Getting in ‘the zone’

Between 2005-2010 ‘Challenge Kemp’ was a regular feature of SPIN cricket magazine. Where – for some reason, always dressed as Sherlock Holmes – I would report on various challenges set for me in the cricket world.

This article was from the January 2006 issue.

I haven’t always been a buffoon, you know. Years ago, things actually seemed to be going quite well. I was even picked to represent my county at cricket. Let me take you back…

It’s 1991 and a 16-year-old Kemp is playing for Middlesex Young Cricketers, on a tour of Yorkshire. He is bamboozling a young hopeful called Michael Vaughan, with his banana-like swing.

Fast forward 11 years (and several stone) and it’s a rather different Kemp that comes up again against his old foe. I’m just about holding down a job as a sports hack when I’m sent off to Lord’s to interview Virgil. I’ve been given one last chance not to foul things up. When I get there, the England team’s PR tells me that Michael isn’t quite ready yet. So, just for something to do, I repair to the Lord’s Tavern. I’m waiting for the call for over an hour. Then suddenly I’m being shouted at down the phone. “Michael’s here now! Where are you?”

I race round to the pavilion and arrive out of breath, smelling of the pub and – due to an early unfortunate fake-tan incident, a streaky orange head. Vaughan looks at me with a mixture of disdain and fear. Shortly after our interview, Vaughan is made captain. I, meanwhile, am given my cards.

Well, that’s life: a glorious avenue to the Ashes for Virgil, a bumpy cycle track to Challenge Kemp for me. But I’m told there’s a man who can help me…

Mark Gittos is a life coach, working with three current England international cricketers and several top Premier League footballers. A couple of months back, England all-rounder Ian Blackwell revealed in SPIN how Mark was helping him change his diet by making him mentally associate lager with Marmite. Mark can do that sort of thing. He can get sportsmen in ‘the zone’. Using Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the unconscious mind is used to achieve success and banish negative thoughts. It’s the method that brought Andre Agassi back from the wilderness.

I meet Mark at his home and straight away ask him if he’ll be able to bring back the Kemp Glory Years. “Well, you’ve got to concentrate on the positives,” he tells me. “Think about why it was you were picked to play for Middlesex in the first place.” I tell him I think they only let me play because I kept turning up. Mark shakes his head sadly, “You do have problems…” he says.

I’m given a crash course in the workings of NLP. “A bad experience is an anchor in your mind, and in the sporting arena it gets even more amplified. It’s my job to replace these anchors.”
One of Mark’s slogans is, ‘Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools’. I don’t like to tell him that I’m the Dr Johnson of that particular dictionary.

Mark explains how he worked with Blackwell. “Everyone sees events in either picture or movie form. Ian sees events in movie form, so I was able to get him to visualise a white circle round the ball as its being bowled to him and then get him to trace the trajectory of the ball so time is slowed right down. He then has much more time to shape his shots…”

Mark then turns to address my issues. He asks me to think of a time when things were going well in my life. There’s a long silence, punctuated only by the sound of the clock ticking in the next room.

Mark changes tack. “Okay, then: think of a negative experience.” Ten minutes later, as I’m still reeling off my list, Mark’s heard enough. He tells me to point to where I see these experiences: literally, are they to my left or to my right; up or down? It’s true that you do feel a pull one way or the other. “That’s your unconscious,” nods Mark. He goes on to show me how these experiences can be replaced by positive ones.

Do sports stars take to this, I wonder? It’s a macho world after all. “Some are cynical – like you,” says Mark. “But most come with an open mind. Look at Clive Woodward. He surrounded himself with everything that could help him win the World Cup. Including NLP practioners. The ECB could learn from that. The dressing room under Duncan Fletcher seems a very negative place to me.”

Really? Would he like to work with other players in the England team then?

“I’d love to work with as many players as possible,” says Mark. “The more insight I get into how a successful player’s mind works, the more I can pass on this information to other players. I watched KP on the field and how he processed information. You might think he’d be very arrogant but he’s not. He’s just relaxed. He has a ‘Let’s go to work’ demeanour’.”

It’s all fascinating stuff, but, as our session draws to close, I don’t feel as far down the line to becoming that success story as I’d hoped. Perhaps I’m meant to stay this way for a reason. I mean, what would the editor do if I finally threw the deerstalker back in his face and told him I was going to humiliate myself for his entertainment no longer?

As I leave I tell Mark that I hope, while trying to explain NLP, I don’t misinterpret any of his practices. “You’ve got to believe in yourself, Alex,” he says, very seriously. “I believe in you. In fact, I believe in you enough to not even read your article.”

I have a terrible feeling that’s what you all say…

• For info on Mark’s NLP sessions: 07904 329567



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