By Talking Sport Stephen Glennon – Connacht Tribune
Adopted Claregalway woman Sue Redmond quips that “the mind is a funny little place”, noting, more often than not, the difference between achieving and under achieving – even winning and losing – can come solely down to a single thought.
As both a sportsperson and mindfulness coach, Redmond – who this year worked with the Monaghan senior footballers – has an innate understanding of this subject.
She recently published a book entitled The Athlete’s Secret Garden – Tending the Mind for Peak Performance, in which she investigates the power of the mind through mindfulness, sports psychology, visualisation, self-hypnosis and other “core elements”.
“I love the theory and the academic background of it all but I am very practical. When it comes to something like this, I always want to know how is this relevant to me right now? How can I take this and apply it right now so that it is going to have a meaningful change in my life?” she says
Consequently, the book is more of a practical guide, although Redmond notes there is a small amount of theory in it but only to use as a sort of “clothes hanger” on which to drape the core elements of her message on.
“So, you can get a lot from reading this. I even picked it up myself when I was racing at the weekend. There is stuff in here that I think will never get dated because it is really down to how we see reality. It is often our mind that makes something a great experience or not. We can be our own worst critic and that often can take from the experience.”
Redmond not only says that as mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher, but also as a sportsperson. In addition to holding a black belt in Tae-Kwon Do, she competes in triathlons, nationally and internationally, with one of her achievements having completed an Ironman in Sweden in 2013. She has also run five marathons, surfs regularly and practices yoga.
From an early age though, the Wexford native had a fascination with the power of motivation – and the mind – and one of the humorous anecdotes she relays is of her father bribing her with a bottle of Coca Cola to run a 100 metre race.
She ran it, and won it, and yet it was not the joy of receiving the fizzy drink that stood out. Rather, she saw what could be achieved if motivated to do so.
The flip side of that, however, arrived in her mid-teens. By this stage, she was competing with the local athletics club, “I remember running a cross country race in a real mucky field and I thought ‘what am I doing?’
“There was no sense of pleasure or enjoyment. I was covered in muck and I was cold to the bone. It was probably the first time I recognised that the mind is a funny little place. Anyway, at 16, I quit athletics. I wasn’s happy doing it.
She decided to take up Tae-Kwon Do and one of the aspects she really liked about this was that it gave her a “great sense of disipline”. She also loved the key messages of the sport – courtesy, integrity and indomitable spirit. “It was incredible and what I got from that was a real sense of confidence. That you can do anything.”
In her 20s, she also took up yoga and meditation although she notes sheepishly that her initial foray into yoga was quite competitive! She continues: “I would be looking to see if I could get my leg to go further than the person beside me. It was terrible.
“I would be the first to say everything was about competition but I was beginning to notice that this real competitive edge in me didn’t always bring happiness. Being competitive is one thing but, if I didn’t necessarily win, it led to a bit of (inner) struggle.”
When she returned to running and took up triathlons in later years, she also began to notice how “demoralised, aggravated, upset and frustrated” some of her friends would be when a race didn’t go as planned.
Having trained as a mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher by this time, Redmond, who also has a PhD in Leadership and Resilience and has an office on the first floor of Claregalway Shopping Centre, decided to run a four-week course for her fellow athletes to help them understand that success and failure is “your perception”.
In the course, which later gave birth to her boo, she talked about approaching a race in “that space of gratitude”, of “letting go” and of the fear that can hijack your thoughts. To explain the latter, she references her experiences as a surfer when seeking out a big wave.
“So, just as you are about to take the waves, you might think at the last second ‘I don’t want to wipe out’. And what happens then? You wipe out,” she laughs.
She highlights it is the same in team sports and she recalls a one-to-one session she had with a Monaghan footballer earlier this year when she asked him what he was thinking before he took a particular kick and put the ball wide.
“He said, ‘I was thinking I don’t want it to go wide’. You can’t say that because that is all your mind hears. It doesn’t understand ‘don’t so the ball just goes wide. You have to focus on what you do want. ‘I want the ball to go right between the posts’. So, focusing on what I want as opposed to what I don’t want.”
In most cases, this requires a change in mindset to create a neural pathway whereby, in the instance of a footballer, every time they see an opportunity to take a shot, they have the confidence to feel that the ball is going straight between the posts. Sounds simple.
“Again, though the mind is a funny place,” smiles Redmond. “It might still take you back to do the things that you don’t want but the beauty of practicing mindfulness, and understanding a bit of sports psychology and visualisation, is that you can become aware of your mind going to somewhere you don’t want it to go…and you can then bring it back. So, partly, it is learning to manage that wandering mind of ours.”
With Monaghan, Redmond linked in with the squad during their Ulster championship campaign, in which they beat Fermanagh and Cavan before getting caught against Down in the provincial semi-final.
However, Monaghan, who would eventually exit the All-Ireland series at the hands of All-Ireland champions Dublin as the quarter-final stage, rallied in the qualifiers to trounce Wexford and beat Carlow. They then faced Down again the preliminary quarter-finals.
“I think a big part (of that win) was their attitude in that they were able to focus on what they wanted. I had just done a group session with them before the first game (against Down) but after that when I did the individual sessions you could really delve into what were their actual thinking processes.
“If you don’t know how to settle your mind – and make sure it is focused on the direction you want it to go – you are just going to get caught up in all those things that are unnecessary. In all those stresses and strains that create more stresses in your life.
“Where, if you can focus your mind, then you are just going to spend the time that you need on the things that are most important. And that is what will give you the biggest gains.”
For further information on Sue Redmond, you can check out her website www.sueredmond.com