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David Turner
Developing Mindsets

Coaching the Whole Chimp

The "Chimp Paradox" is a mind management model developed by Dr Steve Peters. This blog outlines the model and how it can be used effectively within sports psychology, using insight from an England Athletics sports psychology workshop

Much to my surprise, I recently discovered that I have a friend I never knew I had. Well I say friend, but soon after learning about my new acquaintance, I discovered he may be more foe than friend. To make matters more confusing he didn’t even have a name… so I decided to name him myself and chose Cornelius. 

Now I know what you are thinking, what kind of a name is Cornelius?  Well if you’re a fan of classic films then this will all make sense, because Cornelius is my inner chimp.

Understanding the "Chimp Paradox"

So let’s go back to the start of this revelation.  I was fortunate enough to be asked to attend a sports psychology workshop hosted by England Athletics and delivered by Dave Readle, part of the psychology team at British Cycling and a colleague of Dr Steve Peters – author of “The Chimp Paradox”, which details Dr Peters’ mind management model which he employs with the hugely successful British Cycling team. 

The idea behind Dr Peters’ mind model is that the inner chimp is the primitive part of the brain that cannot control our impulses. If we were to profile the characteristics of the inner chimp then we’d describe it as paranoid, neurotic, impulsive and emotional.

The good news is that we are able to suppress our inner chimp… well most of the time. Scientists tell us that genetically we are 99% chimp, but that 1% that makes us human is able to control our primate urges for the majority of the time, whether that urge is to steal all the biscuits at a workshop or say a few choice words to a sports official.  

So most of the time we can control our inner chimp; well fantastic, that sounds good enough to leave it at that and call it a day?  Not so fast I’m afraid. The problem with the inner chimp is that they have an annoying habit of turning up when they’re not welcome and then making you feel like they are helping when they are in fact hindering.  

Have you ever heard someone say “that wasn’t me out there” when a person reflects on behaving irrationally and out of character?  Well they are probably right, it was their inner chimp.

If we apply this to a coaching scenario, then how can we deal with the inner chimp of the children and even adults that you coach? Well the first thing we need to know is that the characteristics of male and female chimps are slightly different.

The male chimp

The inner chimp of a male, especially the alpha male, will usually be driven by ego, power, sex and territory.

So in your coaching sessions you probably encounter males trying to assert alpha male dominance in the group, being more interested in girls than training, acting cocky, showing off and other classic troupe behaviour. I write this with pubescent athletes in mind, but I think we can all relate this behaviour to older males too on occasions.

The key here is to keep these athletes focused and one of the ways I try to achieve this when coaching is to devolve a small responsibility to a disruptive alpha male 'wannabe' of the group and explain to him how crucial his new responsibility is to the success of the group and to me as a coach.

Often this small responsibility has the effect of transforming the alpha male from a destructive force into a positive role model for the others in the peer group, as extra responsibility can give the ego of the inner chimp the recognition it craves.

Caution must be taken with this method to avoid the ‘Animal Farm’ effect of ‘All athletes being equal, but some more equal than others’ but this can be achieved by ensuring the alpha male knows his role is to aid the group through his extra responsibility, not to wield power, and that you remain in charge.

Michael Fisher talks in more depth about how manage the behaviour of alpha males in your coaching group in his blog ‘Managing Behaviour in Sport’

The female chimp

The inner chimp of a female is usually more subdued.  Female chimps are insecure, maternal and more emotional than their male counterparts.

Girls too like to be in the troupe, but the inner chimp of a female is hardwired to flee or freeze, rather than fight in a threatening situation, so these insecurities mean that females require more praise and reassurance when being coached. 

So the main point that I took from this workshop was that the when coaching young athletes (and indeed older athletes too) you need to be aware of the different kinds of chimp that your group may consist of. In some instances that chimp may only ever appear once in their career due to a perceived injustice on the biggest and most pressurised stage of all.  

However with some athletes the chimp may never be far away!

Coaches also have an inner chimp

My final point to remember is that it is not only the people you coach that have an inner chimp. Remember my friend Cornelius, well he is alive and well, as is your inner chimp and as coaches we sometimes need to remember to control this inner chimp.

Dave Readle suggested that coach histrionics are actually damaging to team performance, despite many people believing they are a positive influence; but that is for another blog… 

If you’d like to read Dr Peters’ book “The Chimp Paradox” it is available from Amazon.

Related Resources

  • Reflective Practice Essentials

  • Self-Analysis and Feedback Questions

  • How Coaches Can Learn from Psychology to Analyse the Self


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David Turner