EXPLORING THE CHIMP PARADOX – augmented coaching for success.

Chimp Paradox 1Click on any image to see full size

Well as an ex professional inner city educator and  a fan of sport coaches and in particular GB Cycling’s performance psychology Guru,  Dr Steve Peters model so successfully applied to British Cycling, I was reminded of a toy I made as a sequel to my first “how to” book published way back in 1987 by Sterling Publishing of New York (which I have used as a background for this shot of one of 50 new and original additional  toys  designed and made by hand by me)  I was told ,by the President of that publishing house ,that my book was the best how to book he had ever seen, but I wasn’t impressed by the percentage of the total income the company made from sales in the UK and the USA compared to what I earned from royalties so did not  think it worthwhile to offer him the second manuscript when he asked , which I still have.

the chimp paradox

Dr Steve’s “chimp” is a kind popular short hand coined in the manner that Freud sought to clarify & personify his take on our psychology , the   id, ego and super-ego trio to Steve’s duo , in order  to be able to talk about something actually quite complex in order to help people understand and modify their behaviour. In postulating the model, the author of the Chimp Paradox is working from, I believe, the current science  on psycho-linguistics and more recent studies in neural ( brain) science and the premise that the brain’s reasoning function is inhibited by the what he calls predominating  emotional component ( he nicknamed your “Chimp” ) and his coaching ideology, equally valid  for both sports and life, is based on strategies to take control of the Chimp that accounts for, I think he is saying,  stuff like  panic, self-doubt and related  negative feelings and thoughts  that inhibit potential.

I am not entirely sure but from my own knowledge base ( which comes from working in special education  for twenty five years and therefore needing to know stuff like this to understand and manage behaviours )  I guess Steve’s  Chimp tag gives personification to the basic chemistry of emotions and their influence on behaviour and crucially performance . I  know that we inherit a kind of primal safety turbo device,   where, in the wild, we have an innate response to challenges and threats which illicit a reflex response where the choice is  simple fight or flee .  In order to flee or fight  the neural pathway to the reasoning & language  part of our bonce ( through which we normally asses and rationalise situations before we act ) switches over so we don’t assess – we just act and also simultaneously , the body  releases of hormones like adrenalin , and other physiological changes occur such as increased heart rate to aid flight or fight.  We have more highly developed language than did our cave dwelling chums so you’d think we are more prone to linguistically based self-impairment through thinking too much than our ancestors.

Dame Sarah Storey - one of the hardest working most successful GB cyclists ever possessing one of the most positive mindsets of any athlete I have ever met.

Dame Sarah Storey – one of the hardest working most successful GB cyclists ever possessing one of the most positive mindsets of any athlete I have ever met.

For an athlete I guess it is essential ,when you are about to perform,  to know your Chimp and how to deal with it lest he  or she inhibits your performance. In the context of track cycling , as a rider you are as well prepared as anyone , certainly physically , and  well or better  equipped with those now legendary extra round British wheels , probably know your times , splits and those of your rivals  and on paper  you should win unless you talk yourself out of it and let your gut lose the plot  for you at critical moments .  Of course we are all different and the Chimp Paradox thing isn’t a fit-all as each of us is unique , each of us have different thresholds of tolerance and different levels of emotions as well as various  existing strategies to deal with them. Each person’s relationship with their Chimp will be individual. Hence , as I understand it, Dr Steve and his team, when they are taking care of team members effectively are helping to manage a troop of Chimps not using  exactly the same button pressing  with them all, and that sounds like an n-onerous  major circus plate spinning job.

Now getting back to my plywood toy chimp!  I am content, do not expect life to run like clockwork and have a very high tolerance threshold. I am self-regulating, have a basic code which I strive to live by, am not afraid at all of taking risks, not  afraid of being thought foolish, not afraid of being myself and in general content. I amrelatively evenly balanced but then again we are all in the spectrum  between sane and crazy – it just depends which end of the telescope you look down.

Some of that inner  contentment  comes  from the basic ideas found in Buddhism, ideas I embraced not out of a kind of spiritual hypnosis tried on me as a kid. Even then I could not accept religious dogmas that made no sense , but later recognising, in my late teens , a more sensible value system which was most closely akin to my own and better still no deity. There is I  learned  early, no pictogram in Japanese /Chinese for the western notion of the “Self” and my understanding of Buddhist ideas is that contentment comes when you extinguish the “self” and just be . Hence Buddhists are encouraged to meditate – training to peacefully silence our inner voice and just be in the moment as a kind of cathartic self-therapy.

In every day life it is pretty much up and down stuff where you vary between both ends of the emotional spectrum oscillating between happy and sad  and in and out of balance and inevitably your performance (and perception of yourself and your performance)  is affected by emotions combined with  circumstance. In most contexts being temporarily out of balance and having your head all over the place isn’t terminal , but in sports  like cycling, at competitive events, you may have a  test, the challenge you may have had to work for over years and you are going to be ranked on a loop or more of a track measured in a few minutes and seconds with no second chances. So it makes sense to have coaching which ensures you peak on demand and have your head together. Better still, since well balanced and contented people tend to function better and achieve their potential , chimp training is going to contribute to you being more effective in everything you do, at work or play and more likely to reach personal goals and those set for you.


Chimp stuff is practical self help  and we all know folks who are riddled and inhibited by personal angst who could do with a dose. It embodies and enriches the oursuit and active use oof self-knowledge and strengthens our sense of worth and identity. In all spheres your relationship witho yourself defines who you are and what you achieve. The question, to a Buddhist,  “How can I be myself ?” is ridiculous and how in fact can you ever not be yourself as you just are ! As Herman Hesse’s analogy (Siddhartha)  goes, a river is not conscious of itself but along its course it has a range of moods, speeds, twists and changes  and so forth  but everywhere at the same time it is a river. There is therefore no absolute, single  self but an endless range of them within each of us.

There can be no problem with taking time for personal reflection, to self-assess   and to ask questions of ourself “Why this or that; how come I underachieved or failed that time?” as long as it is constructive self-assessment but self-questioning has it pitfalls which any coach should be aware of and help direct towards focused positive outcomes. Zen Buddhism famously  gives novices a series of tests – usually in the form of cryptic questions and the novice scuttles away until they have found the answer. They come back when they think they have an answer and are sent away to try again until it dawns on them that the problem was the question and the assumption that therefore there is an answer.  Linguistically we are at the mercy of language and meaning. A question must have an answer or it is not a question but also, paradoxically, it is possible to frame a question to which there is no answer. The solution for the novice is to laugh at the question and not be fooled by it. (Not that dissimilar , though a lot less obvious , to the trade  apprentice sent to get a glass hammer , a long wait or a left handed hammer )

Buddha variant , not Siddhartha but a happy monk - supposedly rubbing his belly brings good fortune!

Buddha variant , not Siddhartha but a happy monk – supposedly rubbing his belly brings good fortune!

I think there are parallels between some Buddhist ideas and certain pastoral aspects of coaching both concerned with  our sense of well being and responsibility to others and finding our life balance.  I  don’t know any world class athletes who aren’t happy with what they do and who don’t  enjoy the tough training and doing what it takes to be a winner and I can only imagine the kind of self disciplne they have and the sacrifices they are prepared to constantly make to achieve their goals. Success is not a random matter of luck and neither is contentment- it requires constant training and effort and that is a facet of the Buddhist perspective too.

To find happiness (or as I prefer to call it contentment)  and  balance, especially if it is , as it always is, lost along the way temporarily,  that typically  requires practice and training as it is never a given and having as et of guidelines and drills can be so useful when you are going through a bad patch or have lost your way to get you back on track or for the rider get back your focus and the winning mind set. Buddhism has a number of schools but the one that does  it for me is based on trying to adhere to four simple truths and precepts and eight areas of life ( known as the “Eight Fold Path” ) That  requires working on constantly  to achieve and maintain a sense of pure  equilibrium and typically that includes not a directive to be mindful of those things at all times   but the advice that we  ought to strive to follow   and return to it when we lose balance. Thus we should strive to do no harm, not take things which are not given , not do things in excess – and practice compassion.


Basic Buddhism as I know it, is based on an answers to the questions why do we suffer and what can be done  to prevent suffering? The Four Noble Truths cover that one – the first being acceptance of suffering the last being we can do something about it.  The upshot is that we are responsible  for our own suffering and unhappiness because of our desires usually for things which are beyond what could reasonably be expected. We do not live in a world without death, disease, ageing and so fourth and therefore we have to learn to accept things as they are.  A person who is content in fact never knowingly would be anything but compassionate or wish to harm anyone. That’s what I think. That requires a person to embrace and accept situations and circumstances and keep things in perspective and that can be  a source of immense power.  That is the equivalent of knowing your chimp and keeping it in check.

GB Cyclists have been  head coached and consitently achieve success because it  takes more than talent &  super physical fitness

GB Cyclists have been head coached and consistently achieve success because it takes more than talent & super physical fitness & just coaching isn’t enough.

Back to the plot and the toy chimp as opposed to the Chimp model -the link is that around my home I have a number of Buddhist rupas , small likenesses, statuettes  of seated  Buddhas each with the facial features of the  culture in which they were sculpted.  I do not  “worship” these spiritual artefacts since they are just lumps of stone or resin but I like to have them around to help keep me on my toes , a symbol of those things through which I aim to try and stick to in all my actions I guess summed up by the “Mona Lisa-esque” feint quietly accepting  smile on all the rupa faces .

Now that I have shared some thoughts with Steve Peters assistant Dave Readle via social media, it made me smile when I remembered that toy I made as the only chimp in our house. I will never be able to look at it in quite the same way again. I also loved the idea of it being a simplistic visual aid for those who have heard and embrace the teachings of the Chimp life coaching model and  , like my rupas, a reminder of the need to be able to pull the chimps strings rather than be a puppet to your  Chimp  and underachieve.

In conclusion I think there are parallels between coaching, whether for sport or life in general with psycho-therapy and that ties in with my belief that self knowledge is what we all most value. Typically coaches often see things within you which you are not fully aware of and the best lead out those extraordinary latent talents which I think we all innately possess and that is a trust thing where kids can bring with them personal baggage where from birth, socialisation and surroundings human and others , shapes different levels of self-confidence and belief. Coaches change behaviours and self perception , learning has to be accompanied by change.

Jody Cundy MBE geting in the zone ready to rumble - no doubt getting his Chimp sorted.

Jody Cundy MBE geting in the zone ready to rumble – no doubt getting his Chimp sorted.

Athletes come in all shapes and  sizes and come to the gym so to speak or other coach centred venues with a range of intelligences and thus may respond differently depending on how and what style learning is delivered through and that coming from one with years in school working  with kids with the broadest range of learning problems you could ever imagine .In that context , for example, not all can or will  respond effectively to verbal instruction alone , bad news when a teacher, unaware of the “multi intelligences” model (i.e. kids may have a preferred style of teaching which affects their learning)  tend to rely heavily on the spoken word and  often in a register ( vocabulary) alien to kids for example ,  who may have limited or even no language processing  skills. So in my classroom kids were given a range of learning styles and I had to use a variety of strategies including gesture, pictures, sounds, concrete objects to name but a few but also had to be sure that the kids were empowered to express themselves through, for example, movement, touching , music, art  and so forth.

I presume that a lot of coaching involves modelling, mirroring, instruction, and group direction and  discussion.

Sir Chris Hoy - legendary focus - what goes on inside the helmet determines the champion in him.

Sir Chris Hoy – legendary focus – what goes on inside the helmet determines the champion in him.

I’d imagine that the head training along the Chimp model lines can be taught to a group to cover the basic principles but then will also require individual tailoring through one-on-one discussions and as they go along, some will grasp it quicker than others, and perhaps also 24/7 near event time if individuals hit a crisis point and require  intervention counselling. I think  all people we try to teach want to do their best but also they may be unable or reluctant ( especially in front of their peers) to say when they don’t get it so a good teacher like  a good coach needs to be able to spot and be sensitive to see these dynamics. As in the classroom, coaches  set reachable targets and push the line as appropriate but need to be sensitive to a range of issues that might be at work when individual targets are not met.

Further Reading : a review of Dave Readle’s presentation on why merely coaching an athlete isn’t enough can be found here  sportscoachuk.org

Steve Peter’s ground breaking book can be purchased via this link THE CHIMP PARADOX


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