Stopping Smoking – A Sport Psychology View

The truth is – many top sportsmen do smoke. They always have done. And not the nearly men, either. Zinedine Zidane, Johann Cruyff, Diego Maradona, Shane Warne, the Charlton Brothers and Dino Zoff are all inarguable top achievers and all inarguable smokers. There’s a pretty talented British Division to add to the list: Paul Gascoigne, Freddie Flintoff, Jimmy Greaves.

Tiger Woods smokes.

So did I, and lists like these made me seethe with rage at having to stop. Why should I, when… but I knew why. Dark thoughts at the back of the mind: I didn’t want to shorten my precious life unavoidably. But still, to be leaving this kind of company! It’s something to have in common with men who I then saw as heroes, something to chalk up when other things like skill, tenacity and courage were lacking.

I had a bad time stopping. I didn’t really want to, for one thing. At that time, I owned a bound volume of back numbers from a 1930s 35mm photography magazine. It was clear from the ads in that that my grandparents didn’t have to worry about smoking. Everyone did it, and no one knew it was harmful. (I’ve learned since from talking to people who were alive and smoking at that time that they did suspect it was bad for them, but that they didn’t think they’d live long enough for it to make any real difference. If they’d known they were going to live so long, they’d have taken better care of themselves, etc..) Ready for your trip, 1930s man? Got your cigarettes, your lighter, your 35mm camera, your car keys, your hip flask? In that order? How I envied the dead their peace of mind, if not their World Wars. If Kingsley Amis’s letters are anything to go by, getting good tobacco in 39-45 was an absolute pain. To say nothing of beer.

I suppose fortunately, smoking was the third thing in the whole of my life about which I managed to be stubborn. (The first was first love and the second Oxford University). It took me 30+ attempts to stop, and led to a change in career. Smoking got me into psychology, professionally, in the same way as financial idiocy got me out of it again this year. I’ve already told the story of how an afternoon’s smoking whilst poring over Allen Carr’s Easyway To Stop Smoking Permanently put the idea of a business into my head, and how I then spent many months reading my way through the scientific literature and interviewing everyone who’d talk on the subject. This eventually led to my success in stopping, and in helping other people in time to stop too.

From a sport psychology point of view, stopping smoking is a good example of something really ruddy awkward. At this time of year, when people are writing New Year’s Resolutions, it points up the main differences between resolutions – which largely fail and make their owner feel bad – and goals, which have some chance of making it through.

“Resolutions” tend to be negative (stop smoking, lose weight), punitive (stop being so lazy/negative/nagging/depressed), not personally meaningful (they’ll be things, like stopping smoking, that we don’t want to do but which sound in principle like what a “proper person” would do or want), hard to envisage (smoking looks like.. that, but what does “not smoking” look like, or not eating, or not drinking, other than a great white nothing?) and above all, we generally won’t have a clear idea of how we mean to bring them about or how we intend them to fit into our lives as a whole, our social milieu.

Done properly, goals are quite different, and I’m going to be talking about them a great deal here over the next few weeks. They are different, at least in the way I do them, not only in that they are positive, meaningful and visible to you, not only in that there is at least some measure of planning involved to bring them down to specific actions you can take, but in that they obey certain rules. Here are the rules:

  • You must screw up, get things wrong, fail from time to time, to stay within the rules. This is human behaviour, and non-human behaviour just isn’t cricket where this is concerned.
  • You must forget to pursue your goals, you must drop them accidentally from time to time and find them again months or years later. Again, this is human behaviour, and non-human behaviour isn’t cricket.
  • Your goals are subsidiary to your life. This is a fact – life being what happens while you have other plans. But it’s an attitude, too – your goals must serve you, and the process of going after them must make your experience of life more rewarding in some way or it’s probably not worth it. Effort and suffering can be rewarding and meaningful, but be ready to court martial your goals if they start to work against you. This is about life becoming better, not about punishing you because you’re bad.

There are others, but all in good time.

Sports psychology splits goals into three main types, and knowing what these are helps a great deal in stopping smoking.

  1. Outcome Goals. If you are an athlete, this means winning – winning a signficant competition. Stopping smoking could be an outcome goal, but at this point take my word for it that it’s better off as one of the other two kinds.
  2. Performance Goals. If you are an athlete, a performance goal might be to achieve a certain time, or a certain distance, or a certain weight lifted. A performance goal is something your opponent can’t influence. You are in control. Performance goals overlap to some extent with the third type:
  3. Process Goals. Process goals are about technique. For a swimmer, the outcome goal might be an Olympic medal, the performance goal a certain time achieved, and a process goal perfecting a certain type of kick in the turn. I would put footballer’s Opta stats under process goals – so many passes completed, so many shots on target as a percentage.
  4. The problem with doing the obvious thing, and taking “stopping smoking” as an outcome goal, is that stopping smoking in of itself is rarely meaningful enough on its own to work well. You’ll have to lean on my experience in working with smokers in this – we spend (spent, now that I’m off piste for the time being) more time searching for what would make it meaningful, and making that real, than anything else.

    Why isn’t it meaningful? Why can’t it be a nice, simple outcome goal?

    Look at the reasons smokers give for wanting to stop. Health – I don’t want to get ill. Money – it’s expensive. Social – it’s a dirty habit, and fewer people do it; I feel like a pariah. The smell, the mess. Not wanting to be a slave to it anymore. Not wanting to feel stupid. And so forth.

    If your reasons for stopping have not been enough to actually stop you in the past, they are not going to do it now. They are not going to acquire superstrength overnight and begin to work where once they failed. All of these reasons are very good – but they just aren’t strong enough. Aside from health: if your doctor has told you that you are going to die in a few months’ time from smoking unless you stop (and there are few circumstances in which that might happen; smoking diseases, once underway, are very bad news and once the death sentence is passed, that’s generally it) and you believe him, that is sometimes strong enough. Pregnancy is very often strong enough.

    They aren’t meaningful because there is very little in it for you. If you stop smoking “cold turkey” on New Years’ Day, you will wait twenty years to find out whether or not you have saved your health. In the meantime, the improvement in your general health will be imperfect and glacially slow. What have you got to show for stopping smoking? A long wait – in my experience. The money you save will just vanish in some other way, most likely. What seems like a lot totted up over a year is actually just the equivalent of a round of drinks, or a joint of meat, or less than a cinema ticket or paperback book. And if you put the money into a tin on the mantlepiece.. you are doing better than most. I’d forget to do it after a few days. As for the smell, a promise: after you’ve stopped smoking, the smell of tobacco smoke will become far more disgusting to you and more headache-provoking than it ever was before you started. You will be worse off in that respect. (There are some people who find themselves eagerly sniffing the air for the smell – which goes to show that rules aren’t absolute. These people are going to have a job staying “stopped” – not because they’re weak or stupid, but because that difficulty goes with that experience).

    In short, the classic reasons for stopping smoking do not leave you better off in a way you can enjoy now. Not in a significant way. Outcome goals do leave you better off, so long as they are properly formed. Outcome goals have to make you, personally, feel better. We can’t always predict what will make us feel better, and indeed we are famously bad at such predictions. Stopping smoking does not transform the rest of life.

    But it can become part of something that does transform the rest of life. For me, stopping smoking became part of the wider goal of building my business and having the experiences that went with that. Helping others; ending up in unexpected places; meeting extraordinary people; finding that I was capable of more than I’d thought.

    For me, stopping smoking was a process goal. Or, rather, it was a series of process goals. Let me explain what I mean.

    As I’ve said, “stopping smoking” is a negative. You can see yourself washing up; you can see yourself not washing up (think of a sink full of pans and dishes). But thinking of an empty hand is unspecific. Your hands are empty much of the time. An empty hand doesn’t directly refer to “not smoking”.

    Fortunately, smoking is not a futile thing to do, and we can break it down into what it is actually doing for us – and then find a means of fulfilling those needs in better ways. Often, there’s a “universal” way of fulfilling those needs – by fulfilling greater needs that have a prevailing imperative over the ones smoking fulfils.

    Smoking does different things for different people living in their respective contexts and milieus. But these are what appear to be the most general benefits people gain from smoking:

  • Smoking helps you to relax.
  • Smoking helps you to concentrate
  • Smoking gives you something to do when bored
  • Smoking can keep you company when you’re lonely
  • Smoking gives you something to do with your hands
  • Smoking gives you social confidence, perhaps an air of “street”
  • Smoking looks elegant, even sexy
  • Smoking can mark special moments – after dinner, after sex
  • Smoking makes drinking better, and goes well with tea/coffee
  • Smoking is a powerful de-stresser
  • Smokers are the sociable ones
  • Smoking gives you a way to break the ice (“cigarette?” – proffers packet)
  • Smoking “scratches the big itch of life” (ht: Rob Kelly)
    1. Not all of those will be true for everyone, and some of them will be controversial to people with other ideas about the nature of smoking. The steady social dismissal of smoking makes many people reluctant to admit that there is anything at all to gain from smoking.

      But I’d argue that there are good reasons to break smoking down this way. For one thing, it explains smoking. Cigarettes went around the world at lightning speed – in sixty years changing from bizarre Ottoman Turk practice to that thing two thirds of the population did without thinking. Cigarettes did more for people, more easily, than any product ever known before or since. The Ipod isn’t the perfect product (and just you wait for the deafness epidemic..); a pack of Woodbines is. Smoking doesn’t stop you driving, flying, working machinery, making love, watching TV, shopping, eating; you can buy cigarettes anywhere 24/7 (only of petrol and junk food can the same be said) and they are, in the QVC phrase, so easy to use.

      For another, it restores the smoker’s sense of control. This is important. I found my own smoking infuriating, inexplicable. I could give up rowing, or concert-going. But not this. Why not? Because although the individual benefits I was getting from smoking were relatively small, they were cumulative (20 a day) and universal, amounting to a very large overall psychological benefit. What that means is that it’s an enormous tragedy that smoking should be so bad for health. It’s so good in so many other ways.

      For another, it should be apparent that these benefits can be obtained in other ways, from other things.

      Some people do go down the road of taking each benefit, each need, in turn and seeing how they can supply themselves with it in alternative ways from smoking. Others – and I count myself here – find more universal ways of doing it.

      Here’s where outcome goals do come in. If your outcome goal is deeply meaningful to you, and smoking is in the way of its achievement, then stopping smoking automatically becomes a process goal. What’s more, the psychological benefits of smoking recede. Because of your outcome goal, the benefits are now having to compensate you for not achieving this huge meaningful thing. And they, like the classic “reasons to stop smoking” are ultimately limited in their strength. They are not strong enough to compensate for disabling your outcome goal.

      For instance? I have had clients who were runners, and wanted to reach the next level. One I remember in particular, who had a race in mind, along the top of the Andes. We worked together to make it possible for them to see and feel that outcome – the spectacular scenery, the air in the lungs, the legs in that mode where it feels as though they can run forever.. we made every part of that outcome real. The feeling of being there, of actually having made it, the pride and satisfaction. And the steps to get there, the plan, the what-do-I-do-absolutely-next. At a certain point, the whole thing becomes clear; the person begins to trust themselves that they will take those specific steps, and thus they begin to believe, absolutely, that they will be there in the Andes. At that point, the achievement of making it there begins to work for them, in advance. They begin to enjoy the psychological benefits of the achievement, because of that element of self-trust. And the benefits of something that meaningful outweigh entirely what lies in the way – smoking. And when that happens, the habit just becomes an irrelevance, a left-over, and it crumples.

      Another example. A talented musician, whose dream was to become a professional, playing on stage. Hers was a wind instrument, and her tutor was aware of the depth of her ability. But because she smoked, her breathing was impaired, and her lung capacity reduced. Her tutor told her that she could make it – if only she stopped smoking! We worked together to make that prospect feel real and doable for her – every aspect of what it would really be like (including the mundane and the downsides, as unrealistic visions have no real power in them). She realised that smoking was in fact all that stood between her and her dream – and, once again, the benefits of the dream being realised more than compensated for the loss of the benefits of smoking. Smoking became an irrelevance, an outdated thing, and she stopped, effortlessly. She’s in Paris now, playing live with famous names.

      And then… there’s my story. Ahem. Not so glamorous or glorious, but the same principles apply. I began planning my business in the mid-90s, and one day I was having a drink with this bloke. We’re old friends, and as is sometimes the way with old friends, most of our conversations sound like all-out arguments. I’d been “sharing my plans” with him – the new techniques I’d pioneer, the consultancy I’d build, and would have built had I not been such a fool with money. He kind of listened, and then said something I’ll never forget:

      You’ll never stop smoking, James. You have an addictive personality.

      I thought, “I’ll show you, you *****”. That cigarette was my last. The prospect of an exciting new life (and it turned out to be that, for quite a lot of the time, at least at first) and of shoving his words back up his nose in perpetuity (and I do, unlovely as it is) outweighed the benefits of smoking and made them irrelevant to me. I haven’t smoked since.

      A word about “addiction”. There is no doubt at all that cigarettes, largely through the medium of nicotine, is highly psychoactive. It makes you feel different. Of course it is – otherwise, no benefits. Some people are in greater need of those benefits than others – especially sufferers from the various anxiety disorders and depressive conditions. It is clear to me that the task of stopping smoking is genuinely a great deal harder for such people, many of whom are undiagnosed or who, for the perfectly good reasons of protecting their own dignity and sense of self, would find diagnosis distasteful. It’s harder, and it’s not their fault it’s harder – no one brings such conditions upon themselves as these things are subject to fate and luck.

      Our understanding of the action of nicotine in the brain is far greater now than it was five years ago, and the growth of that understanding is accelerating. In my opinion, one result has been to utterly undermine the claims of most existing smoking cessation programmes but especially nicotine replacement therapy or NRT. Television adverts are accurate when they claim that NRT more than doubles your chances of success. It does, from about 2-4% to as high as between 10 and 16 percent. I leave you to decide if that amounts to abuse of statistics.

      In terms of addiction, I do not like most attempts to ram cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, skunk, gambling, sex-lines and the rest in together under that heading – I don’t see how it helps our understanding or our attempts to provide effective treatments. Lance Dodes’ theory that “addiction” is a subset of more generally obsessive behaviour looks more promising than a thousand articles whittering on about dopamine. Luckily, what I think, or what anyone else thinks, isn’t crucial. Neuroscientific research has a habit of rendering old jargon, old concepts and old thinking irrelevant in spite of the personal biases of those involved.

      But if you accept that nicotine is essential – and I do – it’s worth considering that it’s essential, not in of itself, but what its effects mean to you personally, and where that meaning stacks up in your overall scheme of things. If your outcome goal is good enough, stopping smoking won’t be the most challenging process goal you’ll ever face.

      Of course, the Zinedanes and Cruyffs pose a problem. If fags don’t stop you making the World Cup Final… shhh…

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    7 responses to “Stopping Smoking – A Sport Psychology View

    1. I don’t understand the attractions of a fag. I used to smoke a pipe, and a very occassional cigar. Lovely. But the acrid cancer stick? No thanks.

      P.S. I think my parents – who were both heavy cigarette smokers – knew in general terms that ciggies were a Bad Thing before it was official. They called them “coffin nails”, amongst other dismissives. King James VI and I was also sound on the issue.

    2. Very interesting. Thanks for writing this.
      It may not be to your taste, but I’m pretty sure that there’s a bunch of public speaking openings for someone who has thought about “goals” and “performance” as much as you have.

    3. Mark Holland

      Cigarettes are the preserve of women and Spaniards. Men smoke pipes. (Up until the Great War any way.)

    4. Very helpful. Will you be writing more on this smoking subject in the next few weeks as alluded to in the first few paragraphs, or just to goals in general.
      I hope you’ll address smoking specifically as this article has been very thought provoking for me as my “resolution” has already been broken, but the motivation still remains. More thinking on the process in order, obviously. Thanks, I’ll be checking in daily while I begin to shape a larger ‘outcome’ to hide the process in. See? I really need more direction! ; > )

    5. @Susan; yes, there’s much more to be said about this, including specific tips.

    6. Tiger Woods?!

    7. Cigarettes are the preserve of women and Spaniards. Men smoke pipes. (Up until the Great War any way.)

      WTF? Great War ended 90 fucking years ago, goddamit! This man smokes cigarettes – or at least used to until New Year – hence irritability.