'Modern coaching goes beyond mere physical'

Sir John Whitmore, celebrated sports psychologist, demystifies his ways

'Modern coaching goes beyond mere physical'

“Romans used to force their prisoners to wear a neck-tie so when they did something wrong, they would pull it upwards and use it as a noose,” said Sir John Whitmore with a wide know-it-all smile when someone mentioned that he was not wearing one ahead of an important business conference.

He paused to take a glance at everyone’s awkward reaction before adding with a chuckle: “That’s why I never wear a tie. I am no prisoner.”

It was hard to understand why he said so at that point, but it eventually made sense. He was bent upon becoming the master of his own fate. Only a few have succeeded in their attempt and Whitmore is one of them.

Whitmore began his career as a fairly successful racing driver and despite being good at his ‘dangerous hobby’ he trod down an entirely different path that led him to become one of the leading minds of today. He often wondered during his stint as a sports psychologist as to how much of a part the mind had to play in sport and began a quest which led him to answers he was not able to fully understand until much later.

What he eventually uncovered, he shared, making him one of the pioneers of sport coaching. “I just wanted to prove a point to my parents. I wanted to prove to them that I could do anything and be good doing it. My father was into horse racing and I was into racing, guess that’s the way it goes (laughs),” said Whitmore, who was in Bangalore to lend his services to the Kinesis Tennis Academy, when asked about his racing career.

“But I stumbled about this coaching concept because I studied psychology. Soon I realised that it was possible to perform better if we understood the psychology of the sport better. We have to work with the body but we also have to work with emotions because when people are emotional, they don’t perform well,” he explained with gusto.

He continued: “I started a ski school and a tennis school at around that time and then wondered if I could out it out in the form of a book so when I did write one out, it was only 118 pages and it was very successful. It eventually became around 240 pages because I had to update the system. I ensured that I didn’t make this book an academic one. I use language that ordinary people use in their day-to-day lives. I am trying to help people realise their full potential. People think I am started this all on my own but actually it was three people, including me, and we started this thing and it snowballed. I really didn’t expect it to be this big.”

How big? His book ‘Coaching for Performance’ became a bible for any coaching enthusiast. It sold well over 700,000 copies and made him the face of sports psychology and coaching all over the world. Sports institutes from across the world were prescribing the book and there was also a steep rise in the number of business firms using his principles. It led him to write another couple of relatively less successful books while he was also ushered in to dole out one interesting conference after the other in several parts of the world.

“Problem is very much about their fear. There can be short-term fears or long-term fears about anything anyone wants to do. We can always find something that makes you a little uncomfortable when I ask you if you done that.

If I were to ask to ride on the back of a tiger in the forest you will be very afraid and as a result your body becomes very constricted and when that sets in its hard for you to perform at your best. You need your body to be lose to excel in sport. We try and get to the root of it and help you overcome your fears. As a result, making you a more emotionally complete athlete,” said the 76-year-old, who barely looks or sounds like one.

“I myself turned to sport because I was very passionate about it and I was also trying to prove something and I realised that everyone is sport is limited by their mental state. Athletes fail in sport because their bodies aren’t fit or ready enough, it’s because their minds are not strong enough. That’s really what my book is about,” he said with a ready smile.

Everything Whitmore had to say defeated the common conception of ‘coaching’. By definition coaching is to handle a person but more often than not, it barely goes beyond physical training but to the Englishman it just seemed imprudent for the world to believe so.

“The general conception that coaching is all about the physical aspect of a being is tremendously outdated. People have realised the fact that it goes beyond the physical a long, long time ago but people did little as they were very steeped in their own ways,” he noted.

“For example, the generation that (Bjorn) Bjorg had come from, should his coach have told him to change his grip from what they called a ‘pancake grip’ to the conventional, Eastern grip, things would have been very different. His coach, I guess a very enlightened one, did not bother to change him one bit and that resulted in something special.”

“I tell children ‘don’t listen to the adults, they don’t know any better than you’. You have got to let them (children) do their thing. Their body knows what’s best for them,” he added. An interesting take on an age old concept but if more and more coaches were to deploy Whitmore’s ways, perhaps, the world of sport will never be the same again.

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