How Novak Djokovic uses self-watching to build good performance habits

This podcast looks at one of the concepts within The Elite Business Athlete. That’s the name of the Tougher Minds eBook which explains how performance and well-being secrets from global sporting icons can be beneficial and transformative for everyone.

In this episode, Tougher Minds founder Dr. Jon Finn discusses tennis star Novak Djokovic and his use of a psychology technique known as SELF-WATCHING. Dr. Finn explains how the world number one uses this to build helpful habits which improve performance and well-being.

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Podcast transcript 

Welcome to this Tougher Minds podcast, which looks in detail at one of the concepts within the Elite Business Athlete.

That’s the name of our Ebook, which is available for free on the Tougher Minds website. The elite business athlete explains how performance secrets from global sporting icons can be beneficial and transformative for everyone. The book provides an overview of key concepts that boost resilience, personal performance and wellbeing. In this podcast, Tougher Minds founder Doctor Jon Finn Discusses Tennis Star Novak Djokovic and his use of a technique known as self watching. Jon Explains how the world number one uses it to build good habits which improve his performance. I started by asking Jon about some public comments by Novak Djokovic in which he revealed more about his personal approach to the technique. Jon, we are aware that Novak Djokovic is a, is a devotee and a user of self watching techniques because of an article that appeared a couple of seasons ago in tennis terms anyway, in the Telegraph newspaper.

It was written by the Telegraph, tennis correspondent, Simon Briggs, who covered the sport on a global level and he was fortunate to secure a sit down interview with Novak Djokovic, an extended interview, I think it was prior to a Wimbledon tournament in fact, and Djokovic in that interview spoke about his use of self watching Simon Briggs suggested to him that the way he did that was almost the equivalent of him having cameras on his shoulders, if you like, monitoring his behaviour and feeding back to him, which allowed them to identify and break bad habits.

That’s in simple terms, the essence of self watching. But tell us more about it if you would please.

It’s actually also like having CCTV cameras on your brain and it’s not just about what you physically do or watching what you physically do, it’s also about watching how you are thinking, watching your emotional responses to things, watching yourself when you want to give up, but that’s not the best thing for you to do in that situation. Watching yourself when you may be a little bit irritated and making sure that doesn’t manifest into into some metaphor on health or behaviour with a colleague or a partner. So it really is, as it says on the tin, it’s about watching yourself but not just your physical actions. Also what you are thinking about, your emotions, at its purest level.

And it’s, it’s set against the backdrop, I suppose, of the fact that as human beings, habitual thinking and daily behaviour is something you’re not to immediately conscious of or, is obvious to you.

Recent thinking is that up to 95 percent of what anyone is doing right now, including you and I and anyone who’s listening to the podcast is a habit. It’s a semi automated processes just ticking away. And, and it looks like that our brains have evolved to automate as much of our thinking and as much as our physical actions as possible because it conserves energy. And if you think about yourself right now from where you are breathing to, your heart, beating to how you’re holding yourself, your posture, to even listening to the words from the podcast. These are not conscious processes, they’re subconscious and they are behaviours and actions and thoughts that you’ve practiced over and over and over again, and they’d become automated. So it looks like our, you know, our brains have evolved to get good at building habits and that’s why if we want to change ourselves and in Novack’s case become even better tennis player, that, that self watching is so powerful, but actually so difficult to do because we are so automated and Novak Djokovic again, as we’ve learned from, from this article and similar accounts and books he’s contributed to and authored himself and we know that he’s, he’s using self watching, in order to look for wasted energy and wasted potential in his training and preparation. Of course. Those sorts of things are so important to people involved in high performance sport at a global level, but in a business or in a work context or in a professional context, how might have it be having a negative impact do you think, on people’s performance and organisational performance?

Well, habits are run by triggers, reminders, things that surround us, and over the last 10 years or so, we’ve potentially become surrounded by more and more distractions, distractions that provide a lot of short term gratification. So it might be the internet, it might be a mobile phone. So these are things that we go to when we build habits, so the phone goes in your pocket, you check it even though you might be working through, quite challenging cognitive tasks. You break away immediately because it said it needs your response. It’s difficult to keep concentrating on the thing, the BBC sports website because it’s easier to process that information and not do the difficult thing we have to, that you’re paying attention to. So we must remember that in the context of, how habits are formed.

Humans are designed for short term gratification and progress in the world of work is often about delaying gratification and persisting with things that are often challenging for you. I was listening to a politician last night, he was talking about exactly the same thing about how it’s so easy for him to indulge in very interesting, very stimulating activities like meeting, um, this university professor or meeting this chap who’s involved in the American secret services, all fantastic activities, but actually recognizing that these kinds of short term gratification, it’s stopping him from pursuing and working towards the bigger things that he wants to achieve, you know, for in his own life and for the people that he represents. So very easily we can fill our day with business and things that, a build habits which are not helpful to the bigger goals that we’re trying to achieve, in our working careers.

I’m sure his constituents will be delighted to hear that he’s accessing Tougher Minds and they’re potentially benefiting and potentially could be on his way to a climbing the political ladder. But now, joking aside, but we won’t name the gentleman or a lady go any further on that. But let’s talk though about then how we’ve, we’ve established self watching is a tool that is available to people we understand and that it’s required to identify and observe these habits and understand what impact they might have. How might you employ that to enhance personal behaviour or identify a bad habit that you have that’s impacting on your own personal performance?

Well, we would encourage people to use a self-watching trigger, the guise that it falls into when we work with people is called a Performance Planner. So where are you encouraging people to think about what they’re trying to achieve in the future, bring them back to what they’re trying to achieve today. And then think about what kind of unhelpful habits might get in the way of achieving what you need to achieve today to plug into the bigger long-term, you know, vision that starts with going to bed at night because we increasingly understand the role of and the importance of sleep in cognitive function. It’s connected to your sleep too. So your diet and your exercise as well. So we encourage people to self watch those things first and then we get them to think about almost a timeline of a debt and what unhelpful habits might be laying install for them and what that could potentially do to help them to overcome those, those unhelpful habits.

So, so the Tougher Minds performance plan and then actually offers people a means of, of monitoring this by, by literally writing it down and then planning ways to defeat the pitfalls that might be coming their way. Is that right?

Yes, exactly. So if it’s purposefully designed to help people in a simple and practical way to, to, to watch themselves and then make changes. But if you think of any helpful habit that you’ve accumulated and we all have many, you’ll have a specific practice. Those habits over and over and over again and are often described like pearls. So in the middle of a bell is an irritant and actually the, the shiny the attractive bit of pearl is actually less than, less of a mineral substance and how we supply that. The more you practice the habit, the model as it were associated, the bigger the pill gets metaphor. So we kind of mentioned the we can change our habits quickly, but the first step is to self watching to be aware, and that’s difficult in itself because your brain has such a preference for optimisation of everything that’s going on going on. Then when people try to resist the habit that they’re really paying attention, trying to resist the hobbies, they’re amazed by how powerful the habit is.
You know, I’m not going to check my phone and I’m not going to my phone. I’m not going to check my phone. I’m checking my phone. I’m in Costa Coffee. I’m not going to have a muffin and I’m not going to have a muffin in. I’m buying a muffin already because their brand is so powerful. So we’re not suggesting this is easy to do, but the best way to do is to, is to watch it, in something like a planner that you’ve got with you and you essentially the, the best habit you can build to change your habits is the habit of, of using something like our performance planner every day.

And this is a document that’s in appearance like a small diary I take it. And then it has sections which you’ve created using Tougher Minds insight to allow people to record what they need to about the day and about the habits and then, and then set out some forward goals. Is that correct?

Yep. So it’s really, it’s been designed to help people to watch themselves over an extended period of time. So we know that behaviours, habits take time to change. If we’re going to change a habit, we need triggers, you know, we might be really motivated to lose weight in January. But if we keep going to the supermarket and buying junk food and putting it in our cupboard, it’s gonna be really difficult to, to lose that weight because we keep seeing the junk food and we keep eating it because we weren’t on triggers. So we’re trying to design a trigger that’s the starts with people in the, in the performance planning. This actually keeps reminding them to keep watching themselves and it fits in with our business programs. So like our bite sized program where we have multiple visits to the groups that we’re working with typically over a six week period and in the time that we’re not with the, with the people we’re working with, they’ve got the planner to keep them watching themselves and keep the mapping out what they’re trying to achieve. And it links to themes of improving motivation, improving concentration and building up confidence levels. You know, making sure people are motivated to get the sleep, that Diet and exercise habits aligned. So it’s kind of an accumulation of all the knowledge and all the components of the program. But in a very simple and practical form, and it’s perhaps worth pointing out this is not, It’s not a sort of a report card that people should kind of fear filling in and, and they, they don’t submit it for marking to you when you do return to deliver a session at the organization. This is a, this is a personal resource for them and them alone.

So if you watching yourself, you know, you might discuss it with a colleague and it’s, it’s often powerful if people do it together. But we know that writing down is powerful. I think the most obvious explanation for that is the short term memory in humans is about 30 seconds. So if we don’t commit it to paper, we can often forget often; also if we have you know, worries and doubts, letting those things just spiral around around in our head isn’t helpful. So again, write them down and make some sense out of them. It’s powerful. So it’s a, it’s a personal reflection too, but you know, it goes much further than that. It’s structured and able to help people to recognise the good habits they have got and build on those and break some of the bad habits that they have.

And, do you draw distinction between people actually writing down? Well, if I have a Tougher Minds performance planner, so much the better but, but just using pen and paper and, and using an electronic device, maybe making a document in a pc or on a smart device, something like that?

Yeah. I think that if you took a million people and ask them did you write writing things down? I’m not sure what, what the results you would see, again, terms of impacts on self watching and change, but we know that they are different processes. Physically writing something down is a different process to typing something out.
I know the people I speak to often have a preference for writing things down because there’s a bit more freedom with how you can, you know, use the pen to paper. You might want to highlight particular things or draw things out, you know, turn the page and all the way around. So I think there is a power to writing things down and it certainly is a different physiological and biological process than typing.

I think you could certainly appreciate that given the ubiquity of smart devices and computers in this day and age, I’m talking about being in a moment where you’re actually physically writing something I guess would be a different and um, perhaps therefore have a greater impact on many people. I think that would be a clear for many people to see.
So have you used self watching to help various organisations and businesses in recent times? I know you’ve been working with some different organisations recently in, in the City of London and in the academic sector. How have you introduced the concept of self watching and, and hhow has it helped people in those contexts?

What things do you know? Stress and resilience is a contemporary issue. In the world of high performance business what got you here this year, will that get you there next year?
No one is making any more hours in the day. And you know, most professionals are working as many hours as they possibly can. What we know is that stress getting can have a negative impact on that. It slows down your processing capabilities, you become less productive than you might otherwise like to be. So often we’re trying to help people to watch their emotions, um, and you know, helping them to understand what is going on and your neurological brain level when the emotions and not where they want them to be. And then giving them practical strategies to manage a unhealthfully emotions and process them more effectively than they otherwise would have done so that they don’t have such a detrimental impact. And also teaching people to watch the maximization of time in the day.

People can be very busy without really achieving what they want to achieve. And that can become a habit. And so sometimes we talk about a big, you know, the big hairy goals that you want to achieve every day versus the, the little rabbit goals that you might accumulate the chiller and don’t really impressive things there. Just, you know, untrained, I’ve answered all my emails, but actually I haven’t made any progress on the proposal that I’ve been putting off writing for the last two days. Things, things like that. So I think really we’re seeing that stress is the result of a lot of problems in the workplace and therefore teaching people resilience skills is very beneficial and they’ll start that with self watching.

So it’s at the core of, of what you do. And I understand as well, you’ve had some reports of fairly rapid progress and rapid results when people adopt these approaches because, it doesn’t take long for them to identify something that is problematic for them. And then when they start to make attempts to correct it, they almost create a virtuous cycle.

Yes. So qualitatively, people would report sort of 30 percent increase in what they might call performance in productivity when they’re deploying these strategies versus when they’re not, we know just getting the, the sleep, the exercise, right has a very positive boost in productivity, performance and stress management. So yeah, we do see that and people do report that. I think what, what organizations also like about our training programmes is the longevity of them. They’re not just something that, you’ve got a day course and you get excited and that’s it. They actually make a real impact for employees and not just in their work life. They make an impact in every area of their life because these are transferable life skills. You know, we were always talking about being happy, being healthy. If you get those two things right, performance is much easier to achieve. You know, talking to a multinational organisation in the moment he wants to roll out our program across the UK and Europe because after a pilot program a year afterwards, so employees are still talking about it, you’re still using the language. So you know, it’s very pleasing for us, the we can have that impact on people’s lives in such a positive way and just as we draw to a conclusion in this first podcast, discussing in greater depth the concepts and principles outlined in your elite business athletes Ebook, it’s perhaps again worth reminding everyone that this approach is found in, in high performance sport and elite sport self-watching and monitoring is at the core of, of what people like Novak Djokovic do. And sports teams as well. They have sophisticated electronic systems to help them in some cases. So perhaps people can take some encouragement from the fact that some of the highest performers in that sector are using it and it will translate and come across very well to an everyday context.

These are, these are not just things for people who are in the media spotlight that for everybody. You know, the England cricketer Alastair Cook is another great example of someone who talks a lot about self-watching, being aware of turning his concentration up and down and using all these kinds of triggers. For us, it’s just as applicable to the office where you recognise that, you know, you’re going on the mobile phone too much, so you need to turn it off or you’re using it when you don’t need to, so you need to disconnect it now or you’re staying at your desk for three hours in a row. I’m not doing anything because my head’s all chopped up with, with stress chemicals. So I need to get out and do a walk and I’m not staying at my desk for that long. You say simple and practical ideas. I was just chatting to a friend who’d been on holiday with a young person who, who’s, who’s been on one of our education programs specifically. Yes in transition program and she was, she was talking, telling this friend that she was self-watching before starting her revision during the holidays because it was an exam week this week and her self-watching led her to do some bouts of exercise to increase what we call activation before she actually started to engage in the revision process because she recognised that if she was sitting down in the wrong frame of mind or state of mind, she wasn’t going to get any meaningful work done. So what Novak is using to win Grand Slam tennis championships, 11 year old children are using to have more productive revision sessions. And so these are transferable life skills.

We hope you enjoyed listening to this Tougher Minds podcast, which discussed one of the concepts within the elite business athlete. The free Tougher Minds ebook, which explains how performance secrets from global sporting icons can be beneficial and transformative for everyone. You can download the elite business athletes from Remember, it’s totally free. Thanks for listening. We’ll be releasing more podcasts very soon.

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