Lessons From a Former Athlete; What I Want My Sons to Know by Matt Roberts

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●  We are never defined by what we achieve.

●  The only real limits you’ll encounter are those created in your mind.

●  Happiness exists now, not when you achieve your next goal.

●  Listen to your body, it doesn’t lie. You can kid yourself, but you will get injured if you push too hard.

●  Everyone is born with different gifts but even the greatest are human. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

●  If you don’t try, you’re never going to know.

●  If you’re not having fun, is it time to stop? Don’t lose the essence of why you started; seriousness is overrated.

Part of a long list of things that I want my sons to know. And yet I know that I don’t need to teach them, I’ll explain.

I had a long career in athletics. At 19 with a PB of 1.95m, I had failed to get an invite to English Schools let alone any age group international championships. It was clear to me that if I was ever going to be any good, I would need to exploit every avenue of gain. Finding the answer to why I and others performed at their best, when they did, seemed to be the ultimate advantage.

The experience of each PB was so similar, 2.05m, 2.10m, 2.12m, 2.15m, 2.19m, 2.20m, 2.22m, 2.26, so effortless, so unlike most of the time. Over the years I attributed this mental state to visualisation, affirmations, training, the weather, making a decision and even holding my hands above my head and the results were frustratingly inconsistent. The answer to why we perform at our best, when we do, remained elusive rather annoyingly until I retired.


I know now that we intuitively make the right decisions when we work in line with how our psychological system is designed. For most of my life, this wasn’t the case and unsurprisingly it was hard.

I spoke to my coach on the phone as I was near the end of a session and was really tired, he told me to call it a day early. And yet I was so desperate to achieve my goals I ignored his advice because more training would mean higher achievement right? Wrong, I hit a hurdle whilst bounding over it and ended up in A&E. Years later I was in a turbulent relationship and brought some of this to the track. Not paying enough attention I accidentally landed on my head, rupturing a disc in my neck. Any chance of making the Olympics the following year was gone and I was left with a surgery that risked me losing the use of my arms.

"Any chance of making the Olympics the following year was gone"

These are two of the more extreme examples of what has happened in my life when I have been off course. There are hundreds if not thousands of others which are very mundane and normal but where ultimately I was suffering. There are then those few moments where I got out of my own way, I worked in line with my design and my performance exceeded beyond what I thought to be possible.

It always seemed to me that when I achieved X I would be Y. Now, this wasn’t something explicitly conscious but I daydreamed endlessly about jumping my next PB, qualifying for that championship, winning that medal, what it looked like, how it felt. It’s what driven ambitious people do, right?!

Perhaps, but whilst it seemed it, X (achieving a PB, qualifying for a championship, winning a medal etc) could never be the source of Y (my happiness, status, confidence etc).

“We don’t know who discovered water, but we know that it wasn’t the fish.”

Just as fish are born to water, we are born into a world that seems to be the source of our experience. I do well; I feel happy, I lose; I feel bad. We look past that which is creating our experience from moment to moment. It is an extremely compelling illusion but an illusion nonetheless. Without exception, we are always living in the feeling of our thinking about our circumstances. When we see the simple truth that our experience only flows in one direction, inside out, our world can change dramatically.

We all experience moments of clarity and peace; often it seems to be because we’re on holiday, walking in nature or perhaps just taking a shower. This is, however, our natural state, when we allow our mind to settle. When we take our foot off the accelerator pedal in a car, it will naturally slow down.

When we operate from this space of clarity we gain fresh perspectives on problems, are more resourceful, perform better and just make better decisions. So the things that I want my sons to know don’t need to be taught because they are symptoms of this clarity, by products of working in line with how we’re designed. In the words of the psychologist Carl Jung;

“Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.”



About Matt

Matt is a former international high jumper ranked top 20 on the UK All Time list. Having trained in the 3 Principles psychology he coaches people to find the source of their own wisdom and potential. His clients include International Athletes, wealth management executives and health professionals. To find out more about his work and to get in touch you can find him @psychological.performance on social media.

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