Given the events of the last few months it’s no surprise that anxiety and other mental health problems are skyrocketing all over the world. Yet for those who feel helpless to fight back against this relentless diet of fear and gloom, help is at hand in the form of a new book due out in January 2021: How to Master Your Monkey Mind.
The Monkey Mind is how Chinese Buddhists have long described the nagging voice in our heads that flits from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from tree to tree in the jungle. It is also the speciality of this book’s author, a very wise man who it has been my pleasure to get to know over the last ten years: Don MacPherson.
Based on the outskirts of the British city of Bath, MacPherson (aka ‘the Monkey Whisperer’) is a mind coach and hypnotherapist who routinely hosts young hopefuls in sports ranging from rugby to snooker – including champions in everything from Formula 1 to Wimbledon. There’s no purple cloak or swinging watch but there is a reclining chair where he puts on soothing music and sets out to tame their Monkeys and put their subconscious minds back on track. Even so, rather than implanting sinister ways of thinking into vulnerable heads, MacPherson insists hypnotherapists tend to be called upon to rectify the effects of a life of hypnosis from another source entirely.
‘Ask my wife Jane to play tennis and she will politely decline,’ MacPherson told me when I spoke to him for In The Zone. ‘She’ll say: “I can’t play tennis! I don’t have an eye for the ball or any hand-eye coordination.” But if you gently pry as to why she holds such a view, she’ll say it must be true because: “Everybody has always told me I am hopeless at tennis.”
‘If you dare to go any further you might enquire who this “everybody” is. You may know a few: mothers, fathers, grandparents, friends, teachers, vicars, politicians, policemen, lawyers, doctors. They are Jane’s “everybody” and probably yours: all are hypnotists who were in action from her first attempt to hit a ball. No doubt she missed or mishit it, at which point I doubt she received much encouragement, more like “Oh dear, it doesn’t look like little Jane has much of an eye for a ball, shame...” from a well-meaning parent who didn’t realise the effect their negative comments can have on a young child hanging onto their every word.
‘Who was next? Other friends, all hypnotists joining in, compounding and confirming Jane is no good at tennis. Unless somebody interrupts this hypnotic trance, she is well on the way to believing it. Finally, whenever tennis is brought up, you will hear her unequivocally state: “I am hopeless at tennis”. This is as close as you can get to self-hypnosis but she has already been a victim of “accidental hypnosis”. It is now so deeply rooted in her subconscious that to shift it she would need a mind expert to try to reprogram her into “can-do” Jane.’
I’m sure we all have similar examples of pursuits we long ago abandoned as far beyond our puny capabilities – whether it’s sport, art, music, languages, maths or anything else. If we were to work our way back through time there would no doubt be a similar cast list of hypnotists. But few of them realise they were ever in our lives at all, just as we live in blissful ignorance of the similar effects we’ve had on countless, faceless others. We now live lives so complex in terms of interactions, from good old face-to-face contact to television, internet and social media, we face a daily onslaught of more swaying watches than Switzerland in an earthquake.
Some situations can make people especially vulnerable to hypnosis, according to MacPherson: ‘You are in your Doctor’s surgery, about to hear the results of some tests,’ he adds. ‘Your conscious mind freezes whenever something important, exciting or scary is happening to you. At this point your GP is a full-blown hypnotist because they now have direct access to your subconscious mind, the real you. So they had better be very careful what they say… because you’re about to become another victim of accidental hypnosis.
‘If it’s bad news your first question is likely to be: “How long have I got?” If the reply is “six months” it is uncanny how accurate this forecast turns out to be. Have the patients been hypnotised, their brains programmed to believe it must be so without question? If the GP clicked his fingers just before giving the results would the patient suddenly cluck like a chicken or sing an Elvis song if they suggested it?’
Something tells me the whole world is under the effects of similar mass hypnosis right now, quivering with fear and clucking like chickens at the slightest suggestion from our all-powerful rulers.
Yet before we start blaming anyone else we have to remember there is only one true leading light in our production: ourselves. No matter what anyone says it is only when our subconscious minds choose to believe it that a plot twist is written in stone. To quote parents everywhere: ‘If we ignore it, it will go away.’ The problem is that our deepest selves are not easy to control, no matter if we’re trying to ascertain whether or not to believe a news story, whether or not to believe we can hit a tennis ball over a net or even whether or not to believe we will live to see another Christmas.
Now MacPherson is promising to give us everything we need to take back control, thanks to ‘ten simple tools to tune your brain.’ These are likely to include many of the mind secrets he has used with the stars over the years, everything from meditation and visualisation to ‘Zen Breathing’ which slows the heart rate with a simple deep breath, exhaling for longer than we inhale.
This is the one toolbox we all need right now. So if you are heartily sick of 2020 and you fancy starting 2021 afresh I can only urge you to pre-order MacPherson’s book and prepare to start mastering your Monkey Mind.
Ever since I read Ayrton Senna’s words describing his surreal out-of-body experience during qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, I’ve been on a quest to find others who have found the same magical place.
Over the years I’ve met many great sports stars who have been there too: moments in the Zone that bend time and space and transcend reality as we know it. Occasionally I get really lucky and the human being telling me the story is still at the absolute top of their game, and the world.
After Novak Djokovic collected his fourth Laureus World Sportsman of the Year Award last week, I grabbed my chance to enquire about his description of going into ‘another dimension’ during his near-perfect Australian Open semi-final in January.
Appropriately we were in Monaco so I brought up the similarity with Senna’s words. The Serbian superstar’s reply was as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from one of sport’s true class acts – and definitely, unmistakably Senna-esque. Here it is in full…
‘I actually watched Ayrton Senna’s documentary so I did hear him speaking about that,’ smiled Djokovic. ‘In my case there were several matches where you just feel like you’re having an out-of-body experience. One of them was in the final of the Australian Open in 2012 against Nadal when we played almost six hours. It’s really hard to explain when you feel like you’re present but somehow you’re also not present – because the physical pain is so big that you don’t feel your body any more, but you’re operating on some kind of autopilot that is taking you to your desired places, which you determine mentally.
‘It was one of those experiences where you just feel like there is a higher force that is driving you forward. I’m also a big believer in that, and I always rely on my faith and try to be grateful and understanding of a creator and a greater power and a universal help that we always see. So I try to remind myself of that, of how blessed I am and not to take things for granted because ego is a strange opposition at times, and it can play with your mind.
‘In this process of evolution as a human being I’ve learned a lot more about these things because I’ve become more aware of them. Before it was just… I hit a tennis ball and it was in or out, and I won a tennis match. But throughout the years it became much more than that. It became a spiritual journey. And because the tennis court is a place where I’m probably most vulnerable but also very confident and strong, a tennis court is a school of life for me: where I get triggered most and where I can understand myself on a deeper level. That’s because everything I maybe suppress outside of a tennis court surfaces there.
‘That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why I keep on playing tennis. I don’t see too many different places where I can actually evolve as a human being better than on a tennis court.’
Wow. To learn more about Djokovic’s approach to his art, read my earlier interview with him about his 2012 epic against Nadal which is a highlight of In The Zone - or check out the wonderful speech he gave while collecting last week’s Laureus award…
When a sports star is ‘in the zone’ we all know it. Whatever they touch turns to gold and any unlucky opponents are dazzled by a spell of pure sporting alchemy that leads to anything from a cricket century to a perfect 147 in snooker.
We can all see the results, but the view we get is nothing compared to what this feels like from the inside. When all those long years of training come flooding back out so perfectly, it can seem effortless – the most natural thing in the world.
Strange things start happening in the mind too. Time appears to slow down and space can even bend: tennis rackets and racing cars become mere extensions of the body. Sometimes the sensation is so extreme it feels like you’re not even doing it at all.
Ayrton Senna reported an apparent out-of-body experience as he went into overdrive during F1 qualifying at Monaco in 1988 – and it was the same for Novak Djokovic as he beat Andy Murray in the 2016 French Open final to complete his career Grand Slam.
“I don’t even remember what happened in the last point,” Djokovic said afterwards. “It’s like my spirit left my body and I was just observing it fight the last exchanges, hoping Andy would make a mistake, which is what happened. I’ve felt this autopilot very few times in my career, but it lasted longer in the 2012 Australian Open final with Rafael Nadal when we played for almost six hours.”
It was a week after the longest Grand Slam final in history (pictured above) that I first grabbed my chance to quiz Djokovic during my research for In The Zone. I wanted to hear how he conjured up the sleight of mind to recover the zone when things were slipping away at a break down in the final set in Melbourne...
“To be honest with you there are no tricks, there is just belief,” Djokovic told me. “Just believe and you find the mental push you need. In the fifth set of the Australian Open final there is no more thinking and no more physical strength you can rely on. It’s just about will to win; that power guides you to the end.”
Djokovic spent years as the unlucky No.3 behind Nadal and Roger Federer – yet he insists his leap to the top was prepared not in his biceps but his brain: “It seems a small step from semi-finals to winning but it’s huge,” he said. “Then suddenly, bang! In 2011 I started winning. It was a matter of believing I can win against the biggest rivals in the latter stages of the majors. That makes the difference in winning the match.”
Five years of domination – and one tough year – later, Djokovic has now discovered the doubts don’t stop at the top. Having failed to defend his French Open in June, he is back without a Grand Slam title yet again. But Federer’s nostalgic Melbourne win and Nadal's Paris triumph prove this belief can be as permanent as class.
Now, somehow, the Big Four are back as the top four seeds for Wimbledon. And, despite his win last week at Eastbourne, it could be argued that a Djokovic win would be the most surprising of all. The bookies agree, placing him at 6-1, behind Federer (2-1), Murray (7-2) and Nadal (4-1). We know the Serbian can find the heaven of the zone again, the big question is simply: How bad does he want it?
Adapted from this article for Tennis Head magazine...
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to the wider world of sport - all in a bid to discover the untapped power of the human mind.