Twelve Questions: Jamie Ford

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Jamie Ford teaches mental toughness to some of the country’s top athletes, business people and broadcasters. A former Salvation Army officer, he has faced enormous personal trauma but believes how we think determines how we feel and act

Kiwis tend to be overly pessimistic, says mental toughness coach Jamie Ford. Photo / Janna Dixon
Kiwis tend to be overly pessimistic, says mental toughness coach Jamie Ford. Photo / Janna Dixon

1. Where did you learn about mental toughness? I was working as a social worker in alcohol and drug rehabilitation for the Salvation Army and Presbyterian Services and came across work by (American psychologist) Albert Ellis. He made the connection early on between how we think and our emotions and our actions. That was long before scientific research but cognitive psychology now clearly demonstrates he was right.

2. Isn't that a bit like self-help? Self-help books have a lot of good intentions but not necessarily good science. There's a huge, robust body of research that very clearly demonstrates the connections. Did it change my life? To a large degree it did. I had the tendency to get down in the dumps. I had a short spell in hospital when I wasn't particularly mentally well. There was a lot happening in my life at that time - work changes, parting company with the Salvation Army and a marriage breakup.

3. Was that your lowest point? Learning that my youngest daughter, Linda, was profoundly handicapped when she was about 15 months old was completely devastating.

She'll be 37 this year. There were quite a number of years when I felt so ill-equipped to deal with the situation. Most parents go through worrying about what happens when I'm gone? Who will care for her? She went into full-time care when she was nearly 5 and there was a real sense of sadness about not having the resources or development at the time to be able to care for her adequately at home. It was a terrible, terrible, terrible set of circumstances. The sense of rejecting your own child is heart-rending.

4. How do you cope with that now? Now I'm more easily able to identify what I can control and what I couldn't control. I do what I can and don't upset myself about what I couldn't do. I'm a very strong advocate for her well-being and see her almost every day. The staff at Creative Abilities where she lives say she can tell the sound of my car coming down the driveway and she'll smile or giggle or move around a bit. I've worked really hard to increase my assets and establish a family trust to ensure she has the best of care that she would ever require.

5. What was your childhood like? I thought I was having a fantastic childhood and I suppose most of us do. You don't have anything to compare it with. Now I would say there was quite a lot of unhappiness and not a lot of emotional nurture. I was 15 when my father died very suddenly at the age of 49. My mum's concept was that, "It's better not to talk about it!" We didn't talk about Dad, how we missed him and his great sense of humour, how much we loved him, how vital he was to us kids as the source of emotional nurture in our home. So we were alone in our great sadness and grief over his absence from every aspect of our lives. I clearly remember one of my sisters getting up from the dinner table and going to her room in tears when something occurred during dinner that reminded her of Dad, but we didn't talk about it.

6. You now teach resilience to others: do you still have weaknesses yourself? My greatest weakness is what I call an "accidentally learned tendency" to take criticism and adverse comments personally and to heart, when the science is very clear that generally these kinds of situations are more to do with something going on in the other person's life than to do with me. And I can focus on negative feedback and put positive feedback aside. But these are great opportunities to personally apply the mental toughness skills I teach.

7. Can you teach mental toughness to children? Children are actually very good at understanding that problems or adversity is temporary — they get hurt, ask an adult to kiss it better and they're off again. But learning to compartmentalise their problems so it doesn't spill over into all of life is harder. Practical examples help. Use a mandarin and get the child to refer to it as "everything that is going wrong". Then get them to peel it, take out one segment and label that with the name of the one thing that's gone wrong. Pull out the other segments and label them with things that are going okay. Segment by segment we can show them that even if one part of life is a bit off the rails at the moment, most things are fine.

8. What do elite athletes know that the rest of us don't? They may do this intuitively and not necessarily know it consciously but the scientific evidence is very strong that they have a particular mindset in the way they perceive and think about adversities and successes. That mindset makes the reasons for adversities of very short duration, very limited in their scope - that one segment of the mandarin - with many contributing factors as well as their own part. And that same mindset makes the reasons for success quite long term in duration and broad in their scope - the whole bag of mandarins - and strongly connected to their own actions and capability.

9. Who are New Zealand's mentally toughest sports people? [Ex-All Black] Colin Meads is someone with a really tough mindset, someone who could continue no matter what, and [rower] Mahe Drysdale doesn't really let anything stop him. I would say Australians are much better at that skill than we are - Emirates Team New Zealand are an example of that. You could see it in Dean Barker's reaction, the language he used compared with Jimmy Spithill. Dean would say "there's nothing more we could do" and Jimmy would say, "Okay we are eight down but I think we are here with a great chance". He's open to ways of solving the problem. Whereas Dean, you could see it in his body language.

10. So are Kiwis naturally pessimistic? We think of optimism as being cheerful and smiling but it's not that, it's an explanatory style, a thinking habit. I've been using and teaching these techniques for 20 years so without fear of contradiction I'd say Kiwis tend to be overly pessimistic.

11. If you could gift a friend one thing, what would it be? Hope. Hope contains the possibility that the future can be different to the past and that we are not controlled by the past. Hope contains the possibility that things will not remain the same and that we can change the outcomes of our life's direction.

12. What do you believe happens to us when we die? My understanding is that our origins are in star dust and one day when the sun exhausts all of its fuel it will become a red giant and engulf our planet Earth in a massive cremation turning everything back to star dust. I'm very comfortable with the thought of joining loved ones in the star dust from which we originate.

- NZ Herald

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