Business

Sport 'mechanic of the mind' brings Olympic expertise to firms

Steven Gerrard Image copyright Getty Images

For someone who has delved into the minds of many top UK athletes, Prof Steve Peters takes surprisingly little interest in sport.

"The first time I met Steven Gerrard I asked him what he did," says the psychiatrist, who has worked with both the England and Liverpool football teams.

He has also used his skills with numerous footballers including Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, as well as snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan, and cyclists Sir Chris Hoy, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Victoria Pendleton.

His expertise has also been sought out by sports from taekwondo to fencing.

But away from the spotlight, many businesses too are using sport's "mechanic of the mind" in order to get the best out of their employees.

Chimp sabotage

Prof Peters, a cherubic-looking 63-year-old, is author of the best-selling personal development book The Chimp Paradox. It explains how we can control this inner primate, an emotional creature who thinks and acts without the say-so of our more rational consciousness.

The Teessider says his mission is to help the human mind reach peak performance, whether in sport, business or everyday life.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prof Peters has worked with top sporting names over 15 years, including cyclist Victoria Pendleton

He says that if sports organisations and firms don't invest in emotional skills, there is a danger that employees' inner chimp might inadvertently go into "catastrophe mode" and sabotage things in times of high stress.

"We as a team help people understand and gain insight into the way their mind works, and how they can work better in their own unique organisation, and how they can reach their own unique objectives," he tells me.

That might not necessarily be about increasing company profits, but could be about creating a happier workforce, or one where there is less churn of staff leaving for other jobs.

'Mind requests'

Prof Peters says that in sport and business every challenge is different.

"There is a great deal of difference between a 100m sprinter and a chess player - one looks at process, and the other is much more analytical and thinking," he says.

"As such there would be variable requests made of the mind.

Image caption Prof Steve Peters is offering expertise from the sports world to businesses

"In business it is the same. One business might only be selling one product, and they say they will make it to certain parameters.

"But another competing business might say they want to constantly upgrade the product."

Overcoming restraints

His firm, Chimp Management, does not go into a sport or business to "solution solve".

Rather, it looks at what an organisation - and individuals in it - wants to achieve and looks to provide insights.

Image copyright Roland Daniells
Image caption Prof Peters' book is read by managers in sport and business

"We listen to what they want, where they want to go, and then make suggestions," says Prof Peters.

"We have got to see the world through their eyes, see what is restraining them, and tackle that together.

"We help them make sense of the mind and develop skills to optimise how they operate in line with their goals."

'More honest'

Prof Peters says in sport and business there are four criteria that can help an organisation function better:

  • understanding how the brain is structured, and differentiating between emotional and logical thinking
  • understanding how other people think, and how to get the best out of them
  • communicating effectively, and how this can help to get more out of workplace relationships
  • creating a working environment that can enhance the performance of individuals and teams
Image copyright Roland Daniells
Image caption Prof Steve Peters has been advising City firm Nicoll Curtin

One firm currently using Prof Peters' expertise is City of London recruitment firm Nicoll Curtin, whose group chief executive James Johnson says Chimp Management is helping them create "a high-performance environment".

Mr Johnson says not only does his workforce now "provide a better service", but also exhibits "more honest and open behaviour" between colleagues.


Who is Steve Peters?

  • Has degrees in mathematics, medicine, and medical education (Masters level). Also postgraduate qualifications in sports medicine, education and psychiatry
  • For 12 years he was based at Rampton high-security hospital, working with individuals suffering from severe personality disorders
  • Has been with the University of Sheffield as a Senior Clinical Lecturer since 1994, and is now Undergraduate Dean of Sheffield Medical School
  • Fifteen years ago was introduced by an ex-Sheffield student to the British cycling team and in 2005 was hired as their full-time psychiatrist
  • A keen runner who has held multiple World Masters Champion Titles and records over 100m, 200m and 400m

'Understanding'

Prof Peters hit the news in 2008 when his work with the record-breaking British cycling team at the Beijing Olympics made him a man in demand in the sports world.

As well as cycling he worked with Liverpool FC during their Premier League title challenge in 2013-14.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prof Peters has previously worked with Liverpool, including players such as Jordan Henderson

Although he is no longer personally involved at Anfield, his company has two staff members working with the club, at first team and academy level.

I wonder what he thinks of manager Jurgen Klopp's emotional and involved touchline manner, but Prof Peters says "it is not for me to make comment, we would never tell people how to act".

"Our job is always to give understanding, the insight into the way the mind acts, and what will help to bring wellbeing, success."

'Enjoying life'

One sportsperson he is happy to talk about is snooker star Ronnie O'Sullivan, who has publicly lauded the psychiatrist.

"Over the years working with him, Ronnie has realised that defining himself by winning or losing is not a good way to gauge life," says Prof Peters.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prof Peters has helped Ronnie O'Sullivan change his outlook on life

"He might partly measure success by how many big tournaments he has won, but again, he now measures it by how much he enjoys his snooker. He now says that if he wins that is a bonus."

Prof Peters adds: "Success is that a person has a good quality of life. If a person is in a good place that is success."

'Emotional skills'

The psychiatrist says that O'Sullivan has told him he would not have reached the final of the recent European Masters (which he lost to Judd Trump) "if it was not for his emotional skills".

"He told me he had put them into effect to win a number of games during the tournament, games which he might not otherwise have won."

As we conclude our talk, I put to him the name of another sports star in need of psychological direction - troubled Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios - and ask if he could see any solutions there.

But the name is not one he recognises.

"Who is he? As I frequently tell people, I really am not a sports fan."

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