Ash Barty’s mindset coach asks these three questions for success

It’s 40 minutes into our chat when Ben Crowe, the mindset coach who Ash Barty credits with helping her become the world’s number one tennis player, flips the interview.

“If I said ‘righto, for the rest of this year, what kind of human do you want to be, what words would come to mind?’” he asks me. Thrown, I fumble a bit. “Think about who you are at your absolute best,” prompts Crowe.

Helping people find their absolute best: Ben Crowe.Credit:Eddie Jim

Open, caring, playful, I offer.

“They’re three f–king beautiful words,” he volleys with such enthusiasm I imagine he must be slapping his thigh. “No matter what happens today, if you just focused on those words, the human that you want to be… that is success. Success, for me, is not in achievement.”

Although he is “rapt” Ash is world number one, Crowe defines success as knowing that you’re worthy of chasing your goals and dreams, regardless of whether you achieve them.

So, he asks me to “join the dots” between the way I want to be and the things I love to do. OK, I say, I’m a playful and caring parent, approach writing with openness and see running as play.

“That’s gold. Success is being open and playful and caring rather than the outcomes of writing an article or running a marathon or how your kids show up in 20-to-30 years time.”

Ben Crowe with Ash Barty, Stephanie Gilmore and their manager Nikki Mathias.

It’s an exercise he does with all his clients, including Barty; Dylan Alcott; Stephanie Gilmore; Michael Cassel, the man who brought Hamilton to our shores; the Australian Cricket team; Richmond Football Club; as well as leaders at Macquarie Bank and, most recently, the World Health Organisation.

And this is because, as the former sports marketing director at Nike, he recognised a pattern in the athletes he worked with, and later on, in the successful business people he coached: many were struggling under the pressure of external validation, be it from winning, making money, achieving social or corporate status.

“We’re so distracted by achievement and results more than the process of going there,” says the father of three boys. “We’re craving from others what we’re not prepared to give ourselves which is unconditional love: will someone please recognise me, will someone please accept me, will someone please acknowledge me?”

Ben Crowe post match in the Richmond change rooms after the 2019 Grand Final.

Focusing on what is outside our control, like the expectation of outcomes or the expectations of others, not only leads to stress, pressure and anxiety, it is a losing game, he insists: “Last time I looked, no one controls the future which means you’ll tighten up not lighten up.”

Instead, by focusing our attention on what we can control, like who we want to be, we remove external “distractions” and can focus without fear.

“You still go after the things you love to do, they just don’t determine your self-worth,” Crowe says. “You can go after your dreams without any promise you’ll actually achieve those dreams and that’s OK.”

Ironically, this lack of fear to follow our dreams makes us more likely to achieve them. Crowe believes, this is one of the keys to Barty’s success, both on and off the court.

“[She] has put her goals and dreams out into the universe, and she’s gone after them and she’s also embraced these principles – gratitude and appreciation and celebration – rather than getting caught up in expectation or entitlement,” Crowe says. “She’s truly embraced the principle of acceptance – accepting the things she can’t control and focusing back on the things she can control. She’s connected with her purpose and sense of why, she’s established her values which is so fundamental to anyone’s success because when we’re on our knees and life sucks it’s our values that gets us through.”

These concepts are used to help clients answer three “simple but not easy” questions: Who am I, What do I want and How do I get there?

It was what got a 16-year-old Crowe through losing his dad to a heart attack, while trying to resuscitate him; it was what got him through losing his best friend to suicide; and it was what got him through laying off “a few hundred staff” while working for Nike in Hong Kong nearly 25 years ago.

Following this “professional crucible moment”, he used humility and curiosity to “pick up the pieces and respond to the challenges” he faced. He sat down at the Peak Café in Hong Kong and wondered what he was going to do with his life.

After two days spent scribbling on post-it notes trying to figure out his “why” and, after years of working with athletes on their external story, he decided it was time to work with them on their internal one.

“I settled on wanting to help athletes do things better and be better for it. My definition of an athlete has evolved to anyone who wants to compete, have fun and play,” says Crowe, who launched a mindset app last month, providing a digital “personal leadership” course based on the same exercises he uses with athletes and CEOs.

He, along with his wife Sally and their two young sons at the time, moved home to Melbourne where he launched and subsequently sold two sports entertainment companies before officially transitioning to mentoring.

“There’s only ever the response to what life throws our way… we can stay in BED, which is an acronym for blame, excuses, denial, or we can say ‘it’s my decisions, not the conditions that determine how I’m going to get through this’.”

Crowe’s approach is not about reinventing the wheel. He explores the stories we tell ourselves (Tony Robbins), leaning in (Sheryl Sandberg), vulnerability (Brene Brown) and ‘aha’ moments (Oprah).

These concepts are used to help clients answer three “simple but not easy” questions: Who am I? What do I want? How do I get there?

“If you can help people answer those questions that gives them the sense of confidence and happiness to find a path to go after their journey… then yeah [I think they] want that drug,” says Crowe who is running a mindset masterclass on September 29.

I wonder aloud whether seeing humility and humanity in highly accomplished people, like Barty, reminds us ordinary folk we don’t need discontent or ego to drive us or our ambitions. But I also wonder how applicable his approach is for someone who doesn’t have a job as a result of the pandemic right now or for someone like Michael Cassel, whose production of Hamilton was facing $10 million in losses with 80,000 tickets cancelled because of the lockdown.

“There are so many things we can’t control, getting back to the things we can control is pretty powerful,” Crowe insists. “You need to draw down on your energy source that gets you through the pandemic, and it might be courage, love, perseverance, resilience, positivity or optimism…

“There’s only ever the response to what life throws our way… we can stay in BED, which is an acronym for blame, excuses, denial, or we can say ‘it’s my decisions, not the conditions that determine how I’m going to get through this’.”

Michael Cassel is a great example of this, Crowe adds: “He goes ‘I decide my attitude, my mindset, my self-worth… I’m not going to let COVID and the conditions of my business determine my self-worth. I am going to own my story and with my values and my purpose and my affirmations I’m going to overcome this and help my people overcome this’… His perspective is what will get him through.”

Speaking of perspective, I ask him about the kind of human he wants to be.

“If someone says who Ben Crowe is I say I’m a playful dad, I’m a grateful son, I’m a mischievous mate and a loving soulmate and a curious golfer – as in how the f–k am I going to master this game.”

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