Want to win in life? Laugh in the face of fear: She’s the psychologist who shot to fame coaching England’s football team through the World Cup – Now, in a brilliant new book, she shares her secrets to conquering the collywobbles
- Pippa Grange is known for coaching the England team in the 2018 World Cup
- Psychologist who lives near Sheffield, has penned a new book called Fear Less
- She explains why fear happens and shares advice for taking agency
For many women it’s a very scary milestone, but Pippa Grange couldn’t be less fazed about turning 50. ‘I don’t have a scrap of fear about it,’ she tells me when we chat online a few days before her big birthday. ‘It’s a mistake to think there’s a single moment when everything changes.
‘My life is evolving. I’m moving forward; I have a purpose. I’ve worked out what I’m passionate about, what matters to me most — and now I’m really looking forward to the second half of my life.’
It sounds like a distilled version of the message at the heart of her new book: rationalise it, demystify it and make it work for us, rather than against us.
The book is called Fear Less, and Pippa wants to stress that it’s not about being fearless — ‘which would be ridiculous because we all taste fear. It’s about fearing less’.
Pippa Grange (pictured) who coached the England team during the 2018 World Cup, has penned a book about fearing less
You can’t banish fear and, since it’s a safety mechanism, you wouldn’t want to. (Think of that moment when you see something in the road ahead and the grip of fear boosts the adrenaline that makes you swerve or jump on the brake). But you do want to understand why it happens and how it affects you.
Pippa knows what she’s talking about. Now working towards her second psychology doctorate, she was the coach who helped banish the England team’s fears during their stunning performance in the 2018 World Cup when they reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years.
Football fan Prince William is one of the many who have endorsed her book: ‘England were a better team with her on board,’ he writes. Pippa says that while she doesn’t know the Duke of Cambridge well, she has met and chatted with him ‘and I think we’re very much on the same page when it comes to mental health’.
Slim and sporty-looking, she radiates a low-key, in-control confidence that’s infectious, even with 200 miles between us, talking on a video link from her home near Sheffield. It’s not difficult to see why she was so successful in steadying the nerves of England’s footballers during the most nail-biting international contest of recent times.
She finished her book in December, little imagining that by the time it came out, we’d all have tasted an atmosphere of fear unrivalled in most of our lifetimes. Predictably, the pandemic is our first topic of conversation. What it reveals, says Pippa, are the crucial elements of fear: what it does to us as human beings and how it works both for and against us.
‘Evolution primes us to be fearful when threatened,’ she explains. ‘Fear is an instinct. It’s an early warning system. It switches on our hazard warning lights.’
On top of which, we are wired to ‘catch’ fear from those around us, which makes perfect sense given that something that threatens one of us could well threaten us all, as coronavirus does.
‘If someone near us screams, for example, we’re primed to assume there’s some danger and to get ourselves out of the way,’ she explains.
Pippa explained that fear of the virus stopped us in our tracks, but we are now starting to consider the risks in a more rounded way. Pictured: Dr Pippa Grange in Moscow for the World Cup in 2018
At some point, though, we have to override what she calls our ‘old’, or evolutionary, circuit system and replace in-the-moment fear with risk calculation instead.
‘We have to pause and consider the threat in a measured way,’ she says. ‘I think that’s where we are now. Fear of the virus stopped us in our tracks. We were fearful and to some extent we still are. We caught one another’s fear. But now we are starting to pause to consider the risks in a more rounded way.’
It’s not, she stresses, that our initial response wasn’t proportionate, but it was a response in the face of uncertainty. Now, as more becomes known about the virus, the more we can stop being afraid and start moving forward.
We do something similar in a smaller way in our individual lives. ‘I used to have a real fear of public speaking,’ she says. ‘It was so bad I had to hold onto a desk or table behind me to steady myself.
The key to fearing less
- Come back to your sense of purpose. What matters to you most might be being a great mum, or your passion for your hobby. Remember what you care about. Think about why it’s so compelling and focus your attention on that.
- Never lose sight of your dreams and desires. Don’t allow the challenge you’re up against to diminish your ambition. There’s a massive antidote to fear in holding on to what you want your life to look like.
- Work out who you are truly connected to. Who can you reach out to when you’re exposed? Who has your back? Who do you allow yourself to be vulnerable with? Knowing this diminishes the potential of fear to take the ground away from under our feet.
- Laugh loud and laugh often — humour defuses fear. It releases tension in our bodies and it also changes the tone.
‘That’s why it’s super-valuable for us now,’ says Pippa. ‘It’s not about denying the seriousness of the threat of the virus — it’s about giving us all a much-needed breather.’
‘Then one day I realised I’d never stopped to ask myself: “What am I actually afraid of? What am I afraid of exposing about myself? And what is this costing me?” I realised that I want to do this work; I want to talk to people about the things I believe in. So I decided I was going to make it fun — I was going to enjoy what I wanted to do.
‘And that’s what I did.’
Taking hold of the narrative is a crucial way to stop fear from becoming paralysing, says Pippa.
That makes sense to me: a few years ago I had breast cancer and I remember one morning realising that the only way I could get through another day of tests was by telling myself that, however horrendous the information that awaited me that day, at least I would still be alive at the end of it. ‘That’s exactly what I mean by taking agency,’ says Pippa. ‘You wrote the story of that day. You decided how big a space you would give fear at your table.
‘You edited your experience, you put fear into its place — and we all have the capability to do that. It’s partly about realising you already have lots of relevant experience in the bank — thinking back to the times before in your life when you’ve been up against something terrifying and somehow managed to survive.
‘When fear gets hold of you, what you need to do is press pause and turn those hazard lights off. And from there you have a range of possibilities.
‘You can process it, for example by taking deep breaths, using a mantra or writing it down. Or you can rationalise it: what are the actual facts here? Where’s the evidence? What can I control?
‘Or another way forward, especially if you’re waiting for the result of something, is simply to distract yourself: play some music and sing along to it; go for a run or do a workout.’
At the root of all our fear, Pippa explains, are two things. ‘The obvious one is death, and that’s something we all think about.
‘But equally important is the fear of abandonment — and because we are vulnerable as young mammals for so long, we’re wired for that to be a very profound fear.’
It’s fear of abandonment that so often makes us hide our true selves — our fear is that if we reveal who we genuinely are, we won’t be good enough to be liked.
Pippa (pictured) who was born in Yorkshire, said growing up she learned more about human behaviour than she could have from textbooks
That same fear is at the heart of many jealousies and unkindness to others. We fear being abandoned by the pack, so we sometimes behave badly to ensure we retain our own space inside it, perhaps by undermining others.
What is it about her own story, then, that makes Pippa the guru of facing down fear?
She was born in Yorkshire to a mum, then aged 19, who still lives on the council estate where she herself was raised. Her parents separated when she was a baby, and her mum got married a few years later and had three more children. Pippa didn’t meet her father again until she was 14.
She was the first in her family to go to university but did the groundwork for becoming a psychologist before she even left home. ‘There was an essence of family, there was humour and there was love,’ she tells me. ‘But there were big issues alongside — domestic violence, mental health problems. I learnt more about human behaviour growing up than I ever could later from textbooks.’
The fallout from the family’s difficulties landed heaviest on her brother Gavin, and tragically he took his own life aged 30. At the time, Pippa was 36 and living in Australia. ‘Gav was an addict,’ she says. ‘His life went off track and he never managed to get it back on track again.’
When he died, she was a psychologist specialising in workplace performance, so did the loss of Gavin point her in a new direction?
‘It’s a neat story to say his death was a turning point,’ she says. ‘But in all honesty, the most formative experiences for me in debunking fear have simply been trying things for myself and succeeding in facing down fear.’
Pippa revealed that the fear of not being good enough, is the most damaging manifestation in our everyday lives. Pictured: Pippa at an England football match in 2018
Until her 40s, she says, ‘fear still had a space at my table. I was surprised by my success and I was primed for it all to go wrong’.
It’s what is otherwise known as impostor syndrome and Pippa characterises it as ‘winning shallow’ — believing that any success you have is a fluke and fearing the whole time that failure is just over the horizon.
This fear that we’re not good enough, she says, is the most damaging manifestation of fear in our everyday lives. And it’s as much a wolf at the door in a pandemic as at any other time.
‘You’ve lost your job and you fear you’ll never get another one; you’re juggling home-schooling with work and you fear you can’t do either. All that is about feeling not good enough — and it’s a thief, because it’s draining and it saps the joy out of your life.’
This, she admits, is the hardest sort of fear because there are no quick tips to deal with it.
‘The only thing that works is to stop and look underneath the fear. You need to ask yourself: what’s going on here for me? What is it costing me in terms of what I’m losing because of it? How can I take charge of my story?’
Today, Pippa lives with her husband Ablaye in a house they’re renovating, but before that she spent 20 years in Australia, working in both sports and business psychology.
It was in 2017 that she got the call asking if she’d be interested in heading the psychology department for England’s football teams (there are 16 in all).
‘It seemed like an undo-able job,’ she remembers. ‘Everyone thought I was stepping into a theatre of doom — that failure was inevitable.’
Pippa decided she had nothing to lose if she just ‘turned up as myself’, with the philosophy at the core of her book.
‘What I want to share is the importance of understanding the difference between purpose and goals,’ she says. ‘Goals are things you do that have an outcome: an Olympic gold, getting promoted at work or running a 5k.
‘But purpose is part of your resilience, and understanding it allows you to what I call “win deep”. It’s about why you’re doing what you do — why it matters to you to do these things.
‘So it’s about the reason you want to be fit, or to raise money for charity by doing the 5k. It’s about wanting the new job because you feel you have a valuable contribution to make and that you can make a difference.
‘Winning deep is a different kind of courage, and maybe in this coronavirus moment we’re in, it’s the kind of courage we all need. It’s not about looking to fix something. It’s about having the courage to stand our ground, to taste the fear, and then to work out what’s actually happening and how much it’s costing us.
‘Above all: it’s about giving fear not even one inch more in our lives than it needs.’
Fear Less: How To Win At Life Without Losing Yourself by Dr Pippa Grange (£16.99, Vermilion) is out on July 23.
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