I have been watching the Women’s World Cup Rugby over the past 2 weeks held in Ireland. I admit to having a vestige interest as my daughter plays for the England team who are close to being, in my eyes, a ‘complete high performing team’. They are also about to contest a World Cup Final this Saturday.
What’s the big deal you may say?
Well, after 40 years of leading large and small teams in different and sometimes difficult environments around the world, I can truly say that the flow and synergy which is matched to consistent winning results only come to teams once in a while.
Teams such as these are extremely rare. They are tough to find and even tougher to build. But they do exist. They can be built. Anyone who has seen one in action or been fortunate enough to participate in or lead one will know it. We are watching such a team now in the England Women’s side.
Some background first.
This England Women’s Rugby team has built over years with a vision to be the best that there is in the world, and to win a World Cup (they were also building from a solid base having won the World Cup in 2014). The standard of women’s rugby (as well as the followership) has grown exponentially year on year, and the Rugby Football Union recognised that their approach to the women’s game needed to change.
To that end the Rugby Football Union decided that in order to achieve this vision, that they must make an Elite Squad of players for an 8 month period. Hats off to the senior management in the RFU for putting this into place, along with a set of coaches and back room staff that would make the difference in a constant emerging and fiercely competitive global game.
There are many so called characteristics of high performing teams, but for me I will only touch on 3 as I see them currently exhibited in this England team. They actually do form the core for any high performing team – without these, you cannot have a team of this magnitude.
First up is ability.
No one has yet figured out how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and world-class teams will not be produced without a fair number of world-class players.
Ability is important of course, but you cannot expect fantastic results with twenty or so brilliant individuals. Teams are created out of the belief that they generate an energy and synergy that make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. In the world-class team, the result is performance that is consistently at or beyond the level that any reasonable person could expect.
Ability is the result of the mastery of skills. In rugby these skills are very basic: running, kicking, passing, catching, pushing, jumping, tackling, and decision making. Each team member has a specific job to do which combines a number of these skills. Prop forwards are pushers par excellence, but also runners, passers, and catchers. Lock forwards are jumpers, catchers, and pushers, and occasionally runners and passers. Fullbacks are catchers, runners, passers, and kickers. Each of these specialists must contribute her particular skills if the team is to perform to world-class standards.
But this England team is breaking the mould. Both backs and forwards can excel in areas that you might not expect to see them excel in. For example, to watch a prop sprint 40 metres down the touchline is a wonderful sight, and to see the backs clearing out the ball in rucks and mauls with ferocity again, is incredible. In rugby, world-class teams are conspicuously breaking down the barriers of specialization. Forwards are learning to run and pass like backs; backs are getting bigger and learning to push and jump like forwards.
Next - Sacred ‘discontent’.
I use the term ‘sacred discontent’ because it describes beautifully a culture that exists in this England team.
By this I mean that this is linked to the team’s ability to question anyone in the team/squad in the pursuit of excellence. So, an honesty pervading in the squad that allows even the newest arrival to question the most senior player. I believe that the England coaches have had a massive part in this ‘team culture’ and again, should be highly complimented for this approach.
It is an attitude to learning and growth that is never satisfied with past achievements but always searching for the next challenge. It is remarkable how many sports players and teams are perpetually dissatisfied with their performance. After what seems an outstanding performance they appear ill at ease.
World-class teams are highly analytical and self-critical. They feel there is always more that could have been done, mistakes that could have been eliminated, and opportunities that could have been taken. The attitude is not one of unrelenting self-criticism, but rather a conviction that there is always more to be learned.
This team engages in extensive discussion, and everyone gets a chance to contribute — even the introverts.
Linked to ‘Scared discontent’ is the competence of discipline.
In this England world-class team, it has developed the ability to recognize, face, and tackle interpersonal issues promptly – and to be disciplined about it. Team members understand they must overturn any obstacles quickly and completely to focus on the job in hand. Issues may be settled by semi-formal methods or by extensive networks and informal chats. Coaches have been upfront and honest about team selection or individual performance.
Whatever form this takes, it has been incredibly powerful during the time they have had together and has helped bond the women into a force of co-opted warriors who will do anything for one another.
The players have solid and deep trust in each other and in the team’s purpose — simply put they believe totally in each other. Equally so, the leadership of the team shifts from time to time, as appropriate, to drive results. In this team, No individual member is more important than the team.
So, the next time you feel that your team is at a high performing level – just see if they act and perform like the above England Women’s Rugby team core characteristics…
And remember, Excellence is Good Enough.
When Life tips out of Balance
In the rush of modern day life it is easy to push aside small concerns and fail to notice that you are actually no longer your old happy self (assuming of course you can remember such a happy self!). But it's important to pay attention to the light gradual changes so we can keep our minds well and stop our lives from spinning out of control.
Don't we all love that effortless feeling of flow? The times when life unfolds with ease, and we experience the clarity of mind and levels of energy that view us with what seems to be a permanent sense of optimism and inspiration.
I often wish I could bottle that feeling and pull it off-the-shelf for when life seems more of an uphill struggle.
For example, right now I am in Northern Ireland having travelled from Bahrain in the Middle East and Brunei in the Far East over the past 3 weeks. I am here in Ireland watching my daughter playing professional sport in a World Cup Rugby competition. All of this within 18 days of which at least 5 of those days are travelling. It's a busy, busy life!
It's curious though how difficult we find it to notice ourselves drifting away from that ‘happy home’ or happy state of energetic optimistic flow. Equally curious is, how long it can take to realise that our life is out of balance, and in fact that were not very well at all.
In some ways it's like the process of ageing. Day-to-day glances in the mirror tend not to reveal the continual but subtle transformations that come with growing older. Then, one day, we are suddenly shocked by our reflection and need to look at a photo from our youth to become aware of the change. Luckily, however, mental rejuvenation and re-inspiration happen all the time.
So, is there a way to recognise before we actually hit crisis point that our life is tipping out of balance? And what can we do to realign ourselves?
These questions often come from highly committed people who give life their all, but can feel an underlying sense of inadequacy because they perceive themselves as not been the ideal partner, parent or professional. They see, inadequacy, missed opportunities and at worse - failure. By the way, I really do not like that word – we have all grown up with it, and it has a deep seated space in our conscious and sub conscious minds – ready to pop up frequently to bring us down. I try not to use it or think about it and have reframed the word as ‘development’ – in other words this ‘episode’ or event that did not go the way I thought it might has now become a learning and development piece for me. Much better all round!
I will share ideas and strategies that have worked for me, but there are some important principles to absorb first. Then you can take my suggestions and make them your own.
First of all - Zoom out, Zoom In
We are told that humans are the only species capable of placing ideas and events in a larger context (well that's what a lot of people believe, but I think we do a disservice to the animal kingdom when we make that assumption!).
Humans have a skill that is like zooming out of the camera lens. It enables us to devote ourselves fully to parenting, postpone gratification and reinterpret elements of hardship or suffering as opportunities to learn or as part of a bigger, more worthwhile picture. Changing nappies, for example, is no big deal when we know and appreciate the importance of parenting.
We are capable of feeling joy and finding meaning in the smallest moments, but were equally capable of elevating the meaningless or error of the moment, into a larger more significant frame. If we allow them, mistakes for example to happen, they can offer huge opportunities for new insights.
Intriguingly we find it difficult to use this mechanism to prosper our own thoughts, through which we perceive what is going on for ourselves and the world around us, on a very regular basis. This is especially so when we are feeling anxious or stressed. We incline towards seeing only one thing or the other.
We would help ourselves enormously if we made a habit of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture; reminding ourselves of what's really important to us.
Someone I was working with recently had become too focused on a person he disliked. Once he chose to see this colleague as an irritating ‘mistake’ but then, on a much bigger canvas everything started to change. He gained a sense of perspective and was able to refocus on what really mattered in his life. He was also able to see the issues that presented themselves to him through the actions and behaviour of his colleague as an opportunity for both of them to grow together – rather than dwell on anger, upset and dissatisfaction.
We are all busy, busy, busy.
Our modern, often urbanised environment has a lot to answer for in masking our ability to notice when things are starting to tip the balance and notice that we are beginning to become unwell.
The constant appeal to our senses and the shared mental overload it brings has become a fact of life. It's a situation that exists and, is accelerating. It's up to us therefore, to learn to disconnect, to rest from the indigestible volume of information and stimuli that comes our way, if we are to lead the gracious and more balanced lives of which we are all capable of. I guess that is why, for me, I choose to take time out on solitude experiences, which you can read more about if you wish on my website: mikenoelsmith.com.
In the fragmentation of our attention, as we get bombarded by the current external world, we are less and less present and, also less attentive to the communication and language of our own bodies and in our exchanges with the people around us. Think about how this might apply to you and what you might do about it.
Change is the only constant
Although the Greek philosopher Heraclitus gave us the wise words “change is the only constant” over 2 thousand years ago, it still takes us a lifetime to come to terms with this fact. Life, and consequently our individual lives, can be described as a constant evolving process that takes place both in our bodies and in our relationships.
We need to find individual ways to wake up to and noticed this process of change as it takes place and not to buy into the sometimes bullying cult of permanent happiness. Truly recognise that change will happen to us and be aware of the emotional journey that accompanies change. Joy is a fabulous feeling, but we are blessed with the ability to feel so much more. Anger, revulsion, fear, grief and denial are some of the emotions that we try to hide from or at least avoid, but then these feelings help us become wise and compassionate and ultimately to experience life as meaningful. Denying their presence by sweeping them under the carpet becomes counter-productive, which, in turn, leads to insincerity and brittleness.
Being committed to raising our own self-awareness of how we are doing in our lives requires courage. The courage to acknowledge the less comfortable feelings as they arise and the awareness not to turn a blind eye to them are as important for us to assess the feelings of happiness.
By allowing all those different ‘guests’, as the mystic poet Rumi called them, to enter our ‘house’ our true self, we are able to develop compassion and tolerance of inevitable discomfort and ultimately resilience stops or at least slows right down and in doing so, hopefully, keep our lives in balance.
So what can we do about it? Here are some practical ways to recognise yourself slipping out of balance:
1. Make commitments
Perhaps the place to start is to make a commitment to yourself: that you make time and practice listening to your inner process as well as how you relate to others. Cultivate a way of listening and hearing that is kind and generous to yourself as well as curious and open. Stay present, however painful, and try to suspend judgement.
Paradoxically by accepting our vulnerability as a permanent fixture rather than something we need to work through at top speed, we become stronger and life become more deeply satisfying. So, by just knowing what state you are in, will strengthen you.
2. Learn to direct your attention
The quality of your life is directly connected to your ability to pay attention. For all the good that is it has brought, the mobile revolution that we currently live in has severely eroded many people's attention span.
There are things we can do to change this:
3. Connect with your body
Our bodies are very accurately keeping the score of how we are. This is a fact. You can learn to read and hear what the subtle stirrings are, without having to wait for its cries of despair to stop. Little things are warning signs: poor sleep, aches and pains generally in the body, stiffness in movement etc; So -
Connect with your mind
Conservative estimates tell us we have 20,000 thoughts a day with 75% of those being somewhat negative. We are predisposed to seek out the bad – it's a survival technique that we as a species have always had. By focusing effectively on danger we have managed to stay safe and evolve as humans for millennia.
The thing is that our environment is not as dangerous as it was but our brains have not quite got out of that habit, and what you focus on is what you get. To seek out good news, dismiss futile negative thoughts and make firm decisions about the quality of thought your commit to, because it will keep you buoyant and aware of times when it is more difficult to ignore negative ruminations. And this might just be telling you something.
Connect with other people
Even the most introverted of us need to interact with other people. We are inter-dependent as a species. Each exchange with another, even the person behind the till at the supermarket, will change us and we them.
Notice the quality of your interactions with others. Irritability, poor listening and a lack of generosity, can tell me when I'm slipping.
Investing in this form of self exploration is liberating. The lesser mercy of our unbridled feelings we are, the better. Remain ever curious and accept what you see: whether the quality of your sleep or your physical agility is affected or that your thoughts and interactions are less positive.
Slipping out of balance might even seem attractive at first glance because you may be able to feel getting our with less sleep, become overly optimistic, and even hyperactive, as good things. In the end though, you will only recognise your language of distress and these can be very telling.
Day 18 - Thursday
Rain, rain, rain.
I spent all the morning in the bothy writing up my notes up on my IPad. I also keep hand written notes as a back up in case of electronic shenanigans. I do like actually writing using an ink pen or a pencil and think this is becoming a distant used art as we turn to computers, mobile phones and tablets that require typing skills only. Ask yourself the question – when did you last write a letter and post it in an envelope to a friend or family member? Try it and you will find wonderful heartfelt and mindful benefits to you and of course the receivers themselves!
I also had a good sort out of my food stocks, trying to ensure that I eat those that are close to going off. That mainly concerns the vegetables I have, as some of the carrots and spinach are the fastest to go off and I am not one for just chucking away anything, as food is a very precious commodity.
I do try to cook as much vegetables as possible, but I have a lot to get through! Apart from that delicious bacon and hake that Buffy gave me, I have been 'veggie' since I started. I have noticed in myself a little more 'zip' - not sure if that is to do with the diet (which includes hemp and chia seeds plus a spoonful of cacao in all meals) or with the general environment I how have here in the bothy. Perhaps it's a combination of all of these things?
Buffy also said to me before I left to 'feed off light' - this sounds like a crazy notion, but I have found when meditating that to see the light all around being absorbed into every muscle and cell in the body does leave you feeling refreshed and vitalised. Perhaps then, the mere intention of feeding your body, not only penetrates the conscious mind, but also really does get transferred to the fibres of our bodies needing it most. An interesting thought...
During a break in the rain, I walked down to the headland to pick up a signal on my mobile. This allows me to send my 'x' to Buffy. Whilst I was looking over the bay, which was tranquil with no wind and at high tide, I noticed a fish skim across the water for about 10 metres or so. Hardly the distance covered by the flying fish I saw in the Indian Ocean, but impressive nonetheless. I tried to imagine what type of fish would be chasing it.
Then I had my answer - a grey seal! I spent what seemed like a long time, watching this predator chasing its prey around the bay. I was amazed to see how long it could stay under water (over 5 minutes at times), but also the distance it could cover whilst underwater. I would watch the spot where it came up for a breather and then see it dive. Incredibly I would see it emerge up to a quarter of a mile away. Amazing. Every now and then, it would locate a small shoal of fish rather than an individual, and the wake from its twisting and turning on the surface was very obvious to see. One of natures amazing sites! With rain picking up again, I walked quickly back to the bothy for supper.
With it raining so hard, there was no chance of using my wok over the open fire, so I settled for tomato soup accompanied with cheese and biscuits indoors.
Day 19 - Friday
I woke up and saw it was 9am - wow, the latest I have slept to. More rain, but this time the wind has changed direction and is now coming from the south, hence the temperature is up a bit. My hopes of doing some washing seem to be over for today at least, but I have plenty of 'spares' so it is not an issue.
I spent a little time making a bird feeder out of one of the onion bags, tied up with fishing line, and put some walnuts in and hung it from a tree in the garden. Whilst sat in the bothy writing, a little field mouse scampered in through the door. I had seen him before trying to enter through the many holes in the bottom of the door. To be honest, I don't mind that he is in here, as long as he doesn't get at my food, all of which is up high on the sink top. Still, I must keep a careful eye on the seed packets and muesli to make sure he's not having a little feast.
I walked down to the beach when there was a break in the weather and just started to walk the rock pools. I found the remains of crab claws and body - ah ha so they are here, but where?
Not another soul on the beach so I started to collect driftwood for my fire (hopefully weather permitting) later. Sadly the rain started again around 4pm and continued through the night. So, another 'light' meal as I am unable to cook outside.
Day 20 - Saturday
No rain this morning and at last the sun is showing through intermittently. I just love my hot lemon, honey and maca drink first thing – it gives you a ‘zip’ that is almost as good as a strong coffee!! The cow and bullock that moved into the field next to the bothy seem to like bedding down in the corner nearest to me. I can certainly smell them! After an apple and the last of my coffee, I went to the headland to send my text to Buffy. She's coming again tomorrow lunchtime, bless her, as it takes 2 hours to get to me, plus shopping on route and then the return back up to Somerset, overall it must take out her whole day. I love her.
I went up to my 'hide' above the bothy and rearranged it a bit and made a little seat to sit on. I'll be using that when she visits. The weather is still 'iffy' so back at the bothy, I used an old watercolour set to paint out my Red Electric Dragon Galactic Signature that Alexis had given me when I was last saw her with Buffy just before departing. It's been on my mind for a while and I now carrying the paper with my when I walk. Whether it is helping me access dreams easier, I cannot tell but I am drawn to the symbology of it.
This afternoon the sun really did start shining so I walked down to the beach for a wander and ponder. Back at the bothy by 5pm and lo and behold, it started raining again! I have to cook outside tonight as my first small gas canister gave up. It lasted 1 week and 1 day, but with only 2 of these left and 20 days to go, rationing on brews will begin...
So, by lighting a small firebrand under the trees and protecting the main
Day 15 - Monday
I woke to the sun shining and clear blue skies!
This morning I made 'field tripod' for mounting my video camera on. It was made from simple birch twigs and some twine. I really enjoyed the task and it just goes to show how simple, yet creative tasks stimulate our brains - well at least it does mine! I also searched the beach for a piece of wood that I can fashion into a 'woodar' a musical instrument that I can attach fishing line to make sound - must be going mad.
Whilst walking on the beach, I found a piece of wood that looked a little like a snake or serpent, so I fashioned a couple of teeth for it, gave it an eye, and placed it in the garden. I haven't named him/her yet but will wait until something is given to me.
I have started the first batch of ‘grow your own organic bean shoots’ but as I do not have any muslin as the packet recommends I am using toilet roll. With luck that will work, and in 5 days time I will have even more ingredients for my evening stir fry.
Day 16 - Tuesday
An easy day today and unusually, I did not wake up until 9 am! After breakfast with the sun coming through occasionally I walked down to the beach. On the track on the way down there was a National Trust 4x4 basically blocking the path. There was one National Trust guy repairing a gate into a side field where they had just put an Aberdeen Angus bullock and a Friesian cow. They do this occasionally to feed in the fields and keep down any invasive weeds, gorse and blackthorn scrub etc; this helps with the Eco environment of the natural species in the fields and encourages rare plant growth.
As I past he was holding the gate in one hand and trying to reach his drill with the other. He asked me to help and of course I could not ignore him. Turns out that he knew all about me as in their office they have on their bookings calendar 'The Solitude Man' - that made me laugh. He quizzed me about what I was doing and I told him as best I could. He said he was very envious about what I was doing. After about 5 minutes I bade him farewell and walked on down to the beach.
It was low tide, so another opportunity to search the rock pools - still no sign of crabs or shrimps which really surprised me.
What I do find fascinating is staring into rock pools - sometimes when the water is calm and not disturbed by the wind, it can be beautiful like looking into another world, another realm of fascinating plants and animals.
I did however find a largish dogfish, dead on the rocks, a feast for the gulls.
Later that day, I returned to the bothy and cooked up some rice on the wok and had stir fire, followed by cheese and biscuits and some chocolate. Heaven!
Thinking back to the young National Trust mans comments, it reminded me on how indeed I was fortunate to be doing what I am. I am blest to have this opportunity, which for many do not have the time or even the inclination to try out. I personally believe that for many people and their general health in life, it would be so much more rewarding if they could take 'time out' and get away even for a short time.
Day 17 - Wednesday
I woke to brilliant sunshine although the skies do have clouds scudding by up high. With the sun came the opportunity to get my solar panel out to charge. With no electricity supply in the bothy, the only way of keep my iPad, camera and phone going was using this ingenious solar charger going. Its performance when the sun is not directly shining is greatly diminished, so when the sun shines that is when the solar panel comes out. As the weather looks great, I have decided that another night out is on the cards. I have a yearning to sleep down at the beach again, and hopefully see some stars during the night.
Good weather also equals admin washing, so I managed to get a bit of that done as well. I am very conscious of what we used to call in the army as 'hygiene in the field'. Not the most riveting of jobs, but necessary all the same. That done, it was quiet time and some meditation and reflection.
I had always intended to go down for my night on the beach in the late afternoon, but by lunchtime I was itching to get down there and enjoy the sun there, so I set off.
Returning to my old 'campsite' I was delighted to see it had been untouched, so with a few alterations only, I was then able to go down to where the sea met the sand and paddle.
The feeling of cold water and fine sand on the toes and ankles was amazing! I had read once about the importance (and health benefits) of properly connecting with the earth by getting your shoes and socks off and exposing our naked feet to the ground.
The reason is quite simply.
Our planet has electrical currents running all over it, literally everywhere. There are some major lines and these were coined with the term 'Ley Lines' by Alfred Watkins in the 1920's, and these feed off the mega grid system that encompasses the whole of the earth. Think of it like B class roads leading to A class roads and in turn all the way up to the motorway system. Never mind the country paths, tracks, railways and airways as well! So, if us humans can connect via roads and railways, we are then only copying the planetary communication lines laid down since the birth of earth. These planetary 'energy' lines are far more special though, as they are a direct link to Mother Earth or Gaia.
The whole subject about the earths energy lines would take a whole book to describe and there are plenty of those out to read if you are interested. As far as I am concerned, what it means to me is being able to 'ground' and to enjoyed the earths energy given to us 'free'. I honestly believe that it's good for us both physically and spiritually, to connect to those energy frequencies that are being sent out form the earth.
So, given the chance, get those shoes and socks off (an obstacle to connection) and walk around in your back garden, the local park or across fields. You will love it!
Returning to the beach I was able to collect more firewood, have my supper cooked over an open fire of lentils, peppers, onions and carrots whilst watching the sun go down. The beauty of that orange globe disappearing slowly over the horizon is a view that we had had for time eternal, and yet it's beauty is still fascinating and spell binding. The wind was light and the sea had that gorgeous still mirror like glean to it. I meditated whilst this time honoured spectacle was happening about gratitude and the beauty of nature.
Slowly, the night came in and it was with great anticipation that I awaited the full moon to make its appearance. Unfortunately, the clouds also started to arrive in dribs and drabs, although the stars were still there to see fleetingly. By 3.30am I felt the first spot of rain, and with no moon to see (although I could certainly feel its presence), I decided to return to the bothy, arriving back just gone 4am. As I turned the dials on the combination padlock, the heavens opened and it started tipping down. One could say 'divine timing' brought me home dry as a bone!