A Night at the Opera

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Nope, nothing to do with the classic Marx Brothers film of the same name – and perhaps a bit of an off-beam connection to coaching – but nonetheless here goes with a post inspired by a visit to the opera at Glyndebourne, the sociologist Erving Goffman and a super client’s preparation for Ironman.

What are the connections?

Well, my partner Anne and I recently went to the magnificent opera house at Gyndebourne to see Vanessa by the American composer Samuel Barber.  Before you jump to conclusions, we had the cheapest seats going – well not even seats but standing perches high up, to one side.

Going to Glyndebourne is something of an other-worldly experience.  Convention has it that all the men go in formal evening attire, women in their very best, beautiful gowns.  One has one’s posh picnic in the gardens before the performance and then in a long interval.  The rich and refined dine at tables set with smart cloths, candelabras, champagne and canapés.

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None of this is really our style.  I have neither the means nor the will to wear a tuxedo – though I do have a dashing blue suit and a glorious Frida Kahlo inspired tie that matches Anne's super stylish Frida Kahlo vintage dress.  And our picnics are always going to be big on taste and volume rather than wealthy ostentation.

Wandering around the gardens and finding somewhere to tuck in to our food I found myself feeling uneasy amongst the rich, penguin-suited men and luxuriously dressed ladies of high class.  I began to notice that some of the men would look me up and down as if in a judgemental way – “how did that chap get in here?”  If I smiled at others in passing (as I'm very prone to do), eyes would be averted.  It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with ultra marathon runner Kat Ganley that features in the Journal – about her feeling out of place amongst what she took to be real runners.

This feeling of being out of place, of not fitting in can be so undermining and confidence sapping.

As I took in more around me, though, I began to see something quite interesting – the lack of social interaction amongst our fellow opera-goers.  I thought of work by the sociologist Erving Goffman in which he depicts the way people somehow navigate their way through a crowded setting without awkward bumps or contact, like a busy flow of traffic.  The more I looked the more I noticed how few people seemed able or willing to make eye contact or the briefest acknowledgement to anyone other than to their partners or small circle of companions.

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman highlighted how we present ourselves to those around us, the impressions we aim (consciously or sub-consciously) to give, how true or false these may be to who we really are and what we actually feel – and how such presentations of self are received by others.  I began to notice how some people seemed uncomfortable in themselves, particularly some women despite their beautiful gowns, looking through and beyond us as if in fear that we might engage in conversation.  (I should say we did break the taboo and had very pleasant chats with a few people, though it felt as if these were exceptions and not quite the done thing.)  And as for the men, not all were such paragons of dressed up dignity.  Sat prominently by the entrance slumped a small clump of well dressed, rather worse for wear men, sprawled amongst their litter of empty jeroboams and picnic leftovers.  And I told myself I would feel way more uncomfortable in their starchy, dicky-bird uniform.  Hooray for Frida Kahlo and being at ease with oneself.

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And then on to the opera itself.  Wow!  How spellbinding and captivating!  I was in  awe of how the singers’ voices filled and sored through the vast auditorium.  From our position high up we could also see the whole orchestra, their music rising and swelling, at times thunderous and threatening, then searing and moving, conveying the depth of emotion of a heart rending story.  How enthralling!

Now, what has this got to do with Ironman preparation?  It’s all about place: the impact that an environment can have and how we can reshape, reframe and reposition ourselves to make it our own.

At the end of this week one my clients will be taking part in Ironman Wales: 3.8km swim in the bay at Tenby, 180km cycling over some serious Welsh hills and 42km marathon run.  What’s more this will be his very first triathlon.  We’ve already gone through and prepared for lots of the practicalities and the technical aspects – how to prepare in the transition space, the rules to follow, what to take when.  We met up to talk through some of the more psychological aspects – amongst them addressing that similar feeling of being intimidated and out of place.

Especially in a big Ironman event, the environment can have an overwhelming, confidence sapping effect.  There are so many people, all appearing lean and mean and fitter than you (or so it can seem), extraordinary fancy expensive bikes on display and a confusion of needing to register, attend briefing, rack the bike… You could slice the air it is so thick with nervous expectation and tension.

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One of the strategies we talked through was switching focus – between narrow/wide and internal/external - especially when feeling overwhelmed by the wider, external environment.  For example, faced with the wide open sea, the churning waves, the thought of such a long distance to swim and the throng of people all around, one can switch focus, as if through a narrow frame, to the space to the first buoy, the space in which your hands are entering and catching the water, the small pocket of air to the side.  Or one can switch from the external to the inner, such as the sensation of movement and rhythm as you slice through the water.

As things get hard (as they will do), you can switch from focusing on the aches and pains (inner and narrow) to wider, external points – such as the space to the next feed station, the runners just ahead who you'll soon be overtaking, the amazing countryside all around.

A little like my Erving Goffman at Glyndebourne reflections, the first helpful step is to see and acknowledge what you are feeling and its effect on your emotions and confidence; then look a little deeper beyond the facades and first impressions (e.g. are these opera goers really as comfortable in themselves as they at first present? which way are the waves breaking or the current flowing?); then decide on the narrow space you want to step into, as it were, and in which you feel in control and assured.

We also talked through another aspect that has a Glyndebourne parallel – of being completely focused and present in the moment of the performance itself, as we were spellbound and captivated by the magical music and drama far below us.  One of the ideas in Confidence Centred Coaching and that I like to use to challenge those I coach for big, potentially overwhelming events is to rethink the space between the start and finish lines.  So many people go into an event with a fixed target time or position, as if the finish line dictates success or failure.  Yet simply being there, ready and prepared, is an extraordinary achievement.  To borrow a phrase from the great US Sports Psychologist, Michael Gervais, what then follows is a wonderful chance to create your own "living masterpiece".  By focusing wholeheartedly on the moment - your body form, effort and movement - the times and positions will take care of themselves.

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So a big cheer for Brent as he steps into that space this Sunday.  And thanks to the super Get Cutie in Brighton for my lovely tie and Anne's dress.