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I was lucky enough to have a training session the other day with a rather inspirational bloke His name is Mike Finnegan and he runs his own ‘development’ company called i2i. They work with everyone from corporates through to school kids and even sporting greats like golfers Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.

I have to say, it was the link with some of the finest golfers the UK and Ireland has ever seen that first piqued my interest, but the initial thrill of that stuff was soon superseded by an all round great day delivered with loads of style by Mike.

A word about Mike first. He is an imposing figure when first you meet, but in a good way. Bursting with energy and enthusiasm, I’d guess he is around the 6 foot mark too, so you wont miss him! But what really stands out is his interest in the people he is talking too. A genuinely good listener, he has that knack of persuading you that what you have to say is of importance to him. Its a lovely skill to have, and Mike uses it very well.

As a teacher, he is my favourite type. A story teller of great ability. I’d love to hear him tell a joke! His training anecdotes were tremendously entertaining. Like all great teachers and indeed great sales people he had one to suit all occasions. Most of all though, its the enthusiasm and sincerity that shines through.

Mike is an authentic guy.

He had a difficult job the day I saw him, having to judge how to pitch to a group of high achieving business leaders that he had not worked with before. I think he slightly under pitched the level of the information he offered, though it was delivered brilliantly. If I have one criticism, its that some of the ‘science’ referred to in the session has more recently been replaced by newer thinking. That’s harsh though as it didn’t impact particularly on the ‘learns’ I took from the programme.

His energy level remained high all day, he stayed brilliantly engaged with the group, and one could sense real value out of a continuing relationship with him.

The highlight of the day for me was the section on self talk.

Mike began the section by describing the power of the mind. Especially that untapped power referred to by the apocryphal story of the brains 90% latency. Most recent thinking is that we of course use most of our brain most of the time, but the point was taken.

Thus primed to understand the super human powers of the brain, we moved onto more solid science. The creation of ‘dendrites’. Sort of memory paths in the brain, the basic principle behind our ability to learn things.

According to Mike’s simple though not simplistic version, exercising the brain creates dendrites, that effectively enables performance to improve through repetition. The more an action is performed, the ‘thicker’ the dendrite, and therefore more entrenched a ‘habit’ will become. Hence dendrites for all the activities we take for granted like throwing and catching and driving are reinforced over years of repetition and so ingrained as to be completely ‘natural’ and second nature.

It clearly applies to bad habits too, and as a recently ex smoker after 20 years of addiction, I can attest to the difficulty of undoing these dendrites and reprogramming more positive ones in their place. But replace them we must!

The most amazing part of the story however, is the realisation that one can create these dendrites merely by thinking about the tasks in hand and the required outcomes and not just doing them.

To demonstrate, Mike threw a ball gently to one of us who returned the throw. Simple enough. This was repeated a few times, until the last throw, where Mike stopped short of the release, only to have the intended recipient physically move to prepare for the catch. Nice example!

This realisation leads to a very powerful idea. That of self talk.

Based on the cognitive model, Mike explains how using the picture of a simple tree as a basis, we should consider the process we go through to learn or even sabotage our performances. He describes the roots of the tree as the conditioning element of the process – the self talk and the talk we hear from our teachers and parents when we are young are major contributors to this conditioning.

Conditioning lead to our belief system, further up the tree, and in turn to our attitudes pictured as the trunk of the tree. Attitude impacts on our feelings and our feeling have a tremendous influence on our performance.

Methods of intervention dealing only with our performance are described as ‘painting the leaves’. I liked this analogy to describe the short term-ism of ignoring the ‘root’ of the problem and dealing only with the surface. True improvement is made when dealing with our ‘conditioning’, the beliefs we have and our attitudes.

Mike took us through a great exercise. We considered something negative in our lives. And were encouraged to think about how we talk to ourselves about them. Then, to understand our beliefs about that thing. Our beliefs then lead to attitudes we could recognise, and feelings that we quickly could see lead to ‘poor performance’ or negative behaviours.

Simply starting at the bottom of the tree, and using more positive self talk about what we would like to achieve in this area discussed lead to improvement in our belief system. This stability in the belief system lead to improvement in the attitude and feelings, which clearly will have that impact we are looking for in the behaviours or performance.

It was an elegant method and one that is very accessible, and one I’ve since used myself to good effect.

If you are interested in these topics its well worth looking up the i2i website, and I can highly recommend Michael Finnegan himself. A committed, professional, enthusiastic and authentic teacher – and a great bloke to boot.