What Makes Allistair McCaw Tick

In ‘What Makes You Tick’ I get the chance to pick the brains of some inspirational people from all walks of life, in the hope that by sharing ideas we can continue to progress, push our limits, and inspire each other.

Allistair McCaw is a leader in the field of athletic performance enhancement. His well-proven method of athlete training, “The McCaw Method”, has set the standard for providing world class athletes and coaches with cutting-edge training techniques, products and knowledge. A mindset and performance expert with over 25 years experience, Allistair has trained a host of world champion athletes including Grand Slam Tennis champions, PGA Golfers and Olympians.

“I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. We left there when I was 6 years old, and I was brought up in South Africa. I was a professional triathlete for 9 years, and competed in 5 world championships. I’m a performance and mindset coach working primarily with Olympians, professional athletes and teams, and corporations in business. I’m an author, and a speaker. That’s it in a nutshell, really.”

Allistair’s expertise in movement & agility training has seen professional athletes across various disciplines seek his guidance. He has published 2 books, Champion Minded and 7 Keys to Being a Great Coach, and he speaks regularly to teams in sport and business about what it takes to build a culture that breeds success. When asked how he has found himself on the path, he says that it was laid out early on in life. 

I was always a fitness fanatic, and I played sports for as long as I can remember. My mother was a Commonwealth Games athlete and a 400m runner, and she trained under Mary Peters in Belfast, so the pedigree was there I suppose. My parents never pushed me- they were very supportive. In school it was always busy, sometimes I’d end up playing 3 sports in an afternoon, going from one practice to the next. I’m very grateful I’ve had that upbringing, especially in South Africa during the 80’s and 90’s; the schools were highly disciplined- almost military-like- and I’m incredibly blessed that I’ve had that tougher upbringing, blended with that sporting background.”

Allistair was kind enough to take the time to share his insights and experiences. 

Would you say you are more introverted, or extroverted? 

It depends. I enjoy being around people. For me, the difference between extroverts and introverts is energy. Let me put it this way: after I present, I always feel fuelled. I can feel that immediate burst of energy. That’s how I would describe an extrovert from that side; if you’re an introvert, and once you’ve been speaking in front of people, you may feel exhausted from the whole thing.

But I like my quiet time too. I find it easy to speak in front of large groups and being in and around large groups of people, which is obviously a large aspect of coaching; you have to be standing in front of people and communicating. So I would say I’m a little bit of both.

How would the people closest to you describe you? What would be your defining characteristics?

Driven, highly disciplined. Very hard on myself, which I’m working on. Hopefully this year I can focus on being a little bit easier on myself; sometimes I can beat myself up about things. Yeah, hardworking.

But, those are all the good points. The bad points? Let me think Patrick, that’s a good question. Maybe I should self-reflect more. Stubborn. Yeah, stubborn would be the one that comes out there. I like things done a certain way.

How has your background contributed to the person that you are today?

I would certainly say it has made me incredibly grateful, because we didn’t come from a lot of money and so we were grateful for everything that we had. I travel extensively these days. I took over 95 flights last year alone, and every time I step on a plane I’m just incredibly grateful to be able to go somewhere. Things like that I take note of.

Respect was always very big in the house. My parents have just been married for 50 years, and I was very fortunate to witness a deep love, and a great respect that my parents have for each other, and the importance of communication; that’s been a big thing for me to witness, and I’ve been very lucky in that regard.

And then of course discipline, it was a disciplined home and like I said before a very disciplined schooling system and that has certainly helped me to be able to do the things I’ve been doing, and to stay self-disciplined. I would say that’s how I’ve been moulded from my upbringing.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your father? 

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. A lot of times, we’re afraid to ask for things that we want, we feel we might be being too pushy or whatever it may be but if you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it.

And you know, if you don’t ask the questions, you won’t find out the answers. My father taught me to find out the answers, to ask questions, and to not be afraid to ask no matter who or what it is. You know, sometimes you might surprise yourself in terms of the answers you may find, or what you can achieve from asking the question; it’s something that I bring forward into my coaching, with the athletes and teams that I work with, it’s to ask questions. Don’t assume anything, and don’t feel your question is going to be stupid, or that you’re going to look stupid in front of others if you ask.

One of the common denominators with successful people that I’ve worked with, well it’s 2 things: they’re solution finders and they ask questions. They’re very curious and they are always looking for the How in terms of improvement, and they’re very curious about why certain things are being done in a certain way.

So yeah, that’s the big one from my father.

You touched on success just now, what does success mean to you and how do you define it? 

Pretty simple really. Success to me is waking up healthy, and being able to do what I love to do with who I love to do it with. That is basically how I define success.

Obviously without health, you can’t have wealth, and not just in terms of financial wealth but also in terms of relationships and in terms of having a fulfilling life. Success to me is doing what I’m able to do right now. I’m living what I believe is the successful life, and that might sound arrogant or whatever but I believe that I’m successful because Number 1, I’m healthy, and Number 2, I’m able to get up in the morning and do what I love to do.

Did you always know what it was that you wanted to do, or was there a moment where you said to yourself, “Yes, this is what I was born to do”?

I think definitely from school days I knew I wanted to go into sports, and be involved in sports in some capacity. My first job was when I was 10 delivering newspapers; I had a heck of a lot of jobs when I was kid and again that’s where the discipline comes from; we never got pocket money, we had to learn how to earn.

From the sports side my first job was working in a squash club when I was 15 or 16, and then I worked in a gym cleaning the changing rooms after closing time, just so I could get some money to be able to play sports, so that’s where it started. I just loved the coaching aspect, and here I am 25 years later still heavily involved in sports and loving it as much as I did from Day 1.

How does your approach differ now as a coach, compared to when you were an athlete? 

I was involved in a very individual sport so I didn’t really have a coach when I was competing. If I had to think back to my coaches I’ve had, the coaches back in school who were most influential to me were all women. My mum was a big influence, she was a great coach and although she isn’t a coach by profession, she has all the qualities to be a great coach. She helped me a lot. I had some great coaches in high school too.

But it’s definitely a trade you have to learn, everyday brings unique opportunities and challenges. I think the big thing for me is really learning to get to know the person in front of you and building a relationship with them first, you can’t direct if you can’t connect. It’s huge, because that person in front of you wants to know that you really care, and as the quote goes, “People don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care”. It’s a big thing for me in what I do today.

So when you start working with a new client, what things do you do to try and build that connection?

I mean, you try and get a bit of background information on them, be it through social media or whatnot. Find out their interests and hobbies, so before you start working with them you have some idea of what it is that they enjoy and don’t enjoy, and you can have something to talk about outside of sports.

A lot of coaches go in with a toolbox filled with techniques of how they’re going to fix the technical skills or physical attributes or whatever it may be, but as I previously said it’s important that they know you care, and they need to trust you first.

It’s important at the level that I’m working- with Olympians and elite professional athletes- there’s a high degree of trust that you’re going to need to establish if you are going to be able to change things. After all, they’ve gotten to that level with the skills and knowledge they already possess, so there is perhaps a reluctance towards change; they’ve got to know first of all that you care and they trust you before you can start making any changes.

Coaching is a very interesting domain, and I think there are some parallels to be drawn between the coach-athlete and teacher-student dynamic. As a teacher I find the exchange of knowledge and information is a two-way street, can you recall any moments where something an athlete said or done shifted your way of thinking, or changed your perspective on things?

I immediately thought of one of the guys that I’m working with at the moment, who is a very intelligent guy, and again getting back to that curiosity, he asks a lot of questions and he always wants to know, Why. He challenges me to have the right answers and to always be able to justify everything that we do. For example, today he’ll ask why we’re doing 4 sets instead of 3 sets last week, he’s not being difficult he just wants to know why we’re doing this today, and what’s the benefit of it. So definitely he’s challenged me to know the answers.

I’ve always prepared well for my sessions, but he’s one that challenges your knowledge base and your preparation, and that’s been very good for me. I think a lot of coaches would be unable to handle this type of person; he does it respectfully, but he does challenge you and you’ve got to know your answers. You’re dealing with athletes who are on multi-million dollar contracts, so there is a lot on the line and it can be a high-pressure environment.

Going back to this idea of success, you touched on your experience working with teams. If you want to build a successful team, where does it start?

Definitely you have to look at the culture of the team, the people that you have, building that culture within the group, creating the right environment. For me one of the most important things in life are the people you surround yourself with, and the environment you create around you, and that’s something I look at in a team because if you don’t have the right people, you’re not going to be able to build a culture that can go on to achieve long-term success.

So it starts there, you know, you can have the best systems and strategies and facilities, that’s nice for sure, but you really need the right people. That’s the biggest thing.

What values would you look to instil within that culture? 

I think it’s important to know what people’s purpose is in life, what matters to them. You can tell by asking the following questions, where it is their values lie, and what’s close to their heart. It’s tough recruiting athletes for teams here in the USA, you know, you can recruit a good quality player but only to find out later down the line that he doesn’t have a good value system in place. And that happens all the time. It’s easy to put on a show for somebody else, but down the line your actions will prove your character, so yeah, those are important factors.

What’s your life purpose? 

My life purpose is to serve others. This might sound funny but my purpose is to help others find their purpose. It’s something that I do when I talk around the world, is to challenge people to know what their vision is, what their purpose is in life.

I believe purpose is more important than goals; purpose is your why in life, why are you here. So that’s my purpose, to help others find their purpose and to live by that purpose. I tell them to document it, write it down, and it’s something I ask them to do at my conferences when I speak, is have them think about it, and once they’ve discovered what it is, write it down, and see it every day. I see my purpose every day, and that’s an important thing.

This is going to sound like a bit of a stupid question, but..

There are no stupid questions.

What do people stand to gain from finding their purpose? 

A higher reason for being here. To contribute, to leave the world in a better place. To leave a legacy; we all leave a legacy when we go, and how do you want people to remember you? I believe everyone has something positive to contribute, and that’s what I try and help others to do.

There’s a big difference between motivation and purpose because motivation is fleeting; you can wake up in the morning and not feel like doing something but your purpose drives you to get up and get going. So purpose is a lot more impactful than motivation, and longer lasting. Mark Zuckerberg spoke at Harvard earlier this year in July, and in his Commencement Speech he spoke about finding your greater purpose, something that is bigger than you.

Purpose is everything.

What is the importance of goal-setting? Do you set goals for yourself? 

Yes, I set goals. I set goals from various angles, personal life, work, sports, my health, obviously. I believe goals are incredibly important to keep you disciplined and on the right path, everyone needs goals to keep them on the path towards success; you need to have a destination in mind, you need to know where you’re going.

Looking at the books you’ve written, and in particular your work on mindset, when does the process of building the champion mindset start? 

It’s being built as young as 2 years old in the home in terms of how the family communicates, the manners and respect, the discipline. All these things are being moulded from a young age, way before the athlete is coming to you as a coach; you know yourself as a teacher, that in your classroom you will have your own standards and values and rules, whatever you want to call them.

You’re getting people from various cultures and backgrounds and perhaps in some instances people from less value driven homes. A child already has that mindset instilled from a young age, and the older they get obviously the harder it is to mould for us as teachers and coaches, and so it starts at a very young age.

What kind of role have mentors played in your life?

You know with social media today it’s possible to have many mentors in your life, with so much information available and so many resources out there. I mentioned from a young age the influence that my parents and my teachers had, and I’m not just saying this because you’re a teacher yourself, but teachers have a huge influence on your life, especially from a young age.

I’ve been out of school for over 25 years now, and I remember the teachers that were tough, and fair. Those were the ones I remember. They were disciplined, and not all the kids liked them because they couldn’t get away with anything, but those were the ones that I remembered; those were great mentors for me.

I don’t have a mentor type figure present today, but I do recommend having one if you can find someone. I don’t want to find someone just for the sake of finding someone. It has to be something very very special..

Why did you remember those teachers in particular? 

Again it was that aspect of discipline. They taught me that where there is standards and rules, there’s going to be higher productivity, better collaboration, and better results. It’s also that feeling of accomplishment when you’ve seen that it has been of benefit, and you reap the rewards of being disciplined in your approach.

You take that forward with you into sports or the workplace or wherever it may be, and then try and pass that on to others. The best teachers and coaches may not always be the most liked, but they are certainly the most respected, and that’s the important thing, to be respected in what you do.

You touched on the path earlier, what would you say to young people who perhaps come to a crossroads in life?

Don’t force it. Find out what your passion is, first and foremost. Take money out of the equation, and ask yourself if you could do anything, what would you choose to do with your life, and follow that path. The only limitations you have are the ones you place upon yourself.

Follow your passion, work hard at it, and you can become successful. I really believe that. When I was growing up immersed in sports, if you were to say to people that you were going to be a coach, they would put it down as a profession and say, Ah, it doesn’t make a lot of money. But you look at the sports industry today, how it has evolved and how successful it has become. It’s a huge business.

Don’t force it, like I said. Kids feel pressured to have to know the answers at such a young age, but if you’re unsure, go and explore, travel. Go out there and see the world, and try things. You’ll soon discover what you love to do, and what you don’t like to do.

I think for young people it’s good to work in a variety of different jobs, experience different fields, get out there and meet people, and get busy. Don’t be concerned if you’re not earning a lot at a young age, find what you love to do, and build on it.

Looking back on your journey, has there being a significant learning experience in particular that you look back on? 

There’s nothing that really stands out, it’s been a gradual process. I’m a life long learner, I love to read, and I’ve had that instilled in me from a young age and again, I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. I’d highly encourage young people to read more and not just off an iPad or a Kindle, but to actually read books.

I know I’m going off the subject slightly, but no I can’t honestly think of anything in particular, some life changing moment. I mean I’ve had a lot of adversity and challenges along the way, but I never questioned my commitment or my ability. I believe true self-confidence comes from within, and it comes down to your ability to embrace your strengths- and your weaknesses- confront those, and not be afraid to bring it all forward.

You touched on a couple of things there that I’d like to ask about. You mentioned adversity, what is your approach when faced with adversity?

You’ve got to be able to step back in a way, and take a more rational view of things, not to panic or jump to conclusions. It was funny I was reading an article on the plane yesterday, and it was describing what you should do if you get caught in a riptide out in the ocean. In order to survive, it said that rather than swimming against it, and fight against it, you should let it take you out. Eventually the current will die down, and you will be able to swim back around it to safety.

I’ve thought about adversity in the same way, rather than fighting against it and retaliating, take a step back and look to figure things out in a calm manner. Time is important too, allowing yourself that time to figure things out, and not to make rash decisions in the face of adversity.

Another thing is to always believe that things will be ok, you’ve got to know that. You need to think to yourself, Will this bother me in 6 months time; Will this be an issue in a year, and if the answer is no thenmaybe it’s not worth worrying about so much. But adversity is good, we need it. It tests our character, it tests our beliefs, our ability, our resilience.

You also mentioned the importance of reading, and continuous learning. What book would you suggest to people as recommended reading?

I think Unstoppable by Dave Anderson is a good book, because it deals with the four character types found in every organisation, you’re either an undertaker, caretaker, play maker, or a game changer. That’s a good book, it doesn’t just relate to teams and the sporting culture, but also to our personality, and why some of us are successful and some aren’t.

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday talks about how ego gets in the way of our success, in the way of our relationships, and our ability to progress. Those two would stand out for me, but there are so many good ones.

What are some defining moments from doing what you do? 

Having the opportunity to not only witness the athlete or team improve in terms of ability and performance, but also to see the person improve; to see that these young athletes have gone on to be successful in their lives, in their relationships, in their marriages, or wherever it may be.

This is my purpose, to make a positive contribution to the person. To truly have a long term impact, not just in terms of a sporting career. I would say that’s the most important thing, and that’s going back to my purpose.

If you could go back and have a chat with your younger self, what advice would you give to 16-year-old Allistair? 

What advice would I give myself? That’s a good one. I would say to enjoy the journey more. I would say that would be it in one line. Enjoy the journey, because the journey is the destination.

Powerful. You mentioned that everyone leaves a legacy, I really like that idea. What will your legacy be? 

I hope my legacy will show that I have fulfilled my purpose, which is to leave an impact on people’s lives, and to leave the world in a slightly better place than I’ve found it. It’s an analogy I often use with the teams that I work with, and it’s something the New Zealand All Blacks put forward, is when they’re presented their team jersey, they’re asked, “How are you going to leave this jersey in a better place? How are you going to contribute, and add to what the previous wearer left behind?”

How am I going to leave this world a better place, how did I make a positive contribution. That’s the legacy that I wish to leave.

You can check out Allistair’s website, and you can also follow him on Twitter.