There is a simple, but very powerful cognitive strategy which involves a word that can really hold us back. The word that primes us for an avoidance, rather than approach mindset:
An avoidance mindset is not going to enable great performance and the word "BUT" promotes exactly that... A 'go and get it' approach mindset however, has been shown to be one of the keys to peak performance in sport.
Going towards competition, going towards pressure, going towards the challenge, both physically and mentally, is the key to building resilience and the ultimate performance mindset.
Now, there may be times when you've heard your mind use this word and it has then subsequently held you back from performing as you want to, or performing at all. Let's look at an example, take the comment:
I want to play well today, BUT I am feeling nervous.
Take a minute to think how the word "BUT" is influencing someones mindset here...
What is it saying about the effect of these nerves on your performance?
If we say we would like to do something BUT we are feeling something else, then what we are saying is that because of the feelings of discomfort, we are now UNABLE to go forward and participate (or perform well) in whatever the action is.
We are saying, these feelings of discomfort are going to dictate my decision in this instance. We are letting the avoidance of difficult feelings take priority, rather than the action or performance level that we want to achieve. We are not using an approach mindset.
With this example of nerves if we say we want to do something but we are too nervous, we are surrendering to the nerves and letting them control the direction we want to go. If you really pay attention to your thoughts, you may notice that you give in to the "buts" many times in a day. I know that I myself notice this all the time. In fact, I even had the thought just now "I need to do some work on my blog but I am so tired!"
So what happens when we hear the "BUT" in the future
A lot of it is about learning the skills of understanding your mind and what it is saying to you. You need to get better at recognising these thought patterns. This is the first step. Make sure you continue to practice these skills.
The next step is to replace the but and re-think that sentence. What do we replace it with?
In doing this we say what we are going to do and what we are going to feel, but we never imply that we are not going to do something because of a feeling. Take our first example: I want to play well today AND I am feeling nervous.
This is a brilliant statement! I would be immensely pleased if someone I worked was able to say this. This is briliant because it implies that, yes, those uncomfortable feelings are there and it also implies that they are going to come along for the ride with us.
So for me: I should be writing my blog and I am feeling tired! becomes the replacement thought.
Look below at all the examples I have had of clients coming up with opportunities to replace the "BUT"
I want to speak to my coach AND I am scared of him
I would say something important AND I don't feel like saying it.
I am able to win today AND I get so nervous
I am meant to speak to a big audience tomorrow AND I am sh**ting myself!
Removing the but and replacing it with an "and" helps create courage, it stops that mindset that you might have that continually looks for many reasons to avoid something. That 'feel good always' mindset that is conditioned by society. Embracing the feelings that come with doing important things is so important and getting off the "but" is a great step along the way.
Acceptance: The active and aware embrace of private events that are occasioned by our history, without unnecessary attempts to change their frequency or form, especially when doing so causes psychological harm"
One of the most powerful tendencies of human behaviour is the want to avoid and get away from unwanted and unwelcome thoughts and feelings. This takes up so much of our mental energy. The act of trying to avoid being uncomfortable.
Now being uncomfortable physically is generally accepted as a means to grow, adapt and get stronger. People who want to get fit know that it's going to require a bit of a pain or discomfort. But that's not so accepted in the mental space. There is a belief that we should be thinking and feeling pretty good, ALL of the time, so we can perform well in sport. Now don't get me wrong, mood disorders exist and are a real problem and having a low mood for extended periods of the time can signal that it's time to get some help. But, in elite sport, feeling a bit stressed, anxious, pressured and uncomfortable is reasonably normal. These situations will still often make us want to AVOID this current state of mind. We may try and find ways to make ourselves feel better, in the moment. That's when it can become a bit of a problem.
We all do it from time to time, we analyse why "this" is happening to us, we complain about how it feels, we blame others for "making" us feel a certain way. We are focused on trying to "fix" our inner state of mind. And this problem solving nature of the brain is perfectly normal, it works for us in the outside world right? When there's a problem we need to solve, we work hard at coming up with solutions and try and solve it.
But...you will never be able to rid yourself completely of uncomfortable feelings in sport. Inner peace and tranquility doesn't really exist, not in that sense. Our brain reacts in a certain way due to a genetic influence and a lifetime of conditioning. That is a reality. It's not your fault.
The good news is that acceptance doesn't mean we are giving up. The key is that we can just be a little bit more compassionate toward ourselves and how we feel in this moment. It's OK. We can go toward these natural feelings. How we look at our situation and how much room we give these unwelcome feelings the chance to sit with us... can change our whole perspective.
Let's take a look at some of the classic culprits, say: embarrassment. fear, and self doubts. Those things can make us uncomfortable, but with each one of them, it is actually possible to feel them and yet STILL go out and perform your best (or just DO those things your don't really want to do, like speak in public, take a test, play a solo, or compete in sports).
If you are willing to accept and make room for the thoughts and emotions that don't feel good, you not only take away some of their power, but you become more powerful. By facing them and feeling them, you can become more resilient, more focused on what you want to achieve, and more conscious of what you can / can't control (and more compassionate toward yourself!!).
Not only that, but being uncomfortable can be a trigger for you to realise that your body is ready to perform. Even professionals get nervous. The difference is instead of saying, "oh, no", they say "let's go". The energy and adrenaline that can come from being uncomfortable can actually be a sign that you are "ready to go"!
Sounds easy right? Well in some respects it can be effective quite quickly! A study that involved just informing people about a willingness approach to dealing with cravings (people who had addictions to food or cigarettes) found that willingness increased their ability to go forward in what they were doing without feeling like they needed to satisfy the urge as often, they just sat with it and carried on and actually did better!
In other respects, it is very hard. It is often hard to accept that we have to "accept" certain emotions. So we are likely to engage in avoidance behaviours very often (yes that's ALL of us). Throughout the day you will chose actions that help you avoid discomfort, that's natural. When problems occur, however, it is when this avoidance gets in the way of us achieving what we want to achieve - When the tendency to want to control your internal state gets in the way of you actually performing well!
Just think, if you're spending all your energy trying to make yourself "feel good" you're actually putting all this mental energy into something that:
A: You can't fully control anyway
B: Is not what you should be focusing on! You're focused on yourself and not on the task! You're meant to be performing!
Quick Tip: if you find yourself focusing too much on "How you are feeling" then notice and accept the thoughts and feelings that exist, right now, and switch your focus to "what you are doing" bringing those gremlins along with you for the ride.
What's important to you? Have you ever stopped to think about that? I am going to talk here about how values can and should be an anchor with which you can guide your behaviour and achieve your own version of success in every moment. I'll start this off with a bit about nerves, because I love how Dr Steven Hayes introduces values in this quote:
"Life is a choice. Anxiety is not a choice. Either way you go, you will have problems and pain. So your choice here is not about whether or not to have anxiety. Your choice is whether or not to live a meaningful life." - Steven C. Hayes (2005)
The above quote really helps summarise the intentions of value based work. We don't choose the way our mind operates, how it responds to pressure and what can trigger certain uncomfortable reactions. It is important to recognise this. The way our brain reacts to certain situations is a culmination of the experiences we have had, and our genetics. It is not our fault.
When working with clients, I want them to understand themselves and understand their triggers so they can develop the ability to be able to choose the RIGHT action, and to do so decisively.
The right actions are chosen by examining what you value. Values are a way of putting into words all the things that we live for, what gives our lives meaning. I once asked an audience in a workshop I was doing what they thought values were, and someone said: "Values are what we stand for..." That's a great, simple definition of values! It's the things that we really hold as important, not the goals or the dreams we have, but the ideals and the core beliefs about what we hold to be important in this world.
"When living by our values becomes the definition of success, it means we can be successful right now." - Russ Harris (2011)
How great is that! Hopefully that's a new way of looking at success that isn't based on goals. You can be the best you in any moment!
In this blog, I am deliberately talking a lot about values in terms of your whole life. Because, ultimately, although I am geared towards helping people perform better, the values you hold for yourself and your life outside of your sport will likely transfer. So unless you transform into a completely different person when you perform, its probably beneficial to begin thinking about values in terms of your life as a whole.
KEY POINT: Values are actually about DOING not about feeling.
It is really important to look at your values in terms of actions, not feelings or specific states of mind. When you uncover your values during this week, you will think and feel certain ways but it is the actions that those values make you think of, that are important.
For example: Suppose you have already recognised that you really do value being a hard worker. That's great! But this shouldn't be something that makes you feel good or bad about yourself, the point of identifying this is to help you then go and find opportunities to work hard. So when you've come up with some good values, always ask yourself: what actions will bring this value to life, what things could I go out and do right now that would be valued actions. If you can't think of any actions that a value might require, then it may not be a good one!
Feeling a certain way is not a value.
Another thing to be aware of is that thinking or feeling a certain way is not a value. For example, if you had the value of: "I want to be more confident" or "I want to feel calm" or "I want to feel relaxed"....then you have got it wrong.
These feelings are great but they're not something we can realistically get in touch with, they're not a direction or a way to live your life. They are not something we stand for. You can't go out and do something NOW to live those values, although you can go and do something that is intended on trying to create those things. That's different, and if we do that, we are going to live our life chasing certain feelings, which is a difficult roller coaster to ride!
The pattern of avoidance behaviours can then come into play, people will chase good feelings but in doing so not actually achieve their goals. Think about it, if you wanted to run a marathon and your ultimate "value" and goal was to feel good whilst running, then as soon as the going gets tough and the fatigue sets in, you'd stop! Of course you would, because your goal was to feel good and as soon as discomfort arrives, we are naturally going to look for the easiest ways to get rid of it...we avoid the situations that bring on the discomfort!
Having a values based approach might be different. You might value "persistence" and during those times of stress and discomfort, you can definitely get in touch with that and carry on!
Get in touch if you want to talk more about how a values based approach could help you!