What inspires you? And, without being presumptuous, what does it mean for a coach to be inspirational?
Especially in the world of triathlon and other related sports we often talk about being inspired by others’ amazing performances or acts of extraordinary determination to come through big events against the odds. I wonder how much of this is really admiration and adulation rather than the kind inspiration that impacts on what we think we can do ourselves. Do our heroes really trigger a lasting and deep self-belief – sure they can do it, but can I?
Last week I had three particular experiences that set me thinking afresh about what it means to be inspired and to be inspiring. Now, I am not an exuberant, charismatic, rah-rah person, but – as it says in the ZigZag Alive philosophy – I have a genuine belief in the amazing things people can achieve with just the right degree of challenge, encouragement and expert care. So here are my three, totally un-sports coaching related musings on inspiration.
First up, last week I found myself hanging out with some even older, even greyer-haired and balding middle to old aged men (there were very few women). One of my older brother’s favourite bands, Caravan (we’re going back to the early 1970s here), were playing at our local arts centre so out of love and respect for brother Jim and feeling nostalgic I went along. At first I felt a bit taken aback at how old and unfit everyone looked, realising to my growing horror that I wasn’t that different. And worse still, up on stage the band we were cheering and whooping along to looked even older (sorry boys).
As the band got into their stride, all gelling together, playing with great skill, precision and tightness, letting rip on solos and coming together through each change of key and rhythm, I had a kind of turning point. Out of the blue I suddenly thought why not go 100% all out for a big relay race that, up until then, I’d been very uneasy about. Instead of thinking of all the reasons why I wouldn’t run well and why I shouldn’t be in the team, I quietly thought “go for it – think of how well you could do”.
What made the difference? On reflection I think it was mainly about the power of positive energy – seeing guys doing what they did brilliantly back in the 70s, transmitting the same high energy and fun in much humbler venues all these years on.
Next inspirational source: an extraordinary evening at Scene and Heard in Camden. This is an amazing project to support children of between 8 to 12 who have experienced some form of trauma. They each work with a drama specialist to write their own short plays which professional actors then perform. Each play follows a format of the interaction between two, somewhat random objects or animals, which then get disrupted or affected by a third. So for example, one of the short plays featured the conversation between a despondent, discarded grammar revision book and an egotistical, globe trotting sponge. Enter high energy specky atom to lift their spirits. You really have to see it to experience how brilliant, imaginative and fun the plays are and how each story revealed something of the children’s own journeys.
There was so much to take away and be inspired by – the brilliant achievement of each of those young playwrights through working with experienced, caring professionals. I think there is also a lesson about the power of creative imagination – of allowing oneself to go with the out of the ordinary, with no limits set on what can be done and seeing where it takes you. The format of each short play seemed to free up and enable imaginative and creative combinations: why not have a conversation between a multi-coloured zebra and a psychopathic sea shell? Why limit ourselves to the normal and the boundaries of what’s expected?
Finally, last weekend my partner Anne and I went up to Dundee for a big family celebration for her father, a retired surgeon, who was receiving an Order of St Gregory Papal Knighthood for his lifelong medical services to the Catholic Church. It was vey moving to see his quiet dedication acknowledged and, when he was forced to say a few words, how he self-deprecatingly emphasised the “team effort”. I don’t share the same set of beliefs but I came away inspired by something that Anne highlighted in a little talk she gave on behalf of the family: that his actions showed a consistent valuing and respect for others that was taken as a given, rather than having to be earned. She retold how the family was always the last to leave events and services as her dad would be talking with each and every person, asking after them and listening with a genuine interest. And again how on Christmas Days he would take Anne and some of her brothers and sisters round the wards, stopping to talk attentively with every one of his patients as well as the nurses and doctors.
For me the inspiration here comes from what I think of as the power of dependable integrity. There are so many people in politics, business, sadly some even in coaching who you could say have “strong convictions, loosely held.” There can be lots of passionate talk, for example about the customer coming first or athlete centred coaching which one doesn’t always see followed through in actions. How inspiring we could be, though, if those we seek to coach naturally felt that we have a dependable, consistent commitment to our values, acted out in the small details of each encounter and coaching moment without needing to be put into words.
So in summary, three lessons for inspiration: practise the art of infectious, positive enthusiasm; be imaginative and bold and not limited by others’ assumptions about what you can do; and let your actions do the talking.