get involved)

· Get a perspective

· Have a plan (you can see why I like him)

Here is a link to Steve Peters talking about his model in more detail

Optimising the Performance of the Human Mind: Steve Peters at TEDxYouth@Manchester 2012

Dr Steve Peters is a Consultant Psychiatrist working full time in Elite Sport. He works with the UK Athletics, British Cycling, Sky Pro Cycling teams and has had involvements with a further twelve Olympic Sports as well as England Rugby and Premier league Football. His career began with teaching Mathematics and then moved on to Medicine.