Recognising and managing ‘The Chimp’

Written by Gordon MacLelland, WWPIS  

The chimp?  What is he talking about?  Has he been on a day trip to the zoo?

No I have not, well not recently and you may be surprised to know that we have a ‘chimp’ inside all of us.

This blog is based on the work of Dr Steve Peters ‘The Chimp Paradox’, which is built around three brain systems, all of which correspond to real areas of the brain: the human brain (the frontal lobe part of the brain), the chimp brain(limbic part of the brain), and the computer brain (the parietal cortex). The chimp brain is a hyperactive, animalistic flurry of emotions, the human brain is much more level-headed and calculated, and the computer brain works as a repository for memories and pre-learned actions.

Being involved in our child’s sporting experience is one of those times where the ‘chimp’ may rear its ugly head on a regular basis.

“The chimp brain works with feelings; the human brain works with facts”

The chimp is our emotional machine, we are not always in control of it but we are responsible for it.  It can be irrational, adamant that we are right, driven by emotion not logic and can be quick to reach false judgements and conclusions.

The chimp can be impetuous, neurotic and paranoid and will often see the worst possible outcome.

However, once the chimp has reacted and behaved this way, it can become tired and is more open to a calmer conversation with the human, rational part of the brain.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the troublesome chimp brain that takes control of our immediate reactions.

As a sports parent or indeed in any part of your life, there are a number of times that you will have already felt like this you may not have recognised it as being the chimp) but it will continue in the future.

Here are some scenarios where your chimp may rear its ugly head in a sports parenting context:

  • Your child has missed out on selection for a match or tournament
  • Your child has lost a match due to a poor refereeing decision
  • Your child has been on the wrong end of poor sportsmanship or cheating
  • Your child has not had enough time on the pitch in your opinion
  • You perceive other players to get more preferential treatment from a coach
  • Your child is hurt or picked on by another child in their group

Once the chimp has reacted and behaved in its way, it can become tired and is more open to a calmer conversation with the human, rational part of the brain.  The human part will be far more considered and will be able to rationalise the events that have just happened.  You may still not like what has occurred as a parent, but at this stage you should be able to take a far more balanced perspective.

That is why one of the biggest bits of advice that we give to both parents and coaches is that if you are feeling this way or have had a disagreement with each other, a cooling off period of at least 24 hours, if not 48 hours allows a far more productive conversation to take place when you do finally have a conversation.

A chimp v chimp battle between two people can have catastrophic consequences.

In those irrational moments things can be said and done that potentially could harm your child’s sporting experience moving forward.  It could affect your relationship with other parents and the coach and it may affect your child’s relationship with those people as well.

“The drives of the chimp brain cannot be changed, they can only be managed”

As a parent what strategies can you put in place to manage the chimp?

The first stage as a parent is to recognise the signs, once you have recognised them you can put small plans in place.

  • Pause – give yourself time to think through what has just occurred
  • Escape – give yourself space from the environment, this will allow the chimp to wear itself out
  • Wider perspective – take a wider view of what has just happened
  • Accept – no matter how unjust your recent feelings, accept it, it will give you the best chance to heal
  • Move on – it will often be best to cut your losses and move on
  • Plan – how to move on?  Work out what you can and cannot control?

Failure is a temporary set back, not the end of the road and the chimp will overplay his hand viciously during periods of failure and hurt.

If we as sports parents can recognise the signs of the chimp, give ourselves space and keep perspective in the grand scheme of things then the relationships we have with our own children, coaches and other parents will be a far more healthy one.

More importantly, we will be able to set a far greater example to our own children and be able to pass on and adapt some of these strategies to help them when their own chimp looks likely to strike!

Guest Blog by Gordon MacLelland

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