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April 30, 2017 5 min read 0 Comments

Regular workouts are not just for your body, We speak with Prof Sten Peters about how you can exceed your personal and work goals with frequent brain training.


Steve Peters has more Olympic medals to his name than most athletes, with an impressive haul at the London and Beijing games. He has garnered titles in athletics, cycling and snooker. And though he runs twice a week, he has never raced around a velodrome nor chalked a cue at an international competition. That is because Dr Peters is a psychiatrist.


“Without his help, I would never have achieved my career triumphs. I wouldn’t have been world champion once, let alone nine times, and then go on to win two Olympic gold medals,” wrote Victoria Pendleton, who overcame self-doubt and self-harm to dominated sprint cycling from 2005-12.

Ronnie O’Sullivan — who for many is the most talented player in the history of snooker, but also one of its most temperamental — says his career would have ended in disillusioned retirement had Dr Peters not intervened.


Quickly and with an embarrassed smile, Dr Peters denies any credit for the athletic achievements of his clients.

Winners, he says, “recognise their strengths and weaknesses, and they recognise how to get help in all aspects of what they want to develop. So they have this ownership of what they’re doing, and they call on their relative experts to give them the edge.” This month, Dr Peters will fly to Brazil with Britain’s Olympic taekwondo team.

Even though he is a decorated athlete himself — he has won several gold medals at the World Masters Athletics Championships, a competition for those over 35 — sport is not Dr Peters’ first love: mental health is.

We meet at his house on the edge of a village in England’s undulating Peak District. Dr Peters has taken a few days off from advising the England football team at the European Championship to teach primary school pupils how to manage their “inner chimps”.

He created the concept while working at Sheffield university and became more widely known for it four years ago after publishing The Chimp Paradox. The self-help book demystifies how the brain works in the hope of teaching us non-Olympians how to make better decisions and stop beating ourselves up when we fail to control our inner chimp.

The chimp is the part of our brain that acts instinctively or impulsively. It can be helpful, making us run quickly from a threat, or less so, by prompting us to curse at a flat tire or a perceived slight.


How does one exercise the mind?

For me the key is getting therapy — a model, a technique that resonates with you. You’re better spending just five minutes a day than trying to do an hour at some point in the week, because then it never happens. So I advise people maybe five to ten minutes’ of reflection a day.

What can parents do to help raise confident children?

If a child makes a mistake or loses their temper or throws a [tantrum], normalise it and say, “This is what happens. We do these things.” You are normalising the chimp effectively, you’re saying, “This is what happens when we get hijacked.” I think that’s really important because underpinning that is validating the child.

What about teenagers?
The brain develops the largest amount between 13 and 17, it explodes with neurons and it forms pathways. But teenage brains can’t see consequence very well. So [we need to] help them to see it.

Dr Peters has his own chimp well under control. He arrives at our interview an hour late, delayed by a car puncture suffered after being run off a narrow country road. He lifts his grimy hands and smiles with friendly resignation, rather than emitting a frazzled “sorry, sorry, sorry” that he would have heard from me had our fortunes been reversed.

Before giving his clients and patients advice, Dr Peters likes to delve into their heads and see the world as they do. Disconcertingly, he seems to be doing the same to his interviewer.

I ask him whether any lightbulb moments have influenced his career choices, which have taken him from teaching maths and lecturing Sheffield university students in psychiatry to working with the minds of some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals and most successful athletes and executives.

“I’m going to be a real psychiatrist — this is terrible . . . why is that of importance to you? I’m going to turn it on you,” he says. He has not had such pivotal experiences and wants to avoid FT readers thinking they are a prerequisite to success and then worrying about their careers if they have not had their own eureka moment.

I have come to Derbyshire to talk to him about his work with companies and business executives. In some cases — he declines to name names — Dr Peters has been asked to help a struggling company by working with its staff only to find the problem lay with the boss. “And then you’ve got to politely say that at some point . . . most of the work is dealing with you.”

Why is there a seemingly unshakeable dominance of white men at the top of companies? He sees men dominating through a system that generally suits them better — power and tenacity — while women try to come up through the ranks by learning to speak the “male language”.

“If you take the culture away and change the culture, then maybe we would get female perspectives and female outlooks. And then we would gain advantage, because perception [of what others are thinking or feeling] would be higher.”

But Dr Peters knows from experience how difficult it is to change group culture. In 2001, he was introduced by one of his former Sheffield students to the British cycling team and four years later, Dave Brailsford, the performance director, hired him as full-time team psychiatrist. Even though they saw eye-to-eye and the riders achieved medal success in Beijing and London, discord within the team led both men to quit in 2014.


“There were always problems. When I was in the system, there was public knowledge there was division and my job was to try and hold this together,” Dr Peters says. “We had this model and culture and then you could sense . . . things move on.”

This year Shane Sutton, British Cycling’s technical director, resigned and an independent inquiry was launched because several team members alleged he had made derogatory comments about female cyclists and para-cyclists and that he fostered a culture of fear. Mr Sutton denies the allegations.

More recently, England’s run at the European Championship ended unexpectedly early. Dr Peters worked with five of the players, but says he was not given free rein to change team culture. The well-paid, celebrity footballers lost to the less wealthy and less famous, but more cohesive team of Iceland.

But such losses do not seem to worry him. He is more concerned about wider social problems, such as high levels of ignorance about mental health when one in five of us will suffer serious mental illness in our lifetimes.

He wants school lessons on empathy, communication and how our brains work to become as prevalent as maths and physics classes, and he wants children and adults to care about their mental as much as their physical fitness.

“I’m saying let’s redo society and bring teaching across things like how to run a company with respect, how to deal with a difficult person, how to be an efficient leader, how to get the best out of someone. These are the generic things we should be teaching our children.”



MBBS MRCPsych BA PGCE MEd (medical) Dip. Sports Med. Consultant Psychiatrist / Undergraduate Dean Sheffield Medical School.