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The FAC ME! Model - The Fan, The Athlete and The Coach fighting for Brain supremacy.

When we look at Athletic Performance, we often think of ‘Flow’ as the optimal mental state to allow our peak performance to occur.  Neurologically, this comes from something I refer to as “The Athlete Brain” - The Parietal Lobe taking control of the brain and letting the autopilots control our actions and behaviours.  It’s the fastest part of our brain, using the subconscious to make our decisions and inform our actions.  To get there, we need to switch off the ‘Fan’ that runs in our brains at all times.


When working with athletes, I refer to the emotional, instinctive part of the brain, the Limbic System, as the “Fan”.  I say fan, but just like fans that part of the brain can be just as much of a critic too! When we are in a Fan Mindset, we think like a fan - we bemoan our mistakes, we focus on outcomes, we catastrphise as to what might happen, we compare ourselves to others and so much more. 


It’s not surprising the Fan Mindset is so prominent in athletes.  The limbic system is the most primitive area of the brain and is one of the earliest to develop, only being preceded by the brainstem.  It is the area of the brain that deals with three key functions: emotions, memories, and arousal (or stimulation). This system is composed of several parts, which are found above the brainstem and within the cerebrum.


This primitive part of the brain controls heart rate, respiration, and basically all the functions required to keep us alive. It is also where the subconscious lives.


Our young brains basically have two functions: keep us alive and figure out the world around us.  Think about toddlers and what do you think of? Smiling and giggling responses to stimuli and tears to show you they’re hungry are both emotionally fuelled responses to stimuli.


Then think about statements we commonly associate with children:

·      I don’t like it.

·      It’s not fair.

·      You’re being mean.


These statements are just a small example but show you that children’s thoughts are led by feelings.  How something makes me feel is what I will base my response from, and that response is likely to be quick and emotive!  The limbic system bases all its assumptions on feelings, emotions, and impressions.  Children do this because this is the most developed part of their brain at this stage.  Again, the more rational part of the brain develops much later in childhood and adolescence.


So, we know that the emotional, irrational, feelings-based part of the brain is the earliest to develop and that through childhood and adolescence our more rational, logical element of the brain develops much later.  


We also know that the beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us, good or bad, get laid down in our brains by the time we are between the ages of 7-9 years, and to a lesser degree between 10 and 14 years old.  These beliefs are formed by our perception of the experiences and environments we encounter.  They become a barometer against which future experiences and emotions are assessed.


Therefor the beliefs I hold about myself and the world around me, which are predominantly formed in my formative early years are often going to be based on emotions and feelings.


Ok, nothing majorly new here you may be thinking.  It’s nothing new to be telling me that children are emotional beings who can kick off at any given moment! But now let’s start looking at things a little differently, and specifically from the basis of developing elite athletes.  


Our first introduction to sport is generally from a fan’s perspective.  We may watch sport on television as a youngster either before we start playing or soon after.  Most young footballers who play for teams from the age of four or five will already be watching football on the television or may even be lucky enough to watch games live with thousands of other fans in huge, state of the art stadiums.


So we learn to be a fan first.  We start to believe that winning and losing is everything and we learn to believe that someones worth, including my own, is attached to the performance i make on the pitch.  


We start to learn that failure and mistakes are a negative - Good players don’t make them.  We listen to the criticism that comes and make a mental note “Don’t make mistakes”.


Those messages are hard-wired into our brain from a formative age - then come back to bite us when we become the athlete.  Those beliefs are still there, deep in the limbic system and now aimed at keeping us safe from danger (embarrassment, failure and disappointment in the athletes world).


This is where the Coach comes in.  The coach is you.  It is the later developing Frontal Lobe area of the brain.  This area of the brain doesn’t reach full maturation until around the age of 25 - It’s a slow burner, meaning that the skills associated with this part of the brain (logical thinking, conscience, forward planning, organisation etc) aren’t as prevalent in the child and adolescent brain.


So we need a COACH through these times.  We need a Coach who can guide the young athlete with these skills, to help them with a different way of thinking and then a coach who can coach your own internal coach to do the job for you in later life.


The aim is that your internal coach can quieten your internal fan, to allow your internal athlete to take charge of the brain and perform at your maximum.


Coaches think differently to the Fan.  They look at process over outcomes, they value the grind not just the results.  They understand the importance of attitude, body-language, character skills.  Coaches don’t compare players to other players, they compare them to their own potential - Is this player improving? Are they developing their weaknesses? Are they accountable for their actions?


My internal coach knows that my potential is limitless and it is up to me to exploit it.


The Fan and the Coach can both massively impact what the Athlete believes - They are both able to infiltrate the subconscious auto-pilots that the athlete relies on and instil their beliefs and expectations on it.


Make sure you know who’s in control at any given point and helping your athlete maximise their limitless potential.