I’m definitely going to buy the upcoming autobiography of Jonny Wilkinson, one of my sporting heroes. The World Cup-winning rugby star’s book doesn’t sound anything like the usual sporting autobiography rubbish. Instead, it sounds like a deeply spiritual account of his struggle with a crippling fear of failure, and eventual arrival at a Buddhist outlook on life.
Wilco writes in The Times that his fear of failure was so powerful that he didn’t feel any satisfaction or pleasure even after winning the rugy World Cup with a drop goal in the last minute.
He would practice obsessively:
“Each week leading up to the big day, I hit about 250 to 300 practice place kicks alone. I average 200 to 250 punts using my left foot and exactly the same number using my right. A daily total of 20 dropped goals with each foot and 15 to 20 restarts, six to seven times a week, would pretty much constitute a solid preparational build-up. That makes a total of about 1,000 kicks to prepare for just 20. That’s near enough 50 rehearsals for each single defining event. To me that has been a totally acceptable ratio. My longest session on record ran for a hefty five hours and then another hour and a half later that same evening. I have been totally obsessive when it comes to getting things right, never stopping until I was happy.”
“It worked in many ways but it was a fairly destructive method and the success made it an addictive one. It seemed to touch on my obsessive streak, taking it to a new level, and before long it was getting well out of hand. The final whistles had barely sounded and I had already begun sacrificing for the next weekend, afraid that if I stopped to celebrate and embrace it I would have severe consequences to face.
“I think [his fear of failure] was rooted in an even deeper fear of death,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to avoid death: it was like a game I could not win. The closer I got to family and friends and the better things got, the more I had to lose.”
But he arrived at a higher understanding after reading about quantum physics:
“I read about Schrodinger’s Cat [a renowned thought experiment in physics] and it had a huge effect on me. It was all about the idea that an observer can change the world just by looking at something; the idea that mind and reality are somehow interconnected. It is difficult to put into words, but it hit me like a steam train. I came to understand that I had been living a life in which I barely featured.”
“I do not like religious labels, but there is a connection between quantum physics and Buddhism, which I was also getting into. Failing at something is one thing, but Buddhism tells us that it is up to us how we interpret that failure. The so-called Middle Way is about seeing everything as interconnected – success and failure, victory and defeat. Who is to say that the foundations of success in the 2003 World Cup were not built on the failures that went before?”
Now, he says:
“my faith has given me a handle on it, based around the ideas of rebirth and karma. It has also given me the ability to understand that rugby, like life, will also come to an end. I guess I had been trying to block that out, hoping that it would last for ever. But I have accepted my career will finish one day and I am in a place that will enable me to make that transition comfortably. I will not have to reinvent myself to cope with life after rugby.”
“My motivation today has nothing to do with status, money or ego. Before I wanted to be the best in the world and I would watch other players to see how I measured up. Now when I do something great on the rugby pitch it is not about being better than others but about exploring my talent. I look around at the spectators and their enjoyment at having seen a great game. I reflect on the fact that my club, Newcastle, has become stronger, something that is good for the health of the business and the staff. My fulfilment is no longer about self-gratification; it is about seeing the happiness of others.”
Here’s some more stuff about how he learnt to control his moods:
“When I allow myself to feel great, letting in only the most positive and optimistic thoughts, then great things start to happen. When I decide to let instinct and compassion drive me instead of judgment, then good people seem to appear in my life and nice things begin to occur for them, too.
What helped me to notice this first, however, was in fact the flip side of the coin. It was the impact of my negative and self-pitying moods.
The mornings when I got out of bed the wrong side or woke up feeling a little off were so often followed by awful “why me?” days when everything just seemed to go wrong. Have you ever stepped back to look at the damage you cause in other people’s lives when you are concerned only with moaning about your own misfortune or taking out your frustrations on them? I did, and I started to look at how all those bad days could easily have been great for me and those around me if only I’d shaken off the ill-feeling.
If I open my eyes and I feel a little low, with a touch of anger now, I take a bit of time to drive the negativity away. I concentrate on how lucky I am to be in the position I am, with the friends I have around me. I inspire myself by concentrating on thoughts of what might happen in my life if I really pull out all the stops and how I could help others to achieve their goals, too. I retain a memory of something which makes me laugh out loud and I make sure I leave my front door with a smile on my face. I choose to have a great day and in doing so I choose to help my colleagues at least have the option of a good one, too.
As long as I never stop trying to achieve more my route will be OK
If I stop to consider how any one of the many factors that make up my life today came into being, I will find its path littered with coincidences and chance. If I trace my life back far enough I will notice some nonsensical and, to be honest, unfeasibly ridiculous moments when my path crossed with someone or something at just the right time.
At other times important people appeared from nowhere and stepped into my life and made it better. There were also instances when my world was turned upside down, my trust tested and my ego crushed. I know now some of these moments actually saved my career in so many ways and others somehow managed to make me a better and stronger-performing person.
Back then I was blind and deaf to all this. Nowadays I try to listen to what my experiences are telling me – I truly believe the world has my best interests at heart – provided I am prepared to fight for those interests in the right way. I realise now I shouldn’t be afraid when some new, unexpected (and probably unwelcome at the time) avenue suddenly opens up in front of me. I am on my way down a new road now, but my dreams and hopes are still the same as when I set off. As long as I never stop trying to achieve more, and to follow my dreams, then the route will be OK. It might not look exactly like the perfect map I envisioned at the beginning; I believe, instead, that it will turn out to be going somewhere far better.
That all makes sense to me now. Sort of, at least. But it certainly didn’t for a very long time and I suffered because of it. If I hadn’t worried so much, I would have made more of my time. And if I’d done that, I would have enjoyed life to a far greater extent and I might even have got to more or less where I was wanting to be a lot quicker.
I am still trying to make sense of all this. I probably never will. But I don’t think that’s a problem in the least. What I do know is that I feel a lot better in myself and enjoy life and success a lot more now. A lot more. And that’s important. How can I explain? About how we can take in what is happening around us, the people, places and things, the good and the bad, and utilise them to move forward? It is a bit like creating a painting.
How we physically influence the outcome and mentally perceive what happens in front of our eyes determines the kind of picture of life that we will paint. Without our perceptions there is no real world out there. Our interpretations of what we see, taste, hear, touch and smell give us our attitudes, our limits, our successes and our failures. They give us the memories of our pasts and dreams of our futures.
These and all the emotions which go hand in hand with them become the colours from which we can choose when we want to begin the painting process. Our actions, which are driven by our feelings, offer us the opportunity to live; they let us go out and leave a mark, they put the brush in our hands. Actions cause things to happen and from those outcomes we learn, we improve and we find the best path for an amazing existence. We make our own masterpiece. And it all starts from a blank canvas.
I base my perceptions and beliefs on a natural desire for peace and the desire to experience exciting opportunities. The quality of how I see things determines how much of my zest for doing good stuff, for being brilliant if you like, manages to shine through. We can all shuffle our views and interpretations around a bit to make a better life. Just look at the way we are able to put the past behind us and reinvent ourselves, if we so choose. We can throw away yesterday’s painting and begin afresh tomorrow.
To make the best of life, sometimes you need to run into a few dead-ends and sometimes you have to be prepared to drop back and look at your painting from different angles. Once or twice we may be required to go back to the start before the realisation of the helpful or unhelpful really sinks in.
How ambition can be infectious
“I don’t want to lose” is not the same sort of thought as “I want to win”. The message that this focus emits is totally different. The first is almost a plea for mercy which gives away any power you have as you cry out to be spared by chance.
The latter is an eminently stronger, more proactive intention which forces you to look inside and uncover the innate strength we all possess for making things happen.
As a member of an underdog team I have been pipped at the post too many times because when potential glory loomed, the grip of fear was stronger than the liberating effect of ambition. Fear is negative and inhibiting; ambition is positive and motivating. The effect is manifested in a team as a whole.
Focus the key to putting mind over matter
What we focus our minds on is more often than not what we end up with – well, pretty much what we end up with. There is a slight difference. In my head I can hit the ideal kick over and over again. In real life I probably can’t but I reckon with the right preparation, understanding and conditions, like the ones in my mind, I could get damn close.
Practising flawlessly in the mind without even venturing anywhere near a field can actually improve my physical skills and begin to close the gap between imagination and reality. There is no harm in striving for perfection, there is only good. With my thoughts and imagination I am drawing the experience towards myself. With great actions I can finally receive it.