In assembly on Monday, we heard an extraordinary story. In recounting an experience from his time serving with the British Army in Iraq, Mr Reesby delivered an important message about mental toughness, about resilience, and about how we can train ourselves to cope with challenging situations.
Three years into the Iraq War, Mr Reesby found himself in a helicopter with his crew, flying towards Baghdad and into an area known as the ‘Triangle of Death’. A few miles south-west of the capital, they heard machine-gun fire to their right and, before they could work out the source of the fire, there was a loud bang: a Perspex window had been shattered; Mr Reesby had been hit.
He looked down to find that his arm, in his words, ‘wasn’t in the position that my brain told me it was in.’ He assumed that the bullet had shattered his arm bone; he assumed that he would lose his limb.
In the twenty minutes that elapsed between the incident occurring and Mr Reesby receiving medical attention, what went through his head? Panic? Self-pity? Worry? Anger? Frustration at the fact that his syringe of morphine was trapped underneath his body armour?
Actually, he was thinking about something quite different.
Mr Reesby spent those twenty minutes planning his career as a Paralympian.
As he explained to students and staff on Monday, this was a moment that ‘proved beyond doubt the power of mental training’. Mr Reesby went on to recount how he had spent the months prior to Iraq seeking out challenges; how he had used visualisation to imagine himself in difficult situations; and how he had rehearsed the thought processes he would need to enable him to retain a sense of perspective. In that moment of adversity, his mental training allowed him to stay calm, which allowed his colleagues to do what they needed to do.
As I was listening to Mr Reesby’s story, I was reminded of Sir Clive Woodward’s mantra, T-CUP: Thinking Correctly Under Pressure. Sir Clive, who managed the England Rugby team to victory in the 2003 World Cup, used to place his players deliberately under pressure during practice – the idea being to train their minds to think logically and rationally when in extreme situations. It’s a process that works – we have seen it in the likes of David Beckham, who made free kicks look effortless, and in Jonny Wilkinson, whose kicking routine never changed, and rarely faltered. Both athletes trained their minds and their muscles to react consistently, regardless of the situation.
We see it in music too: the best instrumentalists spend hours engaged in slow practice, training their fingers, building their muscle memory, equipping themselves with the mental and physical resilience to allow them to perform at their best under pressure. Some of the greatest singers in history – Ella Fitzgerald and Maria Callas – needed strategies to manage their performance anxiety. Aaron Williamon, Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, has created the world’s first virtual concert hall, complete with backstage area, backstage manager and green room to help aspiring soloists develop the necessary resilience.
This kind of mental training has, of course, countless applications in the school environment. This week, the Fifth Form and Lower Sixth have been sitting internal assessments, while the Fourth Form and Upper Sixth have been receiving their results. I have no doubt that discussions about exam performance and exam technique have been occurring in classrooms around the College this week and I hope that students will spend time reflecting on what they have learnt. Our internal assessments are about much more than knowledge retention, they are about the experience of applying that knowledge under pressure. I have heard tales this week of students who have mistimed papers, misread questions, panicked, suffered writer’s block – all of these are valuable experiences, and all are part of the mental training that is so important for success.
‘Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training’.
Attributed to an anonymous Navy Seal.
It has been a busy seven weeks in College, and I wish to thank everyone in the Wellington Community for making the first half of Michaelmas Term so productive and so enjoyable.
Particular thanks must go to Mr Williamson and to all those who contributed to the success of ArtsFest this week. It was a brilliant week – Wellington at its best in its scope and ambition – and last night’s finale was simply superb. It gave me great pride to see Wellingtonians and Old Wellingtonians joining performers from Eagle House to celebrate the life of Charlie Perry – in doing so, they celebrated the incredible power of the performing arts to bring a community together. The Charlie Perry Festival of Musical Theatre was a very special event, and a very fitting way to remember a remarkable young man whose legacy lives on.
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