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Learning from the Olympians Challenge


Learning from the Olympians Challenge

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of presenting a seminar at Derby University along with Dr John Pates and Daniel Caines. John Pates was a school friend who went on to study sports psychology and coached elite golfers on the professional tour and is now head of sport psychology at Derby. Daniel is a World, Commonwealth, European and Europe Cup Champion at the 400m and 4x400m relay, having represented GB at the Athens and Sydney Olympics. This was a remarkable achievement given that he was once confined to a wheelchair by sporting injuries.

Daniel described the challenge he faced when overcoming the injuries he sustained by overtraining and the focus and determination he needed to ensure that he was able to represent GB four months later in the Olympics. This showed that the will to achieve something can overcome physical challenges.

John Pates talked about his work with professional golfers and helping them achieve peak performance by focusing on strengths so they were in flow. Flow (being in the zone) is the mental state in which a person is fully immersed in an activity with a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and success. This was first described in the 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who found that achieving a flow state is positively correlated with optimal performance.

This was also of interest to me as the week before I attended a two-day positive psychology course. Flow was discussed and was described as the balance of skill and challenge. The greatest growth comes from when the challenge is slightly higher than the skill level. This fits with the intuitive model proposed in “Challenging Coaching” as there is stretch with the appropriate combination of support and challenge.

At the evening event at Derby, I went on to deliver a session on Courageous Goals and going beyond SMART. SMART goals are rational, logical and linear, but while functional not necessarily inspirational. In an exercise I asked people to discuss and set a courageous goal and it was fantastic to hear the inspirational goals identified after only a few minutes. Sports people seem to have this amazing ability to set courageous goals but in business SMART dominates. Maybe business can learn from sport; Daniel Caines had clearly set an inspirational and courageous goal to compete in the Olympics four months after a disabling injury.

In “Challenging Coaching” we describe a three stage process to set courageous goals which is dream, share, and start. This was another interesting connection as John Pates had described his work with elite golfers, encouraging them to dream about their perfect shot and their perfect round and then develop beliefs and routines to turn this into reality.

On Thursday evening, members of the audience dreamt, shared and committed to start working towards their courageous goal.

In the Q&A session, one person said that she had achieved a courageous goal and did not know what to do next. She described herself as being in a void without focus and purpose and wanted to know what to do next. In the answer I recalled my first coach saying to me “relax and it will come.” Someone may say “I must have a goal” or “I should…” which are phrases that will lead to pressure and sub-optimum tension. Sometimes it is about exploring, and taking time to discover the next courageous goal. The optimistic point is that this person had achieved a courageous goal once already, and so can achieve a new even more courageous goal. For this person the next courageous goal may be to find her courageous goal!

Ian Day is co-author along with John Blakey of "Challenging Coaching: going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS" published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing. For more information visit

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