Control your inner chimp
Steve Peters is a consultant psychiatrist for elite sports teams
Steve Peters trained at St Mary’s Medical School, London. He is a consultant psychiatrist and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Sheffield and works with elite sports teams, namely the British Cycling Team and the Sky ProCycling Team. He created the “Chimp Paradox,” a mind model that aims to optimise performance by encouraging effective emotional management. “Brain mechanic” Peters has previously helped a number of British athletes perform to the best of their ability.
What inspired you to become a psychiatrist? 1
After doing junior posts of one in two shifts on-call, I was offered a psychiatry post with the fewest on-call shifts of all specialties. I took it because I wanted a short break from the heavy on-calls, but I grew to love the work involved in this specialty. The medical aspects of psychiatry tend to get overlooked as the public often consider psychiatry and psychology to be synonymous. Also, because there is less emphasis on physical examination and investigations, I think most medical students feel more comfortable with other medical disciplines.
You wrote a book—The Chimp Paradox. Could you summarise the concept behind it?
I created a simple model to try and help people understand the human mind. The model—allowing for some scientific poetic licence—sees the mind as a machine, which can be broken down into three teams. There is a human team that is concerned with establishing facts and truths and then putting them together logically, and a chimp team that is involved with feelings and impressions and putting them together with emotional thinking. The third team, the computer, is a bank of learned behaviours and beliefs and automatic functioning.
People rarely present with symptoms that fit into a discrete category. There are developmental, dynamic, cognitive, and behavioural aspects to any problem. Many people are not ill but have psychological difficulties in some of these areas. As a result, I invented the chimp model to help people in dealing with their own internal struggles. It is not a theory or a scientific hypothesis, but a fun tool to explain complex ideas to the layperson, enabling them to understand what their “machine” is capable of doing and how it functions. It is a blueprint that can be adapted for various settings such as sport and business. When working with this model, I actually refer to people as “students” because it’s about learning a skill. Students must gain an understanding of their mind and learn how to operate with it.
What process do you undergo with athletes?
I start by carrying out a formal assessment of the athlete, as any doctor would, and excluding any illness. The difference then is that I ascertain their ideal view of how they want to feel, act, and perceive themselves. We then identify factors that are preventing them from being the person they want to be and achieving their full potential. After this, it’s a case of providing them with insight as to how their mind is working and teaching them emotional skills that they can use to turn things around.
How did you get into sport psychiatry?
I didn’t plan to work in sport psychiatry: it was accidental. I was asked for my advice on an elite athlete, so I assessed him, and started working with him He went on to do extremely well and I got a call from Dave Brailsford, the performance director, saying, “We’re not sure what you did but it was pretty impressive. Can you try another one?” I then worked with Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton (UK track cyclists), and when they excelled and attributed some of their success to the emotional skills that they’d learnt, I was thrust into the limelight.
What advice would you give to students wanting to pursue a career in the sport psychiatry field?
Sport psychiatry is not a recognised discipline so there isn’t a track for trainees to follow. I’ve inadvertently been a trailblazer along with a few other interested psychiatrists; I fell into the deep end and, as any psychiatrist would have done, I tried to understand the world of sport and adapted the knowledge and skills I had to this field.
I think it will become a discipline in the future because people have started to realise that, although sport psychiatry is predominantly about performance enhancement and understanding oneself, there’s also an important medical aspect. The psychiatrist has to treat all of the members of staff involved with elite teams, as well as athletes. I have been involved with assessing and treating many psychiatric problems, such as drug and alcohol disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety, all within an elite sport setting. Whether sport psychiatry will become a discipline within sport medicine or psychiatry, I don’t know.
What qualities are needed to be successful in psychiatry?
Apart from the obvious compassion, knowledge, skills, and competence, I think that psychiatrists excel when they possess an ability to get inside their patient’s head. They can then begin to understand how their patients perceive themselves, other people, and the world around them.
What has been the proudest moment in your career to date?
That’s difficult because I don’t think you can compare an elite athlete winning a gold medal at the Olympics to patients that I care for in the clinical setting. For example, there might be a young girl who has struggled with anorexia for a long time. If you support her through her illness and she suddenly gets her life back, you can’t measure how much that means. It’s fantastic. Obviously medals are important to athletes and make them happy, but the value I put on the quality of life when a patient has recovered from an illness is immeasurable. I’ve had a brilliant time in psychiatry so far, and I would recommend it as a career.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewedEmilie Green, Clegg Scholar, BMJ
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2012;20:e4935