How mindfulness created more Paralympic champions

In 2008, during his first ever Paralympic Games at Beijing, Greg Baker, head coach of the British Para Table Tennis team, had a big realisation. One, that was to become a defining moment in his career.

Here, MOE creative story director Natalie Cooper, discovers more in this interview.

Picture the Beijing Olympic stadium. Imagine the crowd is roaring, and China being the ‘home’ of table tennis, there was a lot at stake. “You have one moment to deliver,” says Greg.

Walking into the table tennis arena, Greg felt his nerves get the better of him. Overcome by anxiety, he realised: “I wasn’t ready for that moment. As a coach, my heart was going, my pulse was racing, I was sweating.” This feeling was to end up shadowing his whole 2008 Games experience.

“Being so close to the action, as a coach, you’re able to shape and influence the athlete.” He explains the coach in table tennis is able to talk to the athlete after every set. You have a ‘time out’ allowance, once per match.

During Beijing, while the athlete was looking to Greg for reassurance, and to talk tactics, Greg was instead gripped by self-doubt, thinking: “I’m not ready to coach in this high-pressured moment.”

The stress and expectations got to Greg. He admits he wasn’t fully present with his athlete. This changed the way he was able to normally coach and his focus on the athlete was not where it should have quite been during these Games.

Walking away with no medals to celebrate, Greg left Beijing questioning whether he was cut out for this. “I really had to reflect on how I was feeling and why I acted the way I did,” he says. “I thought to myself, I don’t want to be in that situation ever again. I asked myself, can you do this? Are you ready for this role? What do I need to do to prepare for the next Games?”

Journey of resilience

After some soul searching, Greg was able to decompress: “Leading up to Beijing, I was very focused on the athlete. Trying to help the athletes prepare to achieve their best, but I forgot about myself. I realised before I can empower and lead others, I need to put my ‘self’ first.”

It was this big realisation that spurred Greg into action. This led him to enrolling in the ‘World Class Coaching Programme’ at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, between 2008-2009.

“I wanted to find out how can we be more in tune with ourselves and examine how we behave under pressure,” searches Greg. This was the start of a personal development coaching process to learn the tools of how to cope with stress under extreme pressure ¬– that underpins both elite sports coaching and leadership.

“What happened to me in Beijing got me thinking about how we make decisions and manage our emotions. In sport we love to fail, we’re constantly pushing boundaries in training to maintain success or get to the next chapter,” he comments. “We have to know how to keep moving forward, and what lessons are being learnt from failure.”

He continues: “What I learnt from executive coaching practice and working with clients in business, helped me to know how to ask some really deep, meaningful, proactive questions back in the sporting world. I was more in tune with the athletes. ‘Let’s take stock’, ‘let’s pause’. ‘What can we learn from the future and then what do we need to implement now, to get there’, and ‘how do we bring about the best possible moment under pressure’,” he adds.

Psychological flexibility

“It’s accepted that to be successful in sport, we’re going to fail a million times,” states Greg. “The mindset of a high performance coach or athlete, is to understand our behaviour preference – do I still need to adapt or what’s needed for me? We constantly talk about adapting, being unfamiliar with the familiar. It’s all about finding the edges and differences.”

Behind every athlete is a multi-disciplinary team made up of coaches, a head of performance support (HoPS), psychologists, backed up by sports science, and world class tools and techniques. Greg also went on to enrol on the UK Sport ‘Elite Coaching Programme’ in 2010-2011.

“Stress will not disappear,” declares Greg. “Preparation for the Games is about the compass of four, eight and even, 12 years, worth of dedication. When you arrive at the Games, the pressure and expectation goes through the roof. So, how can we channel those thoughts and feelings, but not avoid or ignore them? As coaches and athletes, it’s about being resilient and how ready we can adapt in the moment.”

Greg’s blended coaching approach of executive leadership and elite, high performance, world-class coaching – paid off. At the London 2012 Games, the para table tennis team won four medals: 1 silver and 3 bronze medals. It was a successful Games and exceeded expectations, meeting the maximum medal target expected from UK Sport.

However, with Rio taking place in 2016, team and individual performance plans never stand still. “We’re always looking ahead, thinking, where do we go next to keep succeeding and excelling,” says Greg.

Before Rio 2016, came the World Championships in 2014, held in China. When Greg arrived at these Championships, he was personally struggling from jetlag, and lack of sleep. He describes: “I was suffering from a post London 2012 slump. Everything had been all geared towards this event with tunnel vision. I asked myself, is this what success feels like? I started suffering flashbacks from 2008. My slump, jetlag and fear, raised up these threats of anxiety again that I experienced back then.”

So Greg decided to turn to the team psychologist asking for guidance. The psychologist used mindfulness techniques on him. “It helped me personally in that moment. Brought my mind back to what’s important here and what’s not important in terms of thoughts,” Greg reassures. “What can I control and what can’t I control? If I went into panic, the breathing grounded me. It refocused my mind.

Mindfulness intervention

“Although I’d come across mindfulness at the end of 2012 as a potential performance enhancing tool, I hadn’t really connected with it until now. We did really well during the World Championships, and I thanked the psychologist at the time. It got me thinking, how do we bring mindfulness in as a coaching intervention and use it to help us act on feeling, thought, or be able to let our emotions sit with us?,” he questions.

This was to become a real game changer. Based on Greg’s own personal experience at the World Championships, he set about evidencing how mindfulness could be used to improve psychological flexibility, and gain medal wins with more athletes being able to step onto the podium.

Here, Greg makes reference to basketball player Michael Jordan when he played for the Chicago Bulls back in the 1990s. George Mumford, now author of ‘The Mindful Athlete’ introduced mindfulness to the players on how to stay present in the moment to make really good decisions. Michael Jordan himself credits Mumford and his mindfulness techniques with transforming his on-court leadership. The Bulls were unstoppable during that time.

Greg also collected data from Goldsmiths, University of London, where the university had partnered with an investment bank in a controlled group experiment. To measure if using mindfulness could help a team make more money, create better client relationships, improve wellbeing and psychological flexibility. It proved that this was the case.

“What it takes for one athlete to get to the top, isn’t the same for another athlete,” says Greg. “In sport, there is a well-used analogy: ‘what’s going to make the boat go faster?’. Every athlete around the world can prepare technically and physically, but what sets them apart? We talk daily what’s going to make the biggest difference to gain that competitive advantage. Else it’s coming down to too much chance. No stone is left unturned.”

In March 2015 until September 2016, Greg took mindfulness to a team of Olympic sports coaches and put in place an 18-month mindfulness intervention programme among them. The athletes were unaware that their coaches were on this programme intervention. Greg wanted to measure the effectiveness of whether the coaches using this tool for themselves, also had any direct impact on an athlete’s performance.

The results?

All the scores were higher across all measures. “Mindfulness is not just about how to make us feel good or reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s all geared towards raising the athlete’s performance,” argues Greg.

Following the intervention process, the athletes were informed. They reported they felt higher levels of support as well as high levels of challenge from their coaches. Moving away from transactional to more transformational coaching where coaches asked better questions under pressure. The coaches were more intuitive as to when the athlete was to take time out and when not to take time out.

Greg reveals: “Overall, the intervention demonstrated that bringing in mindfulness could create more values led and collaborative relationships – absolutely leading to higher medal wins.”

The proof of this was realised during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. It was the para table team’s most successful games in terms of gold medals, gaining two gold medals and one bronze medal – the best Paralympic Games in the history of the sport.

With his executive coach hat on, Greg sees a lot of similarities between the world of sport and corporate life. “What people don’t realise about athletes, is that they can experience a lot of loss and failure. They can lose significant investment in funding, lose their mortgage or left unable to feed their families,” he says.

“There’s a lot at risk,” Greg admits. “Athletes don’t fail in a ‘safe environment’, they fail at European and World Championships. They can experience significant stress and loss of sponsorship deals. However, when the vision isn’t clear, and not everyone has buy-in to it, this leads to confusion and stress with everyone going off on all different routes. Just like in the corporate world, where leaders and employees suffer anxiety, stress and feeling the pressure to perform under tense conditions.”

Greg asks, so how do we combine wellbeing and performance together? “If we can do that, we can have some really good outcomes,” he answers.

A remarkable journey of success

Such is his belief in the power of mindfulness as a coaching tool, he argues the benefits are huge to both the sporting world, and within organisations. He says: “If you have less stress in the workplace, and you can make better decisions under pressure, we can have much better values led conversations. At first mindfulness can feel uncomfortable. You’re holding the mirror up to yourself.

Over the last five years, this idea of using mindfulness and adaptability to better performance has helped British Para Table Tennis go from competitors on the world stage to a world leading performance system. The team won a record breaking 7 medals at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, demonstrating the depth and breadth of the world class programme and coaching that Greg put in place.

Likewise, it has assisted athletes to take ownership, empower them to increase autonomy and be able to make critical decisions under extreme pressure.

Managing stress, thoughts and feelings

“When we have anxiety and going through these sorts of thoughts, feelings and emotions, we’re much more able to manage stress in a way that doesn’t overtake us. In turn, when we feel in a safe space, we can become far more creative and innovative.”

He likens the power of mindfulness to a gladiator waiting to go into battle with your opponent standing next to you. “In the world of sport, where you have to wait in a cool area for 40 minutes before you go on set to play before a roaring crowd, knowing you’ll be watched by millions of people around the globe, you also have to sign in, conduct equipment and sponsorship checks, and be in the same room as the umpires. It can be nerve-wracking and intimidating. This makes for a highly charged, tense environment.

“Yet, if we can use mindfulness to clear our thoughts under what can feel like almost a ‘life or death’ experience, we can become bold in the here and now, for our future to be brighter.

Greg leaves leaders who are sceptical about mindfulness with this thought. “The rewards and investment of bringing mindfulness into the workplace, totally far outweigh any thoughts of leadership cynicism,” he says.

“Imagine employees who were working 60-hour weeks, halved their hours to 30, but bringing in mindfulness enables them to maximise their energy and performance, so their productivity doubles. Faced with pressure, stress and anxiety, if we can learn to manage it well, we can all make better informed decisions in the moment.” Greg concludes.

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